Michelle Rhee has been a familiar presence on the airwaves, in newspapers, and in magazines explaining and defending her reform ideas for the struggling D.C. public schools. The controversial chancellor has been mentioned as a potential Education secretary for President-elect Obama, but she is critical of the Democratic Party's approach to school reform, saying that "soft is not what we need right now." Rhee is a firm advocate of accountability for individual schools and teachers, and she is pushing a new labor contract that would allow teachers to choose a merit-pay schedule that could have them earning more than $100,000 a year. Rhee recently discussed no-excuses public education with National-Journal.com's Amy Harder at the public schools' headquarters. Edited excerpts follow.
NJ: Can you elaborate on what you said in a recent interview -- that you're "somewhat terrified of what the Democrats are going to do on education"?
Rhee: For the last decade or so, the Democrats have not been as strong on education reform as the Republicans have. The Republicans have been much, much better, in my opinion, on ensuring strict accountability for schools and for districts, for ensuring that people are held responsible for closing the achievement gap, and for significantly increasing student achievement levels for every single child. What worries me about the Democrats is that they tend to be softer on these things, and soft is not what we need right now. Allowing schools to continue to fail year in and year out without significant ramifications either to the district or to the school is doing a disservice to the children. And so any movement backward on No Child Left Behind or on accountability structures, I think, would be incredibly detrimental to this movement.
NJ: What do you mean by a step backward?
Rhee: If they were to try to gut the NCLB and make the sanctions less stringent, that sort of thing.
NJ: Reports say that you had to be persuaded to vote for Obama, that it was a tough decision for you. Considering your stance on the Democrats' education policy, what ultimately compelled you to vote for Obama?
Rhee: I think I hold out some hope that he will be the change agent that he says he's going to be. Do I have any guarantee of that? No, and certainly he has lots of other things to worry about. He himself is not going to be driving education policy in this country. The most important decision that he has to make right now is who he appoints as his Education secretary. That will tell us everything that we need to know about what's going to happen in the next four years in terms of education reform.
NJ: A handful of names are floating around for Education secretary, including your mentor and friend Joel Klein, who is New York City's public schools chancellor; Teach for America founder Wendy Kopp; and yourself. How do you feel about these people possibly filling this position?
Rhee: I would hope that the transition team is very strongly considering people like Klein, because there aren't very many people in this country, in my mind, who have the guts to tackle these issues in an aggressive way. There are lots of people who are nice people, but who aren't going to want to rock the boat, and I just don't think we're going to see the progress under those folks that we would want to.
"I think that we need to move away from highly qualified teachers to highly effective teachers -- so less on the front-end credentials and more on 'Are you producing results for kids?' "
NJ: Would you hope that the candidate for Education secretary comes in with the same reformist mind-set that you brought to the District of Columbia?
Rhee: I don't think it's too much to ask for the children of this country to have somebody who's leading the education system who is always going to put their interests first and foremost; who is not going to care about the politics, the political flak, how many adults get mad at them, or keeping the adults happy. At the end of the day, this is all about whether we're doing the right things and making the right decisions for kids. And I find it somewhat odd, the amount of what you'd call flak that I get for having that stance, given that my job is to make sure that kids are getting an excellent education. So, making every decision within the best interests of the kids, even if the adults get angry -- that doesn't seem like an odd place to be.
NJ: You have been quoted as saying that "poor black kids don't have an equal shot in life," and that the Democratic Party is "not tackling this issue." How do you propose the party go about it?
Rhee: I think the things that I talked about before in terms of the Democrats being softer on accountability, the Democrats being overly worried about being harmonious with the teachers union -- as long as they're focused on those sorts of things, we're not going to be able to move forward in a significant way. At the end of the day, the situation that too many poor and minority kids in this city and this country are in are not problems that are going to be solved with incremental change that everyone feels really good about. When you need the dramatic change that is necessary in these environments, there are going to be some groups of people who are unhappy with that. And if the Democrats are stepping away from that challenge, I think that essentially what they're doing is denying kids an equal opportunity in life, because the bottom line is that poor minority kids are not getting the education they deserve in our inner-city schools across the country.
NJ: To improve No Child Left Behind, what are some of the major education policy changes that the Democrats should take on?
Rhee: There are certainly tweaks that need to be made within No Child Left Behind. I think that we need to move away from highly qualified teachers to highly effective teachers -- so, less on the front-end credentials and more on "Are you producing results for kids?"
NJ: At an October forum hosted by the Aspen Institute, you said that the fate of your reform efforts could depend on the fortitude of an Obama administration. Can you elaborate on that now that the election is over?
Rhee: You'll note that I didn't say "will." I think that if the administration decided to take a really strong stand on this [D.C. teachers union] contract and where we are, and the fact that [the contract] is good and right for kids and teachers, that that could be very influential. I have no hopes or aspirations that they're going to do that. It's not really the role of the federal government to comment on local negotiations or anything like that. But at the same time, the national union usually doesn't get involved in local negotiations; in fact, they said that that's their policy. And yet if you've looked at how they've inserted themselves in this process -- and I will say that the [American Federation of Teachers] has 1.7 million members -- there is something going on here that they are concerned about.
NJ: So, why has the national union given so much attention to this district and your reform efforts?
Rhee: Because this is a precedent-setting contract, and I think that if this contract moves forward and we actually begin to question whether tenure is sort of this end-all, be-all important thing, that will have ramifications across the country. I think they're very concerned about that.
NJ: Reports say that, by turning to a merit-pay system, you want to make the District a model for the rest of the country's public school systems. What specifically do you plan to do that the rest of the country can or should replicate?
Rhee: That's not the purpose of this contract, first of all. The purpose of this contract is to make sure that the Washington, D.C., public school system has the most highly compensated and highly effective teaching force in the nation. So our goal, primarily, is to ensure that our kids are getting an excellent education and that every student in this district has access to a very high-quality teacher in the classroom. By doing this and by moving this contract forward, I think it will have ramifications nationwide, but our goal is not to have something that is going to have national ramifications. I think that's going to be a byproduct of what we do.
NJ: How applicable do you think this type of system is to the rest of the country?
Rhee: I think that the general concept -- this idea that you can have very significantly differentiated pay for teachers based on performance -- is one that could and should be implemented broadly.
NJ: Do you think that Washington is a good school district to serve as a guinea pig for implementing this unprecedented contract?
Rhee: I think it's a great place for this to happen, because [D.C.] is largely considered the worst school district in the country. And I believe that when we significantly turn around the learning outcomes of kids in this city, then it takes the excuses away from everyone else who say that it's not possible because of the kids and poverty and that sort of thing. Because if you can do it in D.C., you can fairly say that you can do it anywhere.
This article appears in the December 13, 2008 edition of National Journal Magazine Contents.