Sacramento first lady Michelle Rhee and Mayor Kevin Johnson met with President-elect Donald Trump on Saturday as Rhee is in contention for education secretary for the incoming Republican administration.
Associated Press photos show Rhee and Johnson departing from the meeting at a Trump-owned golf club in Bedminster, N.J., smiling and shaking hands with the President-elect. Crystal Strait, chief of staff to Johnson, could not confirm if the mayor was in the room during Trump’s discussion with Rhee.
Trump also met with former GOP presidential nominee Mitt Romney on Saturday, a reported contender for secretary of state in the Trump administration.
Rhee did not return an email request for an interview Saturday. Johnson was unavailable for comment, Strait said.
Rhee gained prominence as an education reformer while she was chancellor of schools in Washington, D.C., from 2007-10. In 2010, she formed StudentsFirst, a states-based education reform organization that advocates for school-choice initiatives and has been active in elections.
Rhee has been a strong proponent of charter schools and currently chairs the board of St. Hope Public Schools, a Sacramento-based charter school organization started by Johnson.
She supports the Common Core curriculum that is unpopular with many conservatives, and which Trump has vowed to end. Like Johnson, Rhee is a Democrat. Her support of school-choice vouchers in 2013 went against the Democratic Party line.
Formerly high profile, she has largely kept out of public view in recent years. During the 2014 election, Rhee championed a local measure on behalf of Johnson to increase the power of the Sacramento mayor’s office. That strong-mayor effort failed at the ballot box.
The news that Rhee met with Trump brought mixed reactions in California.
Sacramento City Unified School Board member Jay Hansen said he supports Rhee for education secretary because it would be in the “best interest” of Sacramento schools. He said the district receives about $55 million annually from the federal government, about 10 percent of its total budget, and he believes Rhee would remain a supporter of the district - and California - if she serves on the cabinet.
“I know a lot of people have varying opinions about the work Michelle has done in education, but I would certainly rather have her there than someone from Louisiana or Alabama who may not share any of the values we have in California,” Hansen said. “We have to worry about how are immigrants going to be treated in this new administration … transgender students, the budget for low-income students and English language learners. Michelle is going to be a lot more sensitive to the totality of what we are dealing with in California than the name of anyone else I’ve heard, so that is encouraging to me.”
But teachers unions, including the Sacramento City Teachers Association, have decried what they call attempts to privatize education and erode job protections for educators. In Sacramento, StudentsFirst has stood opposite the California Teachers Association, a key ally of Democrats, on issues like evaluating schools and teachers.
Calling Rhee’s candidacy “disturbing,” California Federation of Teachers President Joshua Pechthalt argued that parents and teachers had rebuked Rhee’s belief in “market reforms” that rely heavily on testing.
“That Donald Trump would appoint her is indicative of both his failure to understand where things are at in public education, but also the redemption of somebody who has been really rejected at every turn,” Pechthalt said Saturday. “Michelle Rhee is exactly what we don’t need for public education in this country.”
Rhee’s consideration as a Trump appointee - and current mayor Johnson’s visit - comes days after incoming Sacramento Mayor-elect Darrell Steinberg vowed to stand up to Trump on immigration issues. In recent days, Steinberg has spoken publicly numerous times about his intent to fight deportations of undocumented immigrants if the Trump administration moves in that direction.
Rhee has been active in Johnson’s political career and has said they share professional ambitions. Insiders describe both Johnson and Rhee as intensely driven, working long hours and expecting staff to do the same.
“Kevin and I view our goals in life and public service as a team,” Rhee told The Sacramento Bee in 2014. “He was right there with me when we created (StudentsFirst) and has worked alongside me throughout these past four years. I am excited to continue working side by side on these new opportunities we have.”
Rhee reportedly splits her time between Sacramento and Tennessee, where her children live. During the recent election, she tweeted a photo of the long lines at her Tennessee polling place.
Two other candidates mentioned for education secretary under Trump – presidential contender Ben Carson and charter-school founder Eva Moskowitz – have declined consideration, according to published reports. The New York Times has Williamson M. Evers, an education expert at the conservative Hoover Institution think tank, on its Trump short list for the job.