Michelle Rhee envisions public education as the nation's great equalizer, an institution that bridges gaps created by race, income and geography.
But that's not what she sees in our public schools today.
"That's not the reality we had in Washington, D.C.," said Rhee, former chancellor of District of Columbia Public Schools, "and I guarantee you it's not the reality in Chattanooga."
Rhee, who now runs the reform-minded organization Students First, gained notoriety for her controversial efforts to overhaul Washington's school system.
At the Tivoli Theatre, she spoke to a crowd of several hundred Tuesday evening as the inaugural speaker in this year's George T. Hunter Lecture Series.
Rhee said communities should focus their educational efforts on measures that put students first, instead of those centered on employee or political issues.
The nation's public education system is the greatest social injustice of our time, she said, and fixing it can help improve the country's economic world standing.
"I refuse to buy into the proposal that, because kids are poor, they can not learn," she said.
The nation should also regain its competitive spirit, Rhee said, and stop coddling children.
"Both of my kids play soccer. Both of them suck," Rhee said to booming laughs from the crowd. "But if you go into either of their rooms, you would see trophies and medals."
She pointed to other countries such as South Korea that have a "built-in sense of competition" in public schools. That, she said, translates into the global marketplace.
Rhee also took a shot at teacher union leaders, saying their goals don't always have the best interest of students in mind.
"Their job is to focus on their members," she said, "and they're doing a very good job at that."
Members of the local teachers union, Hamilton County Education Association, handed out pamphlets inside the theater before the event. The brochures highlighted increasing graduation rates and test scores in county schools.
HCEA President Sandy Hughes said Rhee's comments about union leaders were "just not true."
"We care very much about all of our children," said Hughes, who is on a two-year leave from teaching Latin, French and English at Ooltewah High School.
Earlier in the day, Rhee said Tennesseans need to continue their recent reform efforts, which changed teacher tenure, bargaining right and teacher evaluations.
At a Chattanooga Times Free Press editorial board meeting earlier Tuesday, Rhee said leaders must ensure that new policies are actually implemented at the local level.
"While passing laws at the state level is an important first step," she said, "it's only that -- a first step."