Taking a crack at California’s education system

Mar 27, 2013 by

michellerhee-172x114Michelle Rhee came to prominence as the tough-minded chancellor of Washington, D.C., schools. Now she’s in Sacramento, taking on this state’s system — and its teachers unions.

SACRAMENTO — When Michelle Rhee wants to make a point about what she sees as the coddling of American children, she refers to her daughters’ abundant soccer trophies.

“My daughters suck at soccer,” she says to crowds that roar with knowing laughter.

The former District of Columbia schools chancellor is pitch perfect in the role of outraged parent and education reformer, distilling complex policy debates into bare-knuckled banter.

In Rhee’s world, as she recently told crowds in Los Angeles and Sacramento, teacher seniority protections are “whack,” principals can be “nutty” and charter schools can be “crappy.” Such frank talk has made the controversial former teacher a celebrity and potential political powerhouse.

StudentsFirst, the advocacy group Rhee founded in California’s capital, where she lives with her husband, Mayor Kevin Johnson, is positioning itself as the political counterweight to teachers unions. Funded by entrepreneurs and philanthropists, it’s pushing to elect candidates and rewrite policies on charter schools, teacher assessment and other charged issues in at least 17 states, including California.

Teachers unions and other critics say the group, which spent $250,000 to boost three candidates for the Los Angeles Board of Education in the March 5 election, promotes unproven policy proposals with cash from sources whose main goal is crushing organized labor. Among StudentsFirst’s major donors is the Walton Family Foundation, funded by heirs to the fortune generated by Wal-Mart, which has vigorously opposed unions.

“StudentsFirst,” said Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, “has found a way to be the education flank of a broader anti-union movement.”

Rhee says she supports collective bargaining. Her group, she said, balances labor’s role in the education debate.

“The purpose of teachers unions is to prioritize the pay and privileges of members. That is their job. I don’t think that’s the problem,” she said in an interview. “What I think the issue is is we don’t have an organized national interest group with the same heft … advocating on behalf of kids.”

The 43-year-old Rhee, whose children attend public school in Tennessee, where her ex-husband lives, is guided by the free-market principles that characterized her tumultuous three-year tenure in Washington.

via Taking a crack at California’s education system – latimes.com.

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