Will Trump Go for Show or Substance with Education Secretary Pick?

Published November 21, 2016

It is easy to understand why Donald Trump the showman is intrigued with the idea of tapping Michelle Rhee, the former District of Columbia Public Schools chancellor, as his secretary of education.

She would bring the celebrity and controversy that is so much associated with the president-elect, who was a reality TV star. The Time magazine cover of December 8, 2008, depicting Rhee sweeping the laggard DC Public Schools clean of presumed deadwood still enrages her critics and delights her fans.

During her four tumultuous years heading schools in the nation’s capital, Rhee probably said “you’re fired” more often than Trump did as host of Celebrity Apprentice. The eternal enmity she incurred from teacher unions for her test-based evaluations of teachers and principals is certainly no mark against her in Trump’s gradebook, which is full of “Fs” for the union leaders obstructing education reform.

Rhee also would check boxes for both political and ethnic diversity in a Trump administration. She and husband Kevin Johnson, the mayor of Sacramento and former NBA star, are Democrats. And Rhee, the daughter of Korean immigrants, has endorsed the proposed Dream Act, which would protect from deportation children who immigrated illegally with their parents. That runs counter to the hard line Trump projected in the presidential campaign.

To her credit, Michelle Rhee is tough, smart, and focused on her own vision for elevating student achievement. Although some critics have alleged (but failed to substantiate) fudging of testing data, any fair-minded analysis would conclude the DC schools did begin a climb out of the cellar during her tenure. A local school board determined to hire an authority figure to shake up its system root and branch might well want to hire a Michelle Rhee.

Unfortunately for this prospective nomination, the vision for education that Trump embraced in his campaign did not entail a mustering of authoritarian power in the U.S. Education Department to force a unitary operational model on all school districts in the United States. Rather, Trump said he wanted to restore control of education to localities, states, and to the people, via expanded parental choice.

Trump’s repeated campaign vow was to do what he could as president to end the Common Core national curriculum standards. His most specific proposal called for making $20 billion in existing federal aid available for school choice programs administered locally.

It is difficult to envision the autocratic Rhee overseeing such a massive devolution of education powers to local people free to make their own choices of schools and curricula. Via the StudentsFirst advocacy group she founded after leaving Washington, DC, Rhee openly championed compulsory Common Core standards. Eventually, she endorsed the concept of private school choice, but only when exercised within the narrow confines of a state-managed program through which participating private and charter schools would be heavily regulated.

If Trump opts for the showy nomination of Rhee as secretary of education, he will put in grave jeopardy any substantive agenda he may have for returning education power to the people, and he will leave millions of grassroots citizens who cheered his anti-Common-Core rhetoric feeling terribly betrayed.