Profile November 2008

The Lightning Rod

MICHELLE RHEE CHARGED IN as chancellor of the Washington, D.C., public schools wielding BlackBerrys and data—and a giant axe. She has made a city with possibly the country’s worst public schools ground zero for education reform, and attracted a cadre of young zealots some critics call “Rhee-bots.” Now the changes that she insists schoolchildren need are colliding head-on with the political wants of adults.
Photos by David Deal


Michelle Rhee is always on message and always on call. If she’s not speaking, she’s thumbing away on her BlackBerry, or working a cell phone, or flipping open a laptop. When I met with her recently, she sat at her desk clasping a BlackBerry and a cell phone in her right hand; in front of her was a sleek Sony Vaio laptop, which she monitored incessantly during our conversation, while off to her right was yet another computer, a desktop PC. Apparently there is a second BlackBerry somewhere. And it’s not for show. “Every e-mail a parent sends me, I answer,” she said, a boast that even her critics grudgingly concede.

Michelle Rhee

BlackBerry-wielding type-A personalities out to shake up the system are a common sight in Washington. Until recently, their habitat consisted almost exclusively of the halls of Congress and the K Street corridor—the think tanks, lobby shops, and congressional staffs most of us talk about when we talk about the capital. Rarely would you find them in the “other” Washington, the one most Americans would prefer to forget: the perennially dysfunctional city of 580,000 people, many of them poor and black; the city of the Marion Barry machine, of sky-high murder rates and voter disenfranchisement and the 1968 King riots. And, of course, the city of abysmal schools.

But thanks to Rhee and her boss, the young and charismatic Mayor Adrian Fenty, the city government is awash with the sort of überprofessionals once found exclusively in congressional committee rooms and white-shoe law firms. Fenty is a big part of the rush. Like a number of young mayors—Newark’s Cory Booker and, until he moved to the governor’s office, Baltimore’s Martin O’Malley—Fenty is a data-focused decision maker, less interested in politics as usual than a politics of results. Soon after taking office, in January of last year, Fenty focused his energy on wresting control of the city schools from the all-powerful school board, as New York’s Michael Bloomberg did in 2002, a move that has gained the interest of many fellow mayors around the country. By last July, the city council had approved the mayor’s appointment of Rhee as Washington’s first schools chancellor.

Also see:

Interviews: "Crusader of the Classrooms"
Michelle Rhee, the young chancellor of the D.C. public school system, talks about her career path, what makes a good teacher, and her efforts to transform a struggling school district.

Since her arrival, in the summer of 2007, Rhee, just 38 years old, has become the most controversial figure in American public education and the standard-bearer for a new type of schools leader nationwide. She and her cohort often seek to bypass the traditional forces of education schools and unions, instead embracing nontraditional reform mechanisms like charter schools, vouchers, and the No Child Left Behind Act. “They tend to be younger, and many didn’t come through the traditional route,” says Margaret Sullivan, a former education analyst at the Georgetown Public Policy Institute. And that often means going head-to-head with the people who did.

Rhee, responsible not to a school board but only to the mayor, went on a spree almost as soon as she arrived. She gained the right to fire central-office employees and then axed 98 of them. She canned 24 principals, 22 assistant principals, and, at the beginning of this summer, 250 teachers and 500 teaching aides. She announced plans to close 23 underused schools and set about restructuring 26 other schools (together, about a third of the system). And she began negotiating a radical performance-based compensation contract with the teachers union that could revolutionize the way teachers get paid.

Her quick action has brought Rhee laudatory profiles everywhere from Newsweek to the Memphis Commercial-Appeal, and appearances on Charlie Rose and at Allen & Company’s annual Sun Valley conference. Washington is now ground zero for education reformers. “People are coming from across the country to work for her,” says Andrew Rotherham, the co-director of Education Sector, a Washington think tank. “It’s the thing to do.” Rhee had Stanford and Harvard business-school students on her intern staff this summer, and she has received blank checks from reform-minded philanthropists at the Gates and Broad foundations to fund experimental programs. Businesses have flooded her with offers to help—providing supplies, mentoring, or just giving cash.

But a lot of people who live in long-neglected neighborhoods are nervous—particularly those who see her as the vanguard of a gentrified, post-black Washington. In this city, every­thing revolves around race, class, and neighborhoods, and it makes no small difference that Rhee is an upper-middle-class Korean American from suburban Ohio, overseeing a system that is more than 80 percent black and overwhelmingly poor. “One of the things I see Rhee’s reform going hand in hand with,” says Lee Glazer, a D.C. Public Schools mother and co-founder of Save Our Schools, an activist group that has opposed Rhee, “is a much larger gentrification plan that’s been at work in the city for many years”—an understandable fear, given the rising cost of living in Washington and the condo developments pushing into formerly depressed parts of town. “It’s hard to tell if they just don’t know what the hell they’re doing or they’re evilly brilliant.” Community pressure has, in turn, translated into political pressure from the city council, which is searching for ways to rein in the very chancellor it just empowered.

Washington, in other words, is a battlefield and national testing ground where upstart young reformers are pitted against an establishment unwilling to give ground to what it sees as reckless social experiments. “Anything that happens in D.C. tends to matter beyond D.C., because the school system is held up as an example for education,” says Kevin Carey, the research and policy manager at Education Sector. In the past, the city’s failure was taken as proof that urban public education wasn’t working. Rhee’s goal is to make Washington a showcase proving that view wrong. If she succeeds, she could have a stunning impact on American public education.

For decades, an establishment of Democratic politicians backed by union leaders has ruled the Washington public schools, which by almost any measure—test scores, attendance, safety—are among the worst in the country. All sides—unions, reformers, parents, and politicians—agree that substantial change is needed. What they can’t agree on is the how. Reformers call for closing failing schools, deciding salaries on merit, and giving parents the choice of where students go to school.

Community activists may applaud these changes in the abstract, but they criticize the means, viewing reform plans as having been concocted by think tanks and nonprofits to be tested on disenfranchised poor minorities (they offer no dramatic proposals of their own). They fear that closing and consolidating schools will create administrative and security nightmares, as students from rival neighborhoods are thrust together. They worry that the new chancellor is cutting vital staff. “People are concerned, morale is low,” says Candi Peterson, a board member of the Washington Teachers’ Union, which engaged in a protracted struggle with Rhee over the new contract. But mostly, Rhee’s opponents are coalescing around the charge that her reforms have run roughshod over the community—that she is less a chancellor than a dictator.

The problems Rhee faced when she arrived went beyond the classroom. Washington’s $1 billion schools budget gave the system the third-highest per-pupil spending in the country, but much of the money fed a bureaucratic monstrosity that relied on disorganized paper files, kept paying ex-employees while missing paychecks to current teachers, let new textbooks and equipment languish in warehouses, and lacked even a firm enrollment count. “I’m not against reform,” Peterson says. “I know we need reform.”

Only 43 percent of students entering the ninth grade in a D.C. public school graduate within five years, and only 9 percent get a college degree within five years of leaving high school. In 2007, Washington ranked last among 11 urban school systems in math and second-to-last in reading on the National Assessment of Educational Progress. Not surprisingly, the system has hemorrhaged students: the current estimate of the student body, 46,000, is less than half what the 1960 total was. Many of those losses have come since Congress, which has oversight of the school system, approved charter schools for the District in the late 1990s.

Things weren’t always so bad. Up to the mid-1960s, Washington had some of the country’s best black public schools, including Dunbar High School, which produced Senator Edward Brooke, the civil-rights lawyer Charles Hamilton Houston, and D.C. Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton. The schools were a magnet for middle-class black families who wanted a quality education but were largely shut out of white-majority schools, either by law or by residential segregation. By 1960, Washington was a center of black intellectual and cultural life. “People talk about Harlem, but in terms of a professional class and intelligentsia, Washington was on par,” says NPR’s Juan Williams, who covered education for The Washington Post in the 1970s.

Like many urban districts, Washington thrived because it could rely on a class of educators—in this case, African Americans—who were mostly kept out of other professions. But as barriers eroded in the 1950s and 1960s, experienced black teachers began leaving for better opportunities. At the same time, rising crime and the calamitous 1968 riots reversed the flow of black middle-class families, particularly after the 1968 Fair Housing Act encouraged them to decamp to the suburbs. Combined with the white flight that had by the late 1960s largely run its course, black flight left behind a core of socially isolated, desperately poor families, who suffered as the crime and joblessness rates climbed steeply through the 1970s.

Black flight also left behind a power vacuum, which was eagerly filled by a new generation of activists fronted by the civil-rights leader Marion Barry. Though he later became the butt of late-night-TV jokes, Barry is a political genius, and in the early 1970s he was one of the first in his generation to see the school system’s political potential. Until Congress granted the city limited home rule in 1973, the D.C. school board was the only elected body in Washington, and thus one of the only paths of political ascent for the city’s black leaders. In 1971, Barry won a landslide election for a seat on the board; he was so popular that his fellow members immediately made him president, a position he held until moving to the city council in 1974 and to the mayor’s office four years later.

Barry quickly grasped that the school system could do more than just facilitate his own rise. With its thousands of well-paying jobs, it was an ideal way to rebuild the black middle class—and, not incidentally, it was a limitless source of patronage. Barry’s climb coincided with that of William Simons, the fiery head of the Washington Teachers’ Union. Simons was a sort of black equivalent to Albert Shanker, then the voluble head of New York’s United Federation of Teachers, and he led his union in two lengthy, debilitating strikes during the 1970s. Through it all, Barry played the go-between, working the city and Congress around to Simons’s position. A new political base was emerging, populated by teachers and led by Barry. “It’s no longer about educating the best and brightest of black Washington but about establishing the schools as a place where blacks can get better jobs, higher salaries, and more benefits,” Williams told me.

A generation later, the result was a system that was overstaffed, inefficient, and resistant to change, even as it got worse at its primary role of educating students. Into this mess stepped Adrian Fenty and Michelle Rhee.

Michelle Rhee
Rhee in her office, and in her element
(Photo credit: David Deal)

Rhee’s L-shaped desk sits just inside the door of a large, noisy room on the top floor of the D.C. Public Schools headquarters, a few blocks north of the Capitol. Three of her close aides have desks nearby, and a TV tuned to CNN blares from the opposite wall. The door is open, and people passing by poke their heads in to say hi. Only a change in carpet color, from mottled gray in the hall to off-pink, signals an executive presence. Rhee doesn’t stand on ceremony, and she doesn’t expect her guests to, either. During our interview, I sat on a chair crammed between her desk and the door.

Rhee is an obsessive worker, the type normally found in consulting firms and medical schools, up at 6a.m. and often awake until after midnight. She rarely works from notes, and usually shows up at meetings without handlers, speaking with the rapid cadence of a high-school debater and peppering her sentences with words like crappy and awesome. And she does not suffer fools, gladly or otherwise. When I asked her how she would characterize her ideal relationship with parents, she replied, “That’s a great question. So often reporters ask me stupid questions. I had one interview yesterday, and I was like, ‘Okay, you are not smart.’”

On paper and in public, Rhee comes across as passionate and talented, armed with a casual, biting wit. Those qualities win her praise in newspaper profiles and applause at Sun Valley conferences. But as you get to know her, people say, it’s easy to wonder whether there’s anything besides the image. “There doesn’t seem to be any difference between her on- and off-camera personas,” says Kevin Carey, of Education Sector. I’ve heard some of Rhee’s supporters call her and her staff “Rhee-volutionaries.” Her opponents call them “Rhee-bots.”

There is more to Rhee than that. She is intensely committed to her two daughters, something even her occasional adversaries in the community will readily point out. “She’s a great mother,” says Cherita Whiting, chair of the city’s Ward 4 Education Council. Rhee’s way of speaking with kids was frequently trotted out in my conversations as an example of her people skills: “She’s very personable,” says Claire Taylor, co-chair of a local PTA. “Whether you’re a kindergartner or a student in a high school, she gets down to your level.” (No one mentioned her ability to relate to adults, except in strictly business situations.)

Rhee is very close to her parents, both of them Korean immigrants—her father is a retired doctor and her mother owned a clothing store. They sent their daughter to a posh private school in Toledo, and also to spend a year living with relatives in Seoul. She excelled academically and majored in government at Cornell. Teaching was not in the picture. But during her senior year, she saw a show on PBS touting Teach for America, a then-new program that placed recent college graduates in low-income, low-performing schools. She applied and was accepted. The decision changed her life. She met Kevin Huffman, a fellow idealist and Ohio native, at a TFA summer training session in 1994, and they were married in 1996 (they are now separated).

After three years of teaching second and third grade in Baltimore, Rhee left to pursue a master’s at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government with plans to return to education, though she didn’t know where or how. She had made enough of an impression on Teach for America that its founder and president, Wendy Kopp, called her in the spring of 1997, just before graduation, to see if she would return to the fold. Kopp wanted her to quarterback the launch of a spin-off, the New Teacher Project, which would contract with school districts to find and train people looking to jump from their old jobs—scientists, journalists, lawyers—into education. “We brought her on to develop our business plan and get the project off the ground,” Kopp told me over coffee at a downtown Starbucks, “but it soon became very clear that she could run the whole thing.”

It’s no surprise that Kopp likes Rhee. The two are almost identical in their zeal and relentless message delivery. They are both obsessive e-mailers. I got the feeling that they spend long hours prepping for every possible question. Not all reformers are so singularly focused—Andrew Rotherham’s Education Sector blog often veers into discussions of fishing—but the movement is such that it attracts people who will build their lives around their jobs, and whose assessment of other people begins and ends with their work ethic. It’s something they don’t apologize for: personal sacrifice is necessary to any revolution. Relentless pursuit is a catchphrase at Teach for America, and the people who use it mean it. When people say that Rhee, Kopp, and others eat, breathe, and sleep education reform, the only doubt is whether they actually sleep.

Rhee’s drive paid off. At its 10-year mark, the New Teacher Project had recruited some 28,000 new teachers, the bulk of them mid-career entrants, in more than 200 school districts, including in New York City and Washington. Today, the program operates in 25 U.S. cities, contributing in some up to 30 percent of all teachers hired annually. “She took something that could have operated at a lower level and turned it into something with real impact,” Kopp told me.

She did all this long-distance: the New Teacher Project is headquartered in New York, but soon after its founding, Rhee moved back to Toledo (with Huffman, by then a lawyer) to be near her parents; later she followed them to Denver, where they moved after retirement. All the while she was flying weekly to New York or the project’s client districts around the country. Somewhere in there she found time to give birth to two daughters.

Rhee might have maintained her marathon commutes indefinitely if it hadn’t been for a commitment Adrian Fenty made in the spring of last year. Rhee had already been approached about the chancellor job by several people in his administration, and she had demurred each time, citing family commitments. But Fenty kept pushing, and eventually she laid out her real concern: she saw herself as a “change agent,” and Washington as a graveyard for careers like hers. The school board was too powerful and too dominated by unions and special interests to give much of a chance to someone intent on closing schools and renegotiating contracts. Then Fenty laid out his vision: he would take control of the schools, and provide whatever political cover Rhee needed to completely overhaul them. The chancellor and the mayor would make the important decisions. The District’s Office of the State Superintendent of Education would continue to manage the kinds of state-federal transactions handled by other state education departments, and would be headed by someone Fenty had already appointed. A few weeks after their meeting, she was scouting houses in Washington.

Now, Rhee is in a position to provide Fenty with political cover in return. She has become the focus of opponents’ anger, while Fenty has reaped the political goodwill generated by the first signs of improvement in the schools, and by the relief that at last someone is doing something. Her charge-ahead manner may be essential to getting reform done. “The reality is, if you want to make changes, it’s very hard to do that by committee,” says Kristin Ehrgood, a board member of D.C. School Reform Now, a group that has been generally supportive of Rhee’s efforts. “While we certainly need every voice heard, it doesn’t mean everyone is right.” But, though Rhee can turn on the charm when she needs to, she has at times seemed reckless in provoking teachers and even parents.

A case in point is her own children’s school. Last fall, Rhee and Huffman enrolled their two daughters, now 6 and 9, at Oyster-Adams, a bilingual public school. By all accounts, she kept a low profile, dropping off her kids three days a week (Rhee shares custody with Huffman, who has also relocated to Washington) and staying away from school politics.

She was, however, paying close attention to what she was hearing from other parents about the school’s principal, Marta Guzman. Guzman was popular with many Hispanic parents, who saw her as a role model for minority success, and she had met most academic benchmarks. But she had also reportedly been unresponsive to various faculty and parent concerns, some of which Rhee heard at a November 2007 dinner with several parents. “There were some people who said this woman was the best thing since sliced bread, and others who said she was the worst thing that ever happened to the school, and lots in between,” Rhee told me.

The following May, Guzman was among the 24 principals to receive nonrenewal notices from Rhee. “There was no reason given in the letter,” Guzman told me. “It simply stated that the chancellor had decided not to renew my contract.” Guzman accepted her termination, but dozens of parents didn’t. The story exploded, with accusations of racism and classism popping up in e-mails, listservs, and the pages of TheWashington Post. Mostly, though, parents complained about the lack of information coming from the chancellor’s office. Oyster-Adams was, after all, their school, and they felt they should have a say in its direction. “People were upset with the way it was handled,” said one pro-Rhee parent who asked to remain anonymous.

Rhee met with parents a couple of weeks later, and the controversy eventually died down (it helped that the teachers released a statement supporting her decision). “It’s hard to convey how charismatic she is,” Claire Taylor, the PTA leader, whose child attends Oyster-Adams, told me. “Her office will announce something to be done, like close a school. Everybody hates that. But when she goes and talks to the parents, many of them do a 180.”

Rhee probably made the right decision, and she carried it out efficiently. But at least at first, she paid too little attention to anticipating the inevitable worries of parents, and did unnecessary damage to her own image. Whether she recognizes it or not, her task is political as well as educational.

The reform camp, of which Rhee is the new hero, is shot through with divisions. But its members share a few common characteristics, and perhaps the most important is a belief in the primacy of teachers. This sounds banal, but it’s actually quite controversial. Many people believe that teachers and the classroom are only one part of a vast web of relationships and environments that determine educational success. A high-profile proposal issued in June by the Economic Policy Institute and signed by a long list of boldfaced names recommended a laundry list of extracurricular efforts to boost student achievement.

Rhee’s name doesn’t appear among the signatures. In her opinion, external factors simply underline the need for better educators. And while she pays lip service to the realities of urban poverty outside school walls, she dismisses the impact that poverty and violence might have on achievement. “As a teacher in this system, you have to be willing to take personal responsibility for ensuring your children are successful despite obstacles,” she told me. “You can’t say, ‘My students didn’t get any breakfast today,’ or ‘No one put them to bed last night,’ or ‘Their electricity got cut off in the house, so they couldn’t do their homework.’” This sort of moral certitude is exactly what turns off many veteran teachers in Washington. Even if Rhee is right, she seems to be asking for superhuman efforts, consistently, for decades to come. Making missionary zeal a job requirement is a tough way to build morale, not to mention support, among the teachers who have to confront the D.C. ghetto every day.

Rhee and her reform allies’ response is to call for better teachers, and they want to work through Teach for America and other alternative programs to find them. This is another sticking point. Traditionally, a good teacher was considered to be someone who had trained in education schools, been certified by state boards, enlisted in unions, and committed to a lifetime career—elements tightly interwoven with any district’s political structure. Reformers criticize all those elements. One of Rhee’s favorite anecdotes, which she has recounted in practically every speech I’ve seen her give, contrasts the hard work, creativity, and popularity of a newbie teacher named “Mr. Wallace”—who just happens to be part of Teach for America—with a hardened older teacher across the hall, who stands at the door flicking the light switch and saying “I’m waiting, I’m waiting” to get her students’ attention. “Well, they’re waiting too,” Rhee invariably says. “They’re waiting for her to teach them something.” In Rhee’s world, the educational system divides between the Mr. Wallaces and everyone else, and it’s no coincidence that Mr. Wallace sounds an awful lot like Rhee herself.

Rhee advocates another controversial plank in the reformist agenda: merit pay. Vociferously opposed by the teachers unions—a National Education Association convention audience booed Barack Obama when he told them he supported it—merit pay scales a teacher’s salary based on student achievement. Proponents say this is the only way to make teachers want to improve their performance. Opponents say it will torpedo already low morale and drive a wedge through faculty solidarity, and that basing merit pay on student performance leaves out all sorts of nonquantifiable aspects of learning. Rhee is willing to risk it. “We have heroic figures out in the school district, people who work unbelievable hours,” she told me. “I want to not only recognize them but reward them. I want to pay them a lot more money”—more than $100,000, compared with the national average salary of $47,600. Rhee’s proposed contract with the Washington Teachers’ Union would allow current teachers to choose between tenure based on seniority combined with a lower salary and at-will employment combined with a higher, performance-based salary. The contract would place all new teachers in the latter category, and give all teachers a raise—but would effectively phase out tenure over time and make D.C. the first major school district to go to a completely merit-based pay structure. As this article went to press, negotiations were ongoing, but it was clear that Rhee faced an uphill battle. She had a backup in case the rank and file voted down the contract. During negotiations, additional plans were announced by the Office of the State Superintendent to tie teacher licensing to student achievement, sidestepping the union and effectively giving Rhee the power to fire underperforming teachers.

Behind the fighting lie basic questions: What makes a good teacher? And how do you recognize one? For Rhee and her fellow reformers, the answer is data. Lots of data. There may be many unquantifiables in teacher quality, but most of the traits that matter to reformers can be put into numbers. It’s an attitude born of Rhee’s experience in Teach for America, which regularly assesses its teachers’ effectiveness against in-house and state achievement levels. “TFA is a machine,” says Jennifer Kirmes, who taught for the program in Washington and now works in its Chicago office. “Everything is done with data and analysis. Everything you do reflects back on how your students are doing.” Rhee fully supports the accountability that underlies No Child Left Behind. Every week, she and her top staff members hold a “School Stat” meeting where they pore over data on everything from student performance to facilities’ work orders.

This year, Washington was one of the top choices for incoming TFA corps members, drawn largely by Rhee. As one D.C.-bound TFA teacher, Stephanie Neves, wrote on her blog, “We are here during some crazy times in DC. We are here for the revolution. DC ’08!”

The problem is that those immediately affected by Rhee’s reforms—teachers and parents—can be less enamored of her get-tough posture. Many felt particularly put out earlier this year when Rhee refused to release a draft of her 2008–2009 budget in advance of a community budget hearing and her submitting it to the mayor—a position several residents said violated city law, and they filed a lawsuit to fight it. (The Fenty administration claimed that its takeover of the schools obviated the law, but a judge required the administration to provide a draft copy of the budget to the plaintiffs. Another judge later ruled for the Fenty administration; the plaintiffs have appealed.) To be fair, Rhee did meet several times with parents and once with activists to discuss school closings, but “most of us felt it was mostly for show,” Marc Borbely, who attended the activist meeting and later led the budget-lawsuit effort, told me. “The things we said were mostly disregarded. When it comes to real decision-making, her philosophy is, ‘I’ll get input, but there are no partners here.’”

Rhee sees herself not as a politician but as a technocrat; a decider, not a negotiator. “Does that mean every decision is going to be right? No,” she said to me in a measured pace that sounded well-practiced. “Have I made some wrong decisions? Yeah. But the bottom line is, the reason I can sleep at night, really soundly every night, is because I know that even if I didn’t make the right call, I made it because I believed at that moment that it was the best thing for kids.”

Listening to Rhee, it’s hard to disagree. But even if she speaks cavalierly about eschewing city politics, that doesn’t make city politics go away. Complaints are bubbling up to the city council. In one particularly testy exchange at an all-day meeting in April, Marion Barry, now the representative for the city’s poorest ward, lectured Rhee on the political realities of her job. “Whether or not you and the mayor want to take it out of the political arena, you cannot, because education all over America has political implications,” he told her. “Parents are also voters.”

Rhee would have none of it. “I think part of the problem of how the district has been run in the past is that decisions have been made for political reasons, and based on what was going to placate and satisfy adults instead of what was in the best interests of children.”

“Let me be succinct, because my time is running out,” Barry retorted. “Talk to other people on this, because I think you’re absolutely wrong … I know you want to do it the right way, but I think that’s causing us more problems than we need to have.”

The comment was a warning, but it was also a reflection of the very political nature of education in the American inner city, and particularly in Washington. In a city largely excluded from national politics, it makes sense that residents would feel particularly slighted by an outsider, installed without their input, who is happy to bypass the few forums left where poor and working-class parents can engage with the political system—the parent-teacher associations, the ward-level education committees, and other unofficial bodies that long wielded influence against the elected school board and suddenly find themselves powerless against a mayorally appointed chancellor. “I’m sympathetic with the need to act decisively and quickly, but at the same time, what does that do to one of our last democratic institutions?” asks Celia Oyler, a professor at Columbia University’s Teachers College. To a reformer, that sounds like a classic plea for putting grown-ups’ interests first.

Arguably, mayoral control has clarified political accountability, by making Fenty, rather than assorted school-board members and ancillary committees, ultimately responsible for fixing the schools. Mayoral control is now the source of Rhee’s power—Fenty is overwhelmingly popular, in part thanks to Rhee’s work—but it is also another potential weakness. “Fenty has a set term, and he’s on board with her,” Sara Mead, a senior research fellow at the New America Foundation, says. “The downside of having the mayor in charge is that you tie your fate to the mayor.”

And cracks in that shield are already beginning to show. Though the city council gave Fenty control of the schools and later endorsed Rhee’s job cuts, its members have been pushing bills to allow more council oversight of school operations and to reapportion power between Rhee and the state superintendent. Most recently, Barry and the council chair, Vincent Gray, delayed approval of millions of dollars in school-renovation funds. And it could get worse. “For legislators, when they see reform coming, there is a tendency to overregulate,” says former city councilman Kevin Chavous. “It’s a huge challenge. It has the potential to be lethal to all reform efforts.”

Rhee is confronting the great divide over American public-education reform—not between left and right but between two philosophies about education. To Rhee and her fellow reformers, schools can, by themselves, produce successful students. To her opponents (and they include liberals and conservatives), schools are not enough, however “successful” their students. They are an important, but hardly the only, means with which children are inculcated with the skills and mores of their community.

The divide means that Rhee’s challenge is not just to reform one of the worst school systems in the country and, in effect, prove whether or not inner-city schools can be revived at all. It is to answer a basic question about the nature of urban governance, a question about two visions of big-city management. In one, city politics is a vibrant, messy, democratic exercise, in which both the process and the results have value. In the other, city politics is only a prelude, the way to install a technocratic elite that can carry out reforms in relative isolation from the give-and-take of city life. Rhee’s tenure will answer whether these two positions are mutually exclusive—and, if they are, whether public-school reform is even possible.

Clay Risen is the managing editor of Democracy: A Journal of Ideas and the author of the forthcoming book A Nation on Fire: America in the Wake of the King Assassination.
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Clay Risen is an editor at The New York Times, and is the author of A Nation on Fire: America in the Wake of the King Assassination. He has written for The New Republic, Smithsonian, and The New York Times Sunday Magazine.

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