A Great Candidate for Education Secretary

The school chancellor in Washington, D.C. is a reformist Democrat named Michelle Rhee. She has spent the last 18 months attempting to shake up one of the worst school districts in America, to give the children in the nation’s capital a chance at a quality education. The Wall Street Journal profiled Rhee recently:

In going after tenure, Ms. Rhee is taking on the holiest citadel of the education establishment. This summer she offered a new teacher contract proposal with two options. Teachers could choose a plan under which their pay would rise spectacularly — nearly doubling by 2010 — in exchange for giving up tenure. Or they could opt for a smaller pay bump and still lose some seniority rights.

Ms. Rhee’s proposal has caused a meltdown among leaders of the Washington Teachers’ Union, and negotiations have collapsed. The Chancellor has raised the stakes, announcing the district would seek to dismiss tenured teachers who are ineffective. She has also hinted she’ll go around the union by creating more nonunionized charter schools, or getting the federal government to deem her district in a “state of emergency…”

The beauty of Ms. Rhee’s tenure reform is that it would use financial incentives to help the best teachers. Unions love to say they are underpaid professionals. Ms. Rhee agrees. Under her reform, teachers willing to be judged on their worth could earn up to $130,000 a year. Her price: Disburse money as is in the real world — on merit.

The union leadership claims its members oppose to the plan, but the WTU has refused to allow a vote. The local is getting heat from its parent organization, the American Federation of Teachers, which is petrified that Ms. Rhee’s plan will set a national precedent. These bosses know that smaller pay-for-performance experiments across the country have received strong teacher support.

Now Ms. Rhee has given an interview where she expands on her views, and talks about what Democrats need to do to match Republicans on education policy:

For the last decade or so, the Democrats have not been as strong on education reform as the Republicans have. The Republicans have been much, much better, in my opinion, on ensuring strict accountability for schools and for districts, for ensuring that people are held responsible for closing the achievement gap and significantly increasing student achievement levels for every single child. What worries me about the Democrats is that they tend to be softer on these things, and soft is not what we need right now. Allowing schools to continue to fail year in and year out without significant ramifications either to the district or to the school is doing a disservice to the children…

I don’t think it’s too much for the children of this country to ask for to have somebody who’s leading the education system who is always going to put their interests first and foremost, who is not going to care about the politics, the political flak, how many adults get mad at them, keeping the adults happy. At the end of the day, this is all about whether we’re doing the right things and making the right decisions for kids. And I find it somewhat odd, the amount of what you’d call flak that I get for having that stance, given that my job is to make sure that kids are getting an excellent education…

I think it’s a great place for this to happen because this is largely considered the worst school district in the country. And I believe that when we significantly turn around the learning outcomes of kids in this city, then it takes the excuses away from everyone else who says it’s not possible because of the kids and poverty and that sort of thing. Because if you can do it in D.C., I think you can fairly say that you can do it anywhere.

Rhee is a young, highly-intelligent agent of change, whose goal above all is a quality education for the children she serves. There are few Republicans who seem as committed as she is to reforming the nation’s hidebound public education system. She seems eminently qualified to take on the as-yet-unfilled position of Education Secretary under President Obama. And her nomination would be a sign that Obama truly is committed to changing the way Washington works and creating a more effective federal government.

Would a petition from Republicans help, or hurt?