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Pittsburgh Speakers Series: Michelle Rhee

I was disheartened by the first Pittsburgh Speakers Series Event (Biographer Ron Chernow), because it was overwhelmingly attended by the 60+ crowd, and I felt it to be a poor showing of the younger folks that we did not show up for an evening of intellectual discourse.  I was much more encouraged by last night’s showing, where there was a large and diverse-in-age crowd present to see education reformer Michelle Rhee speak.

Rhee is a powerful and engaging speaker.  I’m ashamed that I haven’t been more involved in the debates over education reform.  Her views, and her aggressive approach, is polarizing.  I’m convinced, though, that she is a true believer in her cause.

Her speech inspired outbursts of clapping throughout the evening.  Even those in the crowd who disagreed with her support of private school vouchers (with certain stringent limitations) and her belief in imposing requirements for personal accountability upon teachers likely came away from the evening energized to advocate or do something  to advance the quality of public education, because from every viewpoint, the American public schools are seriously and systemically flawed.

Rhee did make one point in the evening that seemingly garnered universal support– that the arts, music, and physical education cannot be treated like extra-curriculars, to be cut when the money gets tight.  These are part of our curriculum, and every child, from every zip code, from every race and background, and from every type of family deserves access to education in these areas.

Rhee’s speech, of course, built up anxiety within me.  Baby Beez still has plenty of time to go before school, but the decision of where to send her, and what kind of education she’ll get gives me stress to no end.  I went to public school from K-12, but I also lived in an area where there wasn’t a significant difference in quality between public and private schools.  I’m extremely supportive of the theory of public schools, and that every child should have equal access to quality education.  However, theory and reality do not always align.  We live in the city, and although we’re zoned for “good” city schools, there is also the consideration that private education may be more rigorous and offer Baby Beez more opportunities.  Even though we’ve got years and years to go, I go back and forth between these issues, and I do not look forward to the day when we have to make the real decision.

Rhee runs a nonprofit called StudentsFirst, the aim of which is to improve the quality of public education for all children.  If you have an opportunity to attend one of her speaking engagements, I highly recommend you attend.  Even if you completely disagree with her viewpoints, she’s an engaging speaker and will inspire you to think critically about our public education system.

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