On Thursday, Senator Daniel Akaka [D-HI] convened an education sub-committee hearing on the state of reform in the D.C. public school system. D.C. Public Schools Chancellor Michelle Rhee testified, and was met with both support and opposition. Over the past two years, she has brought sweeping reforms to the DCPS and has worked to reduce waste in the system. Despite her successes in a steep uphill battle, opponents of her reform efforts held signs reading “Oppose Rhee-form” outside of the committee hearing.
While Rhee’s star-power garnered considerable attention during the hearing, the future of the D.C. Opportunity Scholarship program – and the 1,700 children who have a safe and effective education because of it – was also brought to the forefront. Senator Voinovich [R-OH] discussed the scholarship program at the first available moment, stating that, “for the life of me, I can’t understand why that program can’t continue.” While Chancellor Rhee did not speak at length about the scholarship program, she did publicly offer her support for continuation of the three-sector approach – the provision which provides funding to the Opportunity Scholarship Program, D.C. charter schools, and additional funding for District public schools – stating, “The tri-sector approach needs to be maintained and continued into the future.”
After two years, Rhee acknowledges that D.C.’s public schools are still some of the worst in the nation, saying yesterday, “the situation [in the public schools] remains dire.” She has championed merit pay and the renegotiation of union contracts in order to bring about real reform in these schools. Rhee supports linking teacher pay to performance: “we must recognize and reward them,” she said.
Chancellor Rhee has met much resistance from teachers unions who don’t always have the children’s best interests at heart. When attempting to reconstitute schools – firing all of the teachers in those schools and rehiring only the most qualified – she has only been moderately successful. Union contracts require that unionized teachers are always hired back somewhere in the District, meaning the underperformers are simply shuffled to other schools. Retiring NEA general counsel Bob Chanin made clear earlier this month the union’s perspective that the interest of children should not come at the expense of union power.
Chancellor Rhee is now aligned with the majority of members on the D.C. Council in supporting the D.C. OSP. Her focus on student success and parental choice are important changes to D.C.’s educational structure.