On Wednesday, the head of the Washington, D.C. public school system, Chancellor Michelle Rhee, announced her resignation. Rhee was a controversial and divisive figure who had the tough task of improving one of the worst school systems in the country. According to the Washington Post, in 2007, only 9 percent of the D.C. high school students would graduate from college within five years of leaving the school system.
Known for her no-nonsense style, Rhee improved test scores and stopped the decline in school enrollment.
At the same time, she angered many people by closing more than 20 schools and firing or laying off hundreds of teachers that were deemed low-performing.
The man who gave her the mission of improving D.C. schools in 2007, then-Mayor Adrian Fenty, was booted out of office in what many say is a reaction to Rhee’s unpopularity, losing his re-election bid in the Sept. 14 Democratic mayoral primary. One of Rhee’s reasons for her resignation is that she saw her public persona becoming a distraction from the task at hand. Presumptive mayor-elect Vincent C. Gray said that reforms launched under Rhee will continue when he takes office.
Choosing sides in this conflict is tough because we understand that change is hard — especially in this economy; it involved the firing of so many educators. Perhaps some educators and parents thought improvement and change shouldn’t be so swift and blunt — but at the same time, the situation was dire.
Many of the teachers Rhee fired were Black in a predominately Black city. Some argued that her reforms favored whites and pushed out Blacks. However, according to the Washington Post, D.C. is 55 percent Black, and the school system was 80 percent Black. Whites in D.C. sought alternative school systems because of the public school system’s poor reputation. Rhee was restoring balance and creating an environment where a family’s culture or income level wasn’t an excuse for poor performance.
We believe she really wanted kids to succeed and excel. She was a strong leader in a contentious position.
We all know that whenever changes are implemented, there is always a large population that isn’t satisfied.
Rhee needs to be given credit for being gutsy. Her job was not to cater to adults but rather to give kids access to a bright future.
At her press conference, Rhee said that she is taking a break but plans to remain in the business of education reform. We hope that she stands by those words, and we are looking forward to her next move. ♦