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Michelle Rhee, the education world’s It Girl, at least for now


Michelle Rhee’s media blitz continued this week at Time, where the firebrand chancellor of the Washington, D.C., public schools scored a cover profile.

Time’s story rehashes much of the same ground that other recent profiles of Rhee have covered: it describes her controversial, take-no-prisoners attitude, nimbly Blackberrying fingers, and unwavering commitment to results. (There is at least one new tidbit: Rhee, a darling of the group Democrats for Education Reform, had to be convinced to vote for Barack Obama.)

Responses to the article in the education blogosphere reflect an ongoing tension within the education policy world between those who back radical change and those who take a more cautious approach to reform. Blogging at Flypaper, Mike Petrilli of the Fordham Institute writes that he thinks “it’s hard not to root for Michelle Rhee.” NYC Educator, on the other hand, scathingly outlines the reasons why she’s a danger to teachers. In a post titled “Michelle Rhee is Scaring Me,” Robert Pondiscio takes a middle path, saying that Rhee’s tactics might not be the best means to an end desired by many, including Pondiscio himself.

One of the most interesting responses I’ve seen doesn’t address Rhee’s controversial tactics at all. At Flypaper, Petrilli notes that it’s been nearly two decades since Time put an education official on its cover. (A New York City teacher made the cover earlier this year.)

Who was the last education bigwig on the magazine’s cover? Lamar Alexander, back in 1991. Alexander, then President George Bush’s secretary of education, got the country’s attention by unrelentingly pushing for school choice. He even advocated for public funds to be given to religious schools.

About Alexander, Time asked optimistically, “Can this man save our schools?” I think it’s safe to say that Alexander didn’t fix everything that’s wrong with America’s schools. Nor did his favored policies enter the education mainstream. It seems unthinkable now, but 20 years from now, might Rhee have similarly faded from memory?