If you’ve seen the recent hit documentary Waiting for Superman, or have been following the debates over school reform, you’ve heard of Michelle Rhee. The former firecracker chancellor of the D.C. school system is an absolute superstar in the field. In just three years, she — along with D.C. Mayor Adrian Fenty — had begun to repair the disaster of that city’s education system.
She closed two dozen of the worst schools in the city, cut the education bureaucracy by half, and launched a fight against teacher tenure. The positive results came quickly:
In my first two years in office, the D.C. schools went from being the worst performing on the National Assessment of Educational Progress examination, the national test, to leading the nation in gains at both the fourth and eighth grade in reading as well as math. By this school year we reversed a trend of declining enrollment and increased the number of families choosing District schools for the first time in 41 years.
With that kind of record, you’d think she’d have a permanent place at the head of D.C.’s schools. You’d be wrong. In November, her boss and unwavering supporter, Adrian Fenty, lost the Democratic primary in his reelection bid. He made the political mistake of crossing the teacher’s unions, which spent a massive amount of money campaigning against him. When the new union-friendly mayor took office, Rhee resigned.
Since leaving the position, she’s had time to reflect on her experience:
When you think about how things happen in our country — how laws get passed or policies are made — they happen through the exertion of influence. From the National Rifle Association to the pharmaceutical industry to the tobacco lobby, powerful interests put pressure on our elected officials and government institutions to sway or stop change.
Education is no different. We have textbook manufacturers, teachers’ unions, and even food vendors that work hard to dictate and determine policy. The public-employee unions in D.C., including the teachers’ union, spent huge sums of money to defeat Fenty. In fact, the new chapter president has said his No. 1 priority is job security for teachers, but there is no big organized interest group that defends and promotes the interests of children.
You can see the impact of this dynamic playing out every day. Policymakers, school-district administrators, and school boards who are beholden to special interests have created a bureaucracy that is focused on the adults instead of the students. Go to any public-school-board meeting in the country and you’ll rarely hear the words “children,” “students,” or “kids” uttered. Instead, the focus remains on what jobs, contracts, and departments are getting which cuts, additions, or changes. The rationale for the decisions mostly rests on which grown-ups will be affected, instead of what will benefit or harm children.
Rhee’s fight isn’t ending here. She has started a new organization called StudentsFirst, with the hope of balancing out the debate in public education. Good for her. We’ll be following the development of the group, and will keep you updated as it proceeds.