After months of speculation, former D.C. Schools Chancellor Michelle Rhee today is unveiling her next move. On this afternoon’s episode of “Oprah” and in this week’s Newsweek, Rhee is announcing the launch of an education advocacy organization called StudentsFirst. (The group’s website also went live this morning).
Rhee is dubbing it a “national movement,” with headquarters online, but a source tells me she will be working out of Sacramento, where her new husband Kevin Johnson is mayor. Her office for the time being, I’m told, will be at conservative-leaning Mercury, a p.r. firm where, until last summer*, Steve Schmidt, formerly of John McCain’s presidential campaign, was a partner. (Although Rhee was appointed by Democrat Adrian Fenty to lead D.C.’s schools, she famously said back in 2008 that she considered voting for McCain because she was worried about Obama’s education agenda, and she was recently appointed head of the education transition team for Florida's new Republican Governor Rick Scott. In other words, her political leanings aren’t as important to her as her educational ones.)
In the Newsweek article that outlines Rhee’s plans, this passage in particular caught my eye:
Go to any public-school-board meeting in the country and you’ll rarely hear the words “children,” “students,” or “kids” uttered. Instead, the focus remains on what jobs, contracts, and departments are getting which cuts, additions, or changes. The rationale for the decisions mostly rests on which grown-ups will be affected, instead of what will benefit or harm children.
The teachers’ unions get the blame for much of this. Elected officials, parents, and administrators implore them to “embrace change” and “accept reform.” But I don’t think the unions can or should change. The purpose of the teachers’ union is to protect the privileges, priorities, and pay of their members. And they’re doing a great job of that.
What that means is that the reform community has to exert influence as well. That’s why I’ve decided to start StudentsFirst, a national movement to transform public education in our country. We need a new voice to change the balance of power in public education. Our mission is to defend and promote the interests of children so that America has the best education system in the world.
This is a savvy argument. On the one hand, Rhee, who fought tooth-and-nail with the D.C. teachers’ union (which later spent heavily to defeat Fenty and, by extension, Rhee), is saying that such groups can’t and shouldn’t have to change. This could be read as an appeasement of sorts, though the “can’t change” idea is admittedly something of a slap. But, at the same time, Rhee is saying a new, reform-minded movement could make it such that unions simply don’t hold as much power. In other words, if you can’t beat them into changing—make them less relevant. (At least, that’s how I read it.)
To achieve its goals, Rhee says StudentsFirst will endorse candidates and lobby for legislation, along with efforts focused on instruction, teacher quality, and other education buzzwords. The group will be non-partisan, but political. Indeed, Rhee concludes her article with the assertion, "[W]hat we need to do is fight."
This is very much in keeping with Rhee’s past work—but I’m curious, based on the above quote, how the organization will approach unions. Will she stick to the stance she had in D.C., and battle with these groups on, say, reforming archaic teacher contracts (or work with those that are amenable)? Or will she mostly aim higher—seeking change around and over local unions’ heads?
*Correction: This originally said December 1, based on an Edelman release that was apparently outdated. Schmidt left in July, Mercury tells me. The new partner is a former Democratic speaker of the California Assembly.