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Taking a crack at California’s education system

SACRAMENTO — When Michelle Rhee wants to make a point about what she sees as the coddling of American children, she refers to her daughters’ abundant soccer trophies.

“My daughters suck at soccer,” she says to crowds that roar with knowing laughter.

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The former District of Columbia schools chancellor is pitch perfect in the role of outraged parent and education reformer, distilling complex policy debates into bare-knuckled banter.

In Rhee’s world, as she recently told crowds in Los Angeles and Sacramento, teacher seniority protections are “whack,” principals can be “nutty” and charter schools can be “crappy.” Such frank talk has made the controversial former teacher a celebrity and potential political powerhouse.

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StudentsFirst, the advocacy group Rhee founded in California’s capital, where she lives with her husband, Mayor Kevin Johnson, is positioning itself as the political counterweight to teachers unions. Funded by entrepreneurs and philanthropists, it’s pushing to elect candidates and rewrite policies on charter schools, teacher assessment and other charged issues in at least 17 states, including California.

Teachers unions and other critics say the group, which spent $250,000 to boost three candidates for the Los Angeles Board of Education in the March 5 election, promotes unproven policy proposals with cash from sources whose main goal is crushing organized labor. Among StudentsFirst’s major donors is the Walton Family Foundation, funded by heirs to the fortune generated by Wal-Mart, which has vigorously opposed unions.

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“StudentsFirst,” said Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, “has found a way to be the education flank of a broader anti-union movement.”

Rhee says she supports collective bargaining. Her group, she said, balances labor’s role in the education debate.

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“The purpose of teachers unions is to prioritize the pay and privileges of members. That is their job. I don’t think that’s the problem,” she said in an interview. “What I think the issue is is we don’t have an organized national interest group with the same heft … advocating on behalf of kids.”

The 43-year-old Rhee, whose children attend public school in Tennessee, where her ex-husband lives, is guided by the free-market principles that characterized her tumultuous three-year tenure in Washington.

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She wants publicly funded charter schools, “trigger” laws that allow parents to shut down low-performing campuses and vouchers that permit low-income students to use public dollars at private schools. Many labor leaders and academics call her a stalking horse for corporate interests that want to turn a profit in public education.

In Washington, Rhee closed scores of under-enrolled schools and fired hundreds of teachers deemed ineffective by a new evaluation system based largely on student test scores. She dismissed a principal in front of a TV news crew for not meeting goals. Top performers received bonuses.

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Rhee’s record there still generates debate. Her critics have said her administration resisted calls to investigate evidence suggesting that teachers and administrators falsified test results, and they allege inadequacies in outside probes that found no major wrongdoing.

In 2010, unions spent heavily to oust Rhee’s boss, Washington Mayor Adrian Fenty, in what was widely viewed as a referendum on Rhee. She resigned. A few months later, she announced StudentsFirst on “The Oprah Winfrey Show.”

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Since then, millions of donated dollars have funded a staff of more than 120 and enabled the group to push model legislation crafted in its Sacramento offices.

“There is a really talented field of advocates, but it is … underpowered,” said Ed Kirby, deputy director of the Walton Family Foundation, which has reported giving StudentsFirst at least $3 million. “The fact that StudentsFirst has joined the fight — that’s a big deal.”

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Rhee’s group is not required by law to disclose its donors or what they give and declined to provide a list. But she names several in her new memoir, “Radical.”

They include the Laura and John Arnold Foundation, funded by John Arnold, a former Enron Corp. trader and Democratic donor who has pushed to rein in public pensions across the country. Eli Broad, the Los Angeles arts and education philanthropist and a Democrat, is another supporter.

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StudentsFirst spent nearly $2 million in last year’s general election to support 105 candidates across the country. The vast majority, mostly Republicans, won their races.

Rhee, a lifelong Democrat, says her group has helped pass more than 100 education proposals nationwide. StudentsFirst has worked with Republican governors in Florida, Nevada and Tennessee to abolish seniority systems that protect veteran teachers from layoffs without regard for performance.

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In Michigan, the organization worked on legislation that limited teachers’ bargaining rights and based their evaluations on student test scores — exempting that element from union negotiation. StudentsFirst then spent $500,000 on a successful campaign against a union drive to overturn it.

“There are some things that are good public policy,” Rhee said, “that we should not have in the realm of collective bargaining.”

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Rhee said she works on both sides of the aisle, citing Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel and President Obama among the Democrats who support much of her agenda. But at the state level, where the group is most active, she has had an uneasy relationship with members of her party.

In Connecticut, she helped Democratic Gov. Dannel Malloy battle lawmakers and teachers unions in his bid to gain broad authority over low-performing schools and overhaul the teacher assessment system. StudentsFirst blanketed the airwaves with ads urging lawmakers to “stand up to special interests and fight for students.” One spot featured footage of Obama.

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Nevertheless, Malloy kept his distance, declining to appear with Rhee at a rally staged by supporters of his proposal. “The governor did not want any distractions to stand in the way of real reform,” said Malloy spokesman Andrew Doba.

Compromise legislation passed with union support.

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It was only last year that Rhee began pressing her case in deep-blue California, where the California Teachers Assn. has long been the most powerful player in education policy. Her group and its political action committee spent more than $1.4 million lobbying the Legislature and promoting political candidates in 2012.

It also flooded lawmakers’ offices with letters, phone calls and visits from parents to help kill legislation that would have eliminated the required use of student test scores in teacher evaluations. The author withdrew the bill.

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StudentsFirst made a failed attempt to revamp key policies near the end of the last legislative session. It drafted a proposal to eliminate seniority-based layoffs and require at least half of an educator’s evaluation to be based on student test scores.

But the group dropped the effort amid a dustup with other advocates over its political maneuvering, including campaign spending to help the son of the lawmaker who agreed to introduce the bill.

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Now StudentsFirst has hired a Sacramento veteran to guide its strategy here: former Assembly Speaker Fabian Núñez, a Democrat who cut his political teeth as a union operative.

Rhee said big change could take years.

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“There is no city that represents the status quo bureaucracy … like Sacramento,” she said. But “if you can do it here, it just cracks everything open.”

michael.mishak@latimes.com

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howard.blume@latimes.com

Mishak reported from Sacramento, Blume from Los Angeles.


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