An article in the LA Times about Michelle Rhee’s organization, StudentsFirst, prompted this Op-Ed piece which the LA Times would not publish.


At one point, during my career as an organizational consultant working in Latin America, I asked my friends there whether they send their children to public schools.  They laughed heartily and said of course not.  They send their children to private schools or to Church schools.  There is no way, they told me, that they could maintain the middle class status of their families if they send their children to public schools. 

From their incredulous laughter, I learned a valuable lesson, which reflects, I think, on Michelle Rhee’s radical project to empty money out of the public school system.  The political legacy of Latin America is oligarchy, and the impoverished public schools of those countries are part of that legacy.  In the United States, however, you can still defend the middle class status of your family and even enter the middle class through the public school system.  Our public school system, therefore, is the great guarantor of democracy.  It plays an important social leveling function and is a bulwark against advancing oligarchy.  But that bulwark is threatened by Michelle Rhee and her supporters.

In this country, the agenda of the Conservative movement has become, transparently, to establish an oligarchy, and given the large and growing income disparity in this country, they seem to be having some success.  They have commandeered the Republican Party to their cause, abetted by the conservatives on the Supreme Court handing us the Citizens United ruling, allowing these oligarchs to secretly fund acquiescent politicians and support antidemocratic voting rights restrictions by Republican state legislatures and governors. 

A major component of the oligarchic agenda is to attack the social leveling function of the public school system by emptying money out of that system through charters, vouchers, and any other means possible, to reduce the public schools to resemble their Latin American counterparts.  The only things standing in their way are the teachers’ unions, the principal targets of Michelle Rhee’s attack.

Now the teachers’ unions are hardly paragons of probity, but one need not claim that they are such paragons to be suspicious of one-sided attacks on teachers.  Another thing I learned in my organizational consulting career working with both union and non-union organizations in this country is that managements get the unions they deserve.  So if there is a problem with teachers’ unions, look to school managements to find out why.  The job of administrators is to create and protect the conditions that enable the people who work for them to do the best job possible.  So when schools do not perform, it makes more sense to blame the administrators for failing to create those conditions than to blame teachers for not doing their best job under those sub-optimal conditions.  But taking a balanced approach to school problems that looks at the entire system and not just at teachers doesn’t advance the oligarchic agenda.  Enter Michelle Rhee, who has made teachers and their unions the sole focus of attack of the school reform movement.

Michelle Rhee complains that “the purpose of teachers’ unions is to prioritize the pay and privileges of members,” but she is mistaken.  Teaching is a profession like medicine or the law but with the anomaly that it cannot be pursued as an independent enterprise.  Teachers’ unions are necessary to protect teachers’ professional prerogatives against employers who would interfere with their professional need to determine how their service gets delivered and how best to serve the public interest. 

Service is the primary issue for teachers’ unions as it is for any professional group.  Shall we evaluate doctors by their cure rate?  Who then would become an oncologist for whom cure rates are low?  Shall we evaluate lawyers by their win rate?  Who then would take the difficult cases?  No one is proposing that we evaluate doctors or lawyers in this way because it would not serve the public interest.  Yet Michelle Rhee proposes that we evaluate teachers solely by test scores.  How is the public interest served by that? 

Michelle Rhee represents the deprofessionalization of teaching which fits the oligarchic agenda hand in glove since it requires disempowering teachers’ organizations, her own liberal and professional credentials providing convenient cover.  She would reduce the student-teacher relationship into a customer-supplier relationship wherein education becomes a commodity and teachers man the assembly lines.

The Times lists the backers of her Students First organization, charitably, as “entrepreneurs and philanthropists,” but they are the same big money oligarchs supporting antidemocratic, anti-union agendas all over the country, no matter how many Democratic billionaires she lists on her masthead.  Typically, she has refused to provide a full list of her donors. 

Michelle Rhee seems genuinely to be taken aback by liberal criticism, claiming that she herself is a liberal and a lifelong Democrat.  There is no reason to doubt her sincerity on this score or to suggest anything but that she is sincerely, however mistakenly, dedicated to school reform.  But for whatever reason, she is allowing herself to be used by some very dark forces that do not share her professed concern for the public school system.

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