Michelle Rhee says Tennessee would be a priority in her $1 billion nationwide effort to transform education policy at the state level, even if she and the state’s education commissioner did not have two daughters in public schools here.
StudentsFirst, which Rhee founded and heads, has the goal of raising and spending the $1 billion over a five-year period. In Tennessee, the group is well on its way with about $900,000 in spending on political contributions and lobbying during just over a year of operating within the state.
“I pay attention to Tennessee because I live here, No. 1, and because I have children in school here,” Rhee said in an interview last week. “But I would be paying attention even if I didn’t simply because of the courage the governor and the legislators have shown to date (in education reform efforts).”
Actually, Tennessee ranked 11th among states in a StudentsFirst “report card” issued last week that rated states on their education policy as the organizations thinks it should be. Rhee said that, if the 2013 legislative session goes as she would like, Tennessee could “catapult to a much higher rating.”
The “report card” was derided by some critics with the American Federation of Teaches saying it reflects “the upside down world of Michelle Rhee.” The group noted that Louisiana, which was the top-rated StudentsFirst state, had much lower scores than the national average in student testing on some subjects.
The top priority for StudentsFirst in the 2013 session, Rhee said, is a “statewide authorizer” for charter schools, meaning a state body could approve establishment of a charter school even if it is opposed by a local school board. The group also is pushing a voucher system for low-income students, Rhee said, and a stronger “parent trigger” law, which would allow parents in a low-performing school to initiate a move to create a charter school.
Rhee, who gained national attention from a controversial three-year stint as head of the Washington, D.C., school system, called Tennessee Commissioner of Education Kevin Huffman “one of the most forward-leaning commissioners out there in the entire country … would rank up there in the top states in the country.”
Rhee and Huffman divorced in 2007. They share custody of their two daughters, who attend Nashville public schools — though Rhee declined to give details “to save them the headaches of being our kids.”
Rhee divides her time between Nashville and Sacramento, Calif., where StudentsFirst is headquartered and where her current husband, Kevin Johnson, is mayor. She and Johnson were married in 2011 at Blackberry Farms resort, according to a Washington Post article.
Rhee said she and Huffman remain “very good friends” and confer regularly, talking about education policy as well as daughter doings.
Politically, Rhee said she is a Democrat — “always have been; always will be” — but finds it “disheartening” that many Democratic politicians will not support her education reform proposals publicly though telling her privately they do.
“I cant go public and say that,” she quotes a typical Democratic officeholder as saying. “Quite frankly, the teachers unions will come after me and then I won’t be in office.”
The idea behind StudentsFirst, Rhee said, is to help such politicians develop and retain political courage.
“If we going to have the kind of policies in place that are beneficial to children, we have to have politicians who really feel that they have the ability to take those stances and to champion those causes knowing they are going to be supported and defended when the next election comes,” she said.
StudentsFirst political contributions to candidates for the Tennessee state Legislature and local school boards totaled $470,000 at last report — with a final report on November and December spending due to be filed with the state Registry of Election Finance later this month. That surpassed the total of the state’s teachers union, Tennessee Education Association, which had political contributions totaling about $327,000 during the same period.
Most of the StudentsFirst money distributed in Tennessee went to Republicans. StudentsFirst gave $40,000 to the House and Senate Republican caucuses, for example, versus $10,000 to their Democratic equivalents.
A notable exception was state Rep. John DeBerry, D-Memphis. StudentsFirst spent more than $100,000 to help him defeat a Democratic primary opponent — the most spent the group spent on any campaign. DeBerry was appointed last week to the committee that will first act on the legislation StudentsFirst is pushing by House Speaker Beth Harwell, whose PAC received $5,000 from StudentsFirst. Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey’s PAC also got $5,000 from StudentsFirst.
Tennessee Ethics Commission records show the group had nine lobbyists registered to lobby the General Assembly in 2012 — including Rhee — with payments to lobbyists of between $50,000 and $100,000 and related lobbying expenses of $300,000 to $350,000. Lobbying expenditures are reported in a range rather than a specific figure.
Rhee said a team of lobbyists will be at the state Legislature this year, too, but the group will also be relying on the “grass roots” of Tennesseans contacting their lawmakers. She said there are about 40,000 members of the group statewide — part of about 2 million nationally.
There are no membership dues, but members are urged to voluntarily donate, Rhee said. Much of the organization’s money apparently comes from wealthy donors and foundations. Reuters news service has reported that the Laura and John Arnold Foundation has pledged $20 million to StudentsFirst over a five-year period and that New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg is a major donor.
StudentsFirst’s Tennessee political action committee reports only that the money distributed in Tennessee came from StudentsFirst’s national PAC in Sacramento. Rhee said if state law were changed to require broader disclosure, the group would comply. “We always follow state law,” she said.
Note: This story ran in the News Sentinel. See also Andy Sher’s Rhee reporting, which leads on Rep. John DeBerry as “a walking, talking example of her group’s growing political influence in the Legislature here.”