Michelle Rhee Wants to Remake Education – Without Unions

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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

  • David Cearley

    Say what you will about Ms Rhee, but unions exist for the sole purpose of extracting the maximum level of $$ and benefits from the districts and taxpayers paying teacher’s salaries. As the head of the teacher’s union once said, when students start paying dues, he’ll be happy to represent them. Much of the vitriol leveled lately isn’t toward teachers I’n general, but the unions who protect the incompetent or criminal, and through union seniority rules, ensure that the most experienced teachers don’t have to work in schools whose students need the most help. School districts extract exorbitant taxes from citizens and with the teacher’s unions, hold monopoly power over which public schools students must attend. Unions block every effort to measure teacher effectiveness, force good teachers to work with
    poor students, fire the incompetent, discipline the marginal or even fire the criminal. Children and their families pay the bills, yet have zero choice, and virtually zero power. Ms Rhee is attempting to bring some balance of power back to public schools, and expose the serious disfunctions of our current system. Even if she is a complete failure, she’s doing more for students than any of the teacher’s unions and their democrat politician enablers, who care primarily about power and the power that comes fmild hundreds if millions I’n dues kicked back to democrats to draft rules that keep their gravy train running.

  • doxazosin

    Why is the “Nonprofit” Quarterly advocating so hard for government employee unions? There are a lot of us nonprofits working to improve the outcomes of children and would love to collaborate with K-12 schools, but essentially cut out by the unions.

    Perhaps we are subscribing to the wrong publication.

  • rick cohen

    Dear Doxazosin: Thanks for your comment. Having studied the history of unions and their roles in protecting working people, I see their importance. Having looked at specific unions, and specific locals of the teachers unions (such as in DC and Miami, both of which I’ve written about), I’ve also seen unions that haven’t performed quite up to snuff. I’ve seen plenty of unions (which are 501(c) organizations) collaborating quite successfully with nonprofits all around the nation on K-12 education issues. And I’ve seen nonprofits that schools should be encouraged to collaborate with and nonprofits that also might not be up to snuff. So the broad brush all-nonprofits-are-good/all-unions-are-bad statement doesn’t work for me. I do hope you keep subscribing to the newswire–it’s free!–and maybe you’ll subscribe to the print version of NPQ, which is available at a great price, to dig into the diversity of the nonprofit sector–and maybe the positive points about unions that some people seem predisposed not to recognize. Keep on reading! Thanks.

  • Crabby

    I am a teacher and a member of our union. I don’t see our union ever having protected bad teachers. Our contract has very clear language about what is to be done by administrators when a “bad teacher” needs to go. I’ve yet to see that followed, even when the administrators know there is a problem.

    I teach therefore I am….I AM a teacher. I care about my students, know them and their families, and worry about them when things go wrong. I look for as many ways as possible to encourage them to learn, differentiate instruction, and improve on instruction. I follow them long after they leave my classroom, watching their futures play out. I am not young, and people wouldn’t consider me part of those “best and brightest new college graduates,” But I make a difference in the lives of my students and their families and I positively impact their learning every day. I’ve yet to work an 8 hour day, or a 9 month year….even though that’s what I’m paid to do…

    Let’s get the conversation off teachers..and on to what we all can do together to make a difference for education. Let’s work together to create policy that makes a difference and is not so divisive.