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Thursday, June 4th, 2009...2:08 pm

Michelle Rhee and Conservatism

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A couple days ago, I found myself listening to an interview with Michelle Rhee, Chancellor of DC public schools, on the Diane Rehm Show. The interview was recorded in December (I’m a little backed up with my podcasts) just about the same time President Obama was naming Arne Duncan as his education secretary.

Michelle Rhee has been quite a controversial figure in education circles lately. She came to her current position after a bit of a power play by DC’s mayor, Adrian Fenty (who’s been compared to Obama), to move authority for the city’s public schools into the mayor’s office and away from the city council. Around the same time, Fenty appointed Rhee and gave her a pretty strong mandate to clean up the schools. In the process, she’s been championing some pretty unconventional solutions, including taking on the teachers’ union by seeking to abolish tenure, revising student disciplinary policies, and supporting school choice. One of her most noteworthy proposals is to offer teachers either a) the opportunity for tenure with a small raise in pay, or b) no opportunity for tenure with an almost 100% raise. Unsurprisingly, I suppose, the unions are balking.

As I listened to Rhee discuss all this and take questions, I was struck by how traditionally conservative these policies seemed, and even more struck by how much support the policies were receiving from liberal quarters. Where was this outpouring of support when Newt Gingrich was the one touting reform? Why is it that it’s taking a group of young, liberal politicians and public figures to enact these traditionally conservative policies?

I think the question has a two-part answer.

First, and most obviously, Newt Gingrich and his ilk don’t exactly have the most credibility when it comes to promoting what’s best for poor minorities in the inner city. Folks can be forgiven for being skeptical that the prosperous, white male crew running the GOP had their best interests at heart.

My second reaction, and what I find more interesting, is how willing young liberals have been to embrace conservative principles and incorporate those principles into policy. Abolishing tenure and offering merit pay seem like obvious good solutions to try for people for people of my generation, but if you followed politics for the last 40 years you know it’s not that obvious to most on the polarized left and right.  I remember it being so refreshing to see Obama on Meet the Press right near the start of his run for presidency (sorry, can’t find the link) saying that he wasn’t concerned about where an idea came from as long as it was a good one, that he was most concerned about solving problems (whether through the public or private sector), and that liberals of all people should be the most up in arms about government waste because that means money is not being directed to the very programs they hold up and revere.  It goes hand in hand with his co-optation of small “c” conservative principles outlined in my Michael Pollan post a couple weeks back.  Two years later, that approach to public policy, through people like Rhee, Fenty, and Newark’s Mayor Cory Booker, is starting to take shape into its own sort of political ideology.  I’m thinking of calling it progressive pragmatism. (Damn, looks like someone’s already coined that term).  Well anyway, you see what I’m getting at.  It’ll be interesting to see how this conservative, results-oriented point of view meshes with progressive liberal concerns and whether we (the Obama generation) can turn it into an enduring paradigm through which we try and solve the great policy problems we’ll have to tackle.


  • In many ways, Obama, Booker, Rhee, and Fenty are all magazine cover models of what Hua Hsu would describe as post-racial Americans. You have to wonder if growing up as a bridge figure between different communities (racial or otherwise) tends to shape individuals toward a philosophy of post-racial progressive pragmatism. (OK, so I was going for alliteration there …)

  • You know, I purposely left the racial dimension out of this post because I’m not sure how much that has to do with their politics. I think the generation they’re a part of has much more to do with it, and I think their generation (ours?) just happens to be much more diverse and interracial than previous ones (I guess we have our boomer parents to thank for that). And what about all the white kids who have similar politics, but can’t be defined as bridge figures based solely on their race? (I’m thinking of one in particular, ahem….)

  • Hence the parenthetical “racial or otherwise”. I do think it’s a good thing to grow up as a bridge between different groups. And, yeah, that’s our generation.