Michelle Rhee likely to have pick of top education jobs, but would she want one?

By Bill Turque
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, October 8, 2010; 9:35 PM

The Republican candidate for governor of Iowa thinks she'd be a great head of the state's department of education. Political chatter in New Jersey has her on Gov. Chris Christie's list of candidates for the top job there. Others see her as secretary of education in a second Obama administration, if there is one.

Schools Chancellor Michelle A. Rhee has a job, for the moment at least. But after having campaigned against presumptive mayor-elect Vincent C. Gray (D) and then called his victory "devastating" for the city's public schoolchildren - an assertion she quickly sought to recast - Rhee is widely expected leave her post sometime in the near future.

Her iffy status, combined with her depiction as a lonely, union-battling champion of D.C. school reform in the new documentary "Waiting for Superman," has made her the name of choice for big education jobs that have come open - and for some that have not.

Even those who aren't necessarily looking for a chancellor or a state commissioner seem to have caught Rhee fever. Rupert Murdoch told an audience at the Media Institute awards banquet this week that she needs to continue working to overhaul the country's education system.

"Occasionally I hear the leaders of the teachers union say they support reform," Murdoch said. "But I'm here of the view of Michelle Rhee, a bona fide reformer."

Rhee declined to discuss contacts with prospective employers. "Not commenting on the record," she said in an e-mail late Wednesday evening.

In her numerous public appearances to promote "Waiting for Superman," Rhee has sounded more like the standard bearer for a national movement than an appointed official focused on a single public school system.

The day after the District's Democratic mayoral primary, she told an audience at the Newseum, "I would say that the biggest tragedy that could come from yesterday's election results is if the lesson people take from this is that we should pull back. That is not the lesson. That is not doing right by what Adrian Fenty has put into this effort for the last three and half years, that is not the right lesson for this reform movement. We cannot retreat now. If anything, what the reform community needs to take out of yesterday's election is now is the time to lean forward and be more aggressive and more adamant."

Some education advocates who share the core of her agenda in the District - which includes tougher teacher evaluations, more control over teacher assignments and linkage of pay to student performance - see her staying in the public sector. Others expect her to return to the nonprofit world, where she worked before Mayor Adrian M. Fenty named her chancellor in June 2007.

They also see the political reaction to her reform efforts in the District, which culminated with significant union support for Gray, as a powerful narrative to share.

"People who know how this stuff works, I mean the really ugly stuff that no one likes to talk about, make for very powerful advocates for reform," said Joe Williams, executive director of Democrats for Education Reform, a group that backs sweeping changes in public education.

Rhee's name surfaced in New Jersey soon after Christie (R) fired Education Commissioner Bret Schundler for problems with the state's unsuccessful application in the federal "Race to the Top" grant competition.

Christie, who recently unveiled a package of Rhee-like reforms diluting teacher seniority protections and linking job security to student performance, said he wants to name a successor sometime in the next month. He told the Newark Star-Ledger that he would not comment on the names of the candidates because "most of them have jobs in other places." A call to Christie's press spokesman was not returned Thursday.

New Jersey also controls the troubled Newark public school system, which will receive a $100 million donation from Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg. It is currently headed by former D.C. superintendent Clifford Janey, who was dumped by Fenty in favor of Rhee three years ago and was informed in August that his contract in Newark will not be renewed next year.

Even Oprah Winfrey has endorsed Rhee to replace Janey, again. But Newark Mayor Corey Booker quickly talked that down, saying that he intended to "conduct a community process" to find a new schools leader. She last month said there was no substance to the Newark rumors.

In Iowa, where the education department is under the control of an acting director, former governor Terry Branstad touted Rhee to the Cedar Rapids Rotary Club: "She's probably one of the most leading innovators there is," said Branstad, seeking to reclaim his old job from Democratic incumbent Chet Culver. "And I guess I'm willing to take a risk with somebody that's willing to make the tough decisions to improve education."

But Rhee has said repeatedly that she is not a career superintendent and that the District will be her first and last job running a school system. Some have a difficult time seeing her in a cabinet job - the subject of speculation by education bloggers. Political agility and a penchant for team play, both musts for such jobs, are not necessarily the outspoken Rhee's strengths.

"That's not her. She doesn't like to be political in that sense," said Michael Petrilli, a former education department official and executive vice president of the Thomas Fordham Institute, an education think tank. "Arne Duncan is pretty good because he is charming and doesn't mind going to Capitol Hill and being deferential and all of that."

Others expect her to return to the nonprofit world, where she found and ran the New Teacher Project, a teacher recruitment firm. If Rhee is not eager to immediately launch into something new, she's certain to command generous fees on the lecture circuit, recounting her reform battles in Washington.

Kate Walsh, president of the National Council on Teacher Quality, which advocates for changes in teacher education, recruitment and development, said she could see Rhee running her own turnaround operation, coming into troubled schools as an outside contractor and remaking them.

"She's very much an entrepreneur," Walsh said. "She runs things. She's not going to be a cog."

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