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.