All eyes have been on President-elect Donald Trump’s cabinet selections for an indication of how he’ll govern. One such position is his Education Secretary, for which Michelle Rhee has been floated as a possibility:
— Jessica Calefati (@Calefati) November 15, 2016
Rhee would appear to be the favorite, since other names Trump was considering for the position — Dr. Ben Carson and Eva Moskowitz — are reportedly uninterested in the job.
Who is Michelle Rhee and would she be a solid choice as Education Secretary? Here are seven things you need to know about her.
1. Rhee is a registered Democrat who supports Common Core. This would seem to put her at odds with Trump, as the soon-to-be president has pledged to repeal Common Core, the disastrous program further federalizing the country’s education system. Conservatives might be wary of Rhee for this reason.
However, there are still plenty of other reasons to believe that she would be a good Education Secretary.
2. Rhee is supportive of a variety of education reform efforts. Rhee is a supporter of school choice, vouchers, and ending teacher tenure — all initiatives that conservatives have championed. Rhee has a proven record of fighting for these initiatives and implementing them.
3. Rhee was the chancellor of Washington, D.C.’s schools from 2007-2011. Appointed by Mayor Adrian Fenty, Rhee was faced with the arduous task of revamping D.C.’s crime-ridden, low-performing public school system. Rhee started cleaning up D.C.’s public school system by doing something Trump would approve of: she fired a lot of people.
According to Ballotpedia, “Rhee closed 23 schools, fired 36 principals and cut staff by 15 percent” in her first year alone. She also put an end to teacher tenure and instituted merit pay as part of a new contract where teachers’ salaries were based on the performance of their students, and teachers that couldn’t get students to perform were terminated.
Rhee also supported D.C.’s Opportunity Scholarships program — which gave vouchers to poor families to send their children to private schools — after meeting with poor families in D.C. Rhee wrote in her book Radical, “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? If they got a voucher, and her child could attend a really good Catholic school, perhaps, why would I stand in the way—especially since I don’t have a high-quality DCPS alternative?”
While Rhee’s moves were a lightning rod of controversy, all evidence indicates that her reforms were successful. National Review‘s Frederick Hess writes:
Stanford’s Tom Dee and the University of Virginia’s Jim Wyckoff have just published an important study on Washington D.C.’s controversial teacher-evaluation system. They find that the IMPACT system launched by former chancellor Michelle Rhee appears to boost teacher effectiveness and also makes it more likely that low-performing teachers will depart. Deservedly, he study got a lot of attention yesterday, including in the New York Times and the Washington Post.
Making clever use of regression-discontinuity design, the authors note that IMPACT appears to aid students both by “avoiding the career-long retention of the lowest-performing teachers and through broad increases in teacher performance.”
Leftist Jonathan Chait agrees, as he wrote for New York Mag in May:
Studies have found that Rhee’s teacher-evaluation system has indeed increased student learning. What’s more, the overall performance of D.C.public school students on the National Assessment of Education Progress (NAEP) has risen dramatically and outpaced the rest of the country. And if you suspect cheating or “teaching to the test” is the cause, bear in mind NAEP tests are not the ones used in teacher evaluations; it’s a test used to assess national trends, with no incentive to cheat. (My wife works for a D.C.charter school.)
Some critics have suggested that perhaps the changing demographics in Washington (which has grown whiter and more affluent) account for the improvement. Kristin Blagg and Matthew Chingos at the Urban Institute dig into the data, and the answer is: Nope, that’s not it.
Chait goes on to point out that the Urban Institute’s research shows that the increases in test scores outpaced the expected amount by demographic changes alone.
4. Rhee is despised by teachers’ unions. According to Chait, Rhee’s name is considered to be “a curse word” among teachers unions. Rhee has even been dubbed as a “Wicked Witch” by teachers unions and their supporters, per the UK Daily Mail. They have tried to criticize Rhee’s reforms as puncturing teacher morale and inflating student cheating, as an in-depth PBS feature explains here. The leftist rag New Republic skewers Rhee with a lengthy piece that is filled with nothing but hot air fuming over Rhee’s school choice efforts.
Bottom line: Rhee becoming Trump’s Education Secretary would send teachers unions and their supporters into a tizzy, a heart-warming thought for conservatives.
5. Rhee formed an organization called StudentsFirst in 2010 to promote school choice initiatives. StudentsFirst was a force to be reckoned with in the 2012 elections, as they won “86 of 105 races and flipp[ed] a net 33 seats” to advocates of school reform in statewide races. Ninety of the candidates they endorsed were Republicans, much to the dismay of Salon. In 2014, StudentsFirst’s efforts in state and local races caused Slate to declare “that education reform spending is going to continue on an upward trajectory, at least for the near future.” Rhee stepped down from StudentsFirst in 2014.
6. Rhee is married to Sacramento Mayor Kevin Johnson. Johnson, former NBA star for the Phoenix Suns, has been dogged by allegations of sexual misconduct from several women. One claimed that Johnson fondled and showered with her in the mid-1990s while he played for the Suns. Another claimed that Johnson sexually harassed her in 2013, per the Sacramento Bee.
In September, somebody smacked Johnson in the face with a pie at a charity dinner, prompting Johnson to punch the pie-attacker in the face numerous times. The pie-thrower was arrested.
7. Rhee would fit right in with Trump. Not only did she fire a lot of people as chancellor of D.C. schools, she is also very blunt and direct, according to The Atlantic:
When I asked her how she would characterize her ideal relationship with parents, she replied, “That’s a great question. So often reporters ask me stupid questions. I had one interview yesterday, and I was like, ‘Okay, you are not smart.’”