Rhee, naturally, says that she loves good teachers—it’s just their unions she wants to curtail. Skeptics like Ravitch say you can’t separate the individual from the collective, and question the motives behind the movement. “What I don’t understand is why Obama and Duncan have signed on to what I think is a very right-wing strategy,” Ravitch says. “Because I know where these ideas come from. I was there when they were hatched.”
It’s not correct, though, to say that the reform movement’s intellectual lineage is exclusively conservative; there’s plenty of liberalism running through its DNA. At 41, Rhee belongs to a cohort of policy-makers who came of age in the Clinton era, the heyday of Democratic centrism, and who arrived at their position via a progressive ideal: that every child, no matter how underprivileged, should have a fair chance to achieve his or her intrinsic potential. These activists have spent their careers testing this proposition in think-tank research and charter-school classrooms. In some cases, they have expended their fortunes—the cause has been embraced by the financial community, and especially by a relatively youthful breed of New York hedge-fund manager. This, despite all her recent chumminess with Republican governors, is Rhee’s natural political base.
At the center of reformist theory is a consoling apostasy: that as much as it might appear that economics, class, and social dysfunction are aligned against inner-city children—implicating us all—the real problem is possible to isolate. It’s just a management issue. And perhaps not surprisingly, this idea gets a lot of traction on Wall Street. “From a distance, it’s very easy to accept the notion that the reason the less privileged kids are not learning is endemic to poverty itself,” says Brian Zied, a hedge-fund manager and donor to reform causes whose first exposure to the education debate came via tutoring at a Harlem charter school. “You interact with the kids for a few minutes, and it immediately hits you that, wait a minute, these kids can learn like any other kids. They just need to be put in an environment with high-quality teachers who care about outcomes. Frankly, it’s the same incentive system that works in 99 percent of all businesses. You reward the people that do well, and part ways with the ones that don’t.”
This is not a new idea—Republicans have been banging on about “merit pay” for years—but it gathered momentum in liberal circles gradually over the past decade, through a slow accretion of empirical data and personal experience. “Everyone involved in education reform now gets it,” says Whitney Tilson, a Manhattan financier and a board member of the organization Democrats for Education Reform. Tilson says that it took him and other reform-oriented Democrats “much too long” to come to the conclusion that the teachers unions, a crucial component of their party’s coalition, were implacable enemies. Only within the last year has the tension between the two sides exploded into all-out war. “When children’s lives are at stake, it’s almost incomprehensible to conceive of people willing to throw those children under the bus and screw them for life,” Tilson says, referring to unions and their supporters. He adds of Rhee, “She went in a little naïve, but she’s not naïve anymore.”
The intellectual history of the liberal obsession with “teacher quality”—a contentious euphemism—stretches back even further, to the early nineties, and the formative experiences of Michelle Rhee’s career. As a fresh Cornell graduate, Rhee signed up for the organization Teach for America, then in its infancy, which served as a training ground for the reform movement. “The idea started in TFA,” says Richard Nyankori, a close friend and top lieutenant to Rhee in Washington, “that there were these really exceptional teachers and then there were these really horrid teachers.”
Nyankori first got to know Rhee when TFA assigned them both to Baltimore. Rhee taught at Harlem Park Elementary, a red-brick school in a desperately poor West Side neighborhood. A few weeks before she arrived for the fall 1992 semester, the city had turned the school’s management over to a publicly traded company called Education Alternatives Inc., and the network news shows sent cameras to Harlem Park to record the first day of classes. Within the local community, the arrival of the for-profit company, run by a white entrepreneur from Minnesota, was viewed with profound suspicion. Some parents picketed, and many teachers were openly rebellious. Rhee entered this tumultuous experiment with nothing more than her Ivy League degree and five weeks of teacher training.
She soon discovered she had no idea how to reach her second-graders. “I sucked,” Rhee says in Richard Whitmire’s recently published biography, The Bee Eater. The kids ran roughshod over her attempts at a Montessori-style approach. In a speech last year to new teachers, Rhee made light of her flailing attempts to maintain control. On one occasion, she said, she used masking tape to shut their mouths as she marched them to the cafeteria.