Probe shows union-busting Michelle Rhee wrote Michigan anti-teacher law

DETROIT – A supposed nonprofit, non-partisan group established by Michelle Rhee, the former chancellor of the Washington, D.C., school system who became known for her anti-union schemes, has virtually written the slew of anti-teacher bills moving through the GOP-run Michigan legislature, an outside investigator reports.

In a case of “if it walks like a duck, talks like a duck, then it is a duck,” so to speak, Laura Clawson, a senior writer at Daily Kos, uncovered the working document from Rhee’s group, Students First. Wilson posted her article and a link to the group’s document on her blog.

The revelation came just as the GOP-run Michigan legislature was moving the package of education bills towards an expected signature by GOP Gov. Rick Snyder, and just after the administrator of the majority-minority Detroit school system – now under state control – unveiled a reorganization plan which left the Detroit Federation of Teachers very wary, at best.

The scheme from Students First, led by abolition of collective bargaining and denial of tenure for a teacher’s first five years – and return to probation and potential firing, if she falls below snuff in any succeeding one year period – is part of the nationwide right-wing business war on workers.

That war includes abolition of collective bargaining for teachers in Tennessee and potentially Florida, and imposition of a taxpayer-paid voucher scheme covering 60 percent of Indiana’s students, thus yanking money from public schools.

In Michigan, Clawson wrote, “the crucial take-away is that, although Rhee claimed publicly that eliminating collective bargaining is not her end goal, and although Students First didn’t publicly support Michigan’s bill limiting collective bargaining for teachers, the document leaves no doubt that in fact the organization privately supported the bill.” 

Clawson then quotes Rhee’s plan:

“Students First did not work directly with the House on the collective bargaining bill and we have not expressed public support for the bill. However, many of the things they included came from our policy agenda and pave the way for implementing a new evaluation process, mutual consent and performance-based RIFs,” or firings.

Rhee herself became nationally notorious after former D.C. Mayor Adrian Fenty (D) appointed her schools chancellor and she posed for the cover of Time magazine in front of a blackboard with a scowl on her face and a broom in her hand. The story said her mission was to sweep the city schools clean and improve student performance.

Rhee used that attitude on the D.C. affiliate of the American Federation of Teachers – which had its own problems with a corrupt politically connected former union president – and repeatedly arbitrarily fired teachers without due process and in violation of the contract. Rhee also claimed the firings were needed due to budget shortfalls, but later “discovered” money for the budget, after the teachers were canned. She also tried to jam through a new contract that abolished tenure in return for huge raises.

Rhee’s actions, and her open advocacy of vouchers and charter schools got her and her boss, Fenty, in hot water. He lost re-election after one 4-year term and she was forced to resign. Rhee now runs the “Students First” group and is an education advisor to right-wing Gov. Rick Scott, R-Fla., a former hospital CEO.

The document from Rhee’s group specifically says that it worked on the package of four Michigan education bills. One abolishes “reasonable and just cause” as the only reason for firing teachers and replaces it with any reason that “is not arbitrary and capricious.” Another bill axes collective bargaining. A third makes tenure tough and lets school districts easily throw teachers back on probation.

The Students First document also listed a lobbying agenda for Michigan on May 19 and extended it to Ohio that evening, where Rhee met GOP Gov. John Kasich, after Kasich viewed the film Waiting for Superman, which glorified Rhee in D.C.

Before the meeting, former bond trader Kasich also viewed a “pre-taped special message” from Margaret Spelling, Education Secretary under anti-worker GOP President George W. Bush, about Students First, the document says.

Meanwhile, in Detroit, the presidents of the unions that represent Detroit’s teachers and school system workers said they are willing to work with administrators on the new plan rolled out to improve the city’s schools – but will not be pushed aside.

“Any cohesive plan that helps students of Detroit succeed deserves the benefit of the doubt, but the devil will be in the details,” said Detroit Federation of Teachers President Keith Johnson, Detroit Association of Education Office Employees President Ruby Newbold and Paraprofessionals Federation President Donna Jackson.

“It will require the input of educators, parents and other community members to succeed. Collaboration is the only way to develop and implement a plan [to] improve student performance,” they said. “The first real test will be whether there is a genuine effort to include community members and educators as real partners to turn around the Detroit public schools. Unfortunately, to date, community groups and education unions have been excluded from the discussions. We are not prepared to be treated as bystanders; land community members and educators, the safety net for students when others fail them, should not accept this treatment either.”

Photo: Michigan residents protest anti-union policies of the state’s Republican Governor Rick Snyder. (by Rickroll’d/cc by 2.0/Flickr)


Mark Gruenberg
Mark Gruenberg

Award-winning journalist Mark Gruenberg is head of the Washington, D.C., bureau of People's World. He is also the editor of the union news service Press Associates Inc. (PAI). Known for his reporting skills, sharp wit, and voluminous knowledge of history, Mark is a compassionate interviewer but tough when going after big corporations and their billionaire owners.