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Mayor Kevin Johnson and his fiancée, renown education reformer Michelle Rhee, took the stage Thursday night for their first speaking event in Sacramento at the Tsakopoulos Library Galleria to talk about the changing landscape in the world of education.
They held hands, finished each other's sentences, and answered questions from moderator Steven C. Currall, dean of the UC Davis management school as well as some from the crowd of a few hundred attendees. Their appearance came on the heels of the announcement that Rhee's nonprofit educational advocacy organization, StudentsFirst, is now officially headquartered in Sacramento.
The two come from very different backgrounds – Rhee was born into a wealthy family that provided her with a private education while Johnson is a product of the public school system. But their message was the same: Every student should have a good education, no matter where he or she grows up.
Rhee has been in the spotlight for what many deem controversial past practices, and she did not shy away from discussing her political legacy in Washington, D.C., where she most recently worked as public schools chancellor. As she said on Thursday, in the 20 years of her career thus far, she's probably hired and fired more people than anyone else.
In her first year as the chancellor of Washington, D.C., schools, Rhee closed 24 schools, laid off hundreds of teachers – dozens without notice – and her office was ground zero for teacher union protests.
She has said repeatedly, and again on Thursday, that the country's states’ and school districts’ policies of “last in, first out” is outdated and needs to be changed. The policy, she said, is simple – the last teachers hired are the first teachers fired, regardless of how good they are.
To Rhee and her supporters, teachers' impact on students play no role in those decisions. Quoting research from The Economist, she stated that if districts took the bottom-performing 6 percent of teachers and replaced them with average-performing teachers, scores would soar to the top percentile.
Along with Rhee and Johnson, Newark, N.J. Mayor Cory Booker announced earlier this week the launch of a campaign called “Save Great Teachers,” a national campaign that would permanently eliminate the “last in, first out” policy, which they said rids the nation's school systems of effective teachers.
But while Rhee supporters boast improved student achievement, The Washington Post has reported that significant achievement gaps remain between students in high-performing and low-performing school districts, and between white and Black students in the D.C. district.
If Rhee plans on making the same impact in Sacramento that she did in D.C., California Teachers Association President David Sanchez, said in an interview on Friday, “Good luck.”
The CTA is not too afraid at this point, since Rhee can't be involved in any California school district’s layoffs unless she is part of a school district, which she is not.
“She is someone who made it on Time (Magazine), on Oprah. She's the darling of what we call unproven reform, but she's not a state superintendent, not a legislator, she's just someone who is using her celebrity status to make an impact…. I would imagine she is trying to do the same thing (in Sacramento),” Sanchez said.
But in D.C., Sanchez noted, Rhee forgot to tell teachers one thing: why they were being fired.
Rhee said she is a “huge believer” in mayoral control of low-performing schools, as opposed to a school board type of governance.
Speaking to the audience, she said, “You're in a position right now, where you have management, the school board, who are usually elected through union-supported dollars. So, you have unions on both sides of the bargaining table.”
“That's never going to get you a contract.… If we want to change the policy (to benefit) children, you have to change that dynamic.”
Asked whether it was the composition of school boards or the way they get elected, Rhee said that, in a school board-run district, the superintendents will say they spend 50 to 70 percent of their time trying to implement policy just to get five votes and therefore spends his/her time ineffectively.
Shortly after Rhee and he first met, Johnson said they gathered with other “top reformers” such as the then superintendent of schools in Chicago, Arne Duncan, in addition to the founders of Teach for America for a three-day summit in Aspen.
“We were outside of the public sector … and we talked about how we were going to change the world,” Johnson said. “It became very clear that we were going to go back to our respective communities, do what we were doing, but not really change the world.”
To truly make a change, he remembers thinking at the time, the reformers should do two things: One should become superintendent of schools, and another should become mayor.
StudentsFirst staff said Friday that they are currently scouting properties in Sacramento for their headquarters, and since they are looking to expand, there will be job opportunities in town.
Monica Stark can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org