Former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice staunchly defended outgoing Washington, D.C., chancellor of schools Michelle Rhee on Wednesday morning, saying her departure in the face of union-motivated political attacks marks "a sad day" for school children in the nation's capital.
During her controversial tenure as head of Washington's school system, Rhee shook up entrenched bureaucratic interests. Fox News reports she closed 24 schools and let go 98 central office employees.
Her reforms helped boost students' test scores, and narrowed the gap between white and African-American students. But it also earned her the enmity of the teachers' unions, which reportedly spent over $1 million in the city's recent mayoral campaign in an effort to have her ousted.
When City Council chairman Vincent Gray defeated Mayor Adrian Fenty in the Democratic primary for mayor in September, Rhee's days were widely believed to be numbered.
In fact Rhee blamed her pro-student activism for the defeat of Fenty, who never wavered in his support for her aggressive education overhaul.
Rhee had been hailed as a "superstar" of U.S. education reform. Her fate will be noticed by education reformers nationwide, given her efforts to weed under-performing teachers out of the school system.
Rhee and Gray clashed frequently over her reforms.
In late 2009, Rhee announced that budgetary pressures would force her to either lay off teachers or cut out summer school. To avoid reducing graduation rates, Rhee laid off 388 school system employees -- including 229 teachers.
That drew Gray's ire, and sarcasm.
"You, in your infinite wisdom, you, in your unlimited authority, have simply decided that you are not going to implement what the Council decided," Gray charged in a hearing according to WJLA.com.
Rhee's retort was typical of her fearless approach to reform.
"When you cut our budget by $21 million," she fired back, "you did not call me to ask me whether it was OK to cut summer school or not."
Speaking on Fox and Friends Wednesday, Rice, who befriended Rhee during her time in Washington, said: "She stood up for the kids of Washington, D.C., and somebody had to. This school district has failed so many kids.
"And this is a loss for those children, and for the parents who are trapped in those poor schools. You know, K-12 education in this country has got to improve. Because when I can look at your zip code and know whether or not you're going to get a good education -- and I can look at your zip code in D.C., and know," Rice said.
Sources report that Rhee and Gray agreed that she would have to leave the school system.
But Rice predicted that Rhee will overcome her latest setback.
"She's going to continue to be a spokesman for reform, I'm sure," Rice said. "But it's a sad day for the kids of D.C."
U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan in a statement reacting to Rhee's resignation praised her as a "pivotal leader in the school-reform movement."
Rhee will be replaced by her deputy chancellor, Kaya Henderson, in an effort to maintain continuity during the school year.
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