State Politics

Michelle Rhee appearance in NC draws fire

Then-President-elect Donald Trump shakes hands with Michelle Rhee, a former chancellor of Washington, D.C., schools, and her husband, former NBA basketball player Kevin Johnson, left, in November.
Then-President-elect Donald Trump shakes hands with Michelle Rhee, a former chancellor of Washington, D.C., schools, and her husband, former NBA basketball player Kevin Johnson, left, in November. AP

Public school supporters are objecting to an appearance by Michelle Rhee, the controversial former chancellor of Washington D.C. schools, at a gathering for North Carolina legislators and policy-makers next week sponsored by a business group focused on education.

Rhee became a national figure, and stirred opposition, when she fired teachers, teaching assistants, and central office staff in Washington schools. She also rolled back tenure protections in a contract that had big teacher pay increases and a voluntary performance pay plan funded by foundations. She’s engaged in a years-long battle with teachers unions.

BEST NC, a business group that works on education issues, has invited Rhee to talk to legislators, Council of State members, and education policy makers, said BEST NC CEO Brenda Berg.

The issues that were controversial in Washington are not what Rhee is coming to North Carolina to talk about, Berg said. Instead, she is going to talk and answer questions about professional pathways for teachers, which give them leadership roles in schools that come with extra pay. BEST NC has been trying to convince legislators to embrace a career pathway plan for teachers.

“Why should we shut people out?” she asked in an interview. “We love to have a lot of diverse perspectives come to the table.”

This is the fourth annual gathering BEST NC has sponsored.

Public education advocates said Rhee was the wrong person to invite.

“In my 18 years of teaching in public schools and in my active advocacy for fully-funded public schools, I have never encountered a more polarizing figure than Michelle Rhee,” Stuart Egan, a Winston-Salem teacher, wrote in an open letter to Berg on his website Caffeinated Rage.

“In fact, I (and many others) consider Ms. Rhee the antithesis of how to approach helping public schools. In every endeavor she has undertaken in “improving” educational outcomes, she has left disunity, damage, and a large void in her wake,” he wrote.

Berg said D.C.’s teacher pathways program gets the credit for making Washington D.C.’s the fastest-improving school system in the nation, as measured by scores on a national test called NAEP.

Rhee worked to develop the program with George Parker, who was head of the Washington teachers union. Parker will be appearing with Rhee next week, Berg said.

The state should hear about successful education initiatives, Berg said, and Rhee and Parker can talk about Washington experience from different perspectives.

“We need to find a professional path that is good for students and teachers,” Berg said in an email. “ Elevating educators has been one of our top priorities as an organization.”

After the changes Rhee instigated in Washington cost both her and Parker their jobs, they started working together in Rhee’s national organization, Students First.

Mark Jewell, president of the North Carolina Association of Educators, was not assuaged by the focus of Rhee’s remarks on professional pathways for teachers.

Rhee’s ideas for school improvement are based on high-stakes testing and having “teachers jump through hoops,” Jewell said.

Schools need more resources and base pay increases for teachers before the state considers teacher career pathways, he said.

Lynn Bonner: 919-829-4821, @Lynn_Bonner

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