Michelle Rhee, the DC Chancellor of Schools (for at least the time being) is the poster child of school reform -- and as such she has been the beneficiary of enormous amounts of favorable publicity, from a laudatory cover story in Time Magazine (complete with her holding a broom) to endless plaudits from the Washington Post editorial board, to what appears to be a starring role in the new education documentary "Waiting for Superman." (I have yet to see Waiting for Superman, although I am anxious to do so -- it is by Davis Guggenheim, the director of an Inconvenient Truth, and thus a credentialed liberal -- apparently it is going to be yet another vehicle to promote the bashing of teachers' unions -- certainly that's how right-wingers see it.) Rhee was given carte blanche by Mayor Adrian Fenty to shake up DC's dysfunctional public school system, a charge she undertook with zealous certainty.
Rhee, in the wake of Fenty's recent defeat, took the occasion of the "Superman" opening in DC to decry the choice of the electorate and to imply essentially that those who voted for Fenty's opponent, DC City Council Chairman Vincent Gray, did not care about the District's school children. She described the vote as "devastating" to the children of the city. Eugene Robinson did a nice job of taking down Rhee for the incredible arrogance of these remarks and for her lack of grace following the election.
This is illustrative of why Rhee will soon be departing DC and why so many people have a hard time embracing her despite what I think is a quite sincere desire to improve the District's schools. She is wedded to a Manichean world view in which she is "for the kids" and everyone else is standing in her way. She is too impatient to try and build support from the ground up or to get opponents or skeptics to buy into her ideas. And, ultimately, she had little concern or feel for the politics of the District and what they reflect in terms of the City's difficult history.
This article by the Post's excellent education reporter, Bill Turque -- yes, the Post does have some excellent reporters still -- Fred Hiatt hasn't ruined the entire enterprise yet -- gives a pretty good sense of why it is that Rhee is unlikely to remain in a Gray Administration and why the future mayor may not hold her in the same esteem as so many union-hating editorialists do. First, Rhee seemed to have no sense that in the District's Black community there is a great deal of sensitivity in being dictated to by those who think they know better. Until the late 1970s the City was ruled a combination of congressional committees, often in the hands of blatant racists, and by non-elected, presidentially-appointed commissioners who showed little regard for those they ruled. Much of the time, they oversaw a legally segregated city.
Naturally, when a list of numerous schools being closed in the District by Rhee appeared in the Washington Post before it was shared with the City Council, Gray took umbrage:
Frankly, we live in a city that has been oppressed. In this city, more than any other, how you do something is a major factor. It is a city that has been dictated to. People are very sensitive to being left out.
Rhee had no time for such niceties. Indeed, she seemed to bristle at the idea of any oversight by the City Council:
[City Council hearings have] "this crazy dynamic where every agency head is kowtowing. They sit there and get beat down. I'm not going to sit on public TV and take a beating I don't deserve. I don't take that crap."
At one point the City Council cut $9 million from the budget for summer school programs. Rhee unilaterally reinstated the money, laying off an additional 266 teachers to come up with the funds, all without Council knowledge or approval. Gray's response to Rhee in a public hearing was pungent:
We learn today that in your infinite wisdom, you in your unlimited authority, have simply decided you're not going to implement what the council said. You're going to do something else. That is unbelievably cavalier, Chancellor Rhee.
I think this summation from Turque is worth quoting at length, because it explains, in the end, why Rhee won't keep her job and why she has worn out her welcome with so many people who possibly could have been allies:
The layoffs were bad enough, but Gray expressed particular concern about Rhee's apparent disregard for the protocols, procedures and personal collaborations that Gray considered essential to smooth functioning within his political world. In this case, the process dictated that Rhee made sure that the council wasn't blindsided by the news.
But Rhee displayed little interest in either process or political niceties as she rushed to implement an ambitious agenda. She told Gray that she wasn't trying to embarrass the council, that she just wanted to protect the interests of children.
People like to be consulted, politicians don't like to be blindsided or embarrassed, and nobody likes to be told that they don't care about the interests of children. These are pretty simple truths that our guru of education reform could never quite grasp. Perhaps it is Michelle Rhee who needs a bit more of schooling.