Controversial Leader Tries to Reform D.C. Schools

Chancellor faces fight with teachers over how to improve D.C. schools.

WASHINGTON, Nov. 23, 2008— -- The Obamas' difficult decision about where to send their young daughters to school once they move to the White House shined a light on the debate over public versus private schools, and the poor performance of Washington, D.C.'s public schools.

After weeks of speculation about where 10-year-old Malia and 7-year-old Sasha Obama would go to school, on Friday the choice was announced. The girls will attend Sidwell Friends, the same private school that Chelsea Clinton attended. They will be schoolmates of Vice President-elect Joe Biden's grandchildren.

The decision not to send the two girls to Washington's public schools, which have been ranked among the country's worst for decades, was no surprise, but it drew attention to the efforts of a new schools chancellor in the nation's capital.

Her name is Michelle Rhee, and in her first year on the job, she has set some high expectations and employed dramatic tactics to meet them.

"Our long-term goal is to make D.C. public schools the highest-performing urban school district in the country and to close the achievement gap that exists between wealthy white students and poor minority students in the city," Rhee says.

Last spring, Rhee closed more than two dozen schools and fired hundreds of principals and teachers, mostly for not having the proper accreditation. But those were just the first steps in her larger goal to push out underqualified or uncommitted educators and keep and reward the good ones, she says.

It's those tough tactics and bold plans to fix the city's schools that won her a national introduction from a high-profile advocate -- President-elect Barack Obama. Obama spoke often about education reform on the campaign trail and in the third presidential debate, he gave Rhee a major nod of approval.

"The D.C. school system is in terrible shape, and it has been for a very long time," Obama said. "And we've got a wonderful new superintendent there who is working very hard."

Rhee has won a lot of praise in some education circles. Jack Jennings, president of the Center on Education Policy in Washington, said: "She's shown courage; maybe it's because she's relatively young."

Rhee bucks the usual profile of a Washington schools chief. She's a 38-year-old single mother of two. She holds two Ivy League degrees, and she's the first Korean-American to run the largely African-American school system.

She was an elementary school teacher in inner city Baltimore for three years, but she had no previous school management experience. Rhee says, though, that she has no doubts about what she can accomplish in this job.

"There's no limit to what I think is possible in this district," she says. "And I don't think we can move fast enough because for the vast majority of our kids coming to DCPS for school every day is putting them further and further behind. And we owe them a lot more."

To that end, last week she proposed a five-year action plan to the city council that includes setting up more programs for parents, including literacy training; more security on school campuses; and a new kind of in-school suspension program that she says will keep kids learning and engaged instead of out on the streets.

But her boldest move yet has been taking on the teachers' unions and that sacred job protection: tenure.

"Tenure has no educational value, for kids. From my perspective, everything has to be on the table. There are no sacred cows in this," Rhee says.

She has proposed a new "pay for performance program" that totally overhauls the tenure system.

Under her plan, teachers who agree to give up the lifetime job security of tenure will see their pay double, up to $130,000 a year. That is big money for public school teachers, but still, giving up tenure is frightening to some who say that it makes them vulnerable to arbitrary firings.

Rhee says that when she came up with the pay for performance plan she thought, "I am going to be the hero of the Washington, D.C., teachers."

That didn't happen. Instead, it triggered a major labor dispute and stalled contract negotiations with the teachers' union.

Randi Weingarten, president of the United Federation of Teachers, says Rhee's plan reflects an all-too-common assertion that teachers are to blame for poor student performance or broken schools and taking away tenure only breeds anxiety.

"The way in which you do education is you work with teachers. You don't create a fear situation," Weingarten says. "That kind of fear has not turned around one school, has not educated one more child."

Rhee could get around the teachers' union by getting the federal government to declare a state of emergency in the city school system, similar to what happened after Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans. And she told ABC News that that's something she's considering.

If that happens, she could push through her pay for performance plan without the union's approval.

If it works, Jennings says, the pay for performance plan could be a model for helping to fix struggling urban school districts around the country.

"It's a day with change, with the new administration in Washington," he says. "It's a day for us to open our minds a little bit to different ways of looking at these issues."

Turning the Washington school system from one of the country's worst to one of the best is a monumental challenge, but it's one Rhee says she has fully embraced.

"I have the responsibility to make sure that all 47,000 of our kids are getting an excellent education, and there's nothing better than waking up and knowing that that's on me," she says.