City on a Hill: D.C. needs Rheeality check

October 30, 2008

As the national media reports it, District of Columbia Public Schools Chancellor Michelle Rhee is the most popular woman in Washington.  The past few months have seen fawning profiles of her in Newsweek, The Atlantic, and The New York Times. She even got a shout-out in the third presidential debate-Senator Barack Obama (D-Ill.) called her “wonderful” as he and Senator John McCain (R-Ariz.) argued about whose educational policy she endorsed.

McCain contended that D.C. is proof-positive of the effectiveness of vouchers and that Rhee supported them. (Rhee actually has no official position on vouchers-not surprising since fewer than 2,000 students in D.C. use them.)  Obama insisted that she’s a proponent of charter schools. (Rhee has supported charter schools, but with more than a third of D.C. students already attending charter schools, one of the biggest questions is whether DCPS can stay competitive and increase enrollment.) But here in the District, Rhee is one of the most controversial figures in local politics.

“Nationally, I think people are intrigued by what she’s doing and that she’s trying to lay down a very clear change strategy,” Richard Laine, director of education at the Wallace Foundation, an educational policy institute, said.  “Within the city, she’s ruffling a lot of feathers and challenging a lot of how things work.”

Last year, in her first year on the job, she outraged many parents by closing 23 schools, was accused of arbitrariness in the firing of nearly 100 central office employees, raised suspicions of improper meddling when she fired the principal of the school her daughters attend, and developed combative relationships with both the City Council and the Washington Teachers Union.

Rhee’s devil-may-care approach to local politics may have endeared her to the educational reform community, who can appreciate her stubborn, kids-first mentality from afar.  But some local spectators worry that her tendency to vilify WTU, DCPS employees, and the council will limit her ability to create real, productive change on a long-term basis in D.C. She’s currently embroiled in a contentious contract negotiation with the WTU to create a system of merit pay.  Given their fraught relationship, it will be nothing short of miraculous if Rhee convinces WTU to agree to her plan. More likely, she will have to make some compromises, something she’s shown little interest in during her time in D.C.

Finally, it’s hard not to feel that this praise is somewhat premature.  This is only Rhee’s second year at the helm of DCPS, and while she has undoubtedly made some drastic changes, it’s too early to tell whether they’ve improved the quality of education offered in the District.  It also remains to be seen whether she can rebuild public confidence in DCPS and stop the mass migration of D.C. students to charter schools.

“In general, she’s pushing on the right pressure points, [but] the judgment’s out on whether she’s getting the results,” Laine said.  “You wouldn’t put blame or credit on her this early.”

Admittedly, it’s nice to see DCPS getting attention for something besides its abysmal record. But just because Obama called Rhee “wonderful” doesn’t mean we shouldn’t continue to pay close attention to what our Chancellor’s up to.

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