Education Reformer Michelle Rhee Tells Her Side

Judy Hartnett's picture
Monday, March 26, 2012

Michelle Rhee, the former Washington, D.C., schools chancellor, might very well be the most controversial figure in public education these days.

She runs the national nonprofit she started in 2010 called Students First, which advocates for increased parent choice, fiscal accountability at all levels of public education and weeding out ineffective teachers and, last year, Time magazine named her among the world's 100 most influential people.

But she is vilified by the teachers unions for her support of charter schools and vouchers and her efforts to rid schools of ineffective teachers regardless of their seniority. Her organization has gained national recognition among education-minded reformers and even Oprah.

Now living in Sacramento, Rhee, 42, is married to the city's Mayor Kevin Johnson. She was in the Bay Area last week for several speaking engagements and spoke to The Chronicle. The interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Q: Your parents pulled you out of public school questioning the quality and sent you to a private school. Did you agree with them?

Rhee: You know, at that point I don't think I felt in any way I wasn't getting a good education or anything like that. But at the time that my parents did that my brother was attending a private school and I definitely saw the rigor of the instruction he was getting.

Q: Do you think that decision affected you and the direction that you've taken?

Rhee: Well, I feel like I had a very positive experience in public school for elementary school. ... As I got older and went through private school, especially for high school, I definitely saw the difference in the quality of instruction that we were getting every day, particularly when I talked to people who were attending public school ... I feel I got an excellent education and I definitely knew ... that what we were getting every day was really a privilege and really at that point thought, "Why isn't this something that every kid everywhere gets?"

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