Writing a $500 check

To hear former D.C. school chancellor Michelle Rhee tell it, even a politically charged issue such as private options can be brought into focus through the eyes of a caring mother.

Rhee, now one of the nation’s most celebrated education reformers, told the American Federation For Children’s 2011 National Policy Summit in Washington this morning that she was slow to accept the role of private options in public education. She is a lifelong Democrat who grew up with a healthy respect for the role of unions, and she said distraught D.C. mothers helped her see options in a new light.

“These are parents who are doing exactly what we want them to do,” Rhee told the audience. “They researched their schools and found out they were failing, and they wanted options for their kids. They tried the lottery and lost … and I simply was not willing to tell these parents, ‘Just give me five years to turn things around. You know, just take one for the team.’ ”

Rhee believes that private options should be focused solely on children who lack the financial means and that participating private schools should be held to rigorous accountability standards. But she still finds that some of her Democratic friends don’t easily embrace such options because they represent “vouchers,” which they assume are in competition with traditional public schools. For these friends, she also appeals to their parental instincts.

In a recent discussion with one, Rhee asked whether she had watched the Davis Guggenheim documentary film, Waiting For Superman.

The reply: Yes.

Did she remember the story of a fifth-grade student from Harlem named Bianca?

The reply: Yes.

Did she remember how the Catholic school across the street had turned around her educational life?

The reply: Yes.

Did she remember how she felt when Bianca was turned away from the school and its graduation ceremony because her single mother came up short on the $500 monthly tuition?

The reply: Yes, I wanted so badly to write a $500 check for her.

“Right,” Rhee said she told her friend. “That’s a voucher.”

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BY Jon East

Jon East is special projects director for Step Up For Students. Previously, he was a member of the editorial board and the Sunday commentary editor at the St. Petersburg Times, Florida’s largest daily newspaper, where he wrote about education issues for most of his 28 years at the paper. He was also a reporter and editor at the Evening Independent and Ocala Star-Banner. He earned a journalism degree from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.