StudentsFirst founder Michelle Rhee, whose stances on education and previous work as the District of Columbia schools’ chancellor often put her at odds with teachers’ unions, wants to engage in a more productive conversation with the very people who often oppose her.
In September, she plans to visit Birmingham, Ala., Los Angeles, and Philadelphia as part of a series of town halls to engage teachers in “real talk on education reform.” She’ll host alongside George Parker, the former president of the Washington (D.C.) Teachers’ Union who is now a senior fellow with StudentsFirst, and Steve Perry, who runs Capital Preparatory Magnet School in Connecticut. View dates, times, and more details at teachertownhall.org.
According to a copy of the invitation, sent today to teachers’ unions and their members in those three cities and obtained by Education Week, Rhee writes: “Teachers have the power to make a difference for every student, despite which neighborhood a kid lives in or what their parents do for a living. Unfortunately, the dialogue around public education has become too often polarized, with extreme rhetoric and personal attacks overshadowing what’s important: getting all of our country’s kids into great schools with great teachers.”
And indeed, not since the fights over desegregation has the education debate been so intense and polarized, many said in a story I wrote for Education Week in May.
Rhee, in her invitation, says she has been “trying to fix that, engaging in constructive conversations with parents, teachers, and policymakers across the country. Now we want to grow those conversations. We hope that you’ll join us—regardless of where you stand on the issues—for an open and honest conversation...”
The choice of cities for these town halls, billed as “real talk on education reform,” is certainly interesting. Los Angeles, site of the first town hall on Sept. 5, is one of eight California districts that just obtained a No Child Left Behind Act waiver and has agreed to implement new educator evaluations tied to test scores (something Rhee supports). In addition, StudentsFirst suffered two high-profile defeats earlier this year after investing heavily in the city’s school board race.
Birmingham, which is celebrating the 50th anniversary of its role in the civil rights movement, is the second stop on Sept. 12.
And the final town hall is Sept. 16 in Philadelphia, which is in the middle of a severe financial crisis that threatens the opening of school. Even with a city or state rescue package, the superintendent has still maintained that the teachers’ union will need to sacrifice.