Michelle Rhee hadn’t been in town that long before she says somebody lobbed the question at her: How does it feel to be behind enemy lines?
Rhee, who describes her political leanings as “pretty lefty, liberal Democrat,” not surprisingly remains a polarizing figure within some camps of her party, particularly among teachers’ unions, with whom she staged memorable battles during her tenure as chancellor of the District of Columbia school system.
But the former schools official, who now leads the national education advocacy organization StudentsFirst, doesn’t seem put off by the criticism. In an interview with Education Week at the Democratic National Convention, she said she felt “passionately about the party,” and praised the Obama administration’s school policies.
She was not always so certain of Obama’s vision.
During the time she was District of Columbia schools chancellor, Rhee, 42, publicly questioned whether then-presidential candidate Obama would pursue policies such as charter school expansion and performance-based teacher policies—and risk roiling teachers’ unions, a key party constituency.
“I can readily admit I was wrong,” she said. “I was very skeptical, not because of Obama himself, but because of my party. ... I thought, what’s going to happen with a Democratic administration? I was a little nervous, but I can tell you, he hasn’t disappointed.”
“It’s given other Democrats a lot of cover” to act on difficult issues, Rhee added.
Since founding StudentsFirst in California two years ago, Rhee has angered some teachers and party loyalists by working with Republican lawmakers, as well as GOP governors like Rick Scott of Florida, John Kasich of Ohio, and Chris Christie of New Jersey.
“I probably disagree with them on everything but education,” she said of Republican governors she’s consulted. But if she were to focus on other issues and say “I’m not going to work with them and I’m going to villainize them,” Rhee said, “that’s just not going to get things done for kids.”
Her standing with unions probably may not have been helped this week by StudentsFirst’s involvement in helping stage a screening this week of “Won’t Back Down,” a Hollywood film that tells the fictional story of parents trying overhaul a struggling school.
Some prominent teachers’ voices have been critical. “I don’t recognize the teachers portrayed in this movie, and I don’t recognize that union,” American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten said in a recent statement. The film was shown at both the Democratic and Republican conventions, both of which Rhee has attended.
Rhee, who says she went to the Democratic convention four years ago, had other reasons to come to the Democrats’ party this year. Her husband, Sacramento Mayor Kevin Johnson, is one of California’s delegates.
StudentsFirst has become increasingly aggressive in flexing its political clout, throwing money behind both Democratic and Republican state-level political candidates who back policies the organization supports. That activity hasn’t been lost on the convention’s Democratic attendees, some of whom Rhee says have come to her, asking for money or help.
“I get a lot of delegates saying, ‘We want you to come to our state,’” to help promote an issue, she said, and “I run into people who are running for office and say, ‘I could use your help.’”
Rhee was skeptical of Republican challenger Mitt Romney’s proposal to allow parents to use federal Title I and special-education money for private school vouchers.
While Rhee backs vouchers for impoverished students in academically struggling schools, she said there were far better strategies for large-scale school improvement than Romney’s plan.
Rhee reiterated her belief that far-reaching, universal voucher plans are not financially feasible.
And a large-scale voucher plan like Romney’s is “only a sliver of what should be happen to fix the system,” she said. “Unless you have a comprehensive set of policies, then that in and of itself is not going to have much of any impact.”