For those who viewed Michelle Rhee as an anti-union bully, the past few months have offered lots of chances to say “toldya so.” Soon after resigning as the D.C. Public Schools chancellor in October, Rhee began appearing with Republican governors who were busily making war on public-sector unions. But if longtime Rhee critics felt vindicated, another group has been less sanguine: left-leaning education reformers who worry that her moves could help tie education reform to a larger conservative agenda to crush organized labor.
Since the launch of Rhee’s advocacy organization, StudentsFirst, the optics certainly haven’t been favorable for her fellow Democratic reformers. In October, pugilistic New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie asked her to become his education commissioner. Rhee turned him down, but called herself a “big fan” of his plans to weaken the state’s teachers’ unions. Months later, Rhee became an adviser to Rick Scott, the Tea Party favorite who, as Florida’s governor, has fought to erect new barriers to collecting union dues. And when an even higher-profile clash over public-sector unions began this year in Wisconsin, Rhee was lauding its right-wing governor, Scott Walker, for taking an “important” step to rein in teacher pensions and “limit what they bargain.”
Rhee, of course, hasn’t gone so far as to propose ending collective bargaining. She’s repeated her long-held stance that teachers’ unions can play a constructive role in the public sector and in education reform. Though she’s been more vocal about supporting vouchers—Scott has actually proposed voucherizing the entire Florida school system—her basic policy positions don’t appear to have changed much, either: Even when she was a Democratic appointee in the District, she battled seniority-based teacher retention and touted teacher accountability, merit pay, and the like.
But following the jolt of her departure from DCPS, Rhee’s style as a confrontational advocate has seemed to blur the distinction between her views and the hard-line Republicans she’s worked with. The effect is to reinforce an array of right-wing positions that her left-leaning allies say they don’t endorse. “It’s counterintuitive, but if I were Michelle, I would say ‘I’m the poster child for collective bargaining,’” says Joe Williams, executive director of Democrats for Education Reform. In Williams’ world, tough negotiations with unions are a sign of respect for their existence. It’s something else entirely to wish unions away. “You’re always in danger of getting caught up in their style and politics, working with people who aren’t as careful,” he says. “You have that risk.”
That risk—of giving the appearance “that this all is just a stalking horse of union-busting,” in the words of Kevin Carey, policy director for the think-tank Education Sector—is something that Democratic education-reform types have long sought to mitigate. Ever since Democratic voters bounced her boss, Adrian Fenty, from office, though, Rhee has neither gone through the motions to allay such concerns—nor had liberal political allies to do it for her. “She is swimming in some politically choppy waters,” Carey says.
In fact, the same criticisms of Rhee’s polarizing public persona now come from erstwhile allies, not reform foes. “It’s very high risk—people have spent years trying to be clear that we’re sending an anti-teacher message, that’s something we’ve been very careful about,” says Kate Walsh, president of the National Council on Teacher Quality. “If you instead rattle the cage so much, people begin to fear that you have been full of it, and that you haven’t been honest, you lose them.”
“She may have to work harder to convince people that she’s not part of some Republican plot,” Williams adds.
There are at least some indications that Rhee may be taking tentative steps to reestablish her bipartisan street cred—a sensible thing to do, given that she’s announced plans to raise $1 billion for StudentsFirst, a sum that probably requires dunning liberals and centrists along with right-wingers. Last month, she announced that George Parker—the D.C. teachers’ union leader she negotiated with as chancellor—would become a senior fellow at the organization. “I hope, working together again, we can come up with ideas for improving how schools serve children nationally,” Rhee wrote in a Huffington Post piece. But can such alliances last? Rhee’s friends and foes are waiting, watching—and worrying.