Within the last 48 hours, few people’s futures have been discussed as widely in Washington as DC schools chancellor Michelle Rhee’s. And it’s not just in these two days that she’s been a hot topic. Rhee is a polarizing figure, seen as both a trailblazer and a heartless bureaucrat. So when she appeared on a panel last night to talk about her role in Davis Guggenheim’s new documentary, Waiting for Superman, the focus was all on her, despite the fact that she was sitting next to Education Secretary Arne Duncan, American Federation of Teachers president Randi Weingarten, super-educator Geoffrey Canada, and Guggenheim himself.
“You’ve been in the news a little bit recently, I see,” said moderator John Heilemann before asking whether she felt any personal responsibility for DC mayor Adrian Fenty’s loss in the primary.
“Absolutely,” Rhee responded. She went on to describe the election results as “devastating—not for me, because I’ll be fine, and not for Adrian, because he’ll be fine, but devastating for the children of Washington, DC."
As far as timing goes, both the panel and the screening at the Newseum last night were bittersweet: Rhee has a central role in the movie and is portrayed as a fearless reformer, attempting to make changes that are both blindingly obvious and unbelievably difficult. “I’m not a career politician—this will be my one and only chancellorship,” she says early on. “So I don’t have to care about who I piss off.”
And piss off people she does, first by firing hundreds of teachers who are under disciplinary proceedings or simply fail to teach (their transgressions vary from chronic lateness to sexual abuse) and second by attempting to take on the thorny subject of tenure. Rhee offers the teachers a deal: They can keep tenure and their current salaries (around $74,000), or give up tenure and earn performance-related pay that goes up to $140,000. The camera pans around a union meeting, showing AFT’s Weingarten sitting next to then DC Council chair Vincent Gray (who defeated Fenty this week) and Rhee looking bemused as the new contract is rejected before it can even come to a vote.
To some extent, the evening was a showdown between Rhee and Weingarten, although the two greeted each other cordially and even agreed on a number of points. Every movie needs a villain, and Weingarten’s role as head of one of the most powerful kingmakers in politics as well as a steadfast defender of teachers—good and bad—seems to land her in that position. (Her uncanny resemblance to Glee character Sue Sylvester probably doesn’t help.)
“Teachers actually hate teaching with ineffective teachers,” Weingarten said. “What teachers want is to help kids and actually to have some fairness around themselves.” She agreed with Geoffrey Canada that the tenure system needs reforming, prompting Rhee to fire back: “Don’t say you agree with this and then hit me with a lawsuit when I try and do something about it.”
Weingarten did praise Guggenheim for creating a “dialogue about these issues.” And with senators Scott Brown and Al Franken and Obama adviser David Axelrod among the audience, not to mention a brief appearance by singer John Legend, Waiting for Superman is enjoying a high profile that seems to be forcing the issue of education to the table.
The movie’s heartbreaking final scene, in which five children wait for the results of a charter-school lottery—crossing their fingers that they get in and looking as if they already expect failure—says more about the failure of years of educational policy and investment than any of the panel members could communicate.
Asked if her no-holds-barred style was responsible for some failure, Rhee was unrepentant: “People say, ‘Why do you have to say kids are getting a “crappy” education all the time? Couldn’t you use a different term?’ Because they’re getting a crappy education, and I don’t want to sugarcoat that. When I came here in 2007, 8 percent of eighth-graders were doing math at grade level, which means that 92 percent of them don’t have the ability to be productive members of society. That’s absolutely criminal.”
Heilemann called the timing of the movie “exquisite,” and Secretary Duncan agreed: “Movements have to have an intellectual quality, and they have to appeal to your heart. Why we’re all here is because we feel this huge sense of urgency and a sense of outrage. If we don’t fix this now, the price to our children, to our community, and to our country is staggering.”
Rhee, who received much of the applause during the evening, remained defiant. ”Our theory, the mayor and I, is that we had to have one thing that drives our decisions—what the right thing is to do for our kids. Once you start to veer from that, it’s a slippery slope and you’re lost. We’re both incredibly proud that every single decision we made, we believed very passionately that it was in the best interest of our kids.”