SACRAMENTO, Calif. — Michelle Rhee put the nation’s education establishment on alert two years ago when she announced she would form an advocacy group focused on thwarting the power of teachers unions in state and local politics.
The former Washington, D.C., schools chancellor already had a national reputation as a change agent, unafraid of angering teachers and principals in her drive to improve schools serving the neediest children.
Rhee, now married to Sacramento Mayor Kevin Johnson, set up StudentsFirst’s headquarters in California’s capital and chose the Golden State as one of 17 she would target.
While she has had success shaping charter-school law in Georgia and curbing union rights in Michigan, Rhee hasn’t yet upended the status quo in California public schools.
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She hasn’t made changes she advocates in teacher layoff and evaluation procedures. She hasn’t expanded the use of charter schools. She has avoided the front lines in most advocacy efforts here and is rarely seen around the Capitol.
Still, there are signs that Rhee is beginning to move on her agenda.
Since she set up StudentsFirst in 2011 in an office two blocks from the state Capitol, the group has contributed to more than 100 political races across the country and hired scores of employees, including former members of the administrations of Govs. Jerry Brown and predecessor Arnold Schwarzenegger.
Rhee has hired three lobbying firms to represent StudentsFirst in the Legislature. Her group helped kill an evaluation bill it said was too easy on teachers and shopped around a piece of legislation to change teacher layoff rules that was never introduced.
StudentsFirst also has begun political efforts to take on one of the most powerful forces in state politics: the California Teachers Association (CTA). Her group put $2 million into a California campaign committee ahead of the 2012 elections, and two of the three legislative candidates it supported were elected over candidates supported by CTA.
CTA President Dean Vogel said he doesn’t feel threatened but is keeping an eye on Rhee as she rolls out her strategy.
“Any time you’re gathering up huge amounts of money and hiring huge amounts of staff and moving a particular agenda, you’re going to have an effect. What effect that will be is hard to say until it starts to unfold,” Vogel said.
StudentsFirst supports expanding charter schools, which typically hire nonunion teachers; providing vouchers for poor children to attend private school at taxpayer expense; removing seniority as the key factor in teacher-layoff procedures; and making student performance on standardized tests a big part of teachers’ performance evaluations.
Unions see all of that as an attack on teachers, and a continuation of Rhee’s brash approach in Washington, D.C., where she allowed cameras to follow her as she closed two dozen schools and fired teachers and principals she said were ineffective because their students’ test scores were low.
Reports in USA Today and on PBS’ “Frontline” have investigated whether test-score increases at some D.C. schools under Rhee’s leadership were the result of cheating.
However, independent investigations — including the most recent one by the U.S. Department of Education — have not found that any problems were widespread.
Rhee splits her time between here and Nashville, Tenn., where her two daughters live with their father. Rhee’s ex-husband, Kevin Huffman, is the head of Tennessee’s public-education system.
Rhee, 43, is a Democrat but touts StudentsFirst as a bipartisan organization. Her argument that too many decisions about education policy are made based on the needs of teachers instead of the needs of students has been well received by two divergent audiences: the Democratic administration of President Obama, and the Republican administrations of governors who want to block union power.
So far, she hasn’t found much support among California’s political leaders, most of whom are union-supported Democrats who say they’re focused on other school issues such as improving funding, curriculum and testing programs.
The no-love affair is mutual. StudentsFirst recently issued “report cards” grading states on how well their education policies match the organization’s priorities.
California received an F.
“My theory is she is here because her husband is here and that it’s a national organization, but this wasn’t a particularly good state for her in terms of the political configuration,” said Michael Kirst, president of the state Board of Education.
The Walton Family Foundation said it has given the group $3 million over the last two years, and the Broad Foundation also said it provides support. Other funders include the Laura and John Arnold Foundation and David Tepper, a New Jersey hedge-fund manager, according to a Huffington Post examination of Pennsylvania lobbying reports.