“Why won’t Michelle Rhee talk to USA Today,” the New York Times asks.
USA Today, of course, broke the story of suspicious erasure patterns on standardized tests taken by Washington, D.C. students during Rhee’s tenure as the city’s schools chancellor. The story was the product of serious investigative journalism by reporters Jack Gillum and Marisol Bello, who marshaled significant amounts of data as well as talking to parents, academics, DC schools administrators and the consultant hired to do a cursory investigation of the possibility of cheating. But Rhee would not talk to them.
Now, the Times is telling the story of Rhee’s refusal. Michael Winerip contrasts her typical eagerness to talk to the press—”It’s hard to find a media outlet, big or small, that she hasn’t talked to. […] Always, she preens for the cameras”—with her determined evasion of the USA Today reporters:
The reporters made a dozen attempts to interview Ms. Rhee, directly and through her public relations representatives. Ms. Bello called Ms. Rhee’s cellphone daily, and finally got her on a Sunday.
“She said she wasn’t going to talk with us,” Ms. Bello recalled. “Her understanding was we were writing about” district schools “and she is no longer chancellor.”
Never mind that they were writing about alleged cheating that went on during her tenure as chancellor, in at least one school that she touted as an exemplar of her success. After the article came out, Rhee lashed out at it as the product of flat-earther enemies of education reform; she subsequently realized that that maybe hadn’t been the best approach and went with the a few bad apples approach, calling for an investigation because you never know what teachers and principals might do. Again, never mind that she, as chancellor, had only agreed to the most cursory investigation and that under some pressure. But:
The reporters did not give up. On April 26, Emily Lenzner, a spokeswoman, wrote Mr. Gillum, “Michelle is willing to do an interview, but we’d like to do this in person.” She asked if they could hold their story, and arranged for a meeting on May 3 at the StudentsFirst office in Washington.
On May 2, another Rhee spokeswoman e-mailed to say the reporters were too interested in cheating and not enough in StudentsFirst. She said they could submit a list of questions.
There were 21 questions; Ms. Rhee did not answer 10 of the 11 about cheating.
Rhee has built her career as a prominent voice for a particular brand of education reform, as a media star, as a partner of Republican governors, on the record she claims she amassed as DC schools chancellor. Her claims of test score increases are at the dead center of the public image she relentlessly, preeningly flogs. And if that is built on cheating and cover-ups, well, she’s not the chancellor anymore, it was all a flat-earther plot, and maybe a few principals and teachers can’t be trusted, but beyond that she’s not commenting.
Nor is the Washington, D.C. school system’s current leadership doing much to uncover what really went on: Winerip reports that in contrast to the robust investigation into Atlanta’s cheating scandal, DC’s so-called investigation has been characterized by a lack of manpower, persistence and transparency. It seems that Rhee’s successors don’t want questions answered any more than Rhee wants to answer them.