So Long, Wonder Woman

Today is Michelle Rhee’s last day heading up DC’s public schools, and her departure should serve as a stern reminder: We’ve been forcing children to wait for Superman — or Wonder Woman — for far too long. There are no superheroes, and even when we think we’ve found one, they are almost always defeated by teachers unions, or internecine politics, or just plain burnout.

Rhee is a classic case of the first two, with her bold reforms raising the ire of the local union and eventually bringing the might of the American Federation of Teachers to bear in the mayoral election. But unions aren’t the only powers that ended Rhee’s crusade. Long-simmering divisions over the perceived aloofness of Rhee’s boss, Mayor Adrian Fenty, also landed huge political punches that eventually knocked Rhee out.

Rhee certainly isn’t alone in the Hall of Defeated Heroes. Alan Bersin stormed into San Diego’s superintendency in 1998, but his hard-charging style eventually divided the city and created an intense political backlash. He was gone in 2005.  Carl Cohn, Bersin’s replacement, quit just two years into the job. “I don’t have the energy, heart and passion that I did when I first took the job,” he said. And then there’s Rudy Crew, who was ousted in Miami-Dade after four years. In that time the district was thrice named a finalist for the Broad Prize, which recognizes urban districts for major achievement gains. But Crew became embroiled in racial and ethnic tensions, as well as caught in a budgeting morass, and was booted.  

But if there is no super-being to save the children, who can? Sadly, no one in a government monopoly, which is what public schooling is. In such a system only political power matters — after all, politicians make all the rules — and most of that power resides with teachers, administrators, and other public school employees. Because their very livelihoods come from the government system, they are the most motivated to engage in political combat, and through unions and other associations they are best able to organize. And because they are human, their natural proclivity is to fight for the most generous compensation, and least accountability to others, possible.

Parents and children — the people for whom the public schools are supposed to work — simply can’t counter that politicking force. They can’t constantly run political ads, work for campaigns, lobby, and take to the streets the way unions and other organized interests can. And that means polticians who side with parents against unions and administrators are taking a politically perilous — and often fatal — risk. 

So the problem is not a lack of heroes. It’s that public schooling inherently crushes not just heroes, but the very people our educators are supposed to serve — parents and children. 

Thankfully, knowing that makes the solution clear: We must take education money away from politicians, give it to parents, and in so doing take away the death ray, or robot army, or whatever you want to call the incredible power that government monopolies bestow on special interests. We must give parents school choice not so that they can become superheroes, but so that superpowers are no longer required to get their kids the education they need.