By Mario Carter
As someone who enthusiastically supported Vince Gray during his successful primary bid to unseat incumbent Mayor Adrian Fenty this year, I can say that I joined many of my fellow Washingtonians in breathing a sigh of relief.
We would no longer have a Mayor who, when asked when the snow would be cleared from the streets earlier this year, gave the most tone-deaf answer imaginable by saying it would be gone when, “ the temperature gets warm enough.” A Mayor that when challenged by Gray to account for his failure in spending the $4.6 million authorized by the City Council to tackle D.C.’s 9.8 unemployment rate, lazily responded with, “the reality is, D.C. has always had higher unemployment rates than nationally.” A Mayor that could not be bothered to attend a meeting on the city’s lack of enforcement of its Living Wage Law. A Mayor that callously closed down homeless shelters and seemed intent on gentrifying the city to a point where D.C. would no longer look like D.C. We now have a Mayor that shows a genuine concern for the needs of the people especially its most vulnerable, as opposed to one that treats the common folk like plebeians for not recognizing what a brilliant Mayor they were so blessed to have. But the one decision that Fenty made during his four years in office of which I have come to now appreciate was his selection of Michelle Rhee as the Chancellor of D.C. schools.
Like many Washingtonians, I, as well as several family members, held a severely negative view of Michelle Rhee. From the media’s portrayal, which was supplemented by popular opinion, she was portrayed as a monstrous villain that took pleasure in ending the careers of honest, deeply underpaid, hardworking teachers.
However, this two dimensional caricature did not even come close to approaching reality. After seeing the increasingly well-received independent documentary, “Waiting For Superman,” which shows just how much of a cataclysmic state our nation’s educational system is in, my opinion of Rhee (who was heavily featured) had gone from that of a cartoon character intent on assassinating as many careers as possible to that of a fearless revolutionary willing to take bold chances for the District’s children.
One of the reasons that this nefarious reputation has been attached to Rhee is because she was seen as being nothing more than a bully trying to exert power on defenseless educators trying to do their best in an already broken system. She closed down failing schools, one after another with a ferocious rapidity. She aggressively targeted a number of poor performing teachers and administrators for termination. (Rhee even fired the principal of her own children’s school.). And add to the fact that many of these long-serving teachers and administrators that were selectively targeted for dismissal were black, only escalated the heightened tension and further cemented her roguish (if unfair) image.
And while some may have preferred a more tactful approach to reforming the worst performing educational system in the country, I do not believe that that would have been effective. As I learned in “Waiting For Superman,” teacher unions have become such an entrenched special interest that the only way in getting them to cooperate would have to be by directly challenging them. It does not seem to bother the bureaucrats of the American Federation of Teachers or the National Education Association that there are teachers who fail to bring our children up to even the most basic level (I’m only 22, and I’m already talking about ‘our’ children). It does not seem to bother them that ineffectual teachers are shuffled from one school to the next, continuing a bleak cycle of underperformance. And it really does not seem to bother them that abominable teachers who not only fail to do their jobs adequately, but put little interest into doing it at all are protected by tenure after serving relatively brief period. And since the Democratic Party receives millions of dollars from the teacher unions, we cannot expect them to set any standards of accountability. But Michelle Rhee did.
However, we will no longer have the benefit of seeing how much further she could have gone because she has since resigned. But during her brief stay, Rhee amassed a record number of achievements unseen by any previous modern Chancellor. She won the opportunity to fire the most atrocious teachers. Test scores improved by leaps and bounds. She even proposed a plan that would have allowed teachers who gave up their tenure, the opportunity to make six figure salaries but unfortunately it was never enacted.
Of course, all of this praise does not mean that Rhee was perfect. She often gave the impression that legitimate questions and concerns about her actions were beneath her. During the Mayoral primary, she heavily suggested that if Gray won, she would no longer continue to be Chancellor. This obviously would cause Gray and anyone else to have reservations about trusting her. But I believe that because she was so dedicated to her job, she would have stayed if given another chance and possibly revamped her image so that she could continue carrying out her innovative reforms.
It is always popular for people to claim that change is needed to repair our dysfunctional educational system but for real change to come, it cannot from someone who is unwilling to challenge the system but from someone who will tear the system apart. I just hope that the next Chancellor will be in the mold of the latter and not the former.