D.C. Schools Chief Resigns, Doubts She'll Return To Leadership Role

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Michelle Rhee became a public face of education reform during her tenure as head of the District of Columbia's schools, but she stepped down, several weeks after the man who appointed her, Mayor Adrian Fenty, was defeated in a Democratic primary where Rhee's celebrated yet stormy tenure was a factor. Host Michel Martin speaks with Rhee, who says she will likely never lead a school district again.

MICHEL MARTIN, host:

I'm Michel Martin, and this is TELL ME MORE, from NPR News.

In today's program, we'll be speaking with Betty Anne Waters, the woman whose story is portrayed in the new film "Conviction." And we'll also hear from Hilary Swank, who portrays Ms. Waters in the film. That conversation is later in the program.

But first, one of the most significant figures in the U.S. education reform movement called it quits yesterday. Washington, D.C. Schools Chancellor Michelle Rhee announced her resignation effective at the end of this month. The move follows on the election-year defeat of her boss, D.C. Mayor Adrian Fenty, in the Democratic primary.

Her three-year reign has been contentious. She has become a central figure for the education reform movement nationwide and the national media. She's also a central figure in the schools-focused documentary "Waiting for Superman." But locally, many teachers, political leaders and parents were unhappy with Rhee's aggressive style.

We've spoken with Michelle Rhee at the beginning of every school year during her term in Washington, and we caught up with her earlier today. I spoke with her from my home and hers. We talked about her resignation, and she explained why, at her press conference, she called her decision to resign heartbreaking.

Ms. MICHELLE RHEE (Chancellor, District of Columbia Public Schools): I think I told you before, Michel, that I love my job. I've really, really enjoyed every minute of the time that I've spent serving the children and the families of the District of Columbia, and I had fully anticipated and hoped to serve another four-year term with Mayor Fenty.

So that's what I really had my heart set on, but at the same time, I realize that we're in a completely different circumstance now, and as Chairman Gray and I announced yesterday, we've made the mutual decision that it makes sense for me to step aside. And I do think that is in the best interests of the city, for him to be able to have his own team. But it is a sad time for me.

MARTIN: Why was it in the best interests of the city to - for you to step aside, given that Chairman Gray is not a newcomer to D.C. politics? He's the chairman of the D.C. City Council. He claims that he endorses the reforms that you have put in place and that he wants to see continue. So why, then, would you have to resign?

Ms. RHEE: Well, I think that part of it has to do with the fact that we talked about the fact and a need for the city to be united around the school reform efforts and for a broader group of people to embrace the reforms. And for a certain group of people, as long as I was the head of the district, they wouldn't be able to do that, to get behind the efforts and to really embrace the changes.

And I think that's unfortunate, but it certainly is a reality that I understand. And what I think we came up with, which was to have my deputy and my entire management team stay in place, would allow the reforms to continue and would sort of take me out of the equation to the extent that I was a distraction or, you know, a divisive figure for some people. And so I think that was, honestly, the best thing for the reforms to be able to move forward and for the city to be united under this new administration.

MARTIN: The day after the primaries, when Mayor Fenty was defeated, after the Democratic primary - which in this city, because of its overwhelming Democratic registration advantage, is generally dispositive in the fall - you were at a public forum, was a D.C. premiere of the film "Waiting for Superman," in which you play a central role.

And you said: Let me not mince words and say that yesterday's election results were devastating.

Ms. RHEE: Yeah.

MARTIN: But not for me, because I'll be fine, and not for Mayor Fenty, because he'll be fine. It was devastating for the children of Washington, D.C. Why did you say that?

Ms. RHEE: I actually think that to give context to that is important, because what I said right after that sentence was, I said, let me explain why. I said because I have been getting calls from people all through D.C. and all across the country saying this is terrible. This is a blow to education reform. It's a step backwards.

And I - what I said to the audience is that is exactly the wrong message to take out of this election. It can't be that now is the time to retreat, and I think that actually is absolutely devastating for the children of D.C.

I think what people have to take out of the primary results is that we have a new mayor. We will have a new mayor in November, and that we have to be even more aggressive to make sure that the reforms can stick and can continue to progress.

MARTIN: But what is the message, do you think, for people who believe that radical change is necessary in the way our nation delivers its educational opportunities to children? What is the message? Is the message one of personality, which is that you have to have a certain kind of personality to get the buy-in? Or is it the fact that people don't truly accept that radical change is needed? What is the take-away, do you think, from what happened here?

Ms. RHEE: Yeah, I think that's a good question. I don't think that anybody knows exactly the answer to that question yet, though. You know, how do you move forward aggressively with school reform but make sure that people are bought into it?

Hopefully, people will take our experiences here in D.C. They'll be able to learn from the mistakes that we made, learn from the course corrections and then also take the positive things that we did that went very well and use those moving forward, also.

MARTIN: I would like to ask you what role you think race played in this election and in what has occurred here. One of the curious things about the polling going into the election is that majorities of residents believe that the city is moving in the right direction, and that there have been improvements in the life of the city and the quality of life in the city and also in the schools.

And yet there seemed to be a repudiation in a very kind of personal way of the people who were the most visible faces of that change. And I'd like to ask you: What role do you think race played in this?

Ms. RHEE: I think those are actually two different things. You know, the fact that the poll numbers say that people have much more faith and confidence in the public schools right now than ever before, they feel like they're heading in the right direction, schools are better, et cetera, but they don't necessarily like me or the strategies that we use - I think that is actually okay, because the things that we've done to improve the education system in D.C. have been very difficult things, and things that make people uncomfortable.

And if folks need to associate those uncomfortable actions with me, but they know that what they're seeing in the schools is better quality, you know, programming for kids every day, then that's okay because, you know, the point here is not for me to be popular or well-liked. The point, I think, is for people to feel more faith and confidence in the schools, and I think that's absolutely happening.

MARTIN: One of the things you often say is that this is about the kids, that a lot of these arguments are really about the adults.

Ms. RHEE: Yeah.

MARTIN: But it seems that there are some people who believe very strongly that part of what a school system does is offer economic opportunity to people, that part of it - what it's about is jobs and offering stable, middle-class jobs to people who believe that they perhaps they don't have other opportunities.

Ms. RHEE: Yeah.

MARTIN: So I do wonder if, in part, what has happened here is that there's a conflict between people who really believe that the purpose of the educational system is to provide educational opportunity versus people who believe that the purpose of the educational system is to provide economic opportunity.

Ms. RHEE: Well, I mean, I will certainly say that there are some people who believe that part of the reason why the school system exists is to, you know, employ folks.

I think that is certainly a reality. I mean, we have, you know, about 7,000 employees in the school district. So certainly, we are an employer. But I think that it's about prioritizing, and it's about what you make the focus.

And for me, I think it's very clear that the focus and main priority of the school district has to be educating its children well, and that jobs have to take a backseat to that. And we can't forsake what's happening to schoolchildren every single day in the classroom in the name of maintaining jobs for adults, because I think in many school districts - not just in Washington, D.C. - that has been the case, and that protecting jobs was more important than children achieving. And that's what's led to the incredibly poor academic outcomes in this nation.

MARTIN: You in fact were quoted, I believe, in "Waiting for Superman," which is a film that's gotten a tremendous, you know, response around the country. And also it's, you know, it's also controversial that this is going to be your last chancellorship or superintendent position, that you have no desire to really run another school system. Is that true?

Ms. RHEE: Yes. I mean, when I took this job, I, you know, took it really thinking, you know, that I - this would be my first and last superintendency. I'm still inclined to think that that's exactly right.

I mean, I'm having lots of conversations with different people, and what's exciting to me is that there are so many jurisdictions out there - both local school districts and states - who seem to have really courageous leaders who are ready to take on the tough challenges of really serious school reform.

And so I've enjoyed those conversations, and I'll continue to have them. But my thought right now is probably I won't be in a role like this again.

MARTIN: Why not?

Ms. RHEE: Because having had this experience, I think that one of the things that we need to understand is that there has to be more progress at the national level in terms of how we give politicians the cover that they need, knowing that sometimes when you make difficult decisions, they may not be popular, but they're the right things for kids and they're the right things for schools. So how do you reconcile those things?

I think that's, you know, an area that really needs to be addressed, and potentially one that has to be addressed before a lot of really aggressive reforms happen at the local level.

So, you know, I took this job on specifically because of the opportunity that was provided to me with Mayor Fenty. I think he was an incredibly unusual politician in that he was willing to sort of put everything else aside and say, you know what? I'm willing to put my political career on the line to do what's right by kids.

And so maybe he's ruined me a little bit for being a superintendent in another district, because his support was so unequivocal.

MARTIN: Well, you certainly have lots of things to contemplate, including a new marriage. And we want to wish you our - we want to offer our very best wishes to you on this next stage of your life.

Ms. RHEE: Thank you.

MARTIN: And do you - what do you think we should draw from what happened here? What do you think the rest of the country should think about, as we think about, you know, your tenure here in D.C. Is there a broader lesson?

Ms. RHEE: Well, I think there is, and I think it's that we really need to think critically as a nation about how we are going to support politicians who are willing to make courageous stands and make the right decisions for kids. And I think we have to be willing to get into some heated debates and arguments with the unions and other folks and not be afraid of that.

You know, it's - you always have to remain respectful. That's incredibly important. But there are some fundamental disagreements that we as educators have in this country right now about what to prioritize and how to make decisions, and I think that it's important for us to not shy away from those debates.

MARTIN: Michelle Rhee, thank you so much for speaking with us.

Ms. RHEE: Absolutely. Thank you.

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