How Michelle Rhee Is Taking Over the Democratic Party

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In a major shift, education reformers are now influential at the highest levels of the party once dominated by the teachers unions.

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Reuters

CHARLOTTE -- Michelle Rhee is accustomed to having to insist she's a Democrat. "It's funny," she tells me, "I'm not just a Democrat -- I feel like I'm a pretty lefty Democrat, and it is somewhat disappointing when I hear some people saying, 'She's not a real Democrat.'"

Rhee, the controversial former Washington, D.C., schools chancellor known for her hard-charging style, has worked with Republican governors to push her reform ideas in states across the country. Her ongoing pitched battle with the teachers unions has put her at odds with one of the Democratic Party's most important traditional constituencies.

Yet there are signs that Rhee's persona non grata status in her party is beginning to wane -- starting with the fact that the chairman of the Democratic convention, Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, spoke at the movie screening Rhee hosted at the convention earlier this week. Another Democratic star, Newark Mayor Cory Booker, spoke at the cocktails-and-canapes reception afterward. Across the country, Democratic officials from governors like Colorado's John Hickenlooper to former President Clinton -- buoyed by the well-funded encouragement of the hedge-fund bigwigs behind much of the charter-school movement -- are shifting the party's consensus away from the union-dictated terms to which it has long been loyal. Instead, they're moving the party toward a full-fledged embrace of the twin pillars of the reform movement: performance-based incentives for teachers, and increased options, including charter schools, for parents.

The inroads made by the education reformers go all the way to the top -- to President Obama, Education Secretary Arne Duncan and the "Race to the Top" initiative that required states to make reforms to get federal education funds -- and they amount to a major shift for the Democratic Party on one of its signature issues. "These are some of the most high-profile Democrats out there," Rhee says, also mentioning Chicago's Rahm Emanuel, Philadelphia's Michael Nutter, and her husband, Sacramento Mayor Kevin Johnson. "They are taking on the unions. They are fighting for what they believe in. It definitely signals a new day."

Rhee and I were talking in an empty movie theater a few blocks away from the Democratic convention, where she was hosting a screening of a new feature film starring Maggie Gyllenhaal and Viola Davis that's being touted as this year's "Waiting for Superman" -- the blockbuster documentary that galvanized audiences even as it infuriated many education advocates. "When I was a kid, I asked my dad, 'What's the difference between a Democrat and a Republican?' And he said, 'Well, Republicans care more about foreign relations and making money, and Democrats are more about what's going on inside the country and helping the least among us.' And I was like, 'Ah, OK. I'm a Democrat," she says.

"I think this notion that America is the land of equal opportunity and anybody can be successful as long as they work hard and do the right thing -- those are Democratic ideals," Rhee adds. "The most liberal Democratic thing that you could do is get on board with school reform, in my opinion."

To many Democrats, embracing education reform is the only way the party can retain its traditional advantage on education, which Republicans have had increasing success portraying as a wasteful example of big-government excess. Perhaps nowhere is the new consensus more evident than in the way the unions are now scrambling to get in front of a parade that has already left without them. When I call the head of the American Federation for Teachers, Randi Weingarten, to get her take, she insists that it's the unions who are leading efforts to reform education.

"Does public education need to change? Yes," she said. "Do we not change fast enough? Yes. But Democrats are united about the aspiration of ensuring that every single child gets a decent education and that the investment is there to do that."

As evidence that the unions are part of the new solution, Weingarten noted that was invited to speak at a panel at the convention hosted by Democrats for Education Reform. And as evidence that their influence in the party hasn't waned, she pointed out that she was on the Democratic platform committee.

"If we're going to be big-government liberals, we have to be for big government that works, or we're going to lose to the right-wingers who want to devolve everything."

Rhee, however, remains a lightning rod, and Weingarten is eager to depict her as the one who's out of the Democratic mainstream, calling her an "outlier" who "seems to work a lot more with right-wing Republicans than with Democrats." Nor have the unions reconciled themselves with Race to the Top, which Weingarten said "creates winners and losers at a time when we need to be about all kids, not some kids."

Yet Race to the Top and the administration's reform-based education policy are broadly popular. A recent Gallup poll found education to be Obama's second-strongest issue after terrorism, with 49 percent approving and 41 percent disapproving of his policies. "I hear it all around the country, that what Arne Duncan has pulled off with Race to the Top -- creating incentives and causing many states to change their policies and practices -- is getting high marks from people, both Republicans and Democrats," Booker tells me.

Liberals, the reformers say, are realizing that they can't in good conscience support the reality of the nation's floundering and unequal education system. "I had a simple world view: teachers are good, unions are good, therefore teachers unions are good," says Ben Austin, executive director of a group called Parent Revolution. "But progressives are waking up to the fact that the status quo is not a progressive position."

Reforming schools, Austin says, empowers low-income parents and makes public education more truly public. "A growing group of voters are ideological liberals but don't believe their money is going to serve children in public education. They think it gets stuck in a bureaucratic black hole and gets wasted," he said. "If we're going to be big-government liberals, which I am, we have to be for big government that works, or we're going to lose to the right-wingers who want to devolve everything."

Rhee, in our interview, sounds a similar note. Just as Democrats have to stand up to the unions, she says, Republicans must stand up to Tea Party types who want to get the federal government out of education policy and roll back funding. "Both parties have to be cognizant of ensuring they don't fall prey to the special interests within their party," she says.

Rhee, who also hosted a movie screening at the Republican convention in Tampa -- former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush was there -- believes the parties are closer than they generally admit on education issues. "Let me give you an example," she says. "One of the things Romney says in his white paper, he criticizes the Obama administration, he says we need to start to tie federal dollars to reforms. Well, that is exactly what Race to the Top did -- not only that, but that never happened in the Bush administration. The first time federal dollars have been tied to reform happened under the Obama administration." And while Romney has accused Obama of being captive to the teachers unions, that's clearly not the case, Rhee adds.

The movie, "Won't Back Down," is a schmaltzy but effective drama about a working-class single mom, played by Gyllenhaal, struggling to get her daughter out of her uninspiring second-grade class in a failing school. It's a propaganda film for another of Rhee's pet projects, so-called "parent trigger" laws -- the controversial measures in some states that allow activist parents to band together and wrest control of struggling schools from local authorities. You'll never guess how that works out for Gyllenhaal's character.

Outside the movie screening, I met a lone protester named Carol Sawyer, a local public-school parent (and not a union member -- North Carolina, a right-to-work state, has no teacher unions). "I'm a strong Obama supporter, but not on Race to the Top," she says, holding a yellow pool noodle decorated like a pencil. "Arne Duncan, I think, has gone down the wrong path. It's a failed experiment, and it's hurting public schools."

The reformers, Sawyer says, are selling the "fantasy" that there's a silver bullet to fixing education, when in truth, charter schools overall have been shown to perform worse than regular public schools, and "accountability" too often means more teaching to the test. As for Rhee, she wrinkles her nose: "I wish she would become a Republican."

But for the activists who would like to keep Rhee and her ideas out of the Democratic Party, it's clear that it's already too late. The approach she's selling, aided by her big-money backers and a slick, Hollywood-bolstered publicity effort, has caught on too widely to be dismissed as a conservative trojan horse.

Hundreds of people attended the convention movie screening, and in a show of hands afterwards, nearly all said they were Democrats; many wore delegate credentials around their necks. As they streamed out of the theater, I caught up with Maureen Stapleton, a delegate from Michigan, who told me she'd found the film and ensuing panel discussion inspiring. "Being a Democrat doesn't mean we have to stay traditional in our views," she said. "We've got to be open to new ways of doing things. If we focus on children, not adults, I think we can make great strides."

Stapleton is a Michigan state representative and former Detroit schoolteacher. In her state legislature, she worked with Republicans to pass tenure and accountability measures. Did she face a backlash, I ask? Stapleton smiles. The unions, she says, put their full force behind her Democratic primary opponent.

"Was there a backlash?" she chuckles. "Well, I was defeated."

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Molly Ball is a staff writer covering national politics at The Atlantic.

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