Michelle Rhee, a private school parent?

The outspoken Michelle Rhee appears to be uncomfortable talking about where her children go to school in Nashville. Public or private? And why does it matter?

Her reluctance is detailed in this Los Angeles Times piece by Michael Mishak headlined, “Michelle Rhee, ‘a public school parent?’ ” Mishak reports that Erin Shaw, a spokesman for Rhee’s StudentsFirst anti-union organization, told the Times, “She is a public school parent.” Based on  that, the paper reported in an earlier story that her daughters attend public school in Nashville, where their father, Kevin Huffman, works as state commissioner of education. Rhee’s husband is Sacramento Mayor Kevin Johnson.

But the American Federation of Teachers, one of the two biggest teachers unions in the country — both of which Rhee has made special targets of her education activism — challenged the public-school claim, Mishak writes, saying that one of Rhee’s daughters goes to a private school in Nashville. And education historian and activist Diane Ravitch wrote on her blog that a daughter of Rhee’s attends Harpeth Hall, an elite girls school for grades 5-12. Tuition there for the current academic year is $21,910 for middle school and $22,770 for the upper school.

So Rhee, probably the most visible education reformer in the country, appears to be a public school parent and a private school parent, but she or her spokespeople don’t want to say. Inquiries I made to the Tennessee Education Department have so far gone unanswered.

Why is anybody bothering to note this? Because Harpeth Hall is an independent school that views education in a very different way than Rhee — and her ex-husband, the education commissioner — promote for other children in their highly public jobs. Rhee and Huffman both advocate a corporate-based school-reform agenda that uses standardized test scores as the major accountability measure for students, schools and teachers. Harpeth Hall doesn’t subject its students to standardized tests. Nor, for that matter, does private Sidwell Friends School, which President Obama’s two daughters attend in Washington.

Both schools are are members of the National Association of Independent Schools, which is an organization of more than 2,000 private schools with independent governing boards that offer “education for the whole child,” small classes and other approaches that are counter to the test-centric public-school reform agenda promoted by Rhee and Huffman.

School reformers talk about successful schools in terms of how high students’ standardized test scores can get. Here is how Harpeth Hall is described in the Faculty Handbook:

 Harpeth Hall is an independent college preparatory school for young women where each student realizes her highest intellectual potential, becomes fluent in the sciences, the humanities, and the arts, and discovers her creative and athletic talents. Harpeth Hall develops responsible citizens who have global perspectives and make a meaningful contributions to their communities and to the world. With a tradition of excellence and a commitment to lifelong learning, Harpeth Hall educates young women to think critically, to lead confidently, and to live honorably.
Our Core Purpose is to nurture a sense of wonder, to cultivate a will and facility for learning, and to promote cultural understanding, environmental stewardship, and service to others. The pursuit of these goals will inspire students and faculty to combine knowledge with goodness and reflection with action.

There is a disconnect when someone sends a child to a school that views education in one way but then spends his or her time advocating that other people’s children get educated in other ways. I wrote this about Obama back in 2010 when he and the first lady selected the elite Sidwell as his children’s school:

At Sidwell, a Quaker school, teachers don’t spend days drilling kids to pass standardized tests, and they aren’t evaluated by student test scores. Sidwell has small classes, a wide range of curricular and extracurricular options, tremendous facilities on two big campuses, etc. etc. The irony is that Obama’s own education policies give standardized testing a central place in public education, though he chose a school for his children that wouldn’t see that as a sound way to run an academic program.

When Rhee was chancellor of Washington’s public schools from 2007 to 2010, her daughters attended the public, bilingual Oyster-Adams School. (Incidentally, Rhee fired the principal there without providing much in the way of explanation, my colleague Bill Turque reported back in 2008.) That’s when she became a national name in education reform for promoting a controversial standardized-test-based evaluation system for teachers.

According to Mishak, Rhee’s spokeswoman issued a statement apologizing for initially misleading the Los Angeles Times and adding, “It is our policy not to discuss where Michelle’s children attend school out of respect for their privacy.”

But Rhee has discussed her daughters in public repeatedly, as I chronicled in this blog post back in 2011.

 

Valerie Strauss covers education and runs The Answer Sheet blog.
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Valerie Strauss | March 29, 2013