Students, Michelle Rhee's Really Not That Into You
Four years ago, social entrepreneur Michelle Rhee started a media blitz to showcase her national education movement when she became head of DC schools under then-Mayor Adrian Fenty. To make a place for her, the mayor dissolved the school board and appointed Rhee chancellor with full unfettered power. You might think liberals, Democrats, and social justice types would be happy to have one of their own making a big splash in the nation's capital. Not quite.
Rhee's campaign gives new meaning to the old adage, "familiarity breeds contempt." Progressives of her ilk are now engaging in an all-out war against her while politicians on the right have taken up with the tiger reformer in their battle against teachers' unions and support for privatization of public schools through the charter system. Just as there are diverse political factions within the Republican Party, the same is true for the Democrat Party, and Rhee has felt their wrath.
Even though she has angered the old left in public education, people like Diane Ravitch, there are emerging signs of Rhee's still left-of-center true agenda. She supports the movement to nationalize core standards and curricula, which ultimately takes policy decisions away from the states and places them into the hands of a few at the top. Along with President Obama and the Center for American Progress, Rhee also pushes for the placement of Teach for America (TFA) and other teacher corps recruits into positions vacated by teachers found incompetent by her new evaluation program IMPACT.
The problem is, TFA grads can be 22 years old, fresh out of college with no teaching experience and merely 5 weeks of summer training, only to be thrust into inner-city classrooms with kids who have been neglected for years. If placing wet-behind-the-ears youngsters in our children's classrooms doesn't smack of egregious disregard for children's welfare, then nothing does.
Yet Rhee has said a hundred times that "teachers play such a critical role." Why wouldn't it occur to her placing that neophytes in an already explosive situation would only contribute to the problem of underachievement in underprivileged groups of children? How can she not see the main problem in urban schools has to do with children coming out of unstable families, and this instability spills out into their classroom experience? She talks all the time about "great teachers" creating a lasting stable environment, but ignores the reality that "more than 50 percent of Teach for America teachers leave after two years and more than 80 percent leave after three years. [About half of all teachers nationwide quit after five years, according to the National Education Association.]." How can this constant turnover of "human capital" be good for the students? With this scenario, Rhee should change the name of her political action organization from StudentsFirst to "StudentsLast."
Mayoral Control and Nationalization
Rhee didn't receive a master's from Harvard's John F. Kennedy's School of Government for nothing. She must have learned that sweeping reform doesn't take place overnight. The incremental approach will get you what you want. She moved steadily from one project to the next over the past 20 years and has now arrived as the "savior of education."
Her term as chancellor of DC schools from 2007 to 2010 introduced and exposed her to a wider audience. In an interview with online magazine Fast Company, when asked if no other groups in education put students first, Rhee clearly reveals her mission when she says, "Yes, there are organizations doing good work, but they're not playing at the national level."
Fast Company: So will you be working on the federal level?
Rhee: This is going to be a national movement, but we'll work mainly at the municipal and state levels. That's where the laws need to be changed. People think about the obvious cities -- New York, L.A., Denver, Detroit -- but I've gotten a disproportionate number of emails from places like New Mexico. Who knew there were so many people who wanted education reform in New Mexico?
Mayoral control of the school districts is part of the plan to transform traditional public education. At the same time, both Rhee and her fiancé, Mayor Kevin Johnson of Sacramento, have teamed up to usher in a new wave of privatization of public schools by building up the number of charter schools.
In a videotaped interview with Commonwealth Club of California on April 28, 2011, Rhee and Johnson share the stage to talk about their education reform movement. The power couple speak as though they are in control of the public school system now. In 2010 Mayor Johnson was appointed Chair of the newly formed Mayors' Task Force on Public Schools. He has input on the education policies of over 1,100 cities across the nation.
If school boards become widely irrelevant, then local control will be in the hands of elected mayors and appointed superintendents; thus slowly nudging the system towards less local control with less emphasis on programs molded to unique regional situations, and more toward a one-size-fits-all approach. So why is this bad? Because the more big government gets involved in deciding which teachers and textbooks end up in our kids' classrooms, the less input we parents will have.
In order to see her plan in action, let's take a look at Rhee's operational milieu. Here's what we know about her (also see more details here).
- Attended Cornell University in early '90s where she was recruited by Wendy Kopp, founder of the nonprofit Teach for America, to join the team
- After graduation with a degree in political science, Rhee taught for three years in a Baltimore inner city school, which has since closed and from which few records of data on achievement were retained
- After her teaching stint, she went to Harvard and received a master's in government
- She then began her own nonprofit named The New Teacher Project
- During the following years, she met up with Kaya Henderson, also a Teach for America alumna and now the chancellor of DC Schools
- Sat on Mayor Johnson's St. Hope Public Schools Board of Directors from 2006 to 2007
- In 2007 Mayor Fenty of DC handed her the "keys" to the broken educational system where she made fast radical changes, many of which improved the physical environment, but have not conclusively raised its academic standings significantly
- The DC school system is now under investigation for cheating scandals for the period of Rhee's chancellorship
- In January 2011 she created a political action organization named StudentsFirst and vowed to sign up 1 million members and spend $1 billion in one year
- Kevin Johnson: Rhee's fiancé, Mayor of Sacramento, ex-NBA player, good friends with the Obamas, investigated for misuse of close to a million dollars from AmeriCorps, accused of sexual crimes, friend and colleague of Van Jones, former Green Jobs Czar, and promoter of the greening of California (specifically his and Johnson's project called "Emerald Valley")
- Kevin Huffman: Rhee's ex-husband (divorced in 2007), father of her two children, used to be VP of research and development for Teach for America, now Tennessee schools Education Commissioner; Rhee recently moved from Sacramento and now resides in Nashville, TN
- President Obama: supporter of Rhee, gave her a shout-out in 2008 Hofstra University presidential debate; then-Senator Obama used the occasion to praise DC Chancellor Rhee as a "wonderful new superintendent who's working very hard."
- Anita Dunn: PR under Obama, but got out of the spotlight when exposed to be a Mao fan, now Rhee's consultant on StudentsFirst among other PR jobs
- Gov. Chris Christie, NJ: at one time offered Rhee his state's top superintendent job
- Gov. Rick Scott, FL: who used to head HCA a large health care network, works closely with Rhee on educational policies in Florida
- Gov. Brian Sandoval, NV
- Center for American Progress: headed by John Podesta, funded by George Soros, wrote "Progressive Blueprint for the 44th President" in 2008 and the report's guidelines are already being implemented by the ruling class; Obama and Michelle Rhee may as well be reading from the same blueprint on a teleprompter -- that's how close their language is to the CAP report
- Venture Philanthropists: Eli Broad of the Eli and Edythe Broad Foundation, Bill Gates of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, the Walton Family Foundation, and others
- Mike Klonsky: Marxist educator who worked as Obama's education blogger during the 2008 campaign, but lost that position when he was exposed as being aligned with the toxic Bill Ayres of Weather Underground infamy
- Diane Ravitch: Gatekeeper of the Old Guard in education; proponent of unions, teacher tenure (after 3 to 5 years of teaching and it's not "iron-clad guarantee of lifetime employment"), against high-stakes testing in determining who gets fired
- Mainstream media
- Old left, teachers unions, status quo
All the strange bedfellows make this an intriguing story with an unclear ending. Obama endorses Rhee and his pal Anita Dunn is Rhee's StudentsFirst consultant. But the Washington Post, the New York Times, Huffington Post, and other leftist media trash Rhee on a daily basis. Her fiancé Mayor Johnson loved Van Jones' book The Green Collar Economy so much that he asked his employees to read it and discuss "socioeconomic inequality and the destruction of natural resources." Then there are the Republican governors who are enthralled with Rhee's anti-union, supposed data-driven education reform. What's going on?
Playing both sides against the middle, Rhee has placed herself in check. Has the "superwoman" lost her cape? Upon closer scrutiny we're dealing with a garden-variety opportunist promoting an agenda which doesn't put American students first.
Read more Ann Kane at Potter Williams Report.