Michelle Rhee, the fiery former Washington, D.C.,school chancellor, has danced a tricky tango since starting her national advocacy and lobbying group, StudentsFirst, in December 2010.
Rhee purported to be the face of a bipartisan movement to “transform education,” while simultaneously battling Democratic teachers unions and appearing chummy in photo ops with conservative Republican governors like Rick Scott (Fla.) or John Kasich (Ohio).
All the while, a small cadre of influential Democrats stood behind her, helping her craft messages on things like her positions on unions (that they are entitled to collective bargaining on salary issues), and trying to fend off attacks from the progressive community (one in particular thwacked her explicitly for her right-wing contacts). But in the last few months, these Democrats — including the group’s vice president of communications, Hari Sevugan, as first reported by education blogger Alexander Russo — have left the group, ceding control to a group of new hires, including president Kahlil Byrd.
Dmitri Mehlhorn, the group’s former CEO, has left to lead Bloomberg Law. Mike Phillips, who served as Rhee’s chief of staff for communications, took a leave of absence this fall to work on Sen. Chris Murphy’s (D-Conn.) campaign, but ultimately never rejoined. Tali Stein, a former Hillary Clinton fundraiser who led StudentsFirst’s development, left two months ago to focus on other projects. Ximena Hartsock, a Democratic lobbyist, also left.
“There were known to be some significant differences on political strategy and policy matters, especially in StudentsFirst’s approach toward unions and partisanship,” said a source close to the education reform community who declined to be named in order to preserve working relationships. [emphasis mine]
Golly, you mean StudentFirst and Michele Rhee are hostile toward teachers unions?! Who knew?
Of course, anyone who’s paid attention to Rhee knows she’s in the tank for the GOP, especially when it comes to state-level races:
Rhee makes a point of applauding “leaders in both parties and across the ideological spectrum” because her own political success – and the success of school reform – depends upon the bipartisan reputation she has fashioned. But 90 of the 105 candidates backed by StudentsFirst were Republicans, including Tea Party enthusiasts and staunch abortion opponents. And Rhee’s above-the-fray bona fides have come under heavy fire as progressives and teachers unions increasingly cast the school reform movement, which has become virtually synonymous with Rhee’s name, as politically conservative and corporate-funded.
The notion that Michelle Rhee is bipartisan is laughable. Yes, she’ll throw a bone every now and then to a Democrat if his or her election is a foregone conclusion; that’s a great way to push vouchers or charters or other reformy nonsense. But the big bucks are flowing to the Republicans – especially Republicans who run races in opposition to Democratic candidates who are actually working teachers.
Students First is now a conservative, right-wing adjunct to the Republican party. Any Democratic support it gives is a cheap feint to keep suckers in the “moderate” wing of the Democratic Party on the leash, salivating at the thought of getting their chops around the tasty billionaire money Rhee has amassed to buy off legislators.
But the Dems who fall for this bait are idiots:
The departures from SF were followed by a series of confused public messaging. When blogger Russo asked about the group’s position on Michigan’s right-to-work legislation, a representative first responded by saying “the debate over collective bargaining is demonstrative of what’s wrong with education policy generally — it’s focused on the needs and rights of adults instead of what’s best for students.” The group later sent Russo two updates, with one noting the former position.
Similarly, after the Newtown shooting, the group first told HuffPost reporter Dave Jamieson it declined to take a position on a Missouri bill that would allow concealed firearms in schools. The group then followed up with a letter from Rhee opposing the legislation.
Rhee’s initial anemic response to Newtown was a disgrace. She couldn’t even muster a single word of praise for the six educators who died trying to save the beautiful children of Sandy Hook Elementary; apparently, that’s OK, while pointing out those courageous educators were unions members is not. Rhee’s cautious words in the face of this tragedy spoke volumes about where her loyalties lie. I guess the progressives who had deluded themselves about what StudentsFirsts’s real mission is just had enough:
“They were able to talk the talk that it is bipartisan,” said Kombiz Lavasany, who directs strategic campaigns for the American Federation of Teachers, a union Rhee has sparred with. “But [after things like the guns episode] … I can see how it would be harder and harder for the Democrats to work there.”
When asked about a potential switch in focus and messaging, Byrd said, “Our focus is to pass good laws and policy around the country.”
But others were more blunt about the shift. “It gets tiresome to have to defend who we are,” said a senior SF officer, who declined to speak on the record.
I would imagine it does. Good on the folks who are walking away from Rhee’s partisan, conservative political machine. Let’s see if Democratic politicians also wise up and see this woman and her right-wing lobbying outfit for what it really is.
BTW: Kudos to Joy Resmovits for this reporting; more like this!