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Q & A: Former DC Schools Chancellor Talks Ohio Ed Reform

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Thursday, January 12, 2012 at 7:48 PM

Michelle Rhee talks with students at E-Prep, a charter school in Cleveland.

Former Washington DC schools chancellor Michelle Rhee was in Cleveland Thursday to discuss education reform and her new organization, StudentsFirst.

Rhee and her controversial theories were portrayed in the documentary, "Waiting for Superman." She supports merit-based pay for teachers, the end of the tenure system, and data-driven education reform.

Yesterday, we asked for your questions for Rhee if you had the chance to talk to her.

We caught up with her today as she toured the Entrepreneurship Preparatory School, one of the Breakthrough Charter Schools in Cleveland.

[audio href="http://audio2.ideastream.org/wcpn/2012/01/0112rhee.mp3" title="Michelle Rhee Talk Ohio Education Refrom"]A Democrat, Rhee supports many education reforms that in Ohio have become known as Republican initiatives.[/audio]

Q: The first question I want to ask you is what do you hope to achieve through StudentsFirst here in Ohio?

A: What we're hoping to do in every state is to compel citizens to really get engaged and involved in this effort, to start paying attention to the kinds of laws that the legislators are passing, the kinds of policies that school boards and superintendents are putting in place to make sure that all of those things are focused on children, not on adults.

Michelle Rhee speaks with a student at the Entrepreneurship Preparatory Academy, one of Cleveland's top performing charter schools.

Q: Do you think your reform efforts will be successful here in Ohio, where in November we saw a pretty resounding defeat of Issue 2 by voters?

A: Unfortunately, what happened with the collective bargaining piece is that a lot of different things got mixed in together and I don't think the defeat of SB 5 at all represents people's desire to maintain the status quo in education reform. I think quite to the contrary, if you look at polling in the state it does show that an overwhelming percentage of Ohioans really do want to see change in the public schools. They know that reform is necessary and they're ready to take that on.

Q: What are your thoughts on Gov. John Kasich; do you think you have his support in these efforts?

A: It's very interesting. John Kasich is a Republican, I'm a Democrat, so we certainly don't agree on all issues. But as it pertains to education and education reform, I have found Gov. Kasich to be a very, very strong proponent of reform.

Q: It seems that some of the things that you stand for (like tying performance to teacher pay and opposing last-hired, first-fired) have really come to be synonymous with the Republican Party's reform efforts and anti-union, anti-liberal (agenda) in Ohio. How did that develop in your own personal belief system?

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A: For example last-in, first-out basically says that if you're the last teacher hired, you must be the first teacher fired at the time of a layoff. Makes absolutely no sense. Nobody wants layoffs to occur, but if they do have to occur then we have to do our best to ensure that the best teachers, the most highly effective teachers are maintained in the system. So I don't see that as a Republican point of view, I don't see that as a Democratic point of view, I see that as a pro-kid stance.

I think that's what we need more of. We need less of the partisan politics and we need less of the posturing that happens between parties, and we need everyone to put all of that aside and say, 'Let's come up with an agenda that's focused on what's in the best interests of children.'

Q: One of our listeners wants to know what impact on a student's success or failure in school does their home environment and socio-economic status have? Or do you think that a student's success or failure in school is entirely the teacher's responsibility?

A: A kid's success in school is not entirely contingent upon any one factor; it's actually both. When you have the home and the family working in concert with the school and the teacher, that's the best-case scenario, when everyone's on the same page. And so we should try to do everything we can to try to incent and encourage more parental and familial involvement in schools. Can teachers overcome all of the ills of society? Absolutely not. Can they make a big dent in the potential life outcomes of kids if we've got great teachers in the classroom? One-hundred percent.

Q: Another reader wants to know, what are your thoughts on accountability for charter schools and private schools that accept public funding?

Rhee watches a class in action at E-Prep charter school in Cleveland.

A: I am somebody who's very in favor of choice for families so they never feel like they're trapped in failing schools, but I'm not for choice for choice's sake. I'm only for choice if it provides better outcomes and better opportunities for kids, which means that if there are low-performing charter schools in this state, they need to be closed down. If there are private schools that are accepting vouchers but those kids on those vouchers are not performing at higher levels, then those vouchers need to stop.

It doesn't matter what kind of school you are, a traditional public school, a charter school or a private school that's accepting vouchers: Every single one of those schools has to be held accountable.


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