The “Radical” Interview
with Kam Williams
Michelle Rhee was born on Christmas Day, 1969 in Ann Arbor, Michigan. A first-generation Korean-American descended from a long line of educators, she embarked on a career as a teacher in inner-city Baltimore soon after graduating from Cornell University with a BA in government.
However, her star really started to rise after she earned a Masters Degree in Public policy at Harvard University’s prestigious Kennedy School. She was subsequently recruited by NYC School Chancellor Joel Klein to help handle his stalled contract talks with the teachers’ union.
And on the strength of Michelle’s negotiations with UFT president Randi Weingarten, Klein recommended his feisty protégé for the top job in DC. Washington’s public schools were among the worst performing in the nation, and Rhee found a very receptive Mayor in Adrian Fenty, who gave his new hire free reign to overhaul his troubled system in accordance with her controversial reforms.
She would spend a stormy three years in the public eye as the embattled Schools Chancellor of the Washington, DC public schools. Employing a “kids first” philosophy, Michelle chopped heads in the top-heavy administration, firing dozens of dead wood principals, laying off hundreds of extraneous office workers and closing over twenty underperforming schools.
Although students’ test scores improved dramatically during her brief stint in the position, her anti-union stance proved unpopular. Mayor Fenty’s reelection bid was basically a referendum on whether the city wished to continue with Rhee’s scorched earth philosophy. When he lost, her days were numbered, so she handed in her resignation rather than wait around to be fired.
Michelle, a mother of two, is married to former NBA star Kevin Johnson, who is now the Mayor of Sacramento, California. Here, she talks about currently serving as CEO of StudentsFirst, a political advocacy organization she founded in 2010 to advance the cause of educational reform.
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