Former D.C. schools chief Michelle Rhee is still a lightning rod in education

Michelle Rhee is an education fireball that keeps burning.

Three years after her brief — but dramatic — turn as the budget-slashing, union-rattling, performance-driving chancellor of Washington, D.C., public schools, she still draws a passionately polarized crowd.

More than a thousand people RSVP’d, hoping to be in the audience that overwhelmed the Plaza Library on Wednesday night to hear her talk education and tout her new book, “Radical.”

She’s either the voice of common sense, busting through unions and the education establishment, or she is the tool of an anti-public-schools movement that is demonizing teachers.

Her performance in Washington was either the herald for revamping the way we run schools or a flimsy record resting on the backs of teachers and principals who, according to some reports, were pressured into cheating on state tests.

And now, as founder of the national organization Students First, she keeps pushing.

“I love controversy,” she said, only half-joking, anticipating questions to come. “We can talk about all of them.”

Though she is “a lifelong Democrat,” she has staked out positions that tend to endear her to right-leaning education advocates — pushing for significant emphasis on test performance in teacher evaluations, ending seniority-based personnel decisions, and backing the expansion of charter schools and vouchers to give families public funds to attend private schools.

While ideological tension was high Wednesday night, both sides made efforts to maintain a civil dialogue.

To the many teachers in the audience, she said: “I don’t think teachers are the problem. I think teachers are the solution to the problem.”

The president of the Kansas City Federation of Teachers, Andrea Flinders, agreed that every child deserves a quality teacher but contended that Students First is lobbying for measures that would hurt public schools and children.

Rhee said that strong performance-based evaluations can lead to performance-based rewards that demonstrate the value of good teachers and principals.

Vouchers and other measures that give parents more choice began to appeal to her, Rhee said, when she led Washington, D.C., schools and faced mothers whose neighborhood school was failing.

“My job as superintendent was not to protect a system that was doing a disservice to kids,” she said.