Thursday, October 14, 2010


By RAJU CHEBIUM • Gannett Washington Bureau• in the Asbury Park Press |


In this July 17, 28 file photo, Washington Schools Chancellor Michelle Rhee testifies on Capitol Hill in Washington. Rhee, the head of the D.C. public school system is expected to announce she is stepping down after a tension-filled, three-year tenure. (AP PHOTO)

14 October 2010 - WASHINGTON — Could the nation's best-known and most controversial education reformer be headed to New Jersey?

Michelle Rhee, who recently resigned as schools chancellor in Washington, D.C., is being talked up as a potential candidate for New Jersey education commissioner or Newark school superintendent after she leaves her current job on Oct. 31.

Gov. Chris Christie is her fan and Newark Mayor Cory Booker is her friend. Both have top education jobs to fill.

Right now, the official word is that Rhee isn't in the running for either job.

"We don't have any comment except to say that the governor admires what Michelle Rhee accomplished in the D.C. schools and wishes her well," Christie spokesman Michael Drewniak said in an e-mail.

And Booker spokeswoman Anne Torres said in e-mail that "at this moment in time, there are no plans to talk to Ms. Rhee about the position."

Christie fired his education commissioner, Bret Schundler, in August after the state failed to win a $400 million competitive grant from the Obama administration. Clifford Janey, Newark's superintendent, was told shortly after the Schundler dismissal that his contact wouldn't be renewed. In 2007, Janey was fired as the Washington, D.C. schools chancellor and was replaced by Rhee.

The Newark job pays $280,000 a year and the statewide commissioner position about half that.

Newark's schools will receive $100 million in Facebook stock over the next five years from the social networking site's founder, Mark Zuckerberg, making New Jersey's biggest school district the center of education reform efforts.

Rhee didn't return telephone messages left with her aides Wednesday and Thursday. She told ABC's "Good Morning America" she's looking to remain in K-12 education but wants to move closer to her fiance, Kevin Johnson, the mayor of Sacramento, Calif., and a former player with the Phoenix Suns basketball team.

But the Garden State could still be on her mind, according to one of her acquaintances, Derrell Bradford, executive director of a Newark school-choice group called Excellent Education for Everyone.

Before she announced her resignation Wednesday, Rhee e-mailed Bradford several times to learn about Newark's schools and the reforms under way there, but Bradford said she never directly expressed an interest in working there.

Newark and Washington are both overwhelmingly minority school districts with high levels of per-pupil spending - over $20,000 a year in Newark - and substandard student achievement, Bradford said. Turning Newark around is the type of challenge Rhee would love, he said.

"The stuff she is about is the core of the education reform agenda," he said. "People make the mistake of believing that education reform is something you can hatch and implement in the classroom. It is really about political and social change."

In Washington, Rhee toughened teacher evaluations, closed badly performing schools and linked teacher pay to student achievement. She stressed scores on standardized tests, which rose for the first two years of her tenure. Elementary school math and reading scores dipped this year, though middle-school and high-school scores continued improving.

Rhee, 40, was admired by Washington's white residents for her aggressive reforms, but her critics, including many of the city's black residents, derided her as arrogant and uncompromising. She is lionized in "Waiting for 'Superman,'" a documentary about American schools.

In her most controversial statement, she told a business magazine that some of the 266 teachers she fired last fall either had sex with children or hit them. She later said only one of the teachers had been accused of sexual misconduct.

Joseph Del Grosso, president of the 5,500-member Newark Teachers Union, said what he's read about Rhee worries him. The next superintendent should seek to work with union members, not antagonize them, he said, and would "not use the whip but use logic and temperance to figure out solutions."

"People want to be involved. People don't want to be dictated to," Del Grosso said. "The dictatorial superintendent hardly ever lasts."

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