District of Columbia Public Schools chancellor Michelle Rhee announces resignation

Friday, October 15, 2010

Michelle Rhee in 2008

Michelle Rhee, the controversial chancellor of Washington, D.C.'s public school system, announced her resignation on Wednesday. Rhee, who has held the position for over three years, will be replaced by Deputy Chancellor Kaya Henderson at the end of this month.

Rhee, aged 40, chose to step down after current Washington, D.C. Mayor Adrian Fenty failed to be reelected in a primary election last month. Fenty, who had long backed Rhee's educational policies, lost to D.C. City Council Chairman Vincent C. Gray. In a Wednesday morning press conference, Rhee said that she and Gray decided together that she should resign. "This was not a decision that we made lightly," she said, "but it is one that I believe is absolutely essential to allow Chairman Gray to pursue our shared goal of unifying the city behind the school reform efforts that are making such a large difference in the lives of the children across the city. In short we have agreed together that the best way to keep the reforms going is for this reformer to step aside."

Rhee said she "completely enjoyed every minute of" her tenure as chancellor, and that leaving is "the right thing for the school system and the right thing most importantly for the children of D.C." She was charged by Fenty in 2007 to improve the city's failing public school district, but her no-nonsense tactics caused much controversy among other educators and the D.C. community, despite managing to raise test scores and lowering dropout rates.

In July, Rhee took drastic measures to reform the city's educational system by firing 241 teachers and putting 737 more on notice to improve in one year or lose their jobs as well. She pushed for performance-based evaluations, following recommendations in U.S. President Barack Obama's "Race to the Top" initiative. Teacher unions and other educators, along with city residents, criticized Rhee's actions. Chester Finn, president of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute for education research, says that many people find mass layoffs and school closings troubling, even in the name of reform.

Fenty, who made Rhee head of D.C. schools in June 2007, lost his reelection bid in part due to his support of Rhee's methods. Fenty said at the press conference that she "exceeded all of [his] expectations." It wasn't just the results, he said, it was Rhee's "tough decision-making, what residents believe is a breath of fresh air, and a willingness to do what is right even if it has political consequences."

Gray, who is now running for mayor unopposed, agreed to a deal in which Henderson would become interim chancellor after Rhee leaves at the end of the month. The current educational leadership team will remain unchanged until the end of the school year to avoid any possible disruption of classes. Even though she is leaving, Rhee said, "All of the reforms can continue as planned." Those reforms include the new evaluation system, changes to special education, and expansion of standardized testing. However, former Assistant Secretary of Education Diane Ravitch says that Rhee's departure shows that her tactics will be unsuccessful in the long run. "Rhee is out because her patron lost the election, and that loss should have taught the leaders of this movement that they are headed in the wrong direction. Public schools cannot be reformed without public support," wrote Ravitch.

During the press conference, Gray said that "school reform will move forward under the Gray administration. Our schools must continue to operate under the leadership of a strong, empowered chancellor who will move school reform forward, take it to the next level and work with the community so that all our stakeholders are invested in the process." When asked why Rhee would not be retained as chancellor, Gray said that it was a "mutual decision" for her to step down.

Rhee was featured in the recent documentary Waiting for Superman, which highlights issues with the country's school systems. She became "a pivotal leader in the school reform movement," said U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan. Fenty praised Rhee's accomplishments, saying, "All across the country now because of Chancellor Rhee and her team, from the White House to documentaries, people are touting D.C. as a model for how to attack bureaucracy and get results in an urban school system."

Although she has not publicly disclosed her next steps, Rhee said that her "goal is to continue to serve the children of this nation." She plans to "take a little time off and figure out what's next," but will be going to California to marry her fiancé, Sacramento Mayor Kevin Johnson. Rhee, born to South Korean immigrant parents, graduated from Cornell University and earned a master’s degree at Harvard University.