Mayor Adrian Fenty Tuesday immediately made his mark on the public education system he now controls, bucking the establishment and naming the director of an educational nonprofit as day-to-day manager of the foundering 55,000-student D.C. Public Schools.
"The wheels are in motion for action, and the time for dramatic change begins today," Fenty said during a news conference on the steps of the John A. Wilson Building.
As of 12:01 a.m. Tuesday, the District's Board of Education was reduced to an advisory role and the city's state education office assumed the title "State Superintendent of Education." Fenty assumed authority over the school system and nominated 37-year-old Michelle Rhee as chancellor, a new position synonymous with superintendent.
Rhee, a Korean-American, has never worked as a schools superintendent, and her three years as an elementary school teacher in Baltimore are her only experience working for a school district.
"Public education is supposed to put everyone on equal footing so that all kids have an equal opportunity in life," Rhee said. "Unfortunately that is not the reality for many of our students here in the city. The education they're currently receiving is subpar, substandard and frankly is no longer going to be acceptable."
From a pool of roughly 30 candidates, Fenty said Rhee stood out as a leader and "change agent." For the last decade, she served as president and chief executive officer of New York City-based The New Teacher Project, an organization that recruits educators to work in urban public schools across the country, including D.C., New York, Atlanta, Baltimore and Chicago.
But Rhee has no experience overseeing an organization the size of the DCPS, with its 12,000 employees and $1 billion-plus budget. The new chancellor acknowledged she's no expert in the minutiae of school management. Her strengths, she said, are "bringing talent together" and knocking down barriers to progress.
"It is her job to make sure that the people in place in charge of procurement, human resources and finance are experts in their field," Fenty said. "She is supposed to sniff out the talent and make sure they get the job done."
Rhee promised quick reform, saying, "I don't have a lot of patience for moving slowly." She's already named a deputy, Kaya Henderson, a D.C.-based employee of The New Teacher Project.
Though his contract runs through June 30, 2009, former Superintendent Clifford Janey's job ceased to exist as of one minute after midnight Tuesday. Fenty's general counsel and Janey's lawyers will have to work out a buyout, the mayor said.
Rhee arrives with the ringing endorsement of New York School Chancellor Joel Klein, who joined Fenty for Rhee's introduction. He called the choice "bold and inspired." His recommendation, Fenty said, carried "enormous weight."
Overcoming deficiencies in urban public education requires leaders who "think differently and challenge the orthodoxies and some of the political correctness that too often characterizes what goes on in urban education," Klein said. "That is going to happen here in the District of Columbia."
D.C. Council Chairman Vincent Gray pledged a quick confirmation process with public hearings "to give her a chance to articulate what her plans are for the system."
Council Member Phil Mendelson, who opposed Fenty's takeover, was cautious of the nominee.
"I want to be supportive of Ms. Rhee," Mendelson said in a statement. "It is my hope that the government will build on the good points in DCPS, that we will build on the gains in achievement under Dr. Janey. Change just for change sake will get us little, and may even set us back."
Washington Teachers' Union President George Parker said the District's educators realize "that we have to do something very different if we're going to get different results in D.C. Public Schools for our children."
The union has had very positive experiences working with Rhee's nonprofit, Parker said, and that collaboration must continue "to move our students forward."