What Michelle Rhee's fans don't get about education reform.
By Richard D. KahlenbergPosted Monday, Feb. 21, 2011, at 6:58 AM ET
The national press and political class adore Michelle Rhee, who ran the D.C. public schools from 2007 until 2010. She's appeared on the cover of Time and Newsweek, chatted on television with Oprah and David Gregory, and starred in Davis Guggenheim's documentary Waiting for Superman and a 12-part series on PBS' the NewsHour. This level of attention is unheard of for a schools chancellor of any size district, much less the 108th largest in the country.
For many, Rhee is the heroine in a morality play that draws on the power of the civil rights movement. In Washington, D.C., disadvantaged black and brown children are being robbed of an education, and Rhee has been battling the forces that were keeping them down: the teachers' union. Whereas the union selfishly put adults first, Rhee puts kids first. The new organization she just founded, StudentsFirst, is hoping to raise $1 billion explicitly to counter the political influence of the unions.
In years past, Republicans like Bob Dole castigated teachers' unions as a central impediment to good schools, which made political and policy sense because the unions are strong supporters of Democratic candidates and provide the political muscle that has stymied conservative school-privatization initiatives. But today the critique of unions is advanced not just by conservatives like George Will, but liberals like Jonathan Alter and Nicholas Kristof; not just the editorial board of the Wall Street Journal, but also of the Washington Post and New York Times. And in the 2008 presidential debate at Hofstra University, Barack Obama called Rhee, one of the nation's leading critics of unions, a "wonderful new superintendent."