I’m spending my evening getting acquainted with Michelle Rhee, the controversial former chancellor of the Washington, D.C. public schools, who’s gone on to a lucrative career as a hired gun in the fight to destroy teachers unions and privatize American public education. While I’d heard about her in the past, and I’d known that she’d been recruited by Republicans to help draft school reform legislation for Michigan in 2010, I wasn’t aware, until today, just how much she’d done in our state. Did you know, for instance, that her organization, StudentsFirst, operates a PAC, and, through that PAC, invested $500,000 in the campaign to defeat Proposition 2, the legislation that, if passed last November, would have enshrined collective bargaining rights in Michigan’s constitution?
Maybe I’m unusual, but I find it interesting that an organization dedicated to the principle of putting children first would spend half a million dollars in an attempt to keep weaken labor, and, as a result, bring down the quality of life of countless families, many of whom have children. But apparently the right of workers to unionize is what’s been keeping the children of Michigan from reaching their full potential, and not the fact that resources are evaporating at an alarming rate, as class sizes rise and demoralized teachers flee. If I were a smart ass, I might suggest that her $500,000 could have been better to put to use i downtown Detroit, where we’ve been told that they’re considering class sizes of 60, or at the Catherine Ferguson Academy, where, not too long ago, we witnessed teen mothers being dragged away in handcuffs for refusing to just walk away, and accept that their beloved school was being closed. But, instead, Rhee invested in ads that warned how, if Prop 2 were to have passed, we couldn’t have fired drunk teachers that were putting our children’s lives at risk.
If I were a cynical person, these facts might lead me to believe that the folks funding StudentsFirst don’t care nearly as much about the education of our children, as they do about destroying unions, containing costs, and driving down their own tax burdens. And, if I were really, really cynical, I might even go so far as to consider that they’re pushing Rhee’s agenda, which relies heavily on rote memorization and standardized testing, because they’d rather have good, obedient workers, than a bright, inquisitive citizenry capable of independent thought. But, clearly that can’t be the case, as the very name of the organization declares that that they’re all about putting the needs of the students first, right? I mean, an organization dedicated to putting corporate interest first wouldn’t be called StudentsFirst, would it? Unless of the tag line of the organization was something like, “Who shall we fuck?”
Speaking of these good samaritans that are financially backing StudentsFirst… these selfless men who only want the best for America’s public school children… it’s hard to find much information about them. Rhee, it would seem, doesn’t like to answer questions about where her funding comes from. (Maybe these wealthy titans of industry are just shy, and she’s protecting them.) Despite that, however, some of them are know. Fox CEO Rupert Murdoch, for instance, is a big contributor, as is New Jersey hedge fund manager David Tepper, and right-wing billionaire Philip Anschutz, who helped make Rhee a household name by featuring her in his 2010 propaganda film Waiting for Superman. (Murdock has “pledged to spend more than $1 billion to bring for-profit schools, including virtual education, to the entire country by electing reform-friendly candidates and hiring top-notch state lobbyists.”) Regardless of their motivation, they all, it would seem, like the StudentsFirst philosophy, which has been summed up as follows by Huffington Post.
…Among the reforms it advocates: abolishing teacher tenure; permitting more teachers without formal education training to take charge of classrooms; evaluating teachers in large measure by their students’ growth on standardized tests; and expanding charter schools, which are publicly funded but typically run by private corporations, including for-profit management firms…
And these conservative leaders of industry are apparently willing to pay Rhee to be the “former teacher” out front, leading the charge, while they watch from the wings. In the first nine months after its launch in the fall of 2010, StudentsFirst had already raised $7.6 million, much of which was spent in Michigan, where, according to the Huffington Post, the organization “spent $955,000 (in the fall of 2011) to lobby state lawmakers for an education package that included evaluating teachers primarily by student test scores and restricting union bargaining rights, so issues like the new evaluation system would not be subject to negotiation.” And, as these reforms passed the legislature, it looks as though their investment paid off. It’s also worth noting, I think, that Rhee has expressed a desire to raise $1 billion in five years, so I think it’s safe to assume that we’ll see a lot more of her here, putting money behind friendly candidates, buying radio and television ads, and lobbying our elected officials.
Speaking of funding politicians friendly to their cause, they’re already doing it in Michigan. According to an MLive report in October of 2011, StudentsFirst gave Michigan Representative Paul Scott “roughly $70,000″ to avoid a recall effort initiated by the Michigan Education Association as a result of his work to push Rhee’s teacher tenure reform laws. In this instance, however, the sizable contribution wasn’t enough. State Representative Scott was recalled on November 8, 2011.
Rhee’s entire system, and I probably should have mentioned this earlier, is built upon the belief that everything boils down to test scores. She doesn’t think about the intangibles. She doesn’t think about art. She doesn’t think about creative problem solving and innovation. School, for Rhee, is about learning english and math, and taking standardized tests to demonstrate proficiency. Tests yield data, and, from this data, decisions can be made as to which teachers are fired, and which are promoted. It’s that simple. Students are, in the view of Rhee, simply widgets on a conveyor belt, and their teachers are nothing more than factory workers. And, if you turn out faulty widgets, you lose your job… And, when I say “students,” I mean public school students. Clearly this isn’t the way any of these people who are funding StudentsFirst would want their own children educated. This is just about bringing those who can’t go elsewhere up to an acceptable level of competence as inexpensively as possible. This is No Child Left Behind followed through to its logical conclusion.
And, speaking of testing, I should mention that many of the gains that Rhee made in D.C. public schools turned out to be largely fiction. Teachers and administrators, fearful of losing their jobs, simply found ways to give Rhee the numbers that she needed for the press conferences that she was so fond of calling. [The USA Today investigative report on the D.C. cheating scandal that lost Rhee her job can be found here.]
I could keep going with this, but I think, at this point, I’ll hand things off to our much more competent friends at Frontline, who just produced an incredible piece about Rhee, using, among other things, a great deal of footage they shot while she was working in the D.C. public schools… I particularly like the part where she called in the PBS camera crew to get footage of her firing a principal who, according to her metrics, was underperforming. (She’s very good at self-promotion.)
One last thing, as long as we’re talking about charter schools, and the lack of oversight. Did you happen to see the story the other day about the $20 million racketeering case against the founders of an Oregon charter school company? In case you didn’t, here’s a clip.
Tim King and Norm Donohoe, who ran a chain of taxpayer-funded charter schools across small-town Oregon from their headquarters in Clackamas, scammed the state out of $17 million and must repay that plus $2.7 million more, the state said in a court filing this week.
The legal claim, brought Thursday by the Oregon Department of Justice in Marion County Circuit Court, accuses the pair of racketeering, money laundering and other fraud from 2007 to 2010…
The state provided startup grants of up to $450,000 per charter school. The state Department of Educationalso paid about $6,000 a year for each student enrolled, relying on the charter school operators to document the number. The state now says those records were “erroneous, false and misleading.”…
Some of the schools abruptly closed during the school year, leaving students and teachers in a lurch. Others have since stopped operating. Still others operate under new auspices…
It’s probably worth noting at this point in the conversation that, if the Public Education Finance Act of 2013 is put into effect in Michigan as it’s currently written, there will be no ceiling on the number of charter schools allowed in the state, and these schools will only be answerable to a governor-appointed chancellor, and not to either the State Board of Education or the State School Superintendent. Given what just happened in Oregon, I’m inclined to say that this would be a horrible idea, but I’m sure that Rhee and her backers would argue otherwise.
Oh, guess what I also just learned…. As of a year ago, Michigan had a quarter of the nation’s for-profit charter schools. And that’s before the passage of the Public Education Finance Act of 2013, which will really open up the floodgates. (The legislation would even make it possible for for-profit charters to buy up former public school buildings, which had been built with taxpayer dollars, for pennies on the dollar.) One can just imagine what the education landscape in Michigan will look like in anther year or two.
[note: I can't take credit for the images which accompany this article. I just woke up and found them in my mailbox. It would appear that I have elves.]