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Like most sequels, the current round of D.C. Public Schools closings is a lot less dramatic than the first wave presided over by former Schools Chancellor Michelle Rhee four years ago.
That soap opera included a protest outside the Wilson Building set to Public Enemy’s “Fight the Power,” police removing a man who yelled expletives at Rhee during a D.C. Council hearing, and some very unhappy councilmembers who had been kept in the dark about Rhee’s plans. This time around, there are still councilmembers irked at some of the planned closures and plenty of parents upset that their kids will either have to change schools or welcome a large influx of students from other schools. But the rage the District saw under Rhee is absent.
Instead, several councilmembers have made it a point to note how much better Kaya Henderson, Rhee’s one-time deputy and successor, is handling the process.
“We didn’t have all this interaction and engagement before,” says Ward 7 Councilmember Yvette Alexander. “This seems more like it’s a collaborative effort, it really does.”
Ward 8 Councilmember Marion Barry, who was probably Rhee’s most vocal critic on the council, got in a not-very-veiled jab at his old nemesis at a hearing, calling Henderson a “breath of fresh air.”
So why the muted response compared to when Rhee shut roughly the same number of schools?
That question gets at the heart of what kind of legacy will be left in D.C. for Rhee, who resigned shortly after Mayor Vince Gray defeated Adrian Fenty in 2010 and went on to form a well-funded advocacy group called Students First. The reforms Rhee implemented—stringent teacher evaluations, a heavy emphasis on test scores, dismissals of ineffective teachers—have continued largely apace since Henderson took over, without the sturm und drang that accompanied Rhee’s tenure. Was all the noise during Rhee’s tenure because she was doing the difficult heavy lifting, or because of her style? Why is Henderson able to do exact same things Rhee did but at such a lower volume?
Unfortunately, Rhee’s new book, due out next year, doesn’t take much of a stab at solving those mysteries. (LL got his hands on a copy early.) Instead, the aptly titled Radical: Fighting to Put Students First reads like a zealot’s manifesto on the rightness of her cause.
“The question shouldn’t be ‘Why is Michelle Rhee a radical?’ The question needs to be ‘Why aren’t we all radicals?’” Rhee writes, after railing against U.S. school systems’ “celebration of mediocrity.”
As for her time in D.C., the book is heavy on details of the sorry shape in which she found the school system she inherited, as well as her battles with American Federation of Teachers boss Randi Weingarten over a new teachers’ contract. But there’s hardly any introspection on Rhee’s part as to why she was so widely unpopular with the District’s African-American parents, the ones whose support was crucial to her success in turning around the city’s schools. Instead, Rhee presents her time as chancellor as a battle between good (herself and Fenty) and evil (unions, other D.C. politicians), in which the evil side won.
The only person who appears interested in diagnosing Rhee’s unpopularity as chancellor is her husband, Sacramento Mayor Kevin Johnson (also a former point guard for the Phoenix Suns). After campaigning for Fenty east of the Anacostia River and hearing residents complain about the mayor and Rhee, Johnson tells his wife that “you can’t make change from the top alone.” Later, when Rhee is beginning to map out her plans with advisers for Students First, Johnson scolds: “There’s no diversity in this room … What did we learn in D.C.? We can’t make the same mistakes. Why are we here? To build a group that appeals to white, male Republicans? Is that what we are doing?”
That’s not to say that fans of local politics won’t find the book interesting, as Rhee goes about settling some old scores.
Take the 90-minute tête-a-tête Rhee had with Gray a week after he beat Fenty. Rhee’s tenure was a focal point of the election, and Gray repeatedly declined to say during the campaign whether he would keep her if he won. After their meeting, Rhee bizarrely refused to stand next to—or even vaguely near—Gray as he spoke to reporters, creating one of the more awkward news conferences LL has ever seen. Gray said they’d had a “candid discussion” about education in the District.
But not that’s how Rhee remembers it. “We met for an absurd discussion in which he lectured me about higher education and other random topics instead of talking about whether it made sense for us to work together,” she writes. Elsewhere, she portrays Gray as a petty old coot who never got over feeling slighted by Fenty.
As for Barry, Rhee makes him out to be a cartoonish ward boss who sounds like a character out of The Dukes of Hazzard. Here’s how Rhee describes a scene in which she’s touring Ward 8 with Barry in his car:
“Marion Barry! Marion Barry!” I heard screams as if on cue.
A group of kids had spotted Barry’s car and were jumping up and down excitedly waving their arms. One little boy ran up to the car.
“Marion Barry!” he exclaimed. “Will you buy a raffle ticket from me?”
“Nah, I don’t want no raffle ticket. Why are you selling those anyways?” he asked.
“’Cause we need money!” said the kid.
“For what?” Barry asked.
“I need a soda and some chips,” said the kid.
Barry reached into his back pocket. He pulled out a twenty-dollar bill.
“Here,” he said, “go get you some chips and a soda. And stay out of trouble, hear?”
In contrast to her one-dimensional descriptions of Gray and Barry, in Rhee’s telling, Fenty undergoes a transformation from an easily distracted, unpolished, and uninspiring mayor-elect to an übermensch who offered her unfailing support and heroically sacrificed his political career for the sake of the children.
Rhee writes that she was hesitant to accept Fenty’s offer to be chancellor after an initial meeting from which she came away unimpressed. But she says she changed her mind after having a heart-to-heart in his office. “His head shined. His eyes burned,” Rhee notes.
She asks him:
“What would you risk for a chance to turn this system around? Because I can’t make any guarantees …”
He considered the question. He paused. His eyes relaxed.
“Everything,” he replied.
I believe he smiled. He had me at “everything.”
Later, when Rhee told Fenty that she needed to close as many as 40 schools because of the school system’s declining population, Fenty gave this piece of advice: “Do it,” he said. “Rip the Band-Aid off. Don’t peel it.”
Good advice for actual Band-Aids? Maybe. Probably not the best for closing schools, it turns out.
Photo by Darrow Montgomery