Education and School Choice, In The News

Michelle Rhee Joins Parents At Rally For Education Reform

By Kathleen Megan, The Hartford Courant

At an education rally Wednesday on the steps of the state Capitol, Michelle Rhee, founder of an activist education reform group, said she had two “cornerstones” when she served as chancellor of schools inWashington, D.C.

“I was going to send my own two kids to the school district I was running,” she said. “I was going to make every decision for the children of the district in the same way that I make decisions for my own two kids.”

“You would think that would not incite so much controversy” but it did, Rhee told the crowd of about 75, mostly parents, who clearly warmed to her message. Rhee’s organization, StudentsFirst, co-sponsored Wednesday’s rally with the Connecticut Parents Unionand the Maryland-based Bernard Center for Women, Politics and Public Policy.

Rhee, who led Washington’s schools from 2007 to 2010, said that when it came time for her to decide how to handle teachers rated “ineffective,” some suggested they be allowed to stay in the classroom for two or three years while they tried to improve their skills.

“Booooo,” came the call from the crowd. “Let ‘em go.”

“There is no way I would ever let one of my kids into a classroom with an ineffective teacher,” Rhee said. “…We have to have policies in place that we would put in place for our kids every day.”

Rhee said she also was in Hartford to support Gov. Dannel P. Malloy‘s education package and to push for further reform.

Before the rally Shay Teal, president of the Hartford Parents Organization Council, said she didn’t know much about Rhee but that she and others wanted to learn more.

After Rhee spoke, Mark Bissonnette, a parent of a Hartford schoolchild, said he agreed with her. “I have one shot at this,” he said. “My kids only go through the seventh, eighth or ninth grade once. We need to make some changes, and we need to make them now.”

Gwen Samuel, founder of the Connecticut Parents Union, said, “We are not anti-teacher; we are pro-our children.”

In an e-mailed statement, Mary Loftus Levine, executive director of the Connecticut Education Association, the state’s largest teachers union, said: “Collaboration has been a hallmark of reform efforts in Connecticut. In contrast, Michelle Rhee is recognized for divisive politics as evidenced by her short-lived tenure in Washington, D.C.”

Levine added in her email: “Why should CT citizens want to import outsiders like Rhee, when there are so many solid ideas for education reform right here in our own state? Why did the Florida legislature recently work in a bipartisan effort to reject Rhee’s proposals? These are the kinds of questions everyone who cares about public education should consider as we work to ensure high-quality schools for all students who need to compete in a global economy.”

In an interview earlier in the day, Rhee said Malloy’s proposal is “very strong on tenure reform and ensuring that once the new evaluation system is in place, that the granting of tenure will be based on effectiveness.”

The proposal is “a good first step” that would ensure that the most effective teachers get tenure the fastest, Rhee said. But she said Malloy’s proposal could be strengthened with “some clear guidelines” about what should happen to “minimally effective teachers” and how long they should be able to take part in professional development programs before they are terminated if they don’t improve enough.

Under her leadership in Washington, Rhee said, if a teacher was rated ineffective, that teacher was immediately terminated, regardless of how many years he or she had served. A teacher who was deemed minimally effective two years in a row also was immediately fired, regardless of tenure.

Rhee said that StudentsFirst has 15,000 members in Connecticut and will open an office in the state, probably in Hartford.

The organization plans to push for reforms, including notifying parents when their kids are in an ineffective classroom and giving them the chance to change that assignment; creating a stronger “parent trigger” law, which would give parents the power to shut down or reconstitute a failing school; and providing vouchers for poor students in chronically low-performing schools.

StudentsFirst also is launching a statewide media campaign urging support for Malloy’s reform package, including a “six-figure television buy” that will include broadcast and cable ads in the state’s major markets.

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