Higher Ed

Michelle Rhee: My Break With the Democrats

As a lifelong Democrat, controversial education reformer Michelle Rhee never thought she’d support school vouchers. Until she did. In Radical, she details her transformation.

Gerald Martineau for The Washington Post, via Getty

When I began my stint with the D.C. public schools, I had strong ideas about what education reform should look like and what it shouldn’t look like. I believed wholeheartedly that we had to have a very strong focus on teacher quality. I was also a believer in charter schools. I had seen their value when I served for a couple of years on the board of the St. HOPE Public Schools. I guess that was my first break with Democratic dogma. I knew that charter schools were anathema to teachers' unions. I also knew the best ones could serve children extraordinarily well.

But I drew a very deep line in the sand when it came to vouchers. As a lifelong Democrat I was adamantly against vouchers. Vouchers provide public funds to parents who need help in paying tuition for private or parochial schools. Proponents, mostly Republicans, see vouchers as leveling the field and broadening choice for families. Detractors, usually Democrats, decry the use of public funds to pay for private education. I had bought into the arguments that Democrats and others use in opposition to vouchers: vouchers are a way of taking money away from public school systems and putting them into private schools; vouchers help only a handful of the kids; and vouchers take children and resources away from the schools and districts that need those resources the most.

For all of those reasons, my view on vouchers was set. But soon after I arrived in Washington, D.C., I was in a pickle. The District of Columbia had Opportunity Scholarships, a federally funded voucher program that helped poor families attend private schools. The program was up for reauthorization, and there was a heated debate going on in the city.

“You’re the most high-profile education official in the city,” a Washington Post reporter asked. “Do you think the Opportunity Scholarship program should be re-upped?”

My inclination was to say no. As a good Democrat, I should have responded, “I don’t support vouchers, because they are not a systemic solution to the problems we face.” No one would have been surprised or upset with that answer.

However, I wanted to have my facts straight. So I decided to meet with families across the city and spend some time better understanding the Opportunity Scholarships initiative. It’s amazing what one can learn from talking to parents.

The outreach I did about the Opportunity Scholarships was part of a countless number of meetings I had with parents over the course of my time in D.C. Many of those parents were young mothers who came to me looking for answers. Although they were different in many ways, they often came with the same goal: better schooling opportunities for their children. Usually mothers would request meetings with me during the school selection process that takes place each January and February.

The typical mom would come to the meeting armed with data and talking points. For example:

“I currently live in Southeast,” she would say. “Our house is zoned to the local elementary school. I have done quite a bit of research into the school and was shocked to find that only 20 percent of the children are operating at grade-level proficiency. That means my child has an 80 percent likelihood of failure. That’s simply not acceptable for me and my family.”Absolutely right, I would think.

Then the mother would tell me she had gone online and researched all the best schools in the district. She had read about Mann and Key elementary schools, in Northwest D.C. She told me either would give her child a better education, even though it would mean two hours of commuting a day. She had applied to those schools and a number of others through a lottery process that allowed out-of-boundary students to attend certain schools.

I knew what was coming next.

“But we didn’t get in. I was devastated. So now I don’t know what to do. I went to DCPS. My parents went to DCPS. I believe in public schools, but I simply can’t send my child to the local school. Can you help me?"

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It was a painful experience for me, each and every time. My instinct was always to tell the mother that I’d let her kid into Mann or Key and make the school make room for one more child. But honestly, it just wasn’t doable. Or fair. There were so many parents who visited me with these requests and so many more who were on waiting lists for those schools who had followed all of the rules.

Oh, I could have found a spot for them at another D.C. public school, perhaps marginally better than their home school. But that wasn’t what they wanted. They were looking for the exact same thing that I wanted for my two girls: the best school possible.

Who am I, I thought, to deny this mom and her child an opportunity for a better school, even if that meant help with a seventy-five-hundred-dollar voucher? If they got a voucher, and her child could attend a really good Catholic school, perhaps, why would I stand in the way—especially since I don’t have a high-quality DCPS alternative?

I just couldn’t look mother after mother in the eye and deny their children the opportunity I wanted for my own children. It would have required me to say, “Gee, I’m sorry, you’re just going to have to suck it up. I know your elementary school is a failing school, and your child will probably not learn how to read, but I really need five more years to fix the system. And while I’m fixing the system, I need you and your neighbors to be really patient. Hang in there with me. Things will get better. I promise.”

If someone said that to me, I’d have said, “You may need more time to fix the system but my kid doesn’t have time. She has only one chance to attend first grade, and if she can’t learn to read by the end of first grade, her chances for success in life will be compromised. So with all due respect—heck no!”

After my listening tour of families, and hearing so many parents plead for an immediate solution to their desire for a quality education, I came out in favor of the voucher program. People went nuts. Democrats chastised me for going against the party, but the most vocal detractors were my biggest supporters.

“Michelle, what are you doing?” one education reformer asked. “You are the first opportunity this city has had to fix the system. We believe in you and what you’re trying to do. But you have to give yourself a fighting chance! You need time and money to make your plan work. If during that time children continue fleeing the system on these vouchers, you’ll have less money to implement your reforms. You can’t do this to yourself!”

“Here’s the problem with your thinking,” I’d answer. “My job is not to preserve and defend a system that has been doing wrong by children and families. My job is to make sure that every child in this city attends an excellent school. I don’t care if it’s a charter school, a private school, or a traditional district school. As long as it’s serving kids well, I’m happy. And you should be, too.”

Here’s the question we Democrats need to ask ourselves: Are we beholden to the public school system at any cost, or are we beholden to the public school child at any cost? My loyalty and my duty will always be to the children.

Not everyone bought it. In fact, most of my Democrat friends remained adamantly opposed to vouchers. It was interesting, though: they were always opposed to the broad policy, but they could never reconcile their logic when thinking at the individual-kid level.

I was having a heated discussion one day with one of my closest friends, a public school teacher. She was deriding voucher policy. My public policy wonkiness was not serving me well, so I decided to change tactics.

“You watched Waiting for ‘Superman’?” I asked.

“Of course,” she answered. “One of my best friends was featured in the movie.” She chuckled.

“Do you remember that scene with Bianca?” I asked.

Waiting for “Superman” director Davis Guggenheim did a brilliant job of distilling pretty complicated education policies into easy and understandable terms. But more important, he humanized the problems by following five families in their quest to find a high-quality public school for their children to attend.

One of the most poignant stories was about a little girl named Bianca. Her mother had had a negative experience in the public schools herself. So she was committed to giving her child a better chance. When Bianca was in kindergarten her mother enrolled her in the Catholic school across the street from their apartment, and she worked extra jobs to be able to pay the tuition.

Unfortunately, with the economic downturn, her hours were cut back, and she fell behind on her tuition payments. There is an emotional scene in the movie when Bianca is gazing longingly out the window. It is the day of her kindergarten graduation. She’s watching all of her friends and their families file in for the graduation ceremony, but she’s not allowed to attend. Tears are streaming down her face.

“Remember,” I pleaded, “her mom owed the school money so they didn’t let her go to her kindergarten graduation? How did that make you feel?”

“Ugh, that was awful,” my friend said. “It was totally wrong of the school. It was absolutely heart-wrenching! I mean seriously, I wanted to write the five-hundred-dollar check myself!”

“Right,” I said, “that would be a voucher.”

Most people in this country do not favor vouchers in education, because they don’t want public dollars going to private institutions or businesses. But the logic holds absolutely no water.

We have federal Pell grants that low-income students use all the time to attend private colleges. Pell grants aren’t limited to use at public universities. We have food stamps that low-income families redeem at nongovernment grocery stores. And let’s not forget about Medicare and Medicaid.

Think about it this way. Say your elderly mother had to be hospitalized for life-threatening cancer. The best doctor in the region is at Sacred Heart, a Catholic, private hospital. Could you ever imagine saying this? “Well, I don’t think our taxpayer dollars should subsidize this private institution that has religious roots, so we’re going to take her to County General, where she’ll get inferior care. ’Cause that’s just the right thing to do!”

No. You’d want to make sure that your tax dollars got your mom the best care. Period. Our approach should be no different for our children. Their lives are at stake when we’re talking about the quality of education they are receiving. The quality of care standard should certainly be no lower.

This article has been adapted by arrangement with HarperCollins, from Radical: Fighting to Put Students First by Michelle Rhee. Copyright 2013 by Michelle Rhee.