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Is Michelle Rhee undermining school reform?

The mantra goes, “You either love or hate Michelle Rhee.” In the education world, there is no figure as polarizing as the former chancellor of Washington, D.C.’s public schools, who famously warred with the city’s teachers’ union and left abruptly when her boss, Mayor Adrian Fenty, lost reelection last year. Since then, she has started an organization called StudentsFirst to push for education reform nationwide. She announced the group in a Newsweek cover story, and it raised more than $700,000 in its first week. Andrew Rotherham, an education policy expert, told me, “Do people say, ‘I [am] kind of uncertain about Michelle Rhee’? No way.”

Count me, then, as one of the uncertain few. To be sure, I am generally a fan of Rhee. The world of liberal education policy consists, more or less, of two factions: reformers, who support performance pay, charter schools, and weakening seniority-based job protections for teachers; and opponents of these ideas, who are often allied with teachers’ unions. Like most reformers, I greatly admired Rhee’s tenure in D.C., in which she closed failing schools, fired underperforming teachers, and helped raise student achievement.

But, in reading about Rhee’s recent moves, I’ve felt a nagging sense of disappointment. She is now advising several conservative governors who line up with reformers on certain issues but whose commitment to public education is questionable. Meanwhile, she hasn’t offered robust answers to some of the thorniest matters facing education policymakers. Last week, I put these challenges to Rhee directly. And I came out of our conversation much as I went in: with decidedly mixed feelings about her vision for the education-reform movement.

Consider Rhee’s alliance
with New Jersey’s Republican governor, Chris Christie, who has waged an assault on his state’s education status quo. Some of his rhetoric—backing performance pay and criticizing the power of teachers’ unions—has been music to reformers’ ears. But other statements—saying that teachers are “among the most privileged in our society” and telling one teacher that, if she doesn’t like what she’s being paid, she should get a new job—have been disrespectful and obnoxious. Rhee has admitted that she could have been a better communicator with teachers, so I asked her if Christie’s bullying could be bad for reform. “Absolutely not,” she said. “That’s more of what we need in this country. ... He never crosses the line.”

But style isn’t the main concern with Christie. Since taking office, he has slashed nearly $1.3 billion from his education budget, possibly violating state constitution requirements for education funding. (His solution if parents don’t like the consequences? “Move.”) Granted, the recession is forcing every state to make tough choices. But New Jersey’s Assembly speaker, Democrat Sheila Oliver, noted that Christie could have minimized education cuts if he hadn’t let a tax expire for people making $1 million or more. So it seems fair to wonder: Are these the actions of a governor who genuinely wants to improve schools? Shouldn’t true education reformers be fighting to win more money for public schools, even if they want to spend those dollars differently?

I asked Rhee (a Democrat) whether devoting less money to education is problematic. “If there was any evidence or data in New Jersey or across the country that, by putting more money into the system, you were going to be getting better results, I’m sure he would be scouring every corner to find it,” she said. “We have radically increased the amount of money we spend on education in this country. ... In most cases, the results have gotten only worse.” But there’s no evidence that Christie, who ran on a platform of cutting taxes, is interested in dedicating more money to public education under any circumstances. (K-12 education isn’t listed on his website as a priority.) And, while it’s true that education dollars should be spent more wisely, there’s no reason policymakers can’t do so while also figuring out how to invest more in schools. Yet Rhee, it seems, wants to address only the question of allocation. “The focus can’t be on how do we get more money or raise taxes,” she said.

On another hot-button issue, Rhee has a more nuanced take. One of her new Republican partners, Florida Governor Rick Scott, has proposed introducing school vouchers statewide. His plan would allow public money to be used by any student at any type of school—public, charter, private, even virtual.* Rhee, too, has advocated for more choice, penning an op-ed in The New York Times before President Obama’s State of the Union address, asking him to call for a law that would empower parents to move their children from unsuccessful schools. But does she support Scott’s plan, which hardly seems in line with the goal of improving public schools? StudentsFirst’s 25-page policy agenda seems to indicate so—but Rhee suggested otherwise. “You talk to some people in the choice movement who say vouchers are the answer, but I don’t think that’s the case,” she said. “The right system will have a very strong, well-run traditional public school system, [and] a good, accountable charter system. And some publicly funded vouchers and scholarships can be players.” She also said vouchers should apply to low-income children only. In other words, choice should be about ensuring that no child is trapped in a failing school—a laudable goal.

I then asked Rhee about a related issue that isn’t in StudentsFirst’s agenda: school integration. It’s no secret that one of the main reasons public schools have such disparate success rates is because of racial and socioeconomic segregation. While redrawing district boundaries wouldn’t be possible or effective everywhere, there have been successful, small-scale initiatives to make sure students of different backgrounds are educated together in good public schools—an important liberal ideal. But Rhee called integration a “very tricky situation” and said, “StudentsFirst is not at this point going to take a policy stance on the issue.”

Of course, Rhee shouldn’t be expected to have answers for every pressing educational question. StudentsFirst is just getting its bearings, and, as Rhee pointed out to me, there are countless issues the group could be tackling—curriculum and school nutrition, for instance—but isn’t, because it has chosen “areas where there is a need for a national organization with a national agenda.” Yet it is precisely in these areas—how to engage with teachers, how to spend public money—that Rhee’s agenda and choice of political partners raises hard questions. “I’m a realist,” Rhee told me. “We have to focus on what is doable, what is in front of us.” But setting realistic goals doesn’t have to mean sacrificing principles or collaborating on measures that could be harmful to public schools. And so, I have to admit: In a world where everyone supposedly loves or hates her, I’m still kind of uncertain about Michelle Rhee.

Seyward Darby is the deputy online editor for The New Republic. This article ran in the March 3, 2011, issue of the magazine.

*Since this article went to press, Governor Scott has released his annual budget proposal and said he will not push for universal vouchers this year. According to The Gainesville Sun, he still supports the idea, but he will focus right now on expanding charter schools instead. (Meanwhile, he has proposed cutting $3 billion from state education aid.)

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