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Is Michelle Rhee Breaking the Law?

DC Public Schools Commissioner Michelle Rhee is the closest thing the education world has to a celebrity. (Education Next recently photoshoped an image of Rhee in medieval armor, under the heading "DC's Braveheart") Her take-no-prisoners approach to education reform, sometimes at the expense of tenured teachers, has won her much attention nationally--and many enemies here in the District. Her latest controversial act: Balancing her budget by firing 266 teachers, rather than following the DC City Council's directive to reduce funding for summer school--an act several council members are arguing is illegal.

Rhee was called to defend her decision at this week's council meeting. Describing the meeting as tense would be understatement. Less than five minutes after Rhee finished her wonky PowerPoint presentation, Chairman Vincent Gray cut right to the point, asking not only why Rhee choose to save money by firing teachers, but more importantly, why she chose to make a budget different from what the council had decided.

Rhee had a legal defense at her fingertips--but wasn't content to stop there:

My understanding is that I do have the ability as agency head, to make decisions about moving [money] from one place to another, and quite frankly, when we looked at the impact that cutting summer school would have on our children's ability to be successful in the long term, at their graduation rates, I was unwilling to make that cut, and I decided as unfortunate as that cut was, I would rather see that cut happen to adults then to children.

Gray fired back at her:

[The public and the media] learn today, on October the 29th that you in your infinite wisdom, you in your unlimited authority, have simply decided that you are not going to do what the council said, and that you are going to do something else. That is incredibly cavalier, chancellor.

Though the chairman had earlier asked for no outbursts from the public gallery, shouts and applause erupted from the audience throughout their blunt exchange. Rhee remained confident throughout the rest of the meeting, despite indications that her decision might have crossed legal lines. As she declared during an exchange toward the end of the meeting:

Gray: "Did you tell him [the mayor] that you were going to break the law?"

Rhee: "What I told him was that I was going to make a decision that was in the best interest of the children."