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Rhee pitches to supportive crowd

Education reformer Michelle Rhee brought her message of educational competitiveness, school choice and high student expectations to a friendly Denver audience Thursday.

Rhee, the former chancellor of the Washington, D.C., schools who now heads an education reform advocacy group, spoke to a crowd of nearly 1,000 at the spring lunch of ACE Scholarships, the organization that provides financial support for low-income students to attend private K-12 schools.

“It’s absolutely possible” to improve education for every American child, Rhee said. The question is, “Do we as adults have the wherewithal? … This work is incredibly difficult and messy.”

First, she said, Americans have to “regain our edge and competitive spirit.” Rhee said she’s concerned that schools aren’t inculcating that spirit, citing the example of her two daughters, whom she said “suck at soccer” but nevertheless have a roomful of trophies and medals.

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“If we teach our children to be satisfied with mediocrity, we will never be able to compete.”

Her second theme was educational choice and competition, saying, “A government-run monopoly can’t produce a consistently high quality product.” Describing how her experience in Washington changed her opposition to school vouchers, she said, “I’m agnostic on the delivery system as long as kids get a great education.”

Finally, Rhee said, “We have to stop underestimating our children. … Children do not benefit from lower expectations,” such as the assumption that poor children are too handicapped by their environments to succeed in school. “We have to stop doing that.”

Every child deserves an equal chance at a good education, but “that is not the reality of education today.”

Rhee spent the first half of her speech telling stories about her tumultuous tenure as head of the Washington schools, which drew national attention for her reform efforts and clashes with teachers and other groups.

Gov. John Hickenlooper spoke briefly at the start of the luncheon, saying, “Michelle Rhee is the rock star in America in how to think about education.”

Several other high-profile guests were introduced, including former Gov. Bill Owens, former Congressman Bob Beauprez, Secretary of State Scott Gessler and state Treasurer Walker Stapleton. On the Democratic side, former First Lady Jeannie Ritter and state Sen. Michael Johnston of Denver were in the crowd. Several members of the Denver and Douglas County school boards also attended.

Denver mayoral candidates Michael Hancock and Chris Romer, who share similar views about education reform but have been wrangling over schools anyway, also were at the event.

ACE, which stands for Alliance for Choice in Education, was founded by businessman and school choice advocate Alex Cranberg and currently provides scholarships to about 1,200 low-income students.

Rhee, who left her Washington job after her mayoral patron lost an election, is now CEO of StudentsFirst, a national advocacy group that works to “ensure great teachers, access to great schools and effective use of public dollars,” according to its website.

Rhee singled out Douglas County School District leaders for praise

“I’m so glad members of the Douglas County School District and superintendent are here. I’ve heard incredibly wonderful things about the courageous stance that you are taking in the nation in education. I think it sets important precedent, not just for here in the state of Colorado but for across the country.”

Video clips of Michelle Rhee’s speech in Denver on Thursday

“If we teach our children to … celebrate mediocrity, we will never be able to compete in the global economy.” — Length 2:48 minutes

“I am a card-carrying Democrat … I always drew the line at vouchers … (I) completely changed my outlook.” — Length 4:52 minutes

“All the lower expectations do is allow us as the adults to kind of abdicate our responsibility, make us feel a little better about the crappy state of the education system today.” — Length 4:47 minutes