Her tough approach and willingness to take on “untouchable” issues in education have earned her a reputation as a nonideological crusader who might be carving out a new model for school reform. But critics, including many teachers, see her tactics as heavy handed and capricious. Is she education’s new White Knight or just a Michelle the Knife?
What Michelle Rhee isn’t anymore is anonymous. In the nation’s ultimate media town, she’s become something of a celebrity. On this day, she chats in a TV studio with local talk-show host Bruce DePuyt. A meteorologist at the station strolls in and laments that he didn’t bring in his copy of Time magazine that features her on the cover. He wanted her to autograph it.
“She can sign mine for you and then we can swap,” says Mr. DePuyt. Rhee smiles politely. It is the third time she has been on his show. “She’s one of my all-star guests,” DePuyt says. Rhee rolls her eyes.
The young chancellor doesn’t like to talk about her new klieg-light status or how it affects her job. “I really frankly don’t care all that much about the media,” she says. Rhee is similarly dismissive of Washington’s political rituals, saying at one point: “I’m not a politician, but I am an administrator who has to deal with politics.”
Lately, in fact, she has been embroiled in some politicking with the local teachers union over a new contract. At the heart of the dispute is the most radical element of her reform plans – performance-based salaries for teachers.
Rhee would like to see people in the classroom paid a lot more – six figure salaries in the case of some veteran teachers. It’s a prospect many teachers relish. But in exchange for the highest salaries, she would like teachers to surrender their coveted tenure protection so they can be fired if they don’t bring up test scores – something most don’t like.