How One School Superindentent Avoided Facing Jail...and Another Didn't

Atlanta's now-disgraced former school superintendent Beverly Hall faces 45 years in prison.  Her high-stakes testing strategy led to a massive cheating scandal which took over ten years to uncover.  D.C.'s former chancellor, Michelle Rhee, also employed the same testing tactics during her tenure from 2007 to 2010 and had her own cheating scandal, with 103 schools flagged.  So why isn't Rhee facing the same outcome as Hall?

Rhee not only emerged from "investigations" of D.C. Public Schools unscathed, but boldly continues to travel the country, repeating the story of dramatically improving students' test scores.

This tale of two autocratic superintendents shows just how important one's political connections really are.  Hall's investigation went to the governor of Georgia; Rhee's investigation went all the way to the Department of Education.  But Rhee had the support of President Obama and the Secretary of Education.

Here are Rhee's own words in January 2013 on her exoneration:

Yesterday, the U.S. Department of Education's Office of Inspector General announced that their investigation found no widespread cheating on the DC Comprehensive Assessment System tests from 2008-2010. This conclusion supports previous investigations and findings of the DC Office of the Inspector General and others. At StudentsFirst we believe it is in­cred­ibly important to take all allegations of wrongdoing seriously and we thank both offices for doing so. The results confirm what we've long believed, that the vast majority of educators would never compromise their personal or professional integrity to cheat on a test, thereby cheating children.

With six separate, consecutive tests (both DC CAS and NAEP) showing significant improvements in academic achievement, we congratulate the children and educators in DC for their hard work and accomplishments.

The high-profile education reformer keeps up the tripe about improved student performance while those without firewalls in high places face jail time.

The fact that three different investigations of high erasures on tests were launched in D.C., but came up with no evidence of widespread cheating, can mean only one of two things: either the cheating never happened, or it was so egregious that a cover-up was essential to keep Rhee on as the face of education reform.

And since the USA Today report in March 2011 exhibited a mountain of evidence to substantiate the latter conclusion, Rhee's recent declaration of "nothing to see here" puts her squarely under suspicion.

Why Duncan's agency felt compelled to investigate the D.C. cheating scandal also raises questions.  Was Rhee just too big to fail?

With limited classroom time as a Teach for America recruit in Baltimore, Rhee transitioned from a virtual unknown to chancellor to an educational guru praised by then Senator Obama in a debate with John McCain during the 2008 campaign season.

A media blitz ensued.  Rhee's coming-out appearance on Oprah as the new face of education reform launched the career of a woman who called herself the "decider" and told an interviewer she took the position of chancellor on the condition she would answer to no one but D.C. Mayor Adrian Fenty. 

Rhee also told an interviewer early on "that cooperation, collaboration and consensus-building are way overrated."  The November 2008 TIME magazine cover, picturing Rhee in black with a broom, left no doubt that the buck started and stopped with Rhee.

When USA Today published its findings months after her resignation, Rhee responded that "the enemies of school reform once again are trying to argue that the earth is flat[.] ... It is surprising to see USA Today proceed down this path in the face of a statement from the independent investigators that there was no evidence of cheating."  Rhee could afford to be brazen.  She had media connections, as well as political ones.

Jenny Abramson, one of Rhee's StudentsFirst transition team, worked for the Washington Post before and after her stint with Rhee.  And a spokesperson for the chancellor's office noted that they were in daily contact with the Post during Rhee's tenure. 

The timing of the USA Today piece in March 2011 was well after Rhee left her D.C. post and months after her launch of StudentsFirst.  Was Rhee shielded from disaster by the timing of the USA Today exposé?  A co-author of the USA Today article, Linda Mathews, happened to be married to Washington Post education reporter Jay Mathews.  The editorial boards of the two newspapers must have worked overtime getting their stories straight.

Have Rhee's top political cronies run interference for her?  What about the mainstream media?  When the Atlanta indictments came down last week, various outlets ran a story on Rhee's statement that she was "a public school parent."  After some checking, it turned out that one of her daughters attends an exclusive private school in Tennessee.  Not a big deal compared to the cheating scandal she left behind in D.C., which threatened to rear its head again with the news of Beverly Hall and 35 educators in Atlanta.

And then there's her celebrity status as well.  In 2010 she starred in the movie Waiting for "Superman."  The much-hyped documentary, produced by Hollywood leftists, managed to win over the right with its support for school choice.  The film increased Rhee's prominence in the national scene even more.

But Rhee appears to be a mouthpiece for venture philanthropists like Eli Broad, who introduced Rhee in 2009 as "a 37 year old Korean American."  Obviously enthralled with her ethnicity, the creator of the Broad Superintendents Academy with which Atlanta's Beverly Hall had a working relationship, desired this "change agent" to become the spokesperson for the new corporate model of education reform.

Of course, celebrities do employ shticks to appeal to their fans, and using slang has been one of Rhee's trademarks, calling teacher seniority "whack" and school principals "nutty."  Her kids "suck" at soccer, and some charters can be "crappy."

Besides the hype of her personality, it's well-known that Rhee's husband, Sacramento Mayor Kevin Johnson, is a close friend of the Obamas -- so much so that Johnson's own AmeriCorps and sex scandals uncovered by IG Gerald Walpin led the White House to fire Walpin for doing his job.

In addition to the Obamas, Rhee's StudentsFirst PR firm is the same one headed by former White House communications director Anita Dunn.  Then there's Hari Sevugan, also formerly employed by StudentsFirst.  Sevugan was Obama's senior spokesman for the 2008 presidential campaign.

And while Secretary Duncan was "investigating" the 2008-2010 cheating scandal in D.C., he was fraternizing with his colleague on the stage of a Data Quality conference.  The conflict of interest was so incredible even the New York Times reported on the obvious impropriety.

With all these political linebackers running interference for Rhee, it's no wonder she's riding high as a player in the $500-billion education industry.  Too bad Beverly Hall doesn't have a winning team to keep her out of jail.

Read more M. Catharine Evans and Ann Kane at Potter Williams Report.

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