The Public Policy

Michelle’s Mission

D.C. parents who can't afford Sidwell Friends have a friend in Michelle Rhee.

By 1.15.09

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President Barack Obama opposes vouchers that would let poor students attend private schools. During his presidential campaign, he charged that "school choice results in a huge drain of resource out of the public schools." Yet like Bill Clinton before him, President Obama will send his daughters to Sidwell Friends. Why can't low-income families have the same opportunity as the children of presidents?

If Michelle Rhee has her way, they will. Named by Democratic Mayor Adrian Fenty as the first chancellor of the D.C. schools, she is the latest person tasked with reforming Washington's chronically underperforming education system. But those who came before her were unwilling to take on the teachers' unions. Rhee promises to be different, a fact that has made her the face of education reform nationwide.

Rhee wants more freedom in firing bad teachers and the ability to promote good teachers. Unlike past administrations that paid lip service to the concept of merit pay, Rhee advocates tying teacher compensation to performance. This might sound like uncontroversial ideas, but they are bitterly opposed by the teachers' unions. Union leaders claim that tenure is essential to academic freedom and support the status quo on teacher pay. But the status quo isn't helping D.C. children learn.

The union rank-and-file isn't unaware that something needs to be done, however. In November, American Federation of Teachers (AFT) head Randi Weingarten confirmed that she reached out to Chancellor Rhee to discuss ongoing contract talks with D.C. public schools. The members of Washington's teachers union are divided over important elements of Rhee's education reform plans.

Rhee has not proposed the complete abolition of tenure. Under her reforms, each teacher can choose between two compensation plans: red and green. Teacher pay doubles under the green plans by 2010. However, teachers under this plan give up tenure for a year. At this point, teachers need a principal's recommendation or face elimination. Teachers choosing the red plan also get a pay increase, but lose seniority rights if their school closes or gets overhauled.

During April of 2008, Rhee offered buy-out packages to 700 teachers nearing retirement or working at schools scheduled for closure. Also, Rhee fired 98 employees of D.C. school system's central office. Rhee wants to establish a culture of accountability. Rhee dismissed 24 school principals in 2008. Additionally, Rhee fired 22 assistant principals last June. Rhee has closed as many as 23 schools in her first year. Last November, Fenty and Rhee introduced a plan to close 24 schools in the future.

Rhee brings a sense of urgency missing during previous administrations. Rhee's moves are necessary because of the D.C.'s inconsistent track record regarding accountability. D.C. has to reform 27 city schools that failed to make adequate yearly progress, an important element of No Child Left Behind. Only 12 percent of D.C. eighth grade students are proficient in reading and just 8 percent are proficient in math.

Most importantly, Rhee is a supporter of charter schools and the District's school voucher program. The Opportunity Scholarship Program serves 1,900 low-income students, by providing them $7,500 vouchers and the choice to attend private schools. The chancellor believes that school choice is part of raising standards in the public school system. Rhee's support is essential to survival of the voucher program in D.C., which is up for renewal next year. Rhee will confront a Congress and White House dominated by fellow Democrats who are diehard opponents of school vouchers.

It will take a long time to reform the long-suffering D.C. public school system. Michelle Rhee's mission is to make sure that children can get a quality education in the nation's capital even if their parents cannot afford the tuition at Sidwell Friends.

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About the Author

Donavan Wilson writes from Washington, D.C.