Michelle Rhee cut two very different figures during more than three years as DC schools chancellor. To a national audience of education reformers, she was a brash, tough-talking leader in the crusade to improve public education. But to many in the DC school system—teachers, parents, and students—she seemed uncompromising, closing schools and firing teachers. How could one person be seen in such different lights?
In summer 2007, Rhee was working for the New Teacher Project, a teacher-training nonprofit she had created, when newly elected DC mayor Adrian Fenty convinced her to become the District’s first public-schools chancellor. Fenty had just taken control of the schools—which had had six superintendents in a single decade—and saw Rhee as the kind of strong reformer he thought they needed.
Rhee, 40, was raised in Toledo. Her father was a physician, and her mother owned a women’s clothing store. When Fenty convinced Rhee to run the schools, she moved to Washington with her two young daughters and her ex-husband, Kevin Huffman, head of public affairs for Teach for America, a group that places college graduates in public-school classrooms. (Rhee is now engaged to Sacramento mayor and former NBA star Kevin Johnson.)
As chancellor, she proceeded to close 23 DC schools, reorganize the bureaucracy, and embark on two years of negotiations with the Washington Teachers’ Union. The resulting contract—which eliminates the guarantee of job security in exchange for the chance to earn higher pay and greater support—was seen by reformers as breaking the union’s hold on public education in DC. Rhee left her post in October after Adrian Fenty lost his reelection bid for a second term to Vince Gray.
In an interview a week after she stepped down, she talked about race, democracy, and what she believes it will take to remake schools across the United States.
Beyond that, will her changes here be lasting? What groundwork has she laid for reform nationwide? What’s next for Michelle Rhee?