Josh Kurtz: Not Rhee-a-listic

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It probably will never happen. It may not even be seriously considered.

But mark my words, somebody in some position of authority soon is going to suggest that Michelle Rhee, the almost-certain-to-be-departing-before-too-long chancellor of the D.C. school system, become schools superintendent in Montgomery County. So let’s discuss.

Rhee, for those have been under a rock for the past couple of years, is the reform-minded D.C. schools chief who happily stepped on as many toes as she could while winning national attention (Time magazine cover and more) and plaudits –- along with a healthy dose of criticism –- for her work.

She became a major issue in the just-completed D.C. mayor’s race, and the other day offered a burn-your-bridges rebuke of City Council Chairman Vincent Gray, who handily ousted her political patron, D.C. Mayor Adrian Fenty, in the Democratic primary last week. For Rhee, the question isn’t if she’s going to leave the D.C. schools, it’s when –- and how much uglier will the situation get before she goes?

Now it so happens that just across Western and Eastern avenues –- well, actually, 15 miles up the road in Rockville, but we’re taking some poetic license here –- the Montgomery County Public Schools system is looking for a new boss, with Jerry Weast, the celebrated chancellor for the past dozen years, set to retire at the end of the school year. Nobody’s saying so publicly, but Montgomery County officials will be hard-pressed to find someone with the gravitas and star power of Weast to fill the vacancy.

Unless, of course, they turn to Michelle Rhee.

OK, there are all kinds of reasons why Rhee wouldn’t be interested. Montgomery County, though one of the biggest school systems in the country, and one of the most respected, just doesn’t have the cache of an urban school district. There’s only so much high profile crusading you can do in a successful district with a prosperous population.

And let’s face it: the suburbs are the suburbs. Plenty of suburban schools could stand to be improved and could use some of the reforms Rhee has pushed for –- even in Montgomery County. But there’s no glamour associated with fixing, say, Wheaton High School. It doesn’t get you on the cover of Time or a featured role in a new documentary on what ails our nation’s schools. (Click here to find out more about the Baltimore advance screening of Waiting for "Superman".)

It does get you a good salary, though –- but that’s something Rhee is going to get wherever she goes next.

Another reason Rhee probably wouldn’t be interested in coming to Montgomery is geographical: As anyone who reads the gossip pages knows, she’s engaged to be married to Kevin Johnson, the erstwhile NBA star-turned-mayor of Sacramento, Calif. Surely she’d rather relocate to be closer to him, right?

Well, maybe not. In recent interviews, Rhee has suggested that location will not be paramount as she searches for her next gig. After all, she and Johnson have had a commuter relationship going for a long time already.

Rhee may also not have the temperament to thrive in Montgomery County, where the practice of politics has generally been genteel –- at least until the recent primary season. Weast came to town dripping southern charm, referring to his wife as his “bride” and feigning deference to county leaders. It wasn’t long before he had them wrapped around his finger.

Rhee came to D.C. like a bulldozer, determined to raze anything in her path, good or bad. Weast found some accommodation with the teachers’ union, and worked with them to establish a peer review process for educators who weren’t measuring up. Rhee poked her index finger in the eye of union leaders and then extended her middle one in their direction, for good measure.

Ironically, Rhee and Weast’s top priorities were the same: boosting minority achievement. They just worked under different conditions and attacked the problem from different angles. In purely numerical terms and from a public relations standpoint, both have enjoyed a measure of success.

But while Rhee became a hero in many corners of the city –- especially in white communities and among much of D.C.’s power elite –- she became toxic in most African-American neighborhoods. Whatever smart and sensible and encouraging things she said about closing the achievement gap often came off as if she was reassuring the city’s white constituency rather than lifting up the black majority. And she seemed to pick fights just for the sake of it.

In Montgomery County, the teachers’ union wields an extraordinary amount of political clout. But it also has powerful enemies –- most notably, the editorial writers at the Washington Post. And who were some of Rhee’s biggest cheerleaders? You guessed it –- the editorial writers at the Washington Post.

It is easy to see the Post starting a drumbeat to bring Rhee to Montgomery County whenever she severs her relationship with D.C. After all, it’s happened before, in the opposite direction –- former Montgomery education chief Paul Vance later ran the D.C. schools. Rhee even has Maryland experience –- three whole years in the classroom in Baltimore while serving in Teach for America.

Years ago, an editor told me his goal was to make sure we wrote about things before they DIDN’T happen. And that, to an extent, is what this exercise is about.

But even though the idea of Michelle Rhee landing in Montgomery seems very far-fetched, it will get talked about in certain precincts and the idea will at some point get an airing in the media. Then you can say you read it here first.

Josh Kurtz is editor of Environment & Energy Daily, a Capitol Hill publication. He finished in second place in Center Maryland's Election Pundit Contest. He can be reached at .

Previous Center Maryland columns by Josh Kurtz:

Tomorrow’s Headlines Today!

20th Century Comes to Baltimore County

Primary Colors

Murphy the Smurf

A Gene for Public Service

No Agnew Here

The Full Montgomery

Shock and Tawes

Uly's Gold

Death and Deadlines

Bad News for Democrats From Washington to Washington County

Mr. Smith Goes ... Where?

End of the Line for Vallario?

Mission: Control

Post Plays Favorites

Red Storm Rising

Michael & Me

Wanted: Fresh Blood

Taylor-Made

Black and Blue?

Slugfest

Take Me Back to Old Virginny

The Political Lives of Peter Franchot

Bob and Weave

How to Make Prince George's County King

Kane is Able

To Be Frank

Gay Rights and Political Wrongs?

The Washington Post Goes to War

Snow Job

Unsolicited Advice for Ehrlich — Wait Till 2014

The Early Bird Gets the Worm?

Wayne's World May Be Another Planet

Miller Time Comes Early

Owings Owes an Explanation
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Josh Kurtz has been writing about Maryland politics since late 1995. Louie Goldstein, William Donald Schaefer and Pete Rawlings were alive, but the Intercounty Connector, as far as anyone could tell, was dead.


But some things never change: Mike Miller is still in charge of the Senate. Gerry Evans and Bruce Bereano are among the top-earning lobbyists in Annapolis. Steny Hoyer is still waiting for Nancy Pelosi to disappear. And Maryland Republicans are still struggling to be relevant.


The media landscape in Maryland has changed a lot, and Kurtz is happy to write weekly for Center Maryland. He's been writing a column for the website since it launched in January 2010.


In his "real" job, Kurtz is editor of Environment & Energy Daily down on Capitol Hill. But he'll always find Maryland politics more fascinating.


Kurtz grew up in New York City and attended public schools there. He has a BA in History from the University of Wisconsin and an MS in Journalism from Columbia University. He's married with two daughters and lives in Takoma Park, Md. He hopes you'll drop him a line, or maybe go out for a meal with him, because he's always hungry -- for political gossip.