By Mike Myslinski
Susan Solomon, United Educators of San Francisco secretary, pickets outside an Oakland theater where Michelle Rhee is speaking.
Who is Michelle Rhee? She’s not a Hollywood celebrity or an elected politician. But she is a self-proclaimed public education reformer whose confrontational approach to education reform has landed her on the cover of Time and Newsweek magazines, as well as on “Oprah” and a number of other TV programs.
It’s not her approach to education reform that’s so disconcerting, it is the reforms themselves.
Now based in Sacramento, Rhee wants to carry on methods she touted during her 2007-10 stint as chancellor of the Washington, D.C., school system, where she fired hundreds of teachers, closed schools, and sparked a standardized test erasure scandal still under federal investigation. She supports unproven schemes like school vouchers (twice rejected by California voters since 1993), ending seniority-based teacher layoffs, using unreliable testing data to grade teachers, and weakening collective bargaining rights.
“She seems to be all about privatizing public schools and scapegoating public employee unions, which is a very divisive agenda,” says CTA President Dean E. Vogel. “California educators know that proven reforms like smaller class sizes, more collaboration among all stakeholders, and adequate funding are what really work for our students and our communities.”
A Teach for America alumna who has advised conservative governors launching anti-union education reforms, Rhee has vowed to raise $1 billion over five years to carry out her education schemes through her Sacramento-based political lobbying operation, StudentsFirst.
Recently, as Rhee has been traveling around the state on a speaking tour sharing her reform ideas, she’s been greeted by public educators. More than 200 Bay Area teachers, parents and students showed up to protest outside an Oakland theater before Rhee’s Feb. 7 event.
Teachers from San Francisco, Berkeley, San Jose, Union City, Richmond and San Lorenzo joined Oakland Education Association members in front of the Paramount Theater to spell out why Rhee’s agenda is wrong. Teachers carried protest signs with messages such as “Why is the 1% Banking on Rhee-Form?” and “Seniority Honors Experience.” Another sign urged the public to “Rhee-fute, Rhee-ject, Rhee-fuse” the true goals of Rhee, whose corporate backers want to weaken unions.
Other Oakland educators taped their mouths shut to dramatize Rhee’s opinions that unions have little or no role in negotiating school policy decisions.
“Oakland teachers are no strangers to what happens when corporate reformers pretend to 'stand for children' — their real agenda is about undermining union protections and creating a false separation between teachers and our students,” says Betty Olson-Jones, president of the Oakland Education Association. “We know that teachers' working conditions are our students' learning conditions, and we wanted to give Michelle Rhee the clear message that her brand of 'reform' is not welcome in Oakland!”
The Bay Area members are not alone in their protest. Sacramento City Teachers Association President Scott Smith joined other teachers wearing blue tape across their mouths in a silent protest at a Jan. 25 Rhee speech in Sacramento, where she was joined by her husband, Sacramento Mayor Kevin Johnson. California Federation of Teachers members leafleted when she spoke in Marin Feb. 6. Craig Childress, president of the San Mateo Union High School District Teachers Association, joined his executive board member Suzanne Flecker and others to leaflet and educate people entering a San Mateo venue to hear Rhee speak on Feb. 8.
“I think she is spreading misinformation and that her messages are dangerous for public education,” Childress says. “Her attacks on seniority-based layoffs are about depriving students of experienced teachers. Experience breeds success, and excellence in the classroom and seniority are based on experience.”
Rhee attacked seniority-based layoffs again in her Feb. 15 speech at a school in Los Angeles. Her next scheduled appearance is a March 22 town hall meeting in San Jose, according to a Rhee watchdog website that tracks her events and controversial career, www.rheefirst.com.
Classroom teachers know what works best for their students, says Vogel. “The best school reforms come from conversation, not confrontation, among all of us dedicated to keeping our public schools improving in these tough economic times.”