As controversial Chancellor of Public Schools in Washington, DC, Michelle Rhee rocked the boat. She alienated teacher’s unions in asking them to accept a new kind of contract that would set aside automatic pay increases for the possibility of earning much higher salaries based on teacher effectiveness. She cut administrative costs. She got into the classroom to see how the changes were working. And when the 2010 elections rolled around, Rhee was swept out along with her biggest champion, DC Mayor Adrian Fenty.
Now in Newsweek, Michelle Rhee has said that she “isn’t done with education reform.” She’s launching an advocacy organization to improve public schools and put “Students First,” because they’re not reading at grade level, math and science scores are consistently mediocre when compared with other countries, and the dropout rate is atrocious (especially in inner cities).
In the Newsweek piece, Rhee cops to many flaws in achieving results in DC schools: bad communication with parents and teachers, for one. “There is no good way to close a school” she said, especially in this difficult economic climate. But the focus should always stay on what children’s needs are first:
We need a new voice to change the balance of power in public education. Our mission is to defend and promote the interests of children so that America has the best education system in the world.
She points out that school textbook publishers, teachers’ unions, food vendors, and test/prep companies all wield a lot of lobbyist muscle in DC among lawmakers. But kids have no powerful lobbyists, except for what their time-starved and often cash-poor parents can muster.
Rhee also has a lot of critics. And it remains to be seen whether she’ll be able to cut through the red tape of education policy multiplied by 50 states, or stay free of the sway of Big Schools, which has vested interests in the status quo, just like Big Ag and Big Pharma.
But for now, her message to parents and students that students should come first is welcome news to people who choose to support public schools and to people for whom there is no other option.
Wikimedia Commons Public Domain, Photo Credit: Iris Harris - U.S. Department of Commerce.