The controversial former chancellor of Washington D.C. schools is hopscotching the country this month, dropping in as state legislatures reconvene for the year. Michelle Rhee is using a political machine to push dozens of policy points from Missouri and Ohio to Georgia and Tennessee.
Rhee is probably the most well known ex-superintendent in the country. This week PBS Frontline ran a documentary about her time as D.C. chancellor. She was treated a bit like a rock star, even on the playground.
“Can you give me an autograph?” asks a student. “Me too,” says another.
“An autograph? Why do you want my autograph? I’m not famous,” Rhee responds.
Rhee also made enemies, particularly with the teacher’s union. She was fond – and even proud – of firing principals. One was let go with Frontline’s cameras rolling.
Ultimately Rhee resigned as a new mayor was elected. But instead of taking of a job with the next district seeking a shakeup, she took her talents well outside the Baltimore classroom where she started her career. Rhee launched an advocacy group called “StudentsFirst.” She is its face, though she contends the organization is larger than her.
“More than me, it’s really our members,” she says.
The group claims two million members – 40,000 just in Tennessee.
Membership involves little more than signing a mailing list. Still, Rhee says parents are calling for the reforms she wants. And she defends against the charge that she’s playing politics with education.
Matching the Unions
“What I have a problem with is that until now there has been no organized national interest group with the same heft as the teacher’s union that is advocating on behalf of children,” Rhee says.
“Since we haven’t had the interests of kids represented, then you end up with a really skewed landscape where all of this money is going into the political system for the interest of adults. And so all we’re doing is seeking to balance that equation.”
And they have, at least in campaign contributions.
StudentsFirst dished out nearly $400,000 to Tennessee legislative and school board candidates in 2012, besting the statewide teacher’s union by thousands of dollars according to the Tennessee Registry of Election Finance.
On this swing through state capitols, Rhee is also writing campaign checks. While in Nashville, she appeared at a fundraiser with Governor Bill Haslam.
“That, obviously, is very disturbing to us,” says Jennifer Croslin Smith, mother of a third grader in Metro Nashville Public Schools.
Smith is one of a handful of parents who’ve formed a competing group called Standing Together for Strong Community Schools. It opposes many of the reforms pushed by StudentsFirst.
“They generally come in with their agenda and try to cram it down their throats,” she says.
A Lengthy Agenda
The agenda includes making a way for charter schools to enter a district even if a local school board says no. Rhee wants vouchers for low income kids stuck in low performing schools and a parent trigger law in every state, making it possible for parents to force change at their school.
No state has all 37 StudentsFirst priorities in place, according to a national report card released by the group this week. Those who have the most – like Louisiana – are not necessarily high performing. But Rhee contends her proposals are transformative.
“Any one of these policies that we have on our agenda, is it going to transform the district? No,” she says. “It’s got to be all of them together.”
Tennessee ranked number 11 in the report card. And already lawmakers are hearing about it through form emails sent through the StudentsFirst website.
State Senator Delores Gresham says her inbox is filling up. She’s the Education Committee chair and one of the dozens who benefited from StudentsFirst campaign contributions.
Gresham stops short of saying she’s in lockstep with StudentsFirst, but she doesn’t take too kindly to characterizations of Rhee’s group as an outside organization swooping in to states like Tennessee.
“On the contrary,” she says. “I see an organization that has – at its heart – a search and a struggle to serve children rather than perpetuate a system that is not working.”