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D.C. Teachers Fire Pebble At Rhee Media Machine

"I do want the very best for my students," insists an earnest-sounding young man in a new radio ad paid for by the Washington Teachers Union. The ad, which manages to be both awkwardly defensive and bracingly aggressive, is the first salvo in a media campaign the union is launching against D.C. schools Chancellor Michelle Rhee and her drive to impose a merit pay system on the city's teachers.

The radio ad, along with a web site that is strangely lacking details on the union's counteroffer to the system's proposal, are part of a drive by the local and national teachers unions to win public support against the media juggernaut known as Michelle Rhee.

There's nothing in the ad or on the site that can come close to competing with the image of Rhee wielding a broom or dissing her teachers or calling the education that Washington kids receive "inadequate," "criminal" or "sad."

A woman's voice--supposedly a teacher--on the radio spot says, "I wake up every morning and I really want to do this--I'm there for them." The choices made in this ad campaign indicate that the union's research shows the public believes D.C. teachers are essentially retired in place, lacking the dedication and verve needed to get the job done.

The PR campaign comes just as Rhee is toning down her rhetoric about the shortcomings of the system, penning an op-ed in The Post that praises D.C. teachers and insists that she does not blame them for the failings of the city's schoolchildren.

Is all this the sign of the union and the chancellor moving toward a resolution, or are these early skirmishes in an all-out war for the future of the public schools in the city? And will Rhee even stick around to see this through? Her name continues to pop up as someone the president and Education Secretary Arne Duncan might turn to for help and star power, and her reportedly budding romance with Sacramento Mayor Kevin Johnson has led her to spend an unusual amount of time on the West Coast.

The Washington union, which is itself in a struggle to assert its independence from the parent American Federation of Teachers and its president, Randi Weingarten, cannot seriously believe it can compete against Rhee's mastery of the national media. But the local union has a better chance inside the District, where the news coverage of Rhee's initiatives is not quite as fawning as it is beyond the city's boundaries. Still, if these first ads are at all indicative of what's to come, Rhee has little to worry about. She remains, in the phrase that keeps cropping up in magazine and TV profiles of her, a "rock star," which is to say that voters seem to like her energy and her apparent frankness about the depth of the problems facing the city's schools.

Whether dismantling teacher tenure is as big a part of the solution as Rhee has made it out to be remains an open question, and anything that smacks of relieving people of their jobs is going to be a harder sell in this economic climate than it was when Rhee first made her proposal.

For now, it's the chancellor's move.

By Marc Fisher |  February 18, 2009; 3:04 PM ET
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Please email us to report offensive comments.

This is absolutely pitiful.

As a DCPS parent, every single teacher I've spoken to has told me that they care about their students.

The problem is that some of them are lying to themselves- their definition of "care" is far far below mine and far below their colleagues. THAT'S THE ISSUE- a strong percentage of DC teachers don't have any idea what a real professional job is like. I'm so shocked by what I've seen and heard.

Posted by: bbcrock | February 18, 2009 11:04 PM

"Public Picture of Pedagogues Plummets with Pitiful Pitch"

Posted by: RealityCheckerInEffect | February 19, 2009 2:09 AM

Why use the term "budding romance?" Nothing in that article implied to me that the two are dating. Did you mean to suggest such a notion?

Posted by: ilikeike | February 19, 2009 9:46 AM

For 50 years DCPS education has been "inadequate," "criminal" or "sad." For 50 years the union has acquiesced in this situation taking all the money they could get and ignoring the results for the students. Rhee has refused to go along. She has told the truth and to the best of her ability made every decision in an attempt to right the situation. That's why she is winning the media war. Everything she says has the ring of truth. Everything the union says has the ring of obfuscation and phoniness.

Posted by: jy151310 | February 19, 2009 10:41 AM

Marc - what's your reference for Duncan and Obama looking to Rhee for star power? I haven't seen anything about that.

Posted by: efavorite | February 19, 2009 7:46 PM

"cannot seriously believe it can compete against Rhee's mastery of the national media."

So, are you admitting Mr. Fisher, that Mrs. Rhee has mastered you?

Posted by: edlharris | February 23, 2009 11:27 PM

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