Michelle Rhee had never run a school when she was tapped by newly elected District of Columbia Mayor Adrian Fenty in 2007 to run the Washington, D.C., school system, ranked one of the worst in the nation. A veteran of Teach for America, Rhee had gone on to found the nonprofit New Teacher Project, which recruits and trains teachers for high-need school districts. Fenty, the youngest mayor of D.C. ever elected, moved to take over the school system on his first day in office, and Rhee, who’d earned a reputation as a reformer, was his pick for schools chancellor. For better and for worse, their political fortunes were hitched together.
Rhee came on like a hurricane, firing teachers and principals and playing tough with the unions. She got plenty of media coverage, becoming an icon of the education reform movement nationwide, and was prominently featured in a documentary critical of the U.S. educational system, “Waiting for ‘Superman.”
She even got props from Barack Obama during the presidential campaign, although Rhee has criticized Democrats on education (she’s a strong supporter of the Bush administration’s No Child Left Behind) and says she almost voted for John McCain in 2008. Back home, Rhee had made bitter enemies as well as ardent fans. She was a polarizing figure in a racially divided town: Her support among African Americans, who are the majority in D.C., plunged over the years, and so did Fenty’s.
In 2010, Fenty lost the Democratic Party’s nomination for mayor. Rhee’s days were numbered. She’d clashed with Mayor-Elect Vince Gray in the past, so no one was surprised when she announced her resignation in October. Rhee had served for only three and a half years, but that was enough to make her one of the district’s longest-serving school leaders in two decades.
Rhee had predicted, when she first met Fenty, that hiring her would be his political undoing. But their work may not have been wasted. Rhee won $75 million for D.C. schools from the federal Race to the Top fund to overhaul schools, and the funds are tied to the reforms that she put in place, and so is $64.5 million that she solicited from private foundations.