Rhee Challenges Obama to Get Behind Her on School Reform

The chancellor of D.C. schools expresses alarm about Democrats' education agenda.

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Earlier this year, U.S. News interviewed Michelle Rhee, the controversial chancellor of public schools in Washington, and had this to say about her:

"If you want to quickly become the most unpopular person in a city, close down a school. No, make that 23 schools. Then, fire 34 principals, offer buyouts to 700 teachers (while pressuring hundreds more to leave), and fire 98 employees from the school district's central office. That's what Michelle Rhee . . . has done since she took control of the district in the summer of 2007. Of course, she's not trying to make friends; she's trying to turn around one of the nation's most troubled school districts." (Read full story.)

If there was any doubt about her priorities, consider what Rhee says in an interview with Time this month. According to the magazine, Rhee, a Democrat, almost voted for Sen. John McCain for president, but a close friend ultimately persuaded her to cast her vote for Barack Obama, the president-elect. "It was a very hard decision," she explains. "I'm somewhat terrified of what the Democrats are going to do on education."

Rhee may not be interested in making new friends, but she certainly needs the president-elect and Democratic lawmakers on her side. After all, Congress and the president approve the capital city's budget. So, why is Rhee opening up so publicly about her reservations of an Obama administration now that the election is over? Here's a guess: To signal to Obama that if he really intends to improve education, starting with D.C.'s troubled school system, his choice for education secretary cannot be someone who will undermine the work of school reformers like her.

Rhee's comments come as speculation ramps up that the job of education secretary might go to Linda Darling-Hammond, a Stanford University professor whom Obama recently appointed as head of his education policy transition team. (Read about other potential picks.) Darling-Hammond also advised Obama during the campaign. Education reformers like Rhee, however, don't think Darling-Hammond is right for the job. They worry that she has taken sides with the unions by resisting ideas that include merit pay for teachers and eliminating tenure.

Teacher unions have been a major stumbling block for Rhee, who is seeking to win support for proposals that would make it easier for her to fire incompetent teachers and give bonuses to the best ones. She has introduced two compensation plans, one that strips teachers of tenure but allows them to earn up to $130,000 if they meet performance goals based on student test scores, and the other that lets teachers keep tenure but gives them a modest raise. So far, the unions have chosen not to hold a vote on either proposal, leaving Rhee frustrated.

Obama certainly doesn't need Rhee's blessing to appoint whomever he considers best for the job, but through her public commentary, Rhee has put him on notice that she has no intention of backing down from her proposals and that she would like to have him on her side. She hinted as much when she told Time, "It would send a huge message if this administration actually took a side on where we are with the union negotiations here." Soon, Rhee might get her answer.

Obama administration
Rhee, Michelle
education reform