January 27, 2013

Michelle Rhee just getting started on shaping California education policy

Michelle Rhee put the nation's education establishment on alert two years ago when she announced she would form an advocacy group focused on thwarting the power of teachers unions in state and local politics.

Michelle Rhee put the nation's education establishment on alert two years ago when she announced she would form an advocacy group focused on thwarting the power of teachers unions in state and local politics.

The former Washington, D.C., schools chancellor already had a national reputation as a change agent, unafraid of angering teachers and principals in her drive to improve schools serving the neediest children.

Rhee, now married to Sacramento Mayor Kevin Johnson, set up StudentsFirst's headquarters in California's capital and chose the Golden State as one of 17 she would target.

While she has had success shaping charter school law in Georgia and curbing union rights in Michigan, Rhee hasn't yet upended the status quo in California public schools.

She hasn't made changes she advocates in teacher layoff and evaluation procedures. She hasn't expanded the use of charter schools. She has avoided the front lines in most advocacy efforts here and is rarely seen around the Capitol.

"She's been pretty low-key in terms of her public visibility in California," said Bill Lucia, president of EdVoice, an education advocacy group that supports many of the same policies as Rhee's organization.

"I think the verdict is out. We haven't seen what they're going to do on the policy side."

StudentsFirst acknowledges it's off to a slow start in shaping policy in California. Still, there are signs that Rhee is beginning to move on her agenda.

Since she set up StudentsFirst in 2011 in a K Street office two blocks from the state Capitol, the group has contributed to more than 100 political races across the country and hired scores of employees, including alumni of the Schwarzenegger and Obama administrations.

Rhee has hired three lobbying firms to represent StudentsFirst in the state Legislature. Her group helped kill an evaluation bill it said was too easy on teachers and shopped around a piece of legislation to change teacher layoff rules that was never introduced.

StudentsFirst also has begun political efforts to take on one of the most powerful forces in state politics: the California Teachers Association. Her group put $2 million into a California campaign committee ahead of the 2012 elections, and two of the three legislative candidates it supported were elected over candidates supported by CTA.

CTA President Dean Vogel said he doesn't feel threatened but is keeping an eye on Rhee as she rolls out her strategy.

"Any time you're gathering up huge amounts of money and hiring huge amounts of staff and moving a particular agenda, you're going to have an effect. What effect that will be is hard to say until it starts to unfold," Vogel said.

"Are we paying attention? You bet. Do I take her seriously? Absolutely."

Image carefully crafted

StudentsFirst supports expanding charter schools, which typically hire non-union teachers; providing vouchers for poor children to attend private school at taxpayer expense; removing seniority as the key factor in teacher layoff procedures; and making student performance on standardized tests a big part of teachers' performance evaluations.

Unions see all of that as an attack on teachers, and a move to give private businesses control of public schools. They also say it's a continuation of Rhee's brash approach in Washington, D.C., where she allowed TV cameras to follow her as she closed two dozen schools and fired teachers and principals she believed were ineffective because their students' test scores were low.

Reports in USA Today and on PBS' "Frontline" have probed whether test score increases at some D.C. schools under Rhee's leadership were the result of cheating. However, independent investigations – including the most recent one by the U.S. Department of Education – have not found that any problems were widespread.

Rhee declined to be interviewed for this story, and has turned down similar requests from The Bee for more than a year and a half.

Yet she seems to thrive in the spotlight and has a vast team of press secretaries and communications consultants to help craft her public image. She starred in a documentary film about charter schools, makes frequent media appearances and wrote an autobiography scheduled to be published in May. On Tuesday night, Rhee is headlining the Sacramento Speakers Series at the Community Center Theater.

It's something of a hometown appearance. Rhee splits her time between here and Nashville, where her two daughters live with their father. Rhee's ex-husband, Kevin Huffman, is the head of Tennessee's public education system.

Rhee grew up in Ohio, went to college at Cornell and started out as a teacher in a rough Baltimore school, according to her biography "The Bee Eater" by Richard Whitmire. The title stems from an episode early in Rhee's career when she was at the head of a classroom of unruly kids and grew frustrated that her lesson did not interest them. A bee flew in through an open window.

"I had my rolled-up lesson plan which was now no good, and I smacked the bee and flipped it into my hand – and ate it," Rhee told Whitmire. "It wasn't that bad."

It was a breakthrough moment in Rhee's relationship with her students, Whitmire wrote. After that, he wrote, students "afforded her just a bit of deference, just as they would any potentially crazy person on the street corner."

California gets an F

Rhee took her sometimes-shocking and confrontational style beyond the classroom, setting up an organization to train and support teachers at urban schools. She eventually served on the board of St. HOPE, Johnson's nonprofit organization that took control of Sacramento High and turned it into a charter school despite enormous opposition from the local teachers union.

In a 2010 meeting with The Bee's editorial board, Rhee said Johnson's experience with Sac High was part of her inspiration for starting StudentsFirst.

Rhee, 43, is a Democrat but touts StudentsFirst as a bipartisan organization. Her argument that too many decisions about education policy are made based on the needs of teachers instead of the needs of students has been well received by two divergent audiences: the Democratic administration of President Barack Obama, and the Republican administrations of governors who want to block union power.

So far, she hasn't found much support among California's political leaders, most of whom are union-supported Democrats who say they're focused on other school issues such as improving funding, curriculum and testing programs.

The no-love affair is mutual. StudentsFirst recently issued "report cards" grading states on how well their education policies match the organization's priorities. California received an F.

"My theory is she is here because her husband is here and that it's a national organization, but this wasn't a particularly good state for her in terms of the political configuration," said Michael Kirst, president of the state Board of Education.

Kirst advises Gov. Jerry Brown on education matters and his board sets school policy for the state. But Rhee has never made contact with him, Kirst said. Tom Torlakson, superintendent of the state's public education system, also said Rhee has not asked for a meeting since launching StudentsFirst.

But former Assemblyman Charles Calderon, a powerful Democrat until he was termed out last year, described meeting with Rhee and Johnson in his Capitol office last spring. He said they were lobbying against teacher layoff policies that say the least experienced teachers must be the first to be let go. The practice is especially detrimental to students in poor communities, StudentsFirst argues, because they typically have the newest teachers and thus, the most turnover.

"After she found me receptive to her point of view – the issue she was advocating – she asked, 'Is it possible to get a bill through?' And I said yes it was, but there are a lot of ducks you'd have to line up to move it through."

StudentsFirst pitched a bill that would remove seniority as a factor in teacher layoff procedures, instead basing layoffs largely on job performance, according to a confidential draft The Bee obtained. The bill also would have changed the teacher evaluation system so that at least half the ratings were based on student test scores.

Calderon said he thought African American and Latino lawmakers would be supportive of the bill because it could improve low-performing schools in their districts.

In the end, though, Calderon said, he never introduced the bill because he ran out of time to put together enough votes to support it. He said it would have amounted to a "holy war" against the teachers union at a strategically tough time at the end of session.

"It would have had to be a gut-and-amend, and there are a lot of things that would have to happen and a lot of politics that would have to fall in place. And it would have happened at a time where CTA has the most leverage on leadership, going into the election cycle."

Legislative agenda unclear

Though the bill didn't take off, it wasn't the end of StudentsFirst's relationship with Calderon. The group spent nearly $375,000 to support his son, Ian Calderon, who last fall ran successfully to take his father's place representing the Whittier area in the Assembly.

Ian Calderon, 27, has not yet introduced any bills. He said last week he has no plans for an education agenda this year. And his father said he doesn't think the younger Calderon has enough clout yet to carry a bill the teachers union would oppose.

StudentsFirst wouldn't disclose much about its agenda in California for the coming legislative session. Tim Melton, the group's vice president, said it has not yet hired someone to direct its program for the state.

"It really does take time to build up," he said. "We really want our members to speak up and put pressure on legislators to do the things they think are right policy-wise. In some states it happens overnight; in other states it takes longer."

StudentsFirst also doesn't disclose its financial backers. The organization's tax filings show that StudentsFirst and a related nonprofit, StudentsFirst Institute, brought in more than $7.5 million between October 2010 and July 2011.

The Walton Family Foundation said it has given the group $3 million over the last two years and the Broad Foundation also said it provides support. Other funders include the Laura and John Arnold Foundation and David Tepper, a New Jersey hedge fund manager, according to a Huffington Post examination of Pennsylvania lobbying reports.

StudentsFirst didn't spend any money campaigning for California ballot measures aimed at increasing funding for the state's schools – a fact critics say will weaken the group's standing with education insiders.

"They will be influential to the extent that they have a lot of money, they've hired a lot of people and they will do a lot of PR," said John Mockler, a consultant with decades of experience shaping California's education laws.

"But when the real fight was on, they were nowhere to be seen."

Related content




Editor's Choice Videos