The XX Factor

Rhee, We’ll Miss Thee

In elections past, I have certainly been passionate or enraged or invested in one critical issue or another. But yesterday marked the first election where the results could have such a direct and personal impact on my day-to-day life. I live in Washington, D.C., where our mayor just lost re-election, and where his unofficial running partner was the now world-famous schools chancellor Michelle Rhee.

Rhee has been on the cover of many a magazine, including one where she was photographed holding a broom like a witch . She can be harsh and impolitic in her mimicry of people she does not respect. Like this quote in Time: “I’m like, ‘You know what? I don’t give a crap.’ Don’t get me wrong. Creativity is good and whatever. But if the children don’t know how to read, I don’t care how creative you are. You’re not doing your job.”

If you have no children in public school in D.C., you might just shrug and tell yourself that she was not meant for public life. But if you do then the four years of her tenure have been a small local miracle. Overnight, principles shifted around, rules became transparent, schools that have been crumbling for decades got cleaned up. It’s been like having an uncle in city council and suddenly waking up to find your sidewalks hosed down and flowers planted in baskets, except it’s all above board.

Rhee and our new mayor, Vincent Gray have clashed many times and during the campaign, he amazingly questioned her competence and her honesty. He’s criticized her new teacher evaluation system and her specific decisions on firing principals and supported the Washington Teacher’s Union, which of course hates her. Some people are begging Rhee to stay a few more years, but she is afraid Gray won’t back her on difficult decisions, and she is probably right.

The sad part is, this is nothing new. Schools chancellors who try radical reform are almost always heaved out before they’ve had a chance to finish up. Rhee just married Kevin Johnson, the mayor of Sacramento. We need her more than she needs us, and she’ll find another school system to reform. And then be pushed out of there four years later.