Michelle Rhee isn’t afraid of controversy. In 2007 she took the job of chancellor of Washington, D.C. public schools, one of the worst districts in the country. Given a free hand by the city’s mayor, she instituted a number of reforms that, while modest and sensible (accountability, standardized testing), were considered “radical” by many residents of D.C.
Rhee even fired 266 teachers and defended her actions by saying, “I got rid of teachers who had hit children, who had had sex with children, who had missed 78 days of school. Why wouldn’t we take those things into consideration?”
Putting kids before the teachers unions is not always a path to popularity, and following the logic of such convictions can lead an educational reformer to accept some uncomfortable positions. For Rhee, that was accepting the legitimacy of school vouchers:
When I began my stint with the D.C. public schools, I had strong ideas about what education reform should look like and what it shouldn’t look like. I believed wholeheartedly that we had to have a very strong focus on teacher quality. I was also a believer in charter schools. I had seen their value when I served for a couple of years on the board of the St. HOPE Public Schools. I guess that was my first break with Democratic dogma. I knew that charter schools were anathema to teachers’ unions. I also knew the best ones could serve children extraordinarily well.
But I drew a very deep line in the sand when it came to vouchers. As a lifelong Democrat I was adamantly against vouchers. Vouchers provide public funds to parents who need help in paying tuition for private or parochial schools. Proponents, mostly Republicans, see vouchers as leveling the field and broadening choice for families. Detractors, usually Democrats, decry the use of public funds to pay for private education. I had bought into the arguments that Democrats and others use in opposition to vouchers: vouchers are a way of taking money away from public school systems and putting them into private schools; vouchers help only a handful of the kids; and vouchers take children and resources away from the schools and districts that need those resources the most.
For all of those reasons, my view on vouchers was set. But soon after I arrived in Washington, D.C., I was in a pickle. The District of Columbia had Opportunity Scholarships, a federally funded voucher program that helped poor families attend private schools. The program was up for reauthorization, and there was a heated debate going on in the city.
Read the rest to hear how Rhee changed her mind when she considered a question that all school officials should ask themselves: “Who am I, I thought, to deny this mom and her child an opportunity for a better school, even if that meant help with a seventy-five-hundred-dollar voucher?”