SACRAMENTO, CA - Michelle Rhee is a controversial figure in the world of education. The former chancellor of the Washington, D.C. public school system and wife of Sacramento Mayor Kevin Johnson, has authored a new book: Radical: Fighting to Put Students First.
As chancellor of the D.C. public schools from 2007 to 2010, Rhee was criticized for her tough-love approach: She ended teacher tenure in the district and closed 23 schools in one year.
In an interview, Rhee weighed in on the Sacramento City Unified School District Board's recent decision to close seven elementary schools because of budget problems and under-enrollment.
"People feel very emotional and sentimental about their schools," said Rhee, who added that closing low-performing schools and moving kids to higher performing schools, is an upside to the difficult process of closing schools.
"You're also then taking the same amount of money in the district and spending it over fewer schools which means every school is going to be better resourced," she said. "When we were in D.C., it allowed us to make sure every school had an art teacher, music teacher, a P.E. teacher, a librarian and a nurse, a guidance counselor or a social worker."
Rhee is the founder of Sacramento-based Students First, a non-profit organization focused on education reform. Her office is three blocks from her husband's at Sacramento City Hall, but when asked what she would do if put in charge of Sacramento schools, Rhee laughed and said, "I think that would probably not be what my husband would want."
Rhee says when it comes to improving public schools, Sacramento probably needs the same thing as most urban school districts across the country.
"One, you have to make sure you have highly effective teachers, that every kid has a highly effective teacher in front of them in the classroom every single day. The second is you have to make sure parents are empowered both with information and with choices for their kids. The third is governing well and spending taxpayer dollars wisely."
Rhee emphasizes the importance of parents advocating for their children and if necessary, addressing issues with the school, the district and even elected officials.
Students First recently issued a report card on the nation's schools and California ranked among the worst with an "F." Rhee says there has be acknowledgment that public education isn't serving youth well, pointing out "the United States is 14th, 17th and 25 in reading, science and math internationally."
Rhee admitted to being a tough grader, but says California received an "F" because of "the policy environment, the laws and rules that govern how schools can operate, how teachers can teach, how principals can run their schools are such that it is incredibly restrictive" and makes it difficult for educators to do their jobs.
"We should ensure that every kid, no matter what neighborhood you live in, no matter what color your skin is, you can attend a great public school and then live the American dream because you work hard and do the right thing," said Rhee.
Rhee said her parents emigrated from South Korea to Ohio so that she could get a good public education and grow up to become a successful adult.
Now, Rhee says public education is no longer the great equalizer it was set-up to be.
"The reality for many of the children in this country today is wildly different, which is that if you live in a low income community, likelihood that you attend a failing school is really high and that you're probably not going to get the skills and knowledge that you need to be a productive member of society. That's the most un-American thing imaginable and that's why we have to focus as a nation on prioritizing this issue so we can live up to our ideals as a country," she said.
Rhee also spoke at a small book signing and discussion event Wednesday night at the Guild Theater and Underground Books in Sacramento's Oak Park neighborhood.