Is Michelle Rhee becoming a Republican darling?
In her post-D.C. Public Schools career, former Chancellor Michelle Rhee has had no trouble whatsoever attracting attention to her new education reform ventures. And she's been getting the most attention from prominent elected Republicans.
Since leaving DCPS, Rhee has joined the transition team of new Florida Gov. Rick Scott (pictured) and has since agreed to continue on as an "informal adviser" to his administration. On Tuesday, she appeared at New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie's State of the State address.
"No one in America has been more clear that we must change our public education system," Christie said from the podium. "Michelle, thanks for coming today, and I want you to count New Jersey among those who are finally putting our students first."
Former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty, who just left office and is expected to contend for the Republican presidential nomination, has long been a Rhee fan. Yesterday at the National Press Club, he said this, according to MSNBC: "Everyone's waiting for Superman. We had a Superwoman. And her name was Michelle Rhee."
Meanwhile, Rhee's message has been embraced by the favorite media outlets of the conservative movement. She rolled out her policy platform in a Wall Street Journal op-ed and made an appearance on Fox News Channel (in addition to appearances on the Today Show and other less partisan forums). Today, a post on the Heritage Foundation's blog calls on "opponents of sensible education reforms to put the needs of children before the demands of special interests--as Rhee's aptly named group suggests."
It's not hard to explain the GOP's embrace: Rhee's policy agenda has long been heavy on attacking the role of teacher unions in blocking the sorts of reforms she believes are most effective -- eliminating teacher "tenure," ending seniority-based teacher transfers, evaluating teachers by their students' test scores, etc. Democrats, with their closer ties to national unions, tread more lightly around those issues in a way that the GOP does not.
But the question for Rhee is to what extent she wants her nascent national brand to get caught up in partisan politics, especially going into a presidential election year.
Kevin Chavous, a Democrat and former D.C. Council member who is active in national education reform circles, said he's noticed that Rhee's early support has tilted Republican. "But I do think there's a growing number of Democrats who are talking about some of those same issues. My sense is she'll be working with some of those folks as well."
To be perfectly clear: Rhee can boast all sorts of Democratic bona fides. She was hired by Adrian Fenty, a Democrat. Rhee's Web site boasts endorsements from Newark Mayor Cory Booker and Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, both Democrats. President Obama's education secretary, Arne Duncan, is an unabashed fan. Rhee's fiance, Sacramento Mayor Kevin Johnson, is a Democrat. And Rhee herself is a registered Democratic voter in the District and once referred to herself as a "card-carrying Democrat."
But Rhee has never been shy about praising Republicans -- favoring John McCain's education platform over Obama's, for instance -- and her reform ideas thus far have been mostly been embraced by only a subset of Democrats, those who have had roles dealing with dysfunctional big-city school systems. Her challenge with StudentsFirst will be broadening her appeal to national Democrats, a challenge given her sharp anti-union rhetoric.
"It's got to be viewed as bipartisan," said Chavous, chairman of the board of Democrats for Education Reform. "We have to make sure we go the extra mile to do this on both sides of the aisle."
Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images
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