Every July, an elite group assembles in the mountain resort of Sun Valley, Idaho, for a private retreat. It’s like summer camp for the executive set, with golf, rafting, and fishing for seasoned attendees like Bill Gates, Rupert Murdoch, and Michael Bloomberg. Recreation is combined with more intellectual pursuits, however, including closed-door panels that survey economic, geopolitical, and cultural trends.
This past summer, there was a new face in the mix: Michelle Rhee, reform-chancellor-extraordinaire of the D.C. public-school system. And though she’s only headed into her second year on the job, Rhee says she felt at home among the Sun Valley crowd, populated not only by wealthy moguls, but also by some the most successful entrepreneurs in recent memory. “These are folks who really understand what it takes to run a high-functioning, high-performing organization,” Rhee told National Review Online. “And they were incredibly supportive, incredibly excited about what we’re doing here in D.C.”
Rhee’s results-oriented efficiency often evokes comparisons with elite corporate leaders. Yet for Rhee, the week of casual luxury in Sun Valley was an anomaly — a far cry from her daily grind in D.C., where she’s confined to a business suit, a rigorous schedule, and a flood of e-mail she answers herself. As the sixth school chief in ten years, she has taken up the burden of a district she says is a victim of “extremely failed bureaucracy.”
“Look at the fact that so few of our kids are performing at grade level; that we have a 70-point achievement gap between wealthy white students and poorer minority students; that of all ninth-graders in the district, only 9 percent graduate from college within five years,” she says. “These are our data points.”
She insists that her obligation is to D.C. public-school students — all 49,400 of them. That “do it for the children” rhetoric doesn’t fall flat coming from Rhee — she has two daughters who attend elementary school in the district. You read that right: elementary school. At 37, Rhee is the District’s first superintendent under the age of 50. This daughter of South-Korean immigrants is also the first Asian-American superintendent — and the first non-black superintendent in nearly 40 years.
Rhee assumed control of D.C.P.S. having earned a master’s degree in education policy from Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government. But her zeal for education reform she credits to the three years she spent teaching in an elementary school in Baltimore. She had joined Teach for America after graduating from Cornell University and was sent to a second-grade classroom at Harlem-Park Elementary, where she and a co-worker were able to raise their students’ failing scores to the 90th percentile.
The difference, she notes, was in the approach to teaching. “Teacher quality is the single factor that has the most influence on student performance, without a doubt,” she says. “I learned as a teacher that what second-graders can do depended on my expectations. If you have extraordinarily high expectations of kids, that they can meet them.”
Later, Rhee founded the New Teacher Project, a nonprofit that puts qualified teachers, sometimes recruited from industry, in underperforming schools throughout the country. Her insistence on teacher quality as has been the cornerstone of her reform agenda as chancellor. She is currently in the process of negotiating “the most radical teachers’ union contract in the country” — one that would introduce the option of merit pay for district teachers.
In discussing those contract negotiations, she emphasizes that two parties sign — so if the contract is flawed, the district can’t grumble without admitting partial blame. “A lot of things in collective bargaining agreements in urban school district do not serve children well. . . . Those provisions need to be aggressively reformed.”
Rhee has remained impervious to political interests while making tough choices on how best to administer the district’s resources, and (as you’d expect) a number of the decisions she’s made — school closures, for example, or the choice to fire non-union central-office workers — have proven controversial. Rhee has intrepidly crossed a number of such minefields in her brief tenure. That’s probably because Rhee is a rare breed in D.C., having been appointed without political experience or aspirations. She has said that this is a “one-time gig,” allowing her to pursue her reforms without worrying about the political ramifications.
Now, at the start of a new school year, Rhee’s hard-charging leadership has drawn predictable criticism from teachers’ unions as she plans another year of energetic reform. “I’m a very disillusioned Democrat,” she laughs, and continues earnestly. “The Democratic party must break ties with the teachers’ unions. There is no way that we will see radical reforms in urban school districts until that happens. In the last decade, the educational policy of the Republican party has been much, much stronger.”
“I am a big believer in school choice,” she explains. “I would never do anything to limit a parent’s ability to choose the school that is best for their child. But it’s also true that we at D.C.P.S. can be much, much more competitive.”
That competitiveness is the goal of a small group of reform-minded urban superintendents — including New York’s Joel Klein, Chicago’s Arne Duncan, and Atlanta’s Beverly Hall — who have dared to break with the Democratic party on key education policies. “We’re all Democrats, but we’re also all up on a hill saying ‘Do not roll back No Child Left Behind!’ Democrats’ soft ideas on accountability are not going to help the kids in the nation’s capital or in other urban areas. The Democratic party needs to get moving with policies that will actually help poor and minority kids.”
Rhee says that the political waters in heavily Democratic D.C. are navigable thanks to Mayor Adrian Fenty, who supports her “100-percent, 100 percent of the time.” Also a fresh presence in D.C. politics, Fenty pried D.C.P.S. from the grip of the educational bureaucracy by placing it under the jurisdiction of the mayor’s office, creating the possibility for a schools’ chancellorship that was a more dynamic and effective position.
Her esteem for Fenty is obvious. “He is truly unlike any politician I have ever met in my life,” she says. “He is willing to put all of his political capital on the line to ensure that the schools are successful. He doesn’t look at this from a political angle at all. Many things that I’ve done have resulted in a backlash against him, impacting his approval ratings — but he never, ever hesitates. Few superintendents in the country get the kind of support that I do.”
Looking forward, her agenda includes reforms that will involve the private sector in the management and funding of troubled schools; in fact, she’s already established a separate 501(c)3 to field philanthropic donations to the district. In this vein, her time in Sun Valley may eventually reap dividends for D.C.P.S: though she would not give details, Rhee says that many fellow conference attendees expressed an interest partnering with her to achieve real reform in D.C. schools.
“Our goal is very clear. We want to be the highest-performing urban school district in the country. We want to be the district of choice for the families in D.C., and we want to close the achievement gap between wealthy white students and their poor minority counterparts.”
In the meantime, Rhee seems to welcome the pressure, as she weighs the support of many D.C. residents, the criticism of her opponents, and the district’s students. “Feeling the means we’re doing the right thing.”
– Elise Viebeck, a Collegiate Network intern at National Review, is an editor emerita of the Claremont Independent at Claremont McKenna College.