Do as I say, not as I do: Michelle Rhee and the public education paradox

Education activist argues for radical change in public schools but sends her children to private school, like many other officials

Our personal finances play an all-but-unspoken role in how our children are educated. In the United States, we fund public education via local property taxes. This means the more expensive the neighborhood real estate, the more likely that the children living there will attend a school with decent teacher-student ratios and more in the way of “extras” like art and music classes than their peers with less financially flush moms and dads.

Others will go to private schools. The benefits of such a decision are obvious. You don’t like the increased state and federally mandated testing in even the best public schools? You don’t have to tolerate them at private schools. There is all but certain to be an institution for you and yours – if, that is, you can afford a hefty tuition bill, one that runs in excess of $40,000. The parent who pays the piper gets to call the educational tune for their children.

All this background is a way of introducing my readers to one Michelle Rhee. If you have children and live in the United States, you almost certainly know who Rhee is. The 43-year-old is the former chancellor of the Washington DC public schools, a founder and CEO of Students First, and an education-reform activist who courts controversy – the name of her new memoir, after all, is “Radical.”

Rhee has a lot of ideas about how to reform public schools. She advocates using strict testing to judge whether kids are learning, and getting rid of teachers who don’t deliver those kinds of scores. She believes “class size matters a whole lot less than teacher quality,” as she told the U-T San Diego newspaper earlier this year, something that infuriates many public school parents who see scarce money being spent on ever-more testing initiatives while class sizes grow larger.

Making pronouncements on education like Rhee does requires a certain amount of moral authority. It probably requires a belief that what works for the public school masses should also work for your children.

Well … about that.

A profile of Rhee ran in the Los Angeles Times late last month containing the claim that she’s a public school parent.

What happened next is this: representatives from the American Federation of Teachers contacted reporters to allege that Rhee sends her oldest daughter to a private school in Nashville, Tennessee. Other bloggers – including education activist Diane Ravitch – stepped forward to identify the school as Harpeth Hall, an exclusive girls’ school. A spokeswoman for Rhee declined to comment about the specific allegation, but apologized for “misleading” the Los Angeles Times.

So what is Harpeth, where the annual tuition exceeds $22,000 per child, all about and why should we care?

Perhaps it is best to begin by discussing what Harpeth is not about. It’s nothing like the vision of public schooling that Rhee advocates for everyone else. Children at Harpeth Hall – where the median class size is a mere 13 students – are not ranked by state-approved standardized tests. There is no school board that decides to fire teachers or even close the school if Harpeth students don’t do well on tests.

None of these outcomes can happen because Harpeth girls are not taking the multitude of statewide performance evaluation exams recommended by reformers like Rhee and her former husband and children’s father, Tennessee Commissioner of Education Kevin Huffman.

Rhee and her ex are not exactly alone in their “do as I say, not as I do” approach to their children’s education. Other politicians who regularly opine on the need for greater public school accountability via high-stakes testing have made similar choices.

This starts at the top. As Valerie Strauss pointed out in the Washington Post, Barack and Michelle Obama send their daughters to the progressive Sidwell Friends School (annual tuition: $34,000+). Another such politician is Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel, whose children reportedly attend The University of Chicago Laboratory Schools (annual tuition: $28,000+) where the claim to “value learning experientially” does not refer to the experience of filling in multiple-choice circles on standardized exams with a No 2 yellow pencil. New Jersey Governor Chris Christie is also a member of this group, telling reporters it was “none of your business” when they asked about his children’s education.

While the jury is out on whether high stakes testing increases academic achievement, it appears quite possible that it’s contributing to a rise in institutional corruption. A few weeks ago in Atlanta, 35 people, including a former district head, were indicted in a test cheating scandal. Rhee’s own tenure as chancellor of the Washington DC school system from 2007-2010 saw charges of strangely high erasure rates – that is, a higher than normal number of answers changed on tests, so much so that some suspected people other than students were changing answers to improve scores – at exams given at a number of schools. (Federal investigators deemed the accusations baseless; others including PBS’s Frontline believe the allegations need to be taken more seriously). Not surprisingly, protests by both public school administrators and parents to the public school testing culture are growing in number.

The fact is that many moms and dads whose boys and girls attend our nation’s public schools would also like the choice to educate their children in a way that prioritizes small class sizes, values their intellectual and emotional growth, and eschews the increasingly frequent and pressurized state tests. But, unlike Rhee and the others pushing these reforms, they lack the funds to buy their children’s way out of this environment. They are stuck.

I’m not arguing that people don’t have a right to decide to do what is best for their own children, or send them to a private school if they like. What we have here, however, is something more than a parent making a choice about the best needs of her own sons and daughters. This is a case of elites who are ensuring their progeny will not be subjected to the policies they themselves are promoting for other people’s children.

There are words to describe this situation but, in honor of Rhee, I won’t share them. Instead, pretend you read this post as a part of high-stakes test. In the comments, type the expression or phrase you think best describes Rhee’s actions. © 2013 Guardian News and Media Limited or its affiliated companies. All rights reserved. | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

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