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Mayor's fiancee brings tough-on-education talk to Sacramento

By Melody Gutierrez

Published: Tuesday, May. 25, 2010 - 12:00 am Page 2B

Controversial education reformer Michelle Rhee brought her get-tough-on-education stance to Sacramento on Monday, saying schools need to be run like Fortune 500 companies, but with student achievement replacing capital.

The fiancée of Mayor Kevin Johnson acknowledged her reputation as a callously outspoken chancellor of the Washington, D.C., public schools system.

"I am someone who does not mince words; I don't spare feelings," said Rhee, speaking to the Sacramento Press Club downtown.

Rhee joked that she trying show her softer side in her husband-to-be's hometown. Then, she laughed as she noted that Johnson didn't think she could hide her true nature long enough.

Being Rhee means offering no apologies for reforms she says are in the interest of students.

"People have called me the terminator, the hammer, the dragon lady," said Rhee, who served on the board of Johnson's St. HOPE Public Schools in 2006 and 2007.

D.C. Mayor Adrian Fenty hired Rhee in 2007 after persuading the City Council to give him complete authority over the school system's operations and budget.

Since Rhee took the reins of D.C. schools – which were widely considered some of the worst in the country – she wasted no time identifying what she saw as dead weight. She fired administrators, replaced principals and closed 23 under-enrolled schools.

At the Sacramento event, Rhee said the two biggest problems in public education are too much politics and not enough accountability. The solutions are political courage and quality teachers, she said.

Rhee has taken aim at one of the things teachers unions have fought hardest to protect – the guarantee of lifetime employment. She has offered teachers large pay increases if they agree to give up tenure and be evaluated on student test scores.

She said challenging seniority is an "ugly, ugly battle," but it's in the best interest of kids.

"We have taken a blind eye to what is best for kids in order to maintain harmony among adults," Rhee said.

In an earlier interview with The Bee, Johnson echoed many of Rhee's concerns, saying mayoral control over city schools allows mayors to take out the "extra level of bureaucracy and self-interests."

Rhee said California schools face an uphill battle without mayoral control, but both she and Johnson acknowledged that California law prohibits mayors from directly running school systems. Defenders of the current system say elected school boards give residents a direct voice in education.

Rhee said radical change is possible with traditional school boards, but it is slower to come about.

"She can come up with very bold reform," Johnson said. "She doesn't have to go to the school board and try to convince (them)."

Johnson said he plans to find ways to "wedge" himself into Sacramento's education system. Johnson said he plans to review candidates for school boards in the November elections in the five districts serving the city. If he doesn't approve, he says, he'll recruit his own.

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