Andrew Clark: Admiring Rhee-form

Ask me who one of my favorite contemporary political heroes is, and you may be surprised at the answer. She’s actually a Democrat, serving right here in Washington D.C. as the D.C. Chancellor of Public Schools – Michelle Rhee.

Rhee, appointed to the position by Mayor Adrian M. Fenty in 2007, has launched a war few politicians would ever dare fight, and even fewer win. She has vowed to enact massive reforms on the D.C. public school system. Arguably the worst performing school system in the nation, Rhee is facing the teachers’ unions head on in what is shaping into the ultimate political showdown.

Of course, Rhee is not a traditional democrat. She confesses to almost voting for John McCain in the 2008 election for fear of what Barack Obama would do to education. She supports merit-based pay, reduced tenure protections and more accountability in public schools. Yet these are all ideas that democrats and their powerful teachers’ union allies have fiercely resisted for years. California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, a republican, attempted similar reforms in 2005, only to get burned by the California teachers’ union. If his star power and popularity couldn’t surpass the control of the unions, what chance does Michelle Rhee have?

In the name of D.C. students, Rhee has two qualities Arnold did not: an unrelenting drive for reform public schools badly need, and unwillingness to compromise with unions that have become increasingly damaging to America’s public school system. It may be slightly abrasive, but hey, it’s the change that I can believe in.

At the cornerstone of Rhee’s reform agenda is a new evaluation system, called IMPACT, which links teacher pay to student test scores and academic performance. It breaks with No Child Left Behind, however, in that while NCLB looked at raw numbers, D.C. will be looking at the “value added,” or what teachers contribute to student growth on tests. Rhee has also launched a massive crusade against excessive bureaucracy, having removed 36 principals, relocated 3,000 students and 400 teachers and closed 23 low-enrollment schools – in just her first year.

“I believe that the mindset (of teacher tenure) has to be completely flipped on its head,” Rhee recently said this summer at an education reform summit. “Unless you can show you are doing positive things for kids, you cannot have the privilege of teaching.”

Researchers at the University of Arkansas recently studied the impact of merit-based pay in local Arkansas school districts, and found school districts that had accepted the merit-pay rules saw a steady rise in test scores, while teacher job satisfaction rates actually increased. Merit-based pay works (or at the very least, is worth a shot), and it’s an idea worth trying in D.C.

Both the Washington Teachers’ Union and the American Federation of Teachers, however, have fiercely resisted these reforms, arguing they have created a “climate of fear” in the D.C. school system. But a climate of fear is exactly what the D.C. public school system needs. Only in big-government could teachers expect job security and protection of the status quo when their school system is the worst-performing in the nation and has seen massive drops in test scores and enrollment. Even President Obama has aligned himself with education reform, appointing Arne Duncan, a political ally of Rhee’s, to Secretary of Education.

There is something to be said about not only Rhee’s ideas, but also her blunt style. In her crusade of reform, Rhee has alienated many key community leaders and angered both students and parents alike, some of whom have actively protested her actions. Some government officials have been hesitant to approach her for fear of potentially entering her crossfire. But it’s a small price to pay for enacting the true reform D.C. desperately needs.

Washington D.C. has become a home away from home to all of us here at GW, and we should feel a vested interest in the community and its future – especially if we want to pursue careers in the District. Having a resurgence of ambitious and educated youth, and a first-rate local school system, is in our best interests. It’s rare these days to see partisans endorse politicians on the other side of the aisle. But today, I am putting aside my Republicanism as I proudly applaud the Michelle Rhee and Adrian Fenty for having the political courage to take on the unions. Maybe their actions will truly bring on the “Rhee-form” that we need.

The writer, a junior majoring in political communication, is a Hatchet columnist and a member of the College Republicans executive board.

Readers can visit the Forum to comment on this column.

The Hatchet has disabled comments on our website. Learn more.