Michelle Rhee was controversial enough in Washington, D.C. that the mayor that appointed her Chancellor of the school district lost his election because of her. She resigned in the days following the election. She's been busy since then getting her start-up education advocacy organization, Students First, off the ground.
It turns out that she's about as well-connected as you can get in Tennessee. Her ex-husband is the Tennessee Commissioner of Education, Kevin Huffman. They met during their stints as Teach for America corps members. She moved to Nashville in 2011, where their children attend school, and splits her time between Nashville and Sacremento, California, where her current husband (another controversial figure and former professional athlete) is mayor.
Since she left D.C., Rhee has been attempting to burnish her bipartisan credentials. The reforms that Rhee champions are inherently very conservative - privatizing, pro-charter, anti-union, etc. - but she knows that the overall arc of progress for her reforms will suffer if linked too closely to either political party. She therefore sought out both conservative and liberal backers and employees to work on behalf of Students First.
The Huffington Post reports that several left-leaning staffers are departing the organization, with policy reasons being cited. Professor Diane Ravitch picked up on the story, and was surprised to get a response from one of the subjects of the story.
The staffer, Hari Sevugan, writes: "In this post you ask, 'What part of [Rhee’s] agenda is bipartisan?' There are many Democrats, including this one, who work toward reform because public schools are not currently serving every child – too often children of color and from poverty – as they should. These children are being denied a fundamental civil right. It is a core Democratic value to ensure that their civil rights are enforced. It is a core Democratic value to ensure poverty or socio-economic status is not a barrier to opportunity. It is a core Democratic value to ensure teachers are respected for the work they do."
It's a nice deflection that, of course, does not answer the question about Rhee and bipartisanship. He's right about the core Democratic values, values that I generally subscribe to. But he's wrong about whether Rhee's proposals and political leanings align with those values. And it's unfair to suggest that people who don't support Michelle Rhee are advocating against children's interests. I would agree with Rhee's criticism of traditional public education, where she complains that School Boards have picked winners and losers among children, and that the children suffer. I would argue, however, that all Rhee is doing is picking slightly different winners and losers, and that many of the same children that lose out in traditional public education continue to lose out under the reforms, and often with worse results - personally and academically.
That Democrats who favor education reforms are now realizing that Michelle Rhee and Students First favor a different brand of education reform is a welcome relief to some of us. Party alignments have gone wonky on education reform issues, but maybe we are finally seeing a reset where we can call union busting "union busting" and recognize privatization and outsourcing for what they are.
This will be particularly important in Tennessee as the legislature comes back in to session with a Republican super-majority. Let's remember which side we're on.