Michelle Rhee Misreads “Shift Among Democrats” On Education

Jeff Bryant

In her recent Washington Post op-ed, Michelle Rhee ruminated over the outcome of the Chicago Teachers Strike and concluded that not only were the Chicago teachers “never about the kids” but also had made a practical, political mistake by not being in step with the rest of the Democratic party.

Her contention seems to be that teachers who use a contract dispute to protest increasingly deteriorating conditions in public schools defy the “shift” among most Democrats who she believes increasingly favor the policies that Chicago Mayor Rham Emanuel wanted to enforce on teachers.

But putting aside Rhee’s tenuous arguments about who is really “for the kids” in this dispute, what evidence is there that teachers erred strategically by “isolating” themselves from the rest of the Democratic party? And is it true that the only practical lesson for Democrats to draw from the Chicago teachers strike is that they should side against teachers unions and their supporters?

Rhee: “Reformer” Or Lobbyist?

First, let’s be clear about Rhee’s role in this debate. Although Rhee heads an organization called Students First, most of what she actually does is to advocate for specific types of legislation, i.e. lobby. In Chicago, Washington DC, New York City, and numerous state capitals, Students First has focused its considerable resources—including many hundreds of thousands in donations to candidates for public office—on passing laws and promoting politicians that advance policies which restrict teachers’ collective bargaining rights, tie their job security and pay to scores on students’ standardized tests, and allow more public taxpayer money to be redirected to privately run entities such as charter schools.

As reported by the Center for Media and Democracy (CMD), the source of many of the bills Rhee campaigns for is the American Legislative Executive Council (ALEC), a corporately backed nonprofit that drafts “model bills” that favor the interests of the organization’s funders, which include many of the largest corporations in the U.S. as well as conservative think tanks like The Heritage Foundation. For every piece of legislation Students First backs, ALEC has a model bill.

State lawmakers are also members of ALEC, and those who join are “overwhelmingly conservative Republican,” CMD observes.

So Rhee is essentially a lobbyist working principally for the interests of conservative Republicans and corporations. Although colluding with conservative Republicans on public policy could be an example of “crossing the aisle,” not very many Democrats have chosen to make that crossing. In fact, according to the website of the Progressive Change Campaign Committee, 49 Democratic state lawmakers who did belong to ALEC recently dropped their memberships due to ALECs controversial model bills.

So Rhee’s self-purported ability to read the winds of change in the Democratic party seems questionable to say the least.

Most Democrats Backed The Chicago Teachers Strike

But back to Rhee’s contention that the Chicago teachers are “isolating” themselves from other Democrats, what evidence can she offer for this?

Not much, apparently, except her supposed intuition.

Looking at the evidence, it appears that the teachers had a significant percentage of Democrats, and the general public, on their side. In a survey of registered voters conducted by the Chicago Sun-Times, while the strike was taking place, only 39 percent of Chicago voters opposed the teachers, 47 percent backed them, and only 6 percent strongly supported mayor Emanuel.

Another poll found that 66 percent of parents of Chicago Public School students supported the strike, with 55.5 percent of Chicagoans in general supporting the strike and 40 percent opposed. Interestingly, that second poll was conducted by We Ask America, “a generally Republican pollster,” according to Laura Clawson, labor editor at the blogsite Daily Kos.

Perhaps it was that kind of public support for teachers that influenced, President Obama, his Education Secretary Arne Duncan, and Democratic State Legislators in Illinois to stay out of the fray?

For sure, there were left-leaning and centrist pundits who criticized the striking teachers. But there were certainly very many prominent and outspoken supporters of the teachers, including >The Washington Post’s very own Eugene Robinson who wrote that there is “a brie-and-chablis ‘reform’ movement” in education that is “portraying teachers as villains” while “ignoring the reasons for the education gap in this country.”

Prominent education expert Richard Kahlenberg, at The Century Foundation, writing in the pages of The New Republic, concluded that the Chicago teachers strike “may ultimately be good for Democratic education policy, which for too long has aped right-wing rhetoric in the name of education reform.”

Could it be that the “shift” Rhee sees in the Democratic consensus on education is in the exact opposite direction she surmises?

Rhee Wrong About Movies Too

Shortly after Rhee’s op-ed appeared in the Post, she was interviewed on the far right wing blogsite Red State, essentially making the same argument, that winds of change were blowing Democrats toward agreement with Republicans on education. She added to her claims an endorsement of the new movie “Won’t Back Down,” which depicts a parent, played by actress Maggie Gyllenhaal who organizes parents in her child’s public school to defy the local teachers union and turn the school into a charter school.

The subject material is based on legislation called “Parent Trigger” laws—another ALEC model billthat allow a group of parents in a school to take a vote on whether to close their school, replace the teachers, or turn the school over to a private charter management group. These laws have been rarely enacted, extraordinarily divisive, and have never actually “improved” a school. Nevertheless, Rhee is a big backer of the Parent Trigger.

Just as Rhee was singing the accolades of the movie, blog posts were popping up at entertainment sites all over the Internet reporting that “Won’t Back Down” had quickly bombed at the box office, setting a record for worst-opening of a major motion picture, despite a huge publicity campaign involving promotion by NBC’s Education Nation and full-page ads in major newspapers.

Education Ann Coulter

No doubt, Rhee will continue to be a force in the debate about how to preserve and improve America’s great system of public education. With the significant backing from Rupert Murdoch, the Walton Family of Walmart fame, and deep-pocketed hedge-fund investors (are these typical allies of Democrats?), Rhee will be able to sustain the income stream that propels her lobbying and campaign donor activities.

The media will quite likely keep her in the limelight as well, as she has become a lightning rod for attention—a sort of “education Ann Coulter” who delights in outrageousness: modeling to little school kids how an adult can eat a bee, taping her students’ mouths shut, firing school personnel live on camera for a national broadcast, and posing on the cover of a major news magazine, broom in hand, to convey her intention to “sweep out” experienced school teachers as if they are so much trash.

But without her fortune and fame, it’s not hard to imagine that it would be Michelle Rhee, and not school teachers, who would be isolated from the Democratic party.

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