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Michelle Rhee and the perils of the national stage


Michelle Rhee is expected to announce her exit from the D.C. Public Schools this morning -- alongside her patron, Mayor Adrian Fenty, and the man she could not come to terms with, Mayor-to-Be Vincent Gray.

She will be remembered for bringing unprecedented national attention to the city schools -- attention that cut both ways. Without the string of national press she garnered and the high-flying company she kept -- Sun Valley, Aspen Institute and such -- there is little chance private foundations would have given the $65 million that made possible the landmark teacher contract that went into effect Oct. 1.

But the national attention, by and large, did not help her at home. Her repeated comments about the sorry state of city schools, her implication that bad teachers more than grinding poverty or any other factor had kept D.C. in the gutter, grated on the minds of residents who saw a more complicated picture. Many will remember her on the cover of Time magazine, broom in hand -- and they will remember seeing a newcomer ready to sweep away careers and neighborhood schools along with the consensus she said was so overrated.

As much as she protested over the past three years that her decisions were made in the best interests of children, not adults, she operated in a world where it's the adults who matter. And she was employed by a politician beholden to the votes of, yes, adults. Fenty did her no favors by offering her unquestioning support, backing her every move on high principle without tending to the gritty concerns of winning the people's support for her decisions. His disdain for the city's political folkways became her own -- and became the downfall of both.

Their failure rang in the comments of folks who attended Gray's town hall meeting Tuesday night in Ward 7 -- people like Mary Benson, a 73-year-old from Deanwood who sent three kids through DCPS. "She did what she could do," Benson said. "But I wish she could have done better. I believe she could have been a little more lenient on teachers. They have rent, bills to pay." Or Cheryl McCrae of Penn Branch, who has two kids in public schools and said Rhee "fired experienced teachers and brought in management and consulting people." For a chancellor, McCrae said, Gray "will get someone qualified and who cares." Or Edith Hancock, from Capitol View, who said Rhee "forced an agenda" on the city. "Whenever you exclude people from the process," she said, "this is the result."

The Atlantic's Marc Ambinder writes in a tweet that Rhee "is headed to another major school district or into the Obama administration, which has promoted her work." Neither makes sense. She certainly not getting an Obama administration job -- not with Obama battening down the hatches politically. Even though Education Secretary Arne Duncan is in the habit of saying nice things about Rhee, he'd be nuts to hire someone the American Federation of Teachers hates as much as it hates Rhee right now.

Nor is Rhee likely to move to another superintendent job, at least not immediately. For one thing, she has said that the D.C. Public Schools would be her only job running a school district. Another point: Rhee has said her work is only possible in school districts with clear lines of command and control -- in other words, no school boards. The constellation of mayorally controlled school systems right now remains limited, and only Chicago and Newark are looking for a new chief right now. And, no, Rhee won't be going to work for lame duck Richard M. Daley.

The potential of Rhee working for Newark's Cory Booker is more intriguing -- Booker's a politician with Fenty's policy instincts but more political savvy. Which means he'd never grant Rhee the degree of autonomy, of unquestioned continuing support, that Rhee came to expect under Fenty.

Instead, Rhee, who founded the New Teacher Project, is likely to return to a post in the rarefied world of education reform policy. Whether she hangs a shingle as a consultant or joins a big-name foundation or think tank, the words she spoke the day after Fenty lost will surely ring true: "I'll be fine."

Give us Your Take: What's next for Michelle Rhee? Who do you think should replace her as
interim chancellor? How do you feel about Rhee's departure? Use #Rhee to discuss on Twitter and we'll post the best responses on our site.

By Mike DeBonis  | October 13, 2010; 12:32 AM ET
Categories:  Adrian Fenty, Michelle Rhee, The District, Vincent Orange  
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Good story. I like your analysis of how, at a certain level, it was all about the adults. The question is now, what parts of Rhee's reforms get tossed and what will be the philosophy that moves education reform forward in D.C.? And as far as the $65 million in private donations, I don't believe DCPS will ever see that money; the donors have more outs from their obligation than Doyle Brunson at Cesars.

Posted by: KwameFan | October 13, 2010 1:29 AM | Report abuse

Thanks for a well-thought out piece. Most of the Post writers these days are complete hacks (Milloy, Strauss, Turque, King, etc). You are delivering balanced, fair writing.

Thank you.

Posted by: RL68 | October 13, 2010 2:00 AM | Report abuse

How can Ambinder call himself a journalist? The woman said in Waiting for Superman, the biggest documentary of the year, that she will never run another school district. And no Administration official in their right mind who hire someone as politically unsavvy as Rhee (and I'm a huge fan of hers).

Just crazy when you read "journalists" who obviously have no grasp of the facts and do zero research.

Posted by: RL68 | October 13, 2010 2:07 AM | Report abuse

"Even though Education Secretary Arne Duncan is in the habit of saying nice things about Rhee, he'd be nuts to hire someone the American Federation of Teachers hates as much as it hates Rhee right now."
Since Duncan's education policy is based on wishful thinking and right wing talking points, and not facts and reason, that makes it highly likely that he will indeed hire her! Don't misunderestemate his "intelligence".

Posted by: Gray62 | October 13, 2010 5:05 AM | Report abuse

Thank you, thank you for writing something that is not a pack of lies. I do hope that people will do some research on Rhee's background and reforms. She fired veteran teachers, teachers that have degrees in education, which she does not. The system was broken but she did not fix it. Rhee hired non-teachers to teach some of the most marginalized children in the country. You have to have skill, and compassion to step into a DC classroom. She actually had teachers make up their own curriculum not aligned to anything. Each individual teacher with a different curriculum, no wonder test scores were down. Special ed is out the window and vocational education is gone also. She is not an educator, neither is Arne Duncan. It is sad that the country is letting the media dictate education by scare tactics and buzz words. She did not reform dcps. DC needs a strong superintendent (something she does not have the qualifications to be), compassionate teachers and support when it asks parents and students to step up and also be responsible for learning. I hope that the city will give education a chance without the drama of Gray v Rhee or any other nonsense.

Posted by: runjoeyjoe | October 13, 2010 9:18 AM | Report abuse

Once again the children in DCPS lose out. Telling that Gray didn't even have the fortitude to fire Rhee (per the NYT story). I guess we can look forward to the excellent "reform" that the teacher's union has been doling out for the past 20 years, since Rhandi Weingarten has bought and paid for Vince Gray. Ugh...

Posted by: keithstg | October 13, 2010 9:43 AM | Report abuse

Last time I checked, Vince Gray was the Chairman of the City Council, not the Mayor. I am not sure how keithstg would expect the City Council Chairman to fire someone not in his direct report?

Posted by: LukasWP | October 13, 2010 10:21 AM | Report abuse

Sorry, DeBonis, but this is completely silly.

Fenty gave Rhee too much latitude to implement her reforms? Obviously, you've never managed anything. Without Fenty's solid backing, THERE WOULD NOT HAVE BEEN ANY MOVEMENT TOWARD REFORM WHATSOEVER. Fenty fumbled the politics, but his backing of Rhee earns him plaudits. Fenty may have screwed up the politics, but he did the right thing policy-wise.

This is what you Gray supporters don't get: leadership requires making tough decisions that often generate enemies. You can either get your reforms done or you can have everyone be your friend, but you can't have both.

Posted by: tracker2 | October 13, 2010 10:26 AM | Report abuse

Leave it alone, DeBonis. Not your beat, so you err too frequently. Newark PS isn't under Cory Booker's control. It is under the NJ Governor's.

The real story, which is NOT on Turque's beat: With Rhee gone the civil groups formerly organized for DCPS improvement, in virtual caves for 4 years, have to reconstruct what they are about. Like prisoners of war suddenly released. What to do now? That's the story you can cover.

The other story, is that without a full time as a Rhee-watcher, your colleague could need a new assignment.

Posted by: incredulous | October 13, 2010 10:46 AM | Report abuse

What she didn't have was enough classroom experience to lead a district.

Posted by: linroy62 | October 13, 2010 11:35 AM | Report abuse

@tracker2: Leadership requires convincing the people you lead that the decisions you make are in their interest. Or else they put you out on your butt and all your changes end up for naught. Sorry, but the world isn't as black and white as you think.

@incredulous: Yes, under NJ gov's control, but Christie just handed Booker the keys. I'd call that de facto mayoral control.

Posted by: Mike DeBonis | October 13, 2010 1:27 PM | Report abuse


(reference to post
by thooker65):

Read about the scam testing procedures,
described below ! ---

"My daughter participated in the D.C.
Saturday Scholar program for nearly two years.
After I found out that she was only 1 of a few students from each school that had above average skills in learning, (Talented and Gifted), were asked to participate in that program. She along with other students that processed that higher level of learning were in this class to take the test (the NAEP exam
a national assessment, deliberately administered to only a selected 'sample group' of DCPS students) --which was then manipulated to artificially bolster DCPS test score ratings, as a whole district.
So how does that make the school system
better (?!), if only this selected group of smarter kids bring up the school standings (via a clandestine process)?
After I found out what was going on, I removed my daughter from that program. I’m pretty sure that Michelle Rhee would like to take credit for the
better scores, but did anyone really look into that smoke screen of what was really going on, I can only imagine -- and when I found out about the program I felt sick to my stomach.


Posted by: newmanagement2 | October 13, 2010 3:19 PM | Report abuse

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