‘Superman’ Versus ‘The Blob’: What Michelle Rhee’s Rise and Fall Can Teach Us

Published September 27, 2010

Nobody is indispensable, and Superman lives only in comic books. The nation’s public education system won’t be reformed through more top-down mandates, vain attempts to nationalize the schools, or cheap sloganeering.

Lasting school reform requires the education dollar following the child, eliminating the bureaucratic “middle man,” and restoring accountability at the parental level. Above all, it means giving families real choices. You don’t need to be a brainiac to figure that out.

The arrival of Waiting for “Superman,” a new documentary from the maker of An Inconvenient Truth, and the likely fate of one of the film’s main subjects should help persuade parents, teachers, and others concerned about the dismal state of U.S. public education that one person really can’t make a difference.

Michelle Rhee, chancellor of the Washington, DC public school system, is one of the heroes of Davis Guggenheim’s film, seen waging a solitary battle against the powerful, reactionary Washington Teachers Union. The film ends with a question as to whether Rhee will prevail.

Odds are she will soon add “former-” to her job title. On September 14 the District of Columbia’s voters turned out incumbent Mayor Adrian Fenty in the city’s Democratic primary. The repudiation of Fenty was essentially a repudiation of Rhee.

Hired in 2007 by the pro-reform mayor, the outspoken and hard-driving Rhee gained national prominence a year later when she appeared on the cover of Time standing in front of a blackboard with a broom in her hand. The message: This dynamic young administrator would clean up the corrupt, violent, hidebound DC public school system.

The education “blob”—the bureaucracy, the unions, and their kept politicians—had other plans.

Fact is, Rhee accomplished relatively little in her tenure as chancellor. The District of Columbia still spends more than $20,000 per pupil per year for poor test scores, violent schools, and a dropout rate below 50 percent.

Rhee’s signature accomplishment was to negotiate a new contract with the union. Teachers traded away some job protections in exchange for pay increases and the promise of performance bonuses. The union consented to a new teacher evaluation system, which went into effect earlier this year. In July, Rhee announced she would fire 241 teachers, including 165 who received poor ratings under the new system.

Rhee’s triumph took more than two-and-a-half years to achieve—and the union said it would challenge every one of the firings. Plus, the contract comes up for renewal in 2012. With Rhee’s departure all but assured and the new mayor, Vincent Gray, a beneficiary of union largesse, it isn’t hard to imagine how long her hard-fought reforms will last.

Rhee’s story should serve as a reminder to reformers that public opinion is important, and people want to know that proposed reforms are in their interest. Rhee, however, famously said, “Collaboration and consensus-building are quite frankly overrated, in my mind.” With “consensus-building” in public education usually meaning rolling over for the unions, she’s right. But Rhee never made a good case for her reforms to the constituency that matters most: Parents.

Ironically, the teachers union—which exists not to serve the interests of parents or students but instead to protect the salaries and benefits of dues-paying members— exploited perceptions of Rhee’s management style as top-down and imperious, to rally parents against her.

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.

It doesn’t matter that Rhee was right. She became a lightning rod, a tragic hero of reform.

Fixing the nation’s failing schools isn’t a matter of personalities. It requires electing people willing to dismantle the existing public education monopoly, decentralize authority, and give parents and students the freedom to escape a failing school system. Instead of funding bureaucrats and union bosses, we should be funding kids.

Ben Boychuk ([email protected]) is managing editor of The Heartland Institute’s School Reform News. Visit online at www.schoolreform-news.com or follow on Twitter at www.twitter.com/schoolreform.