Soon after taking office in 2007, Washington, D.C., Mayor Adrian Fenty took over the D.C. Public School System. In short order, he appointed Michelle Rhee as Chancellor of the underperforming, unsafe, and neglected school district. Rhee was viewed from the beginning as a force capable of improving a school system which had for decades been among the worst academic performers in the country.
As predicted, the new chancellor immediately got to work implementing her aggressive reform agenda, which included firing ineffectual teachers and administrators, closing poor-performing schools, and reworking contracts to include performance pay.
While the District still has a long way to go, Rhee has advanced meaningful education reform that places the interests of children at the forefront—not the interests of special interest groups such as the teachers’ unions, which have for so long dictated the terms of “reform” in the nation’s capital. The result? D.C. fourth-graders have made significant gains in reading and, while still below the national average, led the nation in improvement on the most recent National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP).
Chancellor Rhee has begun to transform a dysfunctional school system by doing what other successful school reformers across the country—notably former Governor Jeb Bush in Florida and current Governor Chris Christie in New Jersey—did or are doing. She stood up to the powerful teachers’ unions who have thwarted reform efforts in D.C. and across the country.
And when state and local leaders are willing to stand up to unions, they get results.
One of Michelle Rhee’s most notable reforms was an innovative contract with D.C. teachers. According to Education Week, the contract included a shift to voluntary performance pay, paid for in part by $65 million in private funding, which only came after “protracted negotiations that drew in the [Washington Teachers’] union’s national parent, the American Federation of Teachers.” Her willingness to work through arduous negotiations with the education union that has historically insisted on virtual lifetime job security and pay increases regardless of performance, should help attract and retain high-quality teachers in the District.
While Ms. Rhee’s reforms have largely been viewed as a step in the right direction for education in D.C., Mayor Fenty’s recent primary loss leaves her future as chancellor of D.C. Public Schools unclear. Ms. Rhee commented on her reform record in Education Week:
What a lot of people were thinking was it was too much, or too fast… But I think we can rest soundly at night knowing that we really believed that sense of urgency was necessary…We didn’t want to wait another day knowing that another D.C. child was not getting the education they deserve…so it was only the best intentions we had in terms of the pace of reform.
Whatever the future holds for Chancellor Rhee and school reform in the District of Columbia, her groundbreaking proposals and tenacity should be imitated by other reform-minded state and local leaders throughout the country.
The late President of the American Federation of Teachers, Albert Shanker, once stated that “When school children start paying union dues, that’s when I’ll start representing the interests of school children.” And that’s what this debate is all about. While strong, the teachers’ unions are not insurmountable obstacles to meaningful reform, which leaders such as Michelle Rhee, Jeb Bush, and now Chris Christie have shown. It is the job of local leaders to stand up to the unions, because the stakes are too high to continue to let special interests dictate the terms of the debate.