by Jessica Calefati/The Star-Ledger (N.J.) | http://bit.ly/d3CEeE
file photos Gov. Chris Christie and former Washington D.C. education chief Michelle Rhee.
Wednesday, October 20, 2010 - TRENTON — Washington, D.C.’s former schools chancellor is seriously considering an offer from Gov. Chris Christie to become the state’s next education commissioner, but family concerns may prove an insurmountable stumbling block for her, two people familiar with the negotiations said.
When state officials initially approached Michelle Rhee, she quickly turned down the offer, thinking the governor wanted her to make a lateral move and run the Newark Public Schools, something Mayor Cory Booker wanted, Newark school officials said. Even Oprah Winfrey endorsed the possibility of Rhee becoming Newark’s next superintendent.
In fact, the Christie administration wanted Rhee to consider the vacant state education commissioner’s post, a more attractive offer to her because it signified a step up on the ladder of national education reform influence, according to sources who sought anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss confidential matters. But the state could not get Rhee "past the gate" because of frustration that a move to New Jersey would take her away from her family. Her husband Kevin Johnson, a former NBA All-Star, is the mayor of Sacramento, Calif.
Michael Drewniak, a spokesman for the governor, would not comment on the state’s search for a new education commissioner.
Speaking on CNN Tuesday, Rhee would not confirm that New Jersey officials had contacted her about becoming the state’s next education commissioner or Newark’s next superintendent, nor would she deny that she’s not interested in the opportunity.
The governor has been on the hunt for a new education chief since firing former commissioner Bret Schundler in the wake of the state’s loss in the federal Race to the Top competition. Christie said late last month on New Jersey 101.5’s Ask the Governor radio program that he had been interviewing education commissioner candidates and that he hoped to name a permanent commissioner by the end of October, if not sooner. Department veteran Rochelle Hendricks currently serves as the state’s acting commissioner and is also being considered for the permanent job, sources said.
Rhee became a possible contender to replace Schundler following her resignation last week as chancellor of Washington, D.C.’s public schools, which came after the mayoral primary loss of her former boss and political benefactor, D.C. Mayor Adrian Fenty. Some saw the election as a referendum on Rhee, who had a controversial tenure in Washington, including public battles with the Washington Teachers Union and the D.C. City Council.
New Jersey Education Association spokesman Steve Wollmer said he has no knowledge of Rhee being considered for the state’s top education post, but he questioned how well her reputation for discounting teachers’ opinions on education reform would go over in New Jersey
"One thing is clear. We must have a commissioner who respects teachers, who will work with them and seek their involvement in setting policy," Wollmer said. "We must also have a commissioner who puts policy ahead of politics, but that didn’t save Bret Schundler’s job."
When asked what he thought of Rhee’s qualifications to replace him, Schundler said, "Michelle is a great friend and leader. She would certainly be a good person to run the Department of Education, if she would come."
Derrell Bradford, the executive director of Newark-based education non-profit E3, said Rhee would excel if named the state’s next education chief because she is as bold, and as polarizing, as the governor.
"Her track record shows she’s a really consistent fit with governor’s agenda and leadership style," Bradford said. "And that’s the most important thing considering what happened before."
But Bradford added the governor should not discount Hendricks’ qualifications.
"I’m very supportive of the acting commissioner, and only someone like Michelle could bring other intangibles that a real professional like Rochelle doesn’t have right now," Bradford said. "Michelle brings amazing visibility and determination to a state that needs both to turn its schools around."
Josh Margolin contributed to this report.