According to Salon.com, November 6th was a good day for Michelle Rhee and her school reform-focused group StudentsFirst. Of the 105 candidates backed by StudentsFirst, 86 won their races, and of those 33 were challengers who unseated their less reform-minded foes.
Rhee often paints both herself and her group as bipartisan, so much so that she was a featured guest at the Democratic National Convention this summer. Yet 90 of her 105 chosen candidates were Republican, and as Salon’s Daniel Denvir points out, many of them fall well to the right of the GOP mainstream, including several candidates affiliated with the Tea Party movement.
Rhee, who did not respond to an interview request, is an adept fundraiser and organization builder. In October 2010, she was nudged out after a stormy tenure as the head of D.C.’s public schools (she closed dozens of failing schools, fired more than 1,000 teachers and principals, and went toe-to-toe with unions over issues like teacher evaluation and tenure). On the very same day, she launched a new personal website and social media operation and then quickly embarked on a series of television interviews, announcing the creation of StudentsFirst on “The Oprah Winfrey Show” that December. ”I am going to start a revolution,” she told Oprah. “I’m going to start a movement in this country on behalf of the nation’s children.”
In two years, Rhee has spread her own influence and that of her group to more than 17 states around the country. She also lists among her supporters the current U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan. She is heard by education reform advocates on both sides of the political divide.
Still, Rhee and her agenda are not without critics, of whom unions representing teachers are only the first. Her tenure as the head of the Washington D.C. public schools was tainted by accusations that the impressive student achievement gains made while she was in charge were brought about in large part due to extensive cheating. Furthermore, her strong support for charter schools is also now being looked at as study after study raises questions about how well those kinds of independently managed but publicly funded schools perform compared to traditional public schools.
But it is her hard-fought mantle of bipartisanship that is increasingly tarnished. From the endorsement of Rhee by the American Legislative Exchange Council, a group made up of conservative state lawmakers, to her involvement with the education transition team of Republican Florida governor Rick Scott, Denvir wonders if it is any longer fair to describe her as someone who is not above taking sides.