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Mugged By Reality on School Choice

For anyone who followed Michelle Rhee’s career since her time in Washington D.C., this latest opinion piece called “My Break With the Democrats” is no surprise. Rhee, the former schools chancellor for Washington was a breath of fresh air for a school system that has consistently produced underperforming students. Rhee’s tactics, including her support for the DC Opportunity Scholarship Program, a voucher system promoting school choice in the capital, led to a rebellion from teachers and their unions in the city. The D.C. mayoral race in 2010 became a referendum on Democratic Mayor Adrian Fenty’s education policies, namely having Rhee at their helm, and teacher’s unions poured $1 million into the campaign to unseat Fenty in order to remove Rhee.

Unfortunately for D.C.’s students, Vincent Gray’s campaign for mayor was successful, in large part thanks to financial support from teacher’s unions. Immediately following Gray’s election Rhee resigned, knowing her mandate for reform had expired. The ramifications of the election have been disastrous both for the city and for education in the District. A recently released report indicates that only four in 10 D.C. 3rd graders are proficient readers and even fewer are in math. Three years after Rhee’s departure the teacher’s unions have gotten their way, and it’s easy to see who the winners and losers were in their battle for control for control of education policy in the city.

In her piece in the Daily Beast, Rhee explained why she found herself breaking with her Democratic counterparts on education, in particular on school choice issues. The article, adapted from her new book Radical, closed with this commonsense argument that school choice advocates should be utilizing more often:

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.

In comparison to the outcomes for public school students in D.C where only 70 percent of students graduate, graduates who participated in the D.C. voucher program, which Rhee ultimately lost her job defending, graduate at a rate of 94 percent per year. While it may be difficult for Rhee to find employment as a chancellor in another city because of teacher’s unions’ animosity toward her policies, her outspoken conversion to school choice advocacy adds an important voice to the conversation.


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