Still Waiting for Superwoman
What Michelle Rhee's fans don't get about education reform.
The tragedy of Rhee's tenure is that the second major prong of her education reform strategy—bringing D.C.'s middle-class back into public education—could have made an enormous difference to low-income students in D.C. But she bungled that, too. Rhee couldn't herself do much about poverty levels, but it was within her power to address the socioeconomic Balkanization of schools by intelligently managing Washington's gentrification.
Rhee knew that attracting more middle-class students of all races into public schools would strengthen the schools for all students. In one interview, she recounted Warren Buffett's advice to her that the nation's education problems would be solved if private schools were made illegal and students were randomly assigned. No one actually advocates that approach, of course, but behind Buffett's remarks is the old "common school" idea, also inherent in Brown v. Board of Education, that if low-income and black students attend schools with middle-class and white students, they will have far better opportunities. In economically integrated schools, poor students benefit from peers with big dreams, a parental community that is actively involved in school affairs, and strong teachers.
In D.C., the goal of making all schools majority middle class is not immediately possible, given that 63 percent of the city's students are low-income, but Rhee could have made significant progress in many schools for three reasons. First, the wealth of D.C. residents is growing dramatically, as upper-middle-class people have moved to the city in droves. Second, white middle-class families, rightly or wrongly, liked Rhee's reforms and became more willing to take a serious look at using public schools. Third, Rhee made a conscious effort to recruit middle-class families through, among other efforts, pre-K programs that were designed to make middle-class families comfortable with using public schools. Under Rhee's watch, the D.C. public schools' 41-year decline in student population ended.
But the politics of gentrification are complex, and Rhee never spelled out a long-run comprehensive plan to make sure the influx of middle-class families would benefit everyone in the system. The case wouldn't have been hard to make: Low-income students in more affluent schools are two years ahead of low-income students in high-poverty schools. And the infrastructure was already in place to bring students from different parts of Washington's highly segregated residential areas together because two-thirds of D.C. students already choose to attend a charter or out-of-boundary public school. Because no overall plan was announced to benefit everyone, however, Rhee was seen as courting affluent white kids to create segregated enclaves of privilege, most notably at one middle school in wealthy Georgetown.
The story line, says Whitmire, became that Rhee favored whites over blacks; and in the end, Rhee and her patron, Mayor Adrian Fenty, were ousted in the 2010 Democratic mayoral primary, a result Rhee ungraciously declared "devastating" for D.C. schoolchildren. Whitmire suggests Rhee's fate involved "race politics" at its worst. At one point, Whitmire hypothesizes: "Part of the resentment against Rhee in some parts of D.C. appears rooted in the fact that it took a Korean American to actually improve schools—after a long string of black schools chiefs produced no improvements." One would expect a racially loaded charge like this to be backed up by evidence from polls or interviews, but Whitmire provides none whatsoever.
What is undeniable is that black voters in D.C. did not like Michelle Rhee. Only one-quarter of black women viewed her favorably. There is some evidence that African-American voters believed that Rhee had unfairly treated D.C.'s mostly black teaching force by firing educators without adequate explanation and generally holding veteran teachers in disdain. (She posed on the cover of Time with a broom in hand.) Conservatives are accustomed to getting almost no black support, but one wonders whether it gives liberal Rhee supporters some pause that a set of reforms which were supposed to help black children were decisively rejected by black voters.
Michelle Rhee undoubtedly made some important improvements to D.C. public schools. Under her regime, kids got textbooks on time. Rhee made more efficient use of space by closing underutilized schools. But she didn't revolutionize education in DC. Some schools improved, but even Whitmire concedes that one of her signature "success" stories (improvement at Dunbar High School) subsequently unraveled. Overall, D.C. scores improved on the National Assessment of Educational Progress, but at no faster rate than under Rhee's two immediate predecessors.
What the press never saw—and Whitmire fails to recognize—is that Michelle Rhee's war on teachers' unions was a sideshow that distracted from the more important effort to give more low-income students a chance to attend middle-class public schools. Another school leader might have been humbled by her experience and thought about ways to work with teachers to improve education. Instead, with StudentsFirst, Rhee has doubled down on her approach, aligning herself with conservative anti-union governors in New Jersey and Florida.How many more years will it take the press to see that adopting Bob Dole's talking points won't bring about the civil rights revolution in education that's so sorely needed?
Richard D. Kahlenberg, a senior fellow at the Century Foundation, is the author of The Remedy: Class, Race, and Affirmative Action, and the editor of Rewarding Strivers: Helping Low-Income Students Succeed in College.
Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images.