Michelle Rhee, who made a reputation for being a firebrand reformer, resigned from her job as head of the D.C. Public Schools today, a casualty of a bitterly fought mayoral race.
Though Rhee and her take-no-prisoners education reforms were not officially on the ballot in Washington, when Rhee's champion, D.C. Mayor Adrian Fenty lost the Democratic primary last month it was widely assumed that Rhee's tenure as schools chancellor would soon end.
At a press conference this morning in Washington, Rhee said that her decision to step down at the end of this month was one that she and incoming mayor, City Council Chairman Vincent Gray, made together.
"This was not a decision that we made lightly, but it is one that I believe is absolutely essential to allow Chairman Gray to pursue our shared goal of unifying the city behind the school reform efforts that are making such a large difference in the lives of the children across the city. In short we have agreed together that the best way to keep the reforms going is for this reformer to step aside," Rhee said.
"I have put my blood sweat and tears into the children of the District of Columbia for the last three and a half years and I completely enjoyed every minute of it," she said. "The thought of not being in this role anymore is heartbreaking, to put it mildly, but I do know that it is the right thing for the school system and the right thing most importantly for the children of D.C."
During her tenure, Rhee, who appears in the new hit documentary "Waiting for Superman," became a national figure for school reform. Student test scores improved and dropout rates declined in the city. Rhee negotiated a controversial contract with the teachers union that enabled her to fire the lowest-performing teachers in the system and evaluate teachers based on their students' performances.
"All across the country now, because of Chancellor Rhee and her team, from the White House to documentaries, people are touting D.C. as a model for how to attack bureaucracy and get results in an urban school system," Mayor Fenty said.
But Rhee's approach to reform was not without controversy. In July, Rhee came under fire when she dismissed 241 teachers and put an additional 737 on notice. She has also been accused by the education community and District residents of alienating those around her. For example, in December 2008, her attitude was called into question when she posed on the cover of Time Magazine with a broom in hand under the title "How to Fix America's Schools."
Deputy Chancellor Kaya Henderson Will Act As Interim D.C. Schools Chancellor
Fenty, who appointed Rhee in June 2007, said she has "exceeded all of my expectations."
"It's not just the results that all of you know so much … but it's the excitement that she and her team have brought to the school system. The tough decision-making, what residents believe is a breath of fresh air, and a willingness to do what is right even if it has political consequences," the outgoing mayor said.
Under a deal negotiated with Gray, Deputy Chancellor Kaya Henderson will take over for Rhee at the end of the month. Rhee's senior leadership team will also stay in place through the end of the school year to ensure minimal disruption to students.
Rhee leaves D.C. with a sizeable list of unfinished business, yet she assured Washingtonians that her reform agenda will continue. That list includes Rhee's new teacher evaluation system, efforts to reform special education and plans to expand standardized testing.
"His decision to make my Deputy Chancellor Kaya Henderson the interim chancellor of DCPS [D.C. Public Schools] should put any fears aside of what reform will look like under a Gray administration. The answer to that question is that reforms will continue," Rhee said.
Henderson and Rhee have a long history. They worked together at the New Teacher Project, the nonprofit organization that Rhee ran prior to becoming chancellor. Henderson was the first to join Rhee's team when she came to DCPS.
"As I told Chairman Gray, he should be able to start his term as mayor with the same privileges that I have enjoyed for the last three and half years, which is the ability to chose your own team and have full faith and confidence in the work that you're going to do together. … He deserves the opportunity to work towards his goal of 'one city,' with a team that shares his vision, can keep the progress going, and bridge the divide," Rhee explained.
Speaking at the joint press conference, Gray thanked Rhee for her service, saying her decision to resign was a testament to her commitment to school reform.
Rhee's Next Move Remains Unclear
At the meeting with reporters, Gray said, "Now is the time for us to look forward. As I've said many times before, school reform will move forward under the Gray administration. We cannot and will not revert to the days of incrementalism in our schools. Our schools must continue to operate under the leadership of a strong, empowered chancellor who will move school reform forward, take it to the next level and work with the community so that all our stakeholders are invested in the process."
Asked why, if the plan is to keep Rhee's reforms and her team in place, are Gray and Rhee opting not to work together, Gray simply reiterated that it was a mutual decision for Rhee to leave the position.
As for what she will do next, Rhee made clear she hopes to continue to serve the nation's children.
"My goal is to continue to be able to serve the children of this nation. I think that one of the things I've learned over the last three and a half years is that there's a tremendous amount of work to be done across the nation. Lots of communities that want to push these reforms forward. So I look forward to serving American's children in my next role as well," she said.
Until she makes her next move, Rhee explained "I am going to take a little time off and figure out what's next."
"I will definitely be traveling a little bit to Sacramento," she joked in reference to her upcoming marriage to Sacramento Mayor Kevin Johnson.