During her three years as Washington D.C. public schools chancellor, Michelle Rhee raised eyebrows with her tough-love approach to fixing a failing school system.
And when I sat down with Rhee on “This Week,” the controversial education reformer made no apologies for her rough-and-tumble philosophy.
“My style is very deliberative and very focused on doing what’s right for kids. And so I wouldn’t change that so much,” Rhee told me. “Should I have fired ineffective principals? Absolutely. Should I have done so on national TV? Probably not.”
Rhee’s tenure in D.C. was met with plenty of controversy: Unions and city residents criticized her for ending teacher tenure and closing 23 schools in one year alone. Rhee left her position after the mayor who hired her to lead the school district lost his bid for re-election, in part because of public opposition to Rhee.
Now she’s the author of a new book, “Radical: Fighting to Put Students First.” It’s an education manifesto inspired by Rhee’s own lessons learned in and out of the classroom, which Washington Post education reporter Bill Turque said portrays Rhee as ”a radical humbled by a dose of realism.”
Today, Rhee told me she’s OK with that characterization.
“When I first got to D.C., people, they said, ‘Well, gosh, she’s so radical. She’s a lightning rod.’ And in my mind, I was doing the things that seemed to obvious to me, you know: closing failing schools, removing ineffective people, cutting a central office bureaucracy,” Rhee said. “Finally, I came to the conclusion that if bringing some commonsense solutions to a dysfunctional system makes me a radical, then so be it.”
Currently, Rhee heads “StudentsFirst,” a grassroots organization pushing for education reform. The group recently put out a report card on the nation’s schools, where just two states – Louisiana and Florida – earning the highest grades, with B-minuses.
Rhee’s book includes a revealing story about her trying to enlist President Clinton to join her education crusade. But Rhee, a devout Democrat who’s married to Kevin Johnson, the Democratic mayor of Sacramento, said education reform should be a bipartisan issue.
“One of the things that I learned in trying to bring on board people like President Clinton and other Democrats is: We really have to articulate a path forward, a path to success,” Rhee told me. “Why Democrats and Republicans alike should take this issue on: because it is the most important issue facing our nation.”