Is Michelle Rhee Really Producing?

By Colbert I. King
Saturday, January 3, 2009

During the end-of-year show last week, ABC 7 "Inside Washington" host Gordon Peterson asked panelists to cite their favorite story of the year.

The most surprising and intriguing selection was offered by Newsweek senior editor Evan Thomas.

"Most educators have given up on inner-city schools," Thomas said. "But right here in Washington, D.C., there's a lady named Michelle Rhee who is trying to actually win this battle, but she's trying to break the union to do it." Thomas called it "an epic struggle."

"Rarely have the lines been so clearly drawn," he said.

Breaking the teachers union may or may not be Rhee's ultimate goal. But Thomas is on to something.

Rhee was laboring in relative obscurity as a teacher trainer and headhunter for urban public schools only two years ago. Today, she's chancellor of the District's troubled school system and a proxy for the national education reform movement. She has risen, in the eyes of reformers, to near mythic heights, thanks to profiles in Time magazine (where she graced the front cover holding a broom), Newsweek, the Wall Street Journal, CNN and PBS's "NewsHour."

Clearly, Michelle Rhee is someone to watch in 2009.

But this column is about more than her celebrity status.

Rhee's "epic struggle" with the teachers union bears watching. Remember the old African proverb: "When elephants fight, the grass gets trampled." If a Rhee-union war paralyzes the school system, children may be the ones who suffer.

The struggle has already reduced the children to pawns, since what's really at stake are political interests.

Having muscled through his schools takeover, Mayor Adrian Fenty has his political future hanging on Rhee's ability to fulfill his promise to transform low-performing schools into a world-class system.

Education reformers across the nation have something on the line, too. Deep-pocketed reformers have placed large sums at Rhee's disposal to help her to loosen the union's grip on teachers. A Rhee victory would send a message to public schools nationwide.


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