StudentsFirst, a new entrant on the California school reform landscape, has 170,000 members in California, according to its founder Michelle Rhee, the former Washington D.C. schools chief and wife of Sacramento Mayor Kevin Johnson.
“Week in and week out the largest number of membership gains we saw were from California,” she said in an interview last week. “When we first hit 100,000 we finally said, ‘something is happening in California.’” The numbers, she said, are growing “every single day.”
Rhee founded the organization over a year ago after her controversial stewardship of DC public schools came to an end in 2010 when then-Mayor Adrian Fenty, who had appointed her, lost his reelection bid. As she unabashedly explained at a StudentsFirst gathering in San Jose last Thursday attended by about 300 people, she became the DC public schools chief at the age of 37 despite never having been a principal of a school, let alone run a district.
Rhee said that 1.3 million people have signed up as members nationwide. What is still unclear is how active these members are, and the extent to which Rhee will be able to mobilize them. Currently, anyone can sign up to join StudentsFirst, and no membership fee is required.
The gathering in San Jose was the fifth and final event in Rhee’s “listening tour” of California. Each was conducted with Mayor Johnson as the master of ceremonies and with her daughters in the audience.
It was an unusual sight, to say the least: an Asian American former chancellor of the DC public schools and national media celebrity who appeared on the cover of Newsweek (in less than favorable terms) alongside a former basketball star who is also the first African American mayor of the capital of California, holding forth on the need for reform in California’s public schools.
Initially, there was speculation as to whether she would even be involved in California because of a widely-held view that the state is hostile to her agenda. . At the time she announced that her goal was to raise $1 billion for her reform efforts.
Rhee and her organization are promoting reforms such as changing the “first hired, first fired” system of teacher layoffs, linking teacher evaluations to student performance, and eliminating teacher tenure altogether. She is also pressing for more charter schools, and promoting parent “empowerment” laws such as California’s “parent trigger,” and taxpayer-funded vouchers for low income students to use at private or parochial schools. All of these, for a range of reasons, face a tough political climate at a local and state level in California, including opposition from the California Teachers Association, representing some 300,000 teachers.
“She seems to be all about privatizing public schools and scapegoating public employee unions, which is a very divisive agenda,” CTA president Dean E. Vogel said in a report this month on his organization’s website.
California has nonetheless emerged as a major focus of Rhee’s efforts. She indicated last week that she is ” bullish” on the chances for reform education in California.
Not reforming California, she said, is not an option. “We have to change California,” she said, pointing out that California educates 1 in 8 public school children in the United States. “We want to put America on a different trajectory, we can’t do that unless we fix the system in California.”
Equally importantly, she said, “We are not seeing the level of engagement from everyday constituents and members anywhere else in the country like we are in California.”
At the same time, she conceded, the environment in California for some of the reforms she is advocating is still unfavorable. Despite California now having almost 1,000 charter schools, she said the climate for charter school expansion in California was still “very difficult.”
She compared the situation here to the one she left in Washington D.C. where charter schools were given the same per pupil allotment as regular public school students, not slightly less as charter school advocates argue is the case in California. Every school received a “facilities allotment” of $3,000 per student. Charter schools were given the first right of refusal to occupy vacant government buildings.
“Pretty much the opposite is going on in California,” she said.
The same situation applies to her call for “robust and very high quality teacher evaluation systems” for California. “We have no way of knowing who the top 10 percent and bottom 10 percent of teachers are in California,” she said.
At the same time, she seemed to be trying to soften her “anti-teacher” image based on her years of battles with teachers and the wholesale firing of hundreds of teachers who had done poorly on the evaluation systems she had established.
Rather than doing evaluations to fire teachers, she said yesterday, they are needed to help focus the appropriate “professional development” depending on their skills and where they are professionally.
Accountability is important, and teachers should want to know how effective they are in getting gains in student performance. That information is important to have and to use. If we frame how it is going to be used punitively, it distracts us from the conversation that we really need to be having, that it is very valuable information for people to have to become better professionals.
During her presentation at San Jose City Hall last week, she described how in Washington D.C. she would be stopped by people in the street who would commiserate with her for having “the toughest job in the world.” She would correct them to say that teachers have the toughest job in the world.
At the same time, she declined to state what items on her reform agenda she thinks have the best prospects for happening in California, or what issues her organization will take on first.
Now that her “listening tour” is over, she said, “”we’ll be gathering all our information and data, and say, OK, these are our priorities, these are what we are going to focus on first.”