The timing may not have been expected, but the outcome certainly was: Michelle Rhee, the controversial chancellor of Washington, DC’s public school system, announced her resignation this morning. I wrote about Rhee’s impending departure this morning at School Reform News, with comments from policy experts at Reason, the Pacific Research Institute, and the Foundation for Educational Choice. I also published an op-ed in Investor’s Business Daily a couple of weeks ago that examined Rhee’s record and likely legacy as a reformer that’s worth revisiting.
Was Rhee overhyped? In IBD, I wrote:
Nobody is indispensable, and Superman lives only in comic books…
Rhee’s likely ouster shows the perils of placing the mantle of change in the hands of one person, however capable. Her charisma earned her plenty of fans among reformers—and the lasting enmity of the education establishment. Their money brought down the mayor who appointed her.
That view is echoed in the story today:
“Rhee was overhyped in the sense that reformers need to put broad systemic reforms in place, like the DC charter law, in addition to strong leaders,” says Matt Ladner, vice president of research at the Goldwater Institute in Phoenix. “Rhee lasted approximately the average tenure for an urban superintendent. Leaders come and go, but the struggle for reform goes on.”
But Greg Forster, a senior fellow at the Foundation for Educational Choice, disagreed with Ladner slightly.
“Rhee was not overhyped,” said Forster. “What was overhyped was the whole heroic reformer model that says the system can work as long as we put the right people in charge of it.”
“Now we know that if you ever really do get the right people in charge of it, the unions just pull out all the stops to destroy those people,” he said. “We need to change the system in a way that breaks the unions, and only universal school choice can do that.”
Lisa Snell at the Reason Foundation described Rhee’s tenure in DC as “a cautionary tale” of what happens when a supposedly strong leader attempts to reshape powerful bureaucratic institutions. Reform is sometimes easier said than done. Explained Snell:
“Charter schools are a case in point. While there are many charismatic charter school leaders, these schools still only thrive in states where the laws make it easier to open a charter school.”
Over at Cato’s @ Liberty blog, Adam Schaeffer calls Rhee’s resignation the “least shocking news of the year.”
“No man or woman, mayor, chancellor or superintendent can significantly and permanently reform the government education monopoly,” Schaeffer writes. “It is unreformable.” He goes on to say, “Only systemic reform that creates a market in education will bring sustained, continual improvement.”
Meanwhile, at Heritage’s Foundry, School Reform News contributing editor Lindsey Burke delves into Rhee’s reform legacy:
Since taking office [three] years ago, Rhee has fired hundreds of ineffective teachers and administrators, closed poor-performing schools, and reworked contracts to include performance pay. Not surprisingly, union opposition to Chancellor Rhee’s reforms has been strong.
In the nation’s capital and throughout the country, education unions have worked to thwart attempts to reform the failed status quo, seeing any opening for children to escape monopoly public school systems as a threat to their power. While Washington, D.C. still has a long way to go to improve the school system, Chancellor Rhee has worked to place the well-being of children ahead of the demands of special interest groups such as the education unions.
The Atlantic‘s Marc Ambinder muses on what the future might have in store for Rhee, and sums up what made her such a lightning rod:
It appeared at times as if Rhee was dismissive of her real audience: the educational bureaucracy. She seemed indifferent at times to the emotions of teachers, parents, and students, most of whom were black and didn’t trust her, initially, because she was just different. This sounds like a small point, but had Rhee kept her disdain for the current system and its leaders to herself, she might have built stronger and more lasting relationships with the constituencies she had to deal with. But Rhee doesn’t self-censor. That’s part of who she is.
It’s worth remembering that the American Federation of Teachers’ Randi Weingarten wasn’t Rhee’s only opponent. Diane Ravitch, who’s strange intellectual course has been widely documented, criticized, and speculated about, leveled some pointed criticism at Rhee’s management of DC’s schools after last month’s mayoral primary:
Rhee believed that mayoral control gave her the power to work her will and to ignore dissenters or brush them off as defenders of the status quo. Mayoral control bred arrogance and indifference to dialogue. She didn’t need to listen to anyone because she had the mayor’s unquestioning support. Mayoral control made democratic engagement with parents and teachers unnecessary. It became easy for her to disparage them and for the media to treat them as self-interested troublemakers.
… If D.C. had had an independent school board, Rhee would have had to explain her ideas, defend them, and practice the democratic arts of persuasion, conciliation, and consensus-building. We now have an “education reform” movement which believes that democracy is too slow and too often wrong, and their reforms are so important, so self-evident that they cannot be delayed by discussion and debate….
There may be a kernel or two of truth in this. Fact is, Rhee was not an effective communicator of her reform plans. She gave the Washington Teachers Union and the AFT ample ammunition to use against her. Consider it a valuable lesson in politics. But, as Matt Ladner told me earlier, “I suspect that Rhee and her allies and admirers are sadder, wiser and undeterred.” Indeed.