Chancellor Michelle Rhee, Fearless in Her Challenge

Michelle Rhee is tough. That’s a good thing, because the mountain she’s climbing is steep and rugged. And the mountain has been entrenched, as mountains are, a very long time. Michelle’s mountains are a school system bureaucracy that has no interest in its product: the children.

For anyone who’s been sleeping through the past eight months, Rhee is the District’s new education chancellor — recruited by D.C. Mayor Adrian Fenty to reform the city’s ailing school system that’s been broken and an embarrassment to our capital city.

Rhee, who is striking in her capacity for energy and determination, came to speak to my Institute for Education (IFE) INFO Public Policy Roundtable group last week during lunch at The Washington Club at Dupont Circle.

Taking the position as schools chancellor was a “once in a lifetime” chance, she told us, to restore faith in the city’s public schools and achieve the reform that many thought impossible. We have a world capital city, and it demands a first-tier public school system.

Rhee’s challenges are akin to former D.C. Mayor Tony Williams’s obstacles when he first took office in 1999. Williams inherited a wrecked city government in need of repair. At our roundtable, Rhee painted a dismal picture of a school system run amok: Last week a Rhee staffer found 50,000 loose human resources papers in a closet — relics from 2005 never cataloged or filed. Williams found rotary phones in every department.

At 37, Rhee was a natural choice for the 38-year-old Fenty. They’re both change agents. They both demand action and are fearless.

But it will take more than energy to bring about reform in the city’s schools. “Change causes problems,” she told our group. In saying that, Rhee is saying this: The shakeup that’s coming for D.C. schools will be uncomfortable — so we can expect the volume knob to be cranked up in the coming months. Stay tuned.