Former DC schools chancellor Michelle Rhee appealed to both ends of the political spectrum today in her visit to the Georgia Capitol, touting vouchers to provide low-income children with options beyond failing neighborhood schools and a strong federal Department of Education to hold schools accountable.
Rhee’s theme throughout her comments was the need to put students first. “We have been putting the system first for 30 years and look where that has gotten us,” she said.
And her new education organization — created she says to counter the influence of teacher unions, textbook publishers and other special interests focused on adult agendas – is called StudentsFirst.
Her take-no-prisoners style of public school management, which left a wake of ill will in Washington and cost her ex boss, Mayor Adrian Fenty, re-election last year, struck a chord with Georgia lawmakers, many of whom believe that the entrenched education bureaucracy in Georgia has been an obstacle to real reform.
As to her own stormy tenure over DC schools where she says she was known as the “Dragon Lady” and “Teacher Terminator,” Rhee said she believed her tough policies would be accepted “if we just produced actual results…I couldn’t have been more wrong.”
The dysfunctions within public education are not an accident, she said. “There are people who benefit by that dysfunction.”
Rhee recalled her own staff’s dismay when she supported the takeover of low-performing traditional schools under her control by independent charter schools that the district would not control. “My goal is not to protect and preserve the system,” she said. “My goal is to make sure every child gets a great education.”
That’s why, she told House members, she supported Washington’s voucher program. If parents did not win the lottery to enable their child to attend one of Washington’s high-achieving charter schools, Rhee says she didn’t feel it was fair to limit them to a failing public school, a school where she would never send her own two daughters. “Then who I am to deny them a $7,500 voucher to send their child to a great Catholic school,” she said.
Asked about social promotion, Rhee said it was a symptom of a culture too concerned about self-esteem. Showing her Tiger mom stripes, she said, “We have become soft in America.”
In South Korea, from where her family hails, Rhee said the 40 children even in a kindergarten class are ranked academically from first to last, and the No. 1 students are always looking over their shoulders to see if someone is gaining on them. That would never be allowed here, she noted.
Rhee said her two daughters “suck in soccer.” But you would never know it because their rooms are full of ribbons, medals and trophies.. “You would think I was raising the next Mia Hamms,” she said. “We are so busy making children feel good about themselves that we are not spending the time teaching them how to do good.”
(I am updating this blog as the day goes on. Check back for more of Rhee’s visit.)
–From Maureen Downey, for the AJC Get Schooled blog