Michelle Rhee entertained a Sacramento audience Tuesday night, recounting stories from her tenure as chancellor of Washington, D.C., schools and ribbing her husband Mayor Kevin Johnson about his basketball career - but talking very little about the political agenda of her StudentsFirst advocacy group.
Speaking to a supportive audience from the stage of the Community Center Theater, the controversial education advocate talked for about 45 minutes about heading a dysfunctional school system that was designed to protect jobs at the expense of educating children.
"I am a strong believer that more moms should run school districts because you have wildly different expectations," said Rhee, who has two daughters.
She said her girls' rooms are full of soccer trophies despite their lack of athletic ability - a reflection, Rhee said, of the low expectations American culture has of its youth.
"We have to regain the competitive American spirit because, in my opinion, we have gone completely soft. We are so busy telling children how great they are that we are not taking the time to make them great."
It was one of many familiar themes Rhee recounted. She also said that teachers unions and other interest groups have too much influence shaping school policy, that the challenges children bring to the classroom are not an excuse not to educate them, and that changing the education system is a bipartisan issue.
"We have to make sure every single child is the in the classroom of a highly effective teacher every day, because it can change their lives," Rhee said.
Teachers should earn more money and respect, Rhee said.
"No offense to my wonderful husband and his former career, but why are we paying basketball players $12 million a year to dribble a ball? I would rather be paying our most effective teachers $12 million a year because they are doing the most important work in the nation," she said, drawing laughter from the crowd.
She didn't seem to notice as Johnson left his seat in the audience and strode up to the stage. He kissed Rhee, then took the mike.
"But she married me, didn't she?" he said, then returned to his seat.
Rhee talked only briefly about StudentsFirst and made no revelations about its political agenda in California. She started the group two years ago and it has had success changing charter school law in in Georgia and curbing union rights in Michigan. The group has been slow to make much impact in California, however.
StudentsFirst supported three candidates for state Assembly last year. Two of them were elected over candidates supported by the California Teachers Association.
A handful of CTA members protested outside the theater before Rhee's speech.
StudentsFirst issued so-called "report cards" earlier this month, grading states on how much their education policies are aligned with the organization's priorities. California earned an "F," despite having some things that StudentsFirst supports, such as a large number of charter schools and a "parent trigger" law that allows parents to petition for a change of leadership at low-performing schools.
But StudentsFirst would like to see California lift its cap on the number of charter schools that can open each year, establish a voucher program that allows poor children to attend private school at taxpayer expense and radically change the way it evaluates teachers, so that student test scores make up a big chunk of how a teacher is rated. The group also advocates overhauling teacher layoff procedures so that seniority is not a factor.