Michelle Rhee Wants to Remake Education – Without Unions

March 20, 2011; Source: New York Magazine | It’s now fashionable to attack public school teachers. The list of strident critics attacking the phenomenon of “bad teachers” recently has included Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker, Florida Governor Rick Scott, Newark Mayor Corey Booker, New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, Ohio Governor John Kasich, and U.S. Department of Education secretary Arne Duncan.

Leading the charge, in the aftermath of her controversial stint heading the public schools of Washington D.C., is Michelle Rhee, who moments after leaving her D.C. Public Schools position created a new lobbying group, StudentsFirst. Rhee’s nonprofit advocates for more charter schools, ending teacher tenure, ending seniority-based layoffs, linking teacher pay to student performance, and changing pension and benefits that reward longevity.

Characteristically, Rhee claims she created her new organization because “there is no big organized interest group that defends and promotes the interests of children,” a statement that might not get total agreement from the likes of the Alliance for Children and Families, the Child Welfare League, the Children’s Defense Fund, and others. She is not only the darling of lots of Republican governors (testifying for Scott in Florida, sitting as Christie’s special guest for his state of the state speech, etc.), but philanthropists too such as Bill Gates and Eli Broad.

Essentially, Rhee is boiling down all of the problems of the schools to teachers and their unions, described by former Bush Administration official Diane Ravitch as a “very right-wing strategy,” something she knows because, as she says, “I was there when [these ideas] were hatched.” The right’s anti-union strategy predates Rhee’s notoriety, but Rhee along with Obama and Duncan represents the liberals who have joined the union critique.

She is raising money for StudentsFirst hand over fist from the likes of Broad, Ted Forstmann, and Julian Robertson, though hiding behind the confidentiality strictures applicable to 501(c)(4)s, Rhee isn’t disclosing her sources of support. Rhee’s nonprofit is “raising money for Goliath,” says Ravitch. Where will it all lead? Her simplistic anti-union solutions don’t make sense (if unions were the problem, the minimally unionized South would have the best public school teachers). One hopes that those children’s organizations that Rhee manages not to recognize stand up to her ideological and defend the interests of children – and their families and teachers – that Rhee won’t.—Rick Cohen