Michelle Rhee is a puzzle. Widely touted as an public education crusader (who also appears to overstate her qualifications), she seems to have no problem trashing the teachers' unions and tenure while promoting charter schools as the answer. And now she's cuddling up with Rick Scott in Florida to help him privatize Florida public schools. Who is this woman and why is the Obama administration (and Obama himself) so enamored of her?
In a recent Washington Post op-ed, Richard Kahlenberg credits the Obama administration and Democrats for handing Scott Walker a defense for his blatant union-busting:
But Walker's argument - that greedy teachers are putting their own interests over the interests of the public - resonates in part because in recent years, many Democrats have made that argument as well.
Exhibit A is former D.C. schools chancellor Michelle Rhee. Under Democratic mayor Adrian Fenty, she repeatedly clashed with the Washington Teachers' Union, which she said put the interests of adults over those of children. "Cooperation, collaboration, and consensus-building are way overrated," Rhee said at the Aspen Institute's education summit in 2008. She told journalist John Merrow it is imperative that teachers-union bargaining rights exclude issues such as devising a fair teacher-evaluation system.
Since resigning as chancellor last year, Rhee has launched a new organization, StudentsFirst, with the express goal of raising $1 billion to counter teachers unions. Her approach remains confrontational. In a profound sense, Democrats like Michelle Rhee have paved the way for Scott Walker.
But Rhee couldn't have done it alone. Then-candidate Barack Obama endorsed Rhee in a 2008 debate as a "wonderful new superintendent" and later applauded the firing of every single unionized teacher at Central Falls High School in Rhode Island. (The teachers were later rehired.) Rhee's agenda also received a big boost from liberal movie director Davis Guggenheim, whose film, "Waiting for 'Superman,' " implies that teachers unions are to blame for the failures of urban education and that non-unionized charter schools are the solution. The movie includes no acknowledgment that the things teachers want for themselves - more resources devoted to education, smaller class sizes, policies that allow them to keep order in the classroom - are also good for kids.
It's no secret to regular readers of this blog that the Republican end game is to convert our public school systems to private, for-profit concerns, and no one is more committed to that goal than Rick Scott. To that end, there's a bill being jetstreamed through the Florida state legislature "reforming education".
The legislation would measure teacher performance based on four categories, and give principals the option to reject teachers who have not been rated highly effective or effective; end teacher contracts for those who receive two unsatisfactory evaluations in three years; give teachers hired after July 1, 2011, annual and not continuing contracts; and put teachers hired after July 1, 2014, on performance-based scales. The House amended its measure (proposed bill 11-01) to mirror a substitute Senate bill (SB736) that passed its final committee Wednesday morning. The measures are speeding toward Gov. Rick Scott, who has said he would sign the bill once it reaches his desk. Former Gov. Charlie Crist famously vetoed SB6, last year’s controversial teacher tenure bill.
The bill also mirrors Wisconsin's legislation forcing teachers to contribute to their retirement and health plans as well as stripping the majority of their collective bargaining rights.
Michelle Rhee's roadmap. Again. And in Tennessee, she's busy too.
The outcome of Rhee's work, when combined with the travesty that is NCLB and the general assault on teachers is decisions like this one, where a gifted, committed, successful teacher decides she doesn't want to be a teacher anymore.
There are many policy areas where I can make exceptions or give benefit of the doubt, but when it comes to education, I say that President Obama is dead wrong and worse yet, he's enabling a movement that will gut our educational system. When he goes to Florida and appears with Jeb Bush, the king of school privatization, it's a shot in the gut of every teacher in the country.
I've had three kids go through the public school system. My youngest finishes next year. All three have gotten good, solid, strong educations. They know how to think, how to read, how to function and they were or will be college-ready. All three have had wonderful teachers in an underfunded school district which does not serve rich people. It's diverse and more students are minorities or poor than the other way around. This is not to say public schools are perfect. They're not. But much of the reason they're not is the result of No Child Left Behind, which could possibly be the worst "education reform" I've ever seen. One of my kids graduated before NCLB took effect. One graduated a few years in. My youngest has spent more years in the system under that idiot law than not. My experience? She got a great education in spite of NCLB and because of her teachers.
To lay the problems with our public school system at the feet of teachers and teachers' unions is ridiculous, yet Rhee persists, and the Obama administration blesses it! What is the matter with them?
Daily Kos points out some (possibly) unintended consequences of Rhee's "advice":
But slashing pensions? Fantastic! Limiting collective bargaining to "basic things like the salary"? Why, that's the Michelle Rhee program!
I think that, you know, unions can collectively bargain over basic things like salary but they don't have a place in getting involved in policies and so I think that the move to try to limit what they bargain over is an incredibly important one.
If teachers are restricted to bargaining over salary and pension issues, how long do you think it will take the Michelle Rhees of this world to start screaming about how teachers are only in it for themselves, and all they care about are their salaries? What's that you say? That's already what she and her ilk are saying? Huh. Funny. It's almost like she's suggesting policies that will give her an excuse to do more of what she's already doing.
For generations, teachers—and their unions—have fought for increased education funding, smaller class sizes, and other resources. But so-called reformers like Rhee want to squash teachers' ability to advocate for their students. Her attacks on teachers helped lay the groundwork for what Scott Walker is trying to do. They've helped create the atmosphere that's made talented, dedicated teachers say I don't want to be a teacher any more.
For all the talk about how terrible it is to leave our children and grandchildren in debt, no one seems to be as outraged about how terrible it is to leave our children and grandchildren without hope of a decent education. That is a far broader problem than the national debt, and the Obama administration needs to quit partnering with Michelle Rhee to undermine the public school system. Now.