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Reforming Michelle Rhee

Running the show in D.C. didn't work out. Now in Tennessee, she's hoping cash is king.

Flickr/Commonwealth Club

John DeBerry Jr., a veteran House member in Tennessee, has never been fond of fundraisers. Handshakes, not dollars, make the difference in his stretch of Memphis, where he has been campaigning the old-fashioned way for nearly 20 years. DeBerry’s low-budget operation collects about $20,000 each election and centers on door-to-door visits. The past year’s redistricting, which forced him into a tough primary with a colleague, didn’t change any of that, he says.

“I’m 62 years old,” DeBerry says. “I walked, in one-hundred-degree heat, from nine to five with a crew of five people. We rolled around with my Suburban with the car filled with water and juice. And we knocked on every door in every district.”

But he also had backup. Michelle Rhee’s education lobbying group StudentsFirst dropped $110,000 on canvassing and phone banking to ensure that DeBerry, a rare Tennessee Democrat who supports vouchers and charter schools, would prevail. It was a record-setting sum, locals said, and even DeBerry called it “flabbergasting.” He defeated his rival 4,084 to 2,125—that is, Rhee spent $27 per vote—and went on to win the general election uncontested.

Ever since she resigned as chancellor of Washington, D.C. public schools in 2010 and started StudentsFirst, Rhee has raised millions of dollars from rich donors, which she funnels to local lawmakers who support her policies. Nowhere has her influence been felt more acutely than in Tennessee, where campaigns are a bargain and where legislators eager to amend the state’s dismal record on education have made it a mecca for reformers. To Rhee the mission also has a personal angle: Her ex-husband, Kevin Huffman, is commissioner of the state Department of Education and her two daughters attend school in Nashville.

In 2011-2012, her group spent $533,000 on over 60 local politicians, outspending the main teachers’ union by a third and becoming Tennessee’s biggest source of campaign money outside of the party PACs, according to election filings. Added to the $200,000-$300,000 that allied groups like Stand for Children and the Tennessee Federation for Children paid out, the result has been a gush of education-reform money taking over the state’s politics.

“They’ve become like the gun lobby in Tennessee,” a former aide to a top Nashville politician told me. “Everybody is scared of the NRA. It’s the same way with these education reform people.” 

Earlier this year, Tennessee looked like it would be the perfect proving ground, with a friendly governor, a weak teacher’s union, and a GOP-controlled legislature softened up by Rhee’s generosity. When the legislative session began in February, the ruling GOP packed both the House and Senate education committees with Rhee allies: 17 of the 24 members had received StudentsFirst donations. They would provide crucial support for the charter school and voucher bills that Rhee deemed a priority. Yet, by the close of the legislative session in April, all of the big measures Rhee favored—bills that would welcome more charter schools to the state and introduce private-school vouchers—had stalled.

How did StudentsFirst bluster into Tennessee with its massive war chest in 2011, only to have gained so little two years later? Politics, it turns out, only gets more complicated the more local it becomes.

In the fall of 2010, D.C. Mayor Adrian Fenty, who had appointed Rhee as chancellor three years earlier, lost his re-election bid. The defeat was in part a rejection of Rhee, whose top-down, politically unsavvy style of reform irked many residents, who called her arrogant and out-of-touch. But as Rhee tells it in her recent memoir, Radical: Fighting to Put Students First, Fenty was a victim of the teachers’ unions, who resented her and spent heavily to make an example of her mentor and chief supporter. (That narrative is complicated by the fact that Fenty was a goliath, dwarfing his opponent in fundraising.) “Where was the reform movement’s political muscle?” Rhee asked in the dark days after, according to the book. She made a vow to become that muscle, to “balance the union’s clout.”

Muscle, to Rhee, meant money. StudentsFirst tapped a network of wealthy private foundations tired of the logjam in education policy. They championed GOP-flavored reforms with a strong anti-union bent: charter schools, vouchers, and the curtailing of teacher tenure. Democrats tentatively signed on to the project. Obama’s Race to the Top grants, for instance, offered states a shot at a $4 billion pot of federal funding if they experimented with these policies.

Tennessee won one of the first of those grants, receiving $500 million to overhaul its education system. To bolster the state’s application, the outgoing governor, Democrat Phil Bredesen, had formulated a bipartisan bill that required even tenured teachers to be evaluated annually, and made legal the use of student test scores in tenure decisions. Similar proposals had ignited one of Rhee’s most contentious fights with the teachers’ unions during her time in D.C., where she clawed out a victory. But Bredesen’s proposal passed more or less smoothly in Tennessee, where the weaker unions were accustomed to compromise.

“During the eight years when I was governor, most of the things we wanted to do we did in concert with teachers,” Bredesen says. “That doesn’t mean we did whatever they wanted, but they were at the table.”

That relationship would deteriorate soon after Bredesen left office. In 2010, Republicans took the governor’s mansion and held both houses of the legislature by wide margins. In April 2011, Governor Bill Haslam signed a law requiring that tenured teachers who received poor evaluations two years in a row be put on probation, whereupon they could be fired at will. Two months later, he signed another law that stripped collective bargaining rights from teachers’ unions. Both measures had passed the legislature with little Democratic support. 

Rhee has said that pushing back at the teachers’ unions was one of the reasons she founded StudentsFirst, and the union-blaming that accompanied the bills in Tennessee echoed her rhetoric. “For years upon years, one union has thwarted the progress of education in Tennessee,” the Republican lieutenant governor, Ron Ramsey, said at one signing. “Reform after reform has been refused or dismantled. The barrier that has prevented us from putting the best possible teacher in every classroom will soon be removed.”  

As part of his vision for reform, Haslam hired Teach for America executive Kevin Huffman to direct the state’s education department. Huffman, Rhee’s ex-husband, brought their children to Nashville, where at least one of them attends a public school. Rhee now calls Tennessee one of her two homes and has taken a special interest in the state. In a speech in Memphis in 2011, she heaped praise on “the incredibly courageous legislature here in Tennessee, who passed some very, very aggressive and courageous laws this past session.”

Meanwhile, with Tennessee in its sights, StudentsFirst was amassing a hoard of cash in preparation for the 2012 elections. From August 2011 to August 2012, it collected $28.5 million according to recent tax returns. Though the group does not disclose its donors, public filings reveal that much of its money comes from hedge fund titans. On April 30, the Walton Family Foundation announced it would give Rhee $8 million over the next two years. Rhee hinted in her book that leveraged-buyout king Ted Forstmann had pledged tens of millions as well. 

In Tennessee, StudentsFirst gave money to more candidates—55 legislative and nine school board candidates—than it did in any other state this past election cycle. Of those 55 candidates, though, only seven were Democrats. StudentsFirst spokesperson Hari Sevugan (who has since quit the organization) told me last year that this was simply a fact of politics in Tennessee, where the GOP controls two-thirds of both houses in the General Assembly. But nationwide, Rhee has had trouble finding Democrats to stand with her. Of the 105 candidates across 12 states that she supported in general elections in 2012, 92 were Republican. These lopsided numbers bolster the left’s loudest complaint about Rhee of late: Though she claims Democratic values and the bipartisan mantle, Republicans dominate the ranks of StudentsFirst’s donors and of those it donates to. Rhee blames the imbalance on a lack of courage among Democrats, telling newspapers that many had pledged their support privately but refused to go public for fear of reprisals from the teachers’ unions. But those Democrats willing to align themselves with her cause often find themselves lavishly rewarded.

John DeBerry Jr., who is black and a minister, sits on the House Education Committee and often votes with the GOP on social and education issues. (He was in favor of Tennessee’s derided “Don’t Say Gay” bill, which sought to ban all discussion of homosexuality in classrooms through eighth grade. The bill’s co-sponsor won StudentsFirst’s “Reformer of the Year” award.) Like Rhee, DeBerry employs a kind of doublespeak when he talks about teachers, alternately praising them (“There is no profession I respect more”) and scolding them (“In hard economic times, nobody wants to hear you bellyache about working five years for tenure instead of three”).

He supports the governor’s bill to start a voucher program in Tennessee, which would use public funds to send some students to private schools. Critics of the bill complain that vouchers take money away from public schools, and could easily become instruments of re-segregation. DeBerry, who told me he marched with Martin Luther King Jr., and attended a segregated school himself, is one of the policy’s most credible boosters. “I don’t believe for one minute that vouchers in themselves are going to hurt,” he says. “It gives opportunity for the child to choose.” 

DeBerry’s particular combination of traits makes him invaluable to Rhee, who has made a point of courting minority groups ever since her disastrous experience in D.C., where she ran afoul of the mostly-black middle class with her unapologetic campaigns to fire principals and reform teacher tenure. “There’s a sense that she has vilified teachers—pillars of the old black bourgeoisie—for the sake of making the schools more hospitable to newly arrived white families,” an editorial in this magazine declared.

Her husband, Sacramento Mayor Kevin Johnson, has led efforts to attract black and Latino voters, which would have the added benefit of making her coalition a little more bipartisan. In September, Johnson, who is black and a Democrat, convened black church leaders for a summit in Atlanta to discuss how and why they should get involved with education policy. One presentation, laden with stark figures about the racial achievement gap, asked: “Is education the civil rights issue of our time?” Afterward, StudentsFirst organized briefing calls to encourage pastors to partner with StudentsFirst to host Martin Luther King Jr. day activities and policy roundtables at their churches. One much-touted policy was the parent trigger, a provision that would allow parents at a school to issue a vote of no confidence and turn it over, typically to a charter operator. Though a handful of states have passed such laws, the maneuver has no track record (partly because school boards have thrown up roadblocks on the rare occasion that parents collected the threshold number of signatures). 

Still, DeBerry has taken up this issue since the elections, going as far as to ask StudentsFirst for sample language on the law. His bill sought to strengthen Tennessee’s existing parent-trigger law by lowering the required number of signatures from 60 percent of parents to 51. The money had nothing to do with it, he says. “I didn’t even know Michelle Rhee was spending money,” he says. “I never even met until after the election any of the people who worked for her. I didn’t even know the amount of money until it was reported on TV.” Regardless, the mark of her extravagant gift lingers on him—rarely does an article in the Tennessee press mention him without bringing up Rhee, or vice versa.

In the public school board races last year, there was an early omen that money’s influence might not go as far as thought in Tennessee. The boards approve new charter schools, so they have become battlegrounds for education reform forces. In 2012, StudentsFirst gave $3,000 each to nine pro-charter candidates in Nashville and Memphis. But in this arena it was dwarfed by Stand for Children, a kindred group that registered over $200,000 in independent expenditures on school board races around Tennessee. Both organizations share many top donors, including the Gates Foundation and the Walton Family Foundation, which also underwrite groups like Teach for America.

“Money Transforms School Board Race Into Thunderdome for Elites,” a headline in Nashville Scene declared. One of the winners was Elissa Kim, a Teach for America vice president who used her TFA connections to raise $80,000—four times more than her opponent, school board chair Gracie Porter. Nashville’s City Paper reported that Kim received nearly a third of her money from out-of-state donors, like TFA chief Wendy Kopp and hedge-fund billionaire Stephen Mandel. 

But the heftiest candidate was Margaret Dolan, who received over $100,000 in donations, and she lost to Amy Frogge, a parent who raised less than a fifth of that.

Mark North, an outgoing Nashville board member who did not run, called the fundraising “astronomical,” especially for neighborhood races that only attract a couple thousand voters. “You can run a campaign on $10,000—that should do it, frankly,” he says.

But it should not be surprising, he said, that big money did not lead to big wins in all the races. “School board races are still local,” he said. “There is nothing more local than a school board race, and if you try to treat it like those dirty nasty congressional races or statewide races, then you’re going to miss out.” 

The new Nashville school board immediately faced a contentious vote on whether to approve a charter operator called Great Hearts that had close ties with Kevin Huffman. The previous board members had rejected Great Hearts three times over concerns that one of its schools would exclude low-income or minority students. When the new board turned down the charter operator a third time, an angered Huffman punished Nashville’s public schools by withholding $3.4 million in funding for the school year.

This episode led Republicans to propose a law that would allow some charter operators to report directly to the state, bypassing the local school board. Rhee named this bill her top priority in the 2013 legislative session. Also topping her wish list was DeBerry’s parent-trigger law and the governor’s voucher proposal. These priorities are distant from the issues she battled for in D.C.: performance pay for teachers and abolishing tenure—issues which President Barack Obama sympathizes with, and which Tennessee has already made significant progress on. But Rhee’s impatience with the education establishment has led her to lobby for alternatives to public education like charter schools and vouchers for private schools. These views put her right of center and have led some Democrats to accuse her of colluding with the GOP to privatize education. That is not her goal. But as she has shown in Tennessee, she is willing to let public schools take a hit if it means advancing her cause. 

A group of 50-odd Nashville parents got organized in the wake of the Great Hearts controversy to protest what they see as brakeless, destructive change. They oppose bills that would siphon money or decision-making power from local school boards and bristle at the incursions of out-of-state reformers. Ann-Marie Farmer, one of the organizers for Standing Together 4 Strong Community Schools, told me that they are not anti-charter, but “wary.”

“The research does not show that proliferation of charter schools is raising achievement, or that charter schools are hugely outperforming,” Farmer says. “These aren’t proven theories, but we just hear ‘more and more, faster and faster.’” 

Several state legislators have made the same complaint, that schools have barely had a chance to implement the new curricula and test-based teacher evaluation systems that were signed into law two years ago. “We need to give public schools time to improve, and not just give up on them for things like charter schools, vouchers, and virtual schools,” says House Democratic Leader Craig Fitzhugh. In other districts, including Rhee’s D.C., this kind of pressure on teachers and administrators has led to mounting reports of test-score fraud.

“It’s disconcerting, and troubling,” says Fitzhugh’s colleague Joe Pitts, who sits on the House education committee but did not receive any money from Rhee. “It seems like everybody’s got an idea and they find Tennessee very fertile ground.”

As the 2013 legislative session drew to a close in April, Farmer’s group claimed victory when all three bills failed to pass. But it was disorganization within the GOP that fumbled the bills. Haslam’s voucher proposal, which targeted low-income children in the worst-performing schools, fell not for lack of support, but because a stubborn faction wanted to bring vouchers to far more children. Tetchy on the subject to begin with, the governor had the bill withdrawn. “It was infighting among advocates and not the opposition’s efforts that derailed vouchers in Tennessee this year,” Haslam wrote in The Wall Street Journal.

DeBerry’s parent-trigger bill got mired in debate over whether the petition to convert a school should require 51 percent or 55 percent of parents to sign on, among other minutiae. He vows to revive it in next year’s session. The charter authorizer passed the House, but stalled in the Senate, where skeptical Republicans asked their House allies if the hastily written bill wasn’t just a knee-jerk reaction to the Great Hearts fight.

Rhee is not backing down. StudentsFirst Tennessee director Brent Easley told the Associated Press that the group would help retool the parent-trigger bill over the summer. I asked Easley earlier this year if StudentsFirst might consider giving Tennessee some time to digest all the recent reform. “Our opinion is to keep the pedal to the floor,” he replied, and repeated a classic Rhee koan: “There are those who want to wait and those who don’t have the luxury to wait.”

Rhee continues to push her reform agenda elsewhere. In February, she spent a quarter of a million dollars on school board races in Los Angeles, with mixed results. This high-altitude money dump has become her signature move, in her view a crucial way to smooth out the playing field—even if the cash comes from rich donors and not grassroots supporters. “We had to give politicians who were willing to take courageous stands the same backing that the unions did,” she writes in Radical. And we had to play their game.” 

In Tennessee, Rhee played “the game” perfectly, yet still managed to lose. As StudentsFirst regroups in the coming months, Easley says it will pay more attention to local organizing, holding events and reaching out to parents to build a base of local support. Real politics, in other words.

Residents may come to welcome the change in direction, especially those who accuse Rhee of having lost track of her pledge to put students first in her fervor for political victories.

“Whatever your initial intentions are, whatever your initial ideals were, once your measurements are how many legislators you control and how many laws were passed, you are nothing but a political movement,” says Mark North, the former Nashville school board member. “You are not an education movement. And when you get there, so that your only success, like a street gang, is what corner you control, you run the risk of losing your soul and losing your focus. It becomes about elections and politics, instead of schoolchildren.”