School & District Management

D.C. Schools Chief Touts Value of Education Entrepreneurs

May 21, 2008 4 min read
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‘Let Us Surprise You’

Almost a year after Michelle A. Rhee was named the chancellor of the District of Columbia school district, she stressed at a May 20 gathering here on educational entrepreneurship that she sees the infusion of entrepreneurial practices and ideas as vital to her work of trying to transform the long-beleaguered urban system.

In one example, Ms. Rhee said she is seeking external organizations to take the reins of low-performing schools identified for “restructuring” under the federal No Child Left Behind Act.

“What I’m trying to do is create an incredibly fertile environment and the right dynamics to bring these providers in,” she told participants at the 10th annual summit hosted by the NewSchools Venture Fund, a San Francisco-based philanthropy that invests in charter-management organizations and other entrepreneurial ventures.

“We want to build long-term, sustainable relationships with all of the external entrepreneurs, because they are going to be able to push us and innovate in a way that we never could [alone],” she said.

Before taking the helm of the 49,000-student district in the nation’s capital, Ms. Rhee herself was the founding head of one such organization, the New York City-based New Teacher Project, which works in Washington and other cities to help recruit new teachers.

The gathering, titled “Empowering Entrepreneurs to Transform Public Education,” brought together hundreds of leaders and staff from nonprofit and for-profit education organizations, including many charter school groups, as well as philanthropies, think tanks, and elsewhere.

Ms. Rhee also noted that the city’s large charter school sector, which now serves about 30 percent of the city’s public school students, has been helpful in pressing for other changes, including what she touted as a “revolutionary” contract now being negotiated with the local teachers’ union.

“I don’t see charter schools … as a drain on the system,” said Ms. Rhee. “Charters play an important part in our ability to push the entrenched interests to think about things differently, and to innovate.”

‘Let Us Surprise You’

Speaking earlier at the NewSchools gathering, United Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten, whose union has started two of its own charter schools in New York City, argued that unions are not obstacles to innovation and change, and that charter leaders need not fear engaging with them. The vast majority of charter schools nationally are nonunion.

“Let us surprise you,” said Ms. Weingarten, who is widely expected to become the new leader of the American Federation of Teachers, of which the UFT is the largest local affiliate. “Let’s see if we can do certain kinds of things together.”

She added, “The new teachers that are coming into teaching, they want the security of a union, they understand that a union actually helps them take risks. But they also want to do a lot of the things that everybody in this room wants to do, in terms of experimenting and things like that.”

The UFT is planning to jointly run a charter school with Green Dot Public Schools, a Los Angeles-based charter network. All of Green Dot’s teachers are unionized, though in California, its collective bargaining agreements are separate from the contracts of the United Teachers Los Angeles. (“Green Dot Picks Site in N.Y.C. for Its First Charter Outside L.A.,” April 16, 2008.)

‘A Big Deal’

During a later panel discussion with reporters, Ms. Rhee spoke more about creating the conditions for what she termed “institutionalized transformation” in the district.

She offered high praise for District of Columbia Mayor Adrian Fenty, a Democrat, who she said first approached her about the chancellor’s position during last year’s NewSchools Venture Fund summit, in New Orleans.

The 38-year-old educator argued that having Mr. Fenty’s strong support is critical to the success of efforts to improve the district. “We have to show that it’s possible [to transform a system] when you have a mayor that has this kind of resolve, who doesn’t buckle under pressure,” she said.

She acknowledged that the district faces tremendous pressure to see positive educational outcomes quickly.

“This is a race to see whether we’re going to get enough results in the amount of time people are going to give us to then sort of further the case and give us more political capital to make more changes,” she said.

Thomas Toch, the co-director of Education Sector, a Washington think tank, said he sees evidence that Ms. Rhee is looking to bring “transformative” change to the city system by creating more powerful links with the entrepreneurial sector, and offering a welcoming approach to charter schools.

“With Michelle coming to D.C., you get an outsider on the inside, and someone who is sympathetic to these kinds of nonprofit organizations and the assistance that they can bring,” he said. “She actually wants to bring the charter school movement into the district to an extent, or build more bridges.”

“That to me is bringing entrepreneurialism into the traditional system in a very significant way,” Mr. Toch said. “That’s a big deal.”

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