Robert McCartney: Rhee Makes It Hard to Love Her

By Robert McCartney
Sunday, October 11, 2009

I want to love Michelle Rhee -- really, I do -- but she makes it so hard sometimes.

The D.C. schools chancellor has made it especially difficult this month with her layoffs of 229 teachers and 159 other staff workers. She picked a spectacularly bad time, just as the school year was shifting into high gear. She also mishandled the theatrics in such a way that she enraged the unions and D.C. Council even more than she usually does.

As a result, labor and political tensions simmering in the city over Rhee's reforms since she arrived in 2007 boiled over last week. The spillage might jeopardize her whole project and poses a significant challenge for her patron, Mayor Adrian M. Fenty (D), as he seeks reelection next year.

The uproar is regrettable because the city and the region have a strong interest in seeing Rhee succeed. She is the first leader of the D.C. schools in recent memory who seems sufficiently tough and determined to fix the shockingly poor school performance that we've tolerated complacently for decades.

Something went amiss in this round of layoffs, however, and there are two possible explanations. Either Rhee overplayed her hand badly, or she and the mayor provoked a confrontation in hopes that it would weaken the union at a sensitive time in contract negotiations.

The underlying issues, as always, are employee seniority and tenure. It's critical that Rhee be able to push out bad teachers, regardless of years of service. That's pretty widely accepted. When she dismissed about 80 tenured teachers for poor performance in June, after giving them 90 days' notice and a chance to improve, there was barely any public protest.

Rhee was more aggressive this time. Instead of using the 90-day system, she cited a budget crisis that she said was "absolutely" unexpected. Then she had principals dismiss teachers who "added less value" to their schools.

Trouble arose in several ways, because she didn't take enough care to be fully transparent and credible about the reasons for the move and to minimize conflict with the council:

-- It looked suspicious that Rhee dismissed more than 200 teachers this month after hiring more than 900 new ones over the summer. In media interviews, including with me Friday, she said almost all of the new teachers were hired before she discovered in late July that her budget was being reduced. But that doesn't square with Rhee's reputation as a smart, hands-on manager.

-- It was disruptive that the layoffs occurred six weeks into the school year. She said she waited because it was necessary to see how many students were enrolled in each school. But even some of Rhee's supporters said she could have made the layoffs in August or early September.

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