Initially criticized as young and inexperienced, the then 37-year-old Rhee didn't help her cause when she took swift steps to shut down underperforming schools, fire ineffective teachers, and replace principals, often without consulting the City Council, which controls the school budget. "It may be the greatest plan in the history of plans," says Michael Brown, at-large D.C. council member. The problem is "how she communicates and deals with people. She doesn't really include parents; she doesn't include teachers—in fact, she fires them—and she doesn't really include the council."
Leverage. In October, Rhee fired nearly 400 school personnel, including 226 educators, to close a $43.9 million budget shortfall that union leaders, teachers, and council members claim was manufactured as an excuse to clean house.
But the pace at which students are fleeing public schools and flooding charter schools gives Rhee bargaining chips. In 2007, there were 13,000 fewer students enrolled in public schools than in 2002. Over the same period, enrollment in charter schools grew by 9,000 students. "Part of what gives Rhee the leverage that she has over the D.C. public schools is that they've been bleeding students like crazy," says Greene. "So, because students are beginning to leave in large numbers, Rhee has leverage and can say, 'Look, we're going to collapse here unless we change.' "
Another powerful weapon she has is the full support, both monetary and political, of Washington Mayor Adrian Fenty. Rhee admits that a big part of her success depends upon Fenty staying in office. He is up for re-election in September 2010. "He has been the main driving force in our ability to enact these reforms in an aggressive way," she says. "He has been unequivocal about his support for these efforts and the schools, and that really has been the linchpin to everything."
Early signs of success exist: The District of Columbia has shown impressive gains in its student test scores on the National Assessment of Education Progress tests since 2007, and in the past two years, the achievement gap between white and African-American students has closed from 70 percentage points to 50 percentage points. A 50 percentage point gap between races is unacceptable, says Rhee. But if that rate of improvement continues, the gap will nearly close in five years, making D.C. "the first urban school district in the country where the race and socioeconomic status of a child does not determine their academic achievement levels."
- More on education reform from U.S. News & World Report.
- Congress Considers Cutting D.C. School Voucher Program.
- Many Schools Find Ways to Close the Achievement Gap.