Michelle Rhee talks charters, vouchers and getting ‘reprieve’ from school boards

Sunday, January 13, 2013 at 11:38pm

Love her or hate her, Michelle Rhee is an icon of the education reform movement. She’s pushed to hold teachers more accountable for students’ performance, busted open the doors of school choice and shaken up the education establishment. She’s also thrown a few elbows and drawn criticism for her style.

A Tennessee transplant, she is turning her attention to schools in her new state.

The polarizing former Washington, D.C., schools chancellor heads up StudentsFirst, an education reform organization she founded just as she began setting roots in the Volunteer State. The group has already handed out hundreds of thousands of dollars in donations to state-level political campaigns and a handful of local elections here, positioning itself as a force to be reckoned with. Last week, it issued report cards to states across the country. While Tennessee scored a C-minus, the state also ranked among the top 11 in the country.

In a wide-ranging interview with The City Paper, Rhee talked about the effect she hopes she and StudentsFirst will have on Tennessee’s ongoing and controversial education reforms, starting several up for discussion on Capitol Hill this year. Among them are a so-called “voucher” program allowing parents to send their students to the private school of their choice with taxpayer dollars; a statewide panel to OK charter school applications following the Metro Nashville school board’s refusal to approve a charter for Great Hearts Academies over diversity concerns; and a “parent trigger law” giving parents more power to restart failing schools.


You saw the high-profile campaigns for the Metro Nashville Public Schools board, and they’ve since gotten a lot of attention over issues, like charter schools. What’s that been like for you, seeing these debates in your own community and having your bird’s eye view of things?

I actually think it’s valuable, and I thought the same thing when I was in D.C. When I was D.C., I put my kids in the schools that I ran for a particular reason, because I didn’t want to just be making and putting in place policies sort of in a vacuum. It makes a difference when your kids are going to be a part of that policy. And so it is half of the kinds of decisions that I made every day ... I don’t run the school system here, obviously, but I see it playing out as I talk to the parents of friends of my kids, some of the frustrations that they’re having.

The Great Hearts situation was incredibly frustrating. I knew some friends of friends, some of the people who were involved in that. That whole situation for me is why I’m doing the work that I’m doing. Parents who want high-quality actions for their children should not be in the situation that the community that was advocating for Great Hearts to come should be. And it was so frustrating for those folks to know that, hey, here’s what the regulations lay out, we’re going to follow those rules. Some are still going to get rejected. Why? For political reasons, because the school district doesn’t want the competition. So this is all about an adult issue. It has nothing to do with if people are making decisions in the best interest of kids, that is not the decision that we make. And that’s why you have to put some of these policies in place. That’s why we’re pursuing the statewide authorizer legislation, so that parents in the future in Tennessee are not in the situation that those Great Hearts parents were.


What do you think about the debate of local decision-making versus having some other independent board approving schools? You’ve talked a lot about community involvement as a parent. How do you balance that?

A lot of states and jurisdictions, in order to make sure that that community is being taken into account, require a number of forums to be held, public forums where the public can comment on things, require things like a certain amount of parents saying, “I’m going to sign this petition so I will enroll my child in this school,” something like that to show that there is community support. And that’s important. Those things should be in place as policy measures. ... Allowing the school boards to authorize is like telling the Chrysler dealership that you are the one who gets to determine whether the Toyota dealership can open up down the street or not.

So when you look at it from the vantage point, it really does sort of resonate with people. You want to have a system that makes sense, and you can’t always — with some school boards, sometimes you can achieve that because you have people who really are saying, “OK, we just want what’s best for the community, we want to give parents choices and options.” Other times, even in a situation like in MNPS, where that wasn’t the case and that was unfortunate, but the choices should not be limited simply because of a small group of elected officials. You have to have some reprieve from that.


School vouchers is another issue that we’re hearing a lot about here. This would take money out of public schools and into private schools. What do you think about that?

StudentsFirst is a bit of an anomaly in the whole voucher debate, because what you’ll find a lot of times is totally anti-voucher people who believe that vouchers are about privatizing public education. And then you have a lot of people on the other side who just want a total free market. Give every kid a backpack with their money in it and let them go with the market, and we do not believe in either of those. I strongly support choice not for choosing, but choice only when it produces better outcomes and opportunities for kids. And that’s why if you have families who would otherwise be trapped in a failing school, you’ve got to give them options: charter schools, other public schools, vouchers.

But if you’re going to take public dollars and go to a private institution, there has to be accountability. We have to be able to show definitively that those children are benefiting from the fact that they’re not going to that failing school anymore. So we believe in a very strong accountability system for voucher programs, which lots of people on the right don’t like. And so I say that’s sort of the differentiating factor for us with vouchers. We don’t think that it is end-all, be-all solution. We think that it is one piece to what can be done in a total system to improve the public education system overall, because we are big believers in the public education system. We believe that it’s one piece that you should have in place for families, again so that no family ever feels like they’re trapped in a failing school system.


You mention your kids, are they attending public school?

What I will say is that I am a public school parent, and, you know, because of that I think that all of these things, again, have a different impact.


I’m just wondering do your kids go to a traditional public school or a charter school?

I would rather … I keep my comments to I’m a public school parent.


Here in Tennessee my tally was StudentsFirst made somewhere around $200,000 in contributions, between local school board and state races this year. Why so many?

So I knew when I started StudentsFirst that we had to be engaged in this, and it was because of my own experience in D.C. ... and having talked to lots of my colleagues around the country who are Democrats who say to me after they close their office door, “I’m with you, I hope it can happen, I can’t back you though, I can’t vote for it, I can’t introduce the bill because my unions are going to come after me, and they’re going to go nuts.” And these are well-meaning people, but they’re looking at this from a very realistic political point of view.

And so we believe very strongly if you look at what’s happened in this country over the last two to three decades, education policy has largely been driven by special interest groups. There’s textbook manufacturers, teachers unions, testing companies, which is fine; that’s the American way, right? This is how our country works. I have no problem with that. What I have a problem with is the fact that to date there has been no organized national interest group with the same political hat as the teachers union that’s advocating on behalf of kids. ... We’ve got to level the playing field for kids. And you have to do that by showing politicians on the right and the left — we’re a bipartisan organization — that if you are a courageous champion for education reform, you’re going to have political support. We’re going to be behind you so that you can be re-elected, so that you don’t get painted as being any way but pro kids.

31 Comments on this post:

By: boyzmom on 1/14/13 at 4:00

I pride myself in being a tolerant person, but I find nothing tolerable about Michelle Rhee. She is a private citizen who has moved here solely to be close to her ex-husband, with whom she shares two children. Just who is her ex-husband? Why our very own State Commisioner of Education Kevin Huffman. The only person who is worse news for public education in America than Huffman is Rhee. Neither has built anything, but both are eager to criticize and tear down, always for a big paycheck from their influential friends, such as Governor Bill Haslam. Neither Rhee nor Huffman have actually taught for as long as five years, yet they know everything that is wrong with schools in our country. I wish they would both get out of Tennessee before they inflict even more lasting damage on the public education system in our state. We have issues, to be sure, but we also should be working together with one another to address them, not listening to these unqualified charlatans!

By: ancienthighway on 1/14/13 at 6:36

On the question of whether her children attended public schools, they did, but the school was cherry picked. Curious though that even though the school was an award winner for 5 years straight, the principal during those years was fired by Rhee. Rhee's own schooling background was public schools in the elementary grades, then private schools after returning from a year education in South Korea. Private Ivy League college education also.

Ms Rhee claims no organization is looking out for the students. There is. That would be the teachers union. There isn't a teacher out there that expected to reach high income levels as a teacher. While some go into teaching to punch a ticket for their resume, such as Rhee, others take up the profession because it's a calling. They truly care about the education of America.

By: treehugger7 on 1/14/13 at 7:27

Thanks, boyzmom-I did not know that. I just felt there was more to it than we were hearing. I am so sick of charter schools being shoved down our throats. If people would quit demonizing teachers and their unions, we wouldn't need "charter schools".

By: ChrisMoth on 1/14/13 at 9:16

This article wanders off the current issue of a State-wide charter authorizer, and drifts back to Great Hearts.

Ms Rhee writes, "A lot of states ... require a number of forums to be held, public forums where the public can comment on things, require things like a certain amount of parents saying “I’m going to sign this petition so I will enroll my child in this school,”

By the metric pf petitions, Nashville had 972 for Great Hearts, 231 requesting a 40% free and reduced lunch amendment to their application, and (800,000 other taxpayers minus the 1,203 petitioners) offering dead silence.


That sounds like a leadership/governance moment to my ear, as both petitions, inside a school system of 80,000, are insignificant.

Before we accept the argument that State Boards will carefully listen to local support, let's review what the State Board did for us in 2012.

Our State Board held a very rushed meeting in Nashville - with barely a few weeks of notice for local folks to make their case. They held this hearing during summer vacation for MNPS families. Later, they decided "YES" to Great Hearts UNANIMOUSLY - after only 17 minutes of discussion. None of their discussion considered ANY of the points made in thoughtful appeals from a wide range of voices.


Watch the video of the 17 minutes of deliberation. Note that one of the board members cannot even remember the name of the school he is approving. Their decision-making was more in-line with the expectations of ceremonial post awarded by the Governor, and not the thoughtful reflection of professionals directly accountable to the electorate.

From what we saw in 2012, we can be dead sure that a "yes" to state-wide charter authorizer is a "yes" to the Governor directly selecting our charter schools.

Before our Representatives take Charter graning power away from all counties in TN, they need to look at the data one more time:

By the metrics of our Chamber of Commerce, Nashville's Charter Schools dramatically outperform Charters nationally.




Is Ms. Rhee so wedded to state-wide authorization that she disputes these data that show Nashville's Board doing an excellent job navigating the choppy waters of the Charter movement?

Chris Moth, 2020 Overhill Dr

By: jcdad2003 on 1/14/13 at 9:26

First, as a former teacher who has worked in Metro and in a charter school, let me first say that everybody is missing the big elephant in the room. There is no discipline in schools today. Those poor people who wanted to have Great Heart here are the same parents who are frustrated that their child's teacher spends more time trying to keep students inline than teaching, so their child is not being taught. Teachers are blamed for this, also. The number one thing listed on teacher evaulations that they either fail on or needs improvement is classroom management. I have been wtiness to these issues, and it has been said about me. The real problem is teachers have very little supportwhen it comes to handling the fews students who cause most of the disruption. The parents do not help, the sdmnstration, hands are tied in most cases, and the district makes it imposible to remove these students. For example we had a student who created havoc everyday. This student even hit one of my fellow teachers, but because we didn't have enough disciplne forms on this student he was not sent to an alternative school (which is standard operation in most districts) he got three days out of school which made him happy.
Secondly, the phrase "teaching for the test" fits more in the charter schools than in public schools, but even public shools are following this mndset. Unfortunately we are raising a generation of test takers who can't think for themselves.
Finally, the teacher's union are no more for the students than any organization. The title of Teacher's Union strictly means they are for the teacher's first. They will put the teachers first everytime.

By: pswindle on 1/14/13 at 9:36

TN needs to rid itself of Rhee and Huffman. They saw a weakness in our GOP Governrment and moved in for the kill. Both are in it for the money. Rhee has been kicked out of school systems before. I kept thinking why Huffman was kicking so hard for Great Hearts, his ex-wife is totally connected to the Charter School and the voucher idea. It takes a weak government for someone to get their claws in our educational system as these two have done. This is scary business and we the poeple should not allow this.

By: kellyfretz on 1/14/13 at 10:23

It's time for the parents, teachers and school administrators to stand up to the bullies in our government and take back our schools. They, people like Rhee and Huffman, are not interested in making sure that our children are getting a good education in our public schools or even creating education reform that will truly make a difference.

I am not a fan of charter schools or the voucher system or teacher tenure. If charter schools in Nashville are so great, then why, on greatschools.org which uses our TCAP scores to rank our schools, is the highest ranking only a 5 out of 10? Even my son's middle school ranked a 7! I would also like someone to tell me how a voucher system is going to help our public schools? In real terms, not this alternate universe that our government lives in.

I am a big fan of reducing class size. If we could reduce our actual class size down to 15, like many of the private schools, that alone would change the classroom climate and would give our children a better enviroment in which to learn.

I am a fan of the elimination of standardized testing. If we stood up to our goverment officials and made them stop standardized testing, our teachers would be able to teach to learn instead of teaching to the test, which hurts our brightest students as well as the children who struggle everyday. It would also save the school districts millions, if not, billions of dollars, which could be better to better use.

I am a fan of teacher, student and parental accountability. In the public school environment, we all have to work together to make sure our children are getting the best possible education. Our teachers have gone on too long in a failing system and it is our responsibility to help them change the system. If a teacher isn't effective in their classroom, we need to, first, make sure that the subject(s) they are teaching are actually the subjects they excel at teaching and second, we also need to be able to remove teachers that aren't effective regardless of how long they have been in the classroom. Our teachers have been so busy being graded on how our children perform on standardized tests; I think they have forgotten how to actually teach! One would hope that the report card our children come home with every nine weeks would be an accurate account of what they learn and where they need to improve.

By: kellyfretz on 1/14/13 at 10:29

Sorry for the typo. should have been "which could be to put to better use" not "which could be better to better use".

By: kellyfretz on 1/14/13 at 10:34

I really can spell, what I lack is the ability to type, apparently. *environment, government...

By: BigPapa on 1/14/13 at 10:57

Everyone agree that our schools are in terrible shape but the second someone purposes something other than "higher teacher pay" they are demonized, lambased and called everything but a child of god.

What I hear from most on here is that things are great and we dont need to change a darned thing. Sorry but I think everything needs to be on the table.

From teacher pay to the length and structure of the school day to grades and "grade levels"..

By: ancienthighway on 1/14/13 at 11:48

Unfortunately, the people that have ideas on how to improve public schools are not the ones at the state level passing restrictive legislature that prevents any positive change from happening. The law makers are the first to bite at anything new and untested, especially if the carrot of campaign contributions is dangled in front of them.

By: JeffF on 1/14/13 at 12:06

Interesting dialog here today, some new talking points were created that encouraged teachers to start phrasing their arguments as being on the side of parents against the mean ol' administrators.

Sorry folks, we parents are the trouble makers here not the administrators. You cannot spend decades fighting us on issues like ending or reducing tenure and increasing workplace accountability then suddenly say you were on our side all along. Every time someone proposed performance reviews we parents are instantly reminded that we are the one not being accountable. (Oddly enough the parents that are accountable and interested are the one that are not allowed to use vouchers or charters because our presence is too important to give good opportunities too).

Please do not insult our intelligence by suddenly pronouncing yourselves as the only organization looking out for our kids. You are a labor union first, and a labor union second. A group that proclaims itself as the cure for societal ills does not fight every effort to fix this long broken system.

By: GoodieTwoShoes on 1/14/13 at 12:29

Have you checked this out? It might make for interesting reading. http://dianeravitch.net/

By: BigPapa on 1/14/13 at 1:18

If yall were made "Kings of Education" what changes would you make? In no particular order:
- I'd bring back vocational education. Not a dumping ground for bad students but a place to get REAL job skills so a 19 yr old could actually be seen as employable. Some how encourage business to bring back "apprenticeships"

- Id make HS more like college and less like kindergarten. Less hand holding, more personal responsibility for classes taken.

- I'd eliminate grade levels for middle school on. You work to master subject material and then you move on to the next, and the next, and the next.

- No tenure. period.

-Encourage differential pay for different subjects. A physics teacher should make more than a physical education teacher.

- I'd encourage kids that dont want to be there to take the GED and get the heck out.

By: cowboyjoe on 1/14/13 at 2:34

When you have a child at Harpeth Hall, you aren't a public school parent.

By: rawhide on 1/14/13 at 2:40

All but a couple of the comments on this article crack me up: they're ad hominem attacks on Rhee or her ex husband (aside from the ad hackneyed labor union arguments). THANKFULLY someone finally has the courage and the means to take on all those who have been looking out for number one (whether in the education establishment or in the Democratic Party) all these decades.

By: KENW on 1/15/13 at 9:59

Rhee is a wonderful asset to our community and a leader for quality education.

The idea suggested that teachers unions are advocating for students is a joke. Unions don't care about students and never will until they start paying dues. They use "students" as a punch line, simply as a paper tiger to get what they want for their members with no regard to whether it actually improves or hurts the quality of education.

How anyone can argue against having a choice of where to send your child to school, holding teachers accountable for their work (like the rest of us), or recognizing that the current education system does need to be "shaken up" is baffling to me. Why do you fight for a bureaucrat to limit your childs education opportunities? Why would you fight for underperforming teachers to be protected while great teachers are held back financially and professionally just so that everyone can be treated the same? And why on earth would you think that our C minus level of school performance is something we should maintain and be proud of? This surely has nothing to do with quality education for students.

By: Moonglow1 on 1/15/13 at 10:33

Moonglow1: Rhee was kicked out of DC. The black community there hates her. She is a fraud. Do her kids go to Harpeth Hall. Someone should know.

Rhee, the X, Haslam and his Tea dominated hacks love taking your tax dollars and giving them to for-profit charters. If charters want to operate, like any corporation, they should do so without tax dollars.

Rhee and the x care about themselves. They promote themselves as leaders, but know nothing-30 to 40 something experts on self promotion.

Ladies and gentlemen do not be fooled by rhetoric. I trust the unions. I have zero trust in Rhee's political right wing shadow organization designed to suck up our tax dollars. Our tax dollars should be given to strengthen public education. Do not be fooled by accountability. The only accountability of a for-profit company (charter) is their bottom line.

By: Moonglow1 on 1/15/13 at 10:42

Moonglow1: Why do we get all the rejects: Roberto Gonzales and now Rhee. I agree with the earlier post. These frauds see a way to make money here. They are exploiting Tennesseans. Remember that school system head from California He made a mess here, but I believe we are still shelling out money for his pension. I cannot recall his name.

Don't be fooled again!!

Too bad Haslam is so easily fooled, but like Romney who was certain he pulled the wool over the public's eyes, the public and hopefully Tennesseans will see through these charlatans.

By: Moonglow1 on 1/15/13 at 10:44

Moonglow1: We stood up to special interests promoting Great Hearts so don't stop now! Stand up for education not for special interests and their hacks.

By: ancienthighway on 1/15/13 at 10:56

Rhee's score of C minus is meaningless, as it's a score based on biased criteria she made up to meet her goals. Look up Rhee on the Wikipedia, and you can get a synopsis of her questionable career in education. Dig into the resources the article lists, and you can see it's not just things people made up and put on the internet. Her teaching tenure? In her three years of teaching test scores dropped. Administration? She acted without care of the input from parents, teachers, staff, and even city officials up until the time her good buddy the mayor was not reelected and she resigned.

Rhee has not shown any qualities that would make her a wonderful asset to the community or the education of our children.

What she is advocating for the education is a centralized state charter selection organization, private schools on public tax dollars, and elimination of unions so any teacher or administrator, particularly those that don't agree with her, can be fired at will. I'm sure if the state gets into the charter approval business, Rhee would be selected to head it up, simply because she's "connected" already.

Choice for education is good. We have it already between private and public schools. Do we need to have an epidemic of new charter schools popping up cherry picking the best teachers in the area?

Vouchers of public funds for private education is bad for everyone. That money has to come from somewhere, and that would be in the form of new taxes. What would happen if sufficient funds were diverted from public schools? They would worsen. Public schools are already struggling with funding, and that doesn't even account for the State and it's penalties for not kowtowing and the Mayor's recommendation to divert 5.5 million for security. Public money is for public programs, not to send Trent and Tiffany to an elite school.

While I suggested that unions have the students interests to a degree (class size, teacher collaboration, teacher continuing education), I agree that the primary purpose of the union is to protect its members. That protection comes in the form of negotiated pay increases and protection from termination without cause, among other things. Looking at the pay schedule, I'd have to say that the union has not made any large, outrageous demands for pay increases. In the 12 years I've lived in Nashville, I don't recall a teacher's strike.

By: BigPapa on 1/15/13 at 11:12

Moonglow's chant:
"Mediocrity THEN, Mediocrity NOW, Mediocrity FOREVER!!"

You think our schools are beyond reproach? No need for reforms here.. move on...

You much be soft in the head.

By: GoodieTwoShoes on 1/15/13 at 11:36

Do you think Ms. Rhee and her organization is the answer?

By: Moonglow1 on 1/15/13 at 12:13

Moonglow1: no BigPapa, I am saying Rhee and her ilk are the wrong way to go. You think for profit charters will solve every social issue: the poor and the criminal element. Schools cannot address all of society's issues.

I believe as the other person posting, not everyone belongs in a public school. Some would be better served by a technical school curriculum.

Taking our tax dollars and giving them to a for profit charter is not the answer. It will cripple our school system.

Just like for profit healthcare created by The Firsts. It has enriched them and the insurance companies, but downgraded our entire system. We come in at around 20 of all industrialized nations. We are on par with some of the third world countries.

Don't believe privatization is the cure. It is the problem. Again, why do corporations exist? For one reason and one reason only: To make money.

By: Moonglow1 on 1/15/13 at 12:14

Moonglow1: ancienthighway is correct. I lived in DC for a while while Rhee was there. She messed up their system. If I were a black person I would be very wary of her agenda. As per ancienthighway, look her up. Google her and figure it out all by yourself!

By: GoodieTwoShoes on 1/15/13 at 12:49

"I'm a public school parent" is the quote that sticks out to me. If Harpeth Hall is a public school, then we are all getting shortchanged. Or is this an insight into the agenda? If we start calling these schools "public" then the pain of passing the voucher progam won't hurt as much.

By: Moonglow1 on 1/15/13 at 4:00

Moonglow1: Good point Goodie and more likely if Harpeth Hall is re-classified as a charter, Rhee's kids could attend on the taxpayer's dime. That is the Repub agenda: take from the people and enrich themselves. That is the definition of entitlement.

By: pswindle on 1/15/13 at 5:17

The people of TN had better stand up to this Rhee person becasue she is poison to our educational system. This shows how incompetent Haslam reallty is in aappointing Huffman as Ediucation. Secretary. Haslam had already bought into the Charter School and Voucher programs, he tried to pretend that he had not made up his mind, but he was laying the foundatiuon for the Legislative Branch to take it up and pass. He did not think that the public would learn of the dirtry tricks that are going on. This Rheee person really scares me and i am hjopeful that someone will stop her. I applaud Washington D.C. in kicking her out of their life and schools. Can we in TN do the same thing?

By: firstworldproblems on 1/15/13 at 8:52

I, too, had heard that Michelle Rhee's children attend Harpeth Hall. I've heard that from many people. The fact that she was not forthcoming with an answer to that question makes it glaringly obvious that she is not, in fact, a public school parent. The C- that Tennessee "earned" was based on a system that Rhee developed; therefore, it is meaningless as a yardstick for anything other than items in her own agenda. The fact is, I don't find Rhee to be a particularly trustworthy person. If her methods were so groundbreaking, she would be a state education commissioner right now, or working the ranks of the Federal Government, instead of producing propaganda films that pull at the heartstrings and wallets of naive consumers and legislators who are foaming at the mouth to dismantle the Department of Education.

Second, while I agree that there are many things about the TEA that are frustrating, please do not assume that all teachers belong to the TEA. It is not a requirement, and many people do not belong to the organization. For those that do, there are still precious few things about the TEA that genuinely do matter in terms of protections required for teachers, such as personal liability in our litigious society, as teachers are not afforded the luxury of medical malpractice insurance as are doctors.

Last, be careful in assuming that charters will be a panacea for our current system's ills. Dissolving public education, which is what "they" would love for TN to do, eventually, would require every child to go somewhere. The ones performing badly in public schools now would all go to a charter school, private school, or whatever other place is conjured up for them, but you will still pay for it somehow. And remember that charter schools and private schools pay their teachers much less than public schools, so if you think that you are going to get the "best and brightest" people in the profession, you are mistaken. Most people did not go into the profession to be wealthy, sure, but they did go into the profession to make a living wage commensurate with the education they have obtained. Charters and private schools do not offer that.

By: JeffF on 1/16/13 at 10:07

I still laughing and wiping away the tears from my eyes that someone believes that a person in the last decade "messed up their system" in DC. That school system has been producing less with more and feeding the prison system for 50+ years and someone thinks a reformer in that 10 or so years is the one who broke it? classic.

By: GoodieTwoShoes on 1/16/13 at 1:11

A little more interesting reading:


And Jeff, while you are wiping the tears away stop and ask yourself: "Is this really the person that I want driving education reform in Tennessee?".