Make America dumb again

What Michelle Rhee’s meeting with Donald Trump says about the president-elect’s education priorities

President-elect Donald Trump’s conversation with Michelle Rhee about the possibility of becoming his education secretary exposes clues about his possible education priorities.

President-elect Donald Trump’s conversation with Michelle Rhee about the possibility of becoming his education secretary exposes clues about his possible education priorities.


This is an updated and extended version of a story that ran in the November 23, 2016, issue.

The rumors that controversial charter school champ Michelle Rhee could be the nation’s next education czar accelerated Saturday when she and husband, Sacramento Mayor Kevin Johnson, emerged from a meeting with President-elect Donald Trump outside the swanky New Jersey clubhouse where Trump has been making cabinet-seekers kiss his ring.

And, on the surface, that all seems strange.

After all, Trump is the divisive Republican billionaire who wants to deport 11 million undocumented immigrants, ban Muslims from entering the country, overturn women’s reproductive rights and who anointed a white nationalist as his closest political adviser.

What could Sacramento’s first couple have in common with such a man?

Turns out, more than it would appear.

Rhee is one of a dozen people that have been mentioned for the education secretary post, and joins other “school choice” proponents like Indiana Rep. Luke Messer and Eva Moskowitz, a New York charter school executive who withdrew from contention last week after taking part in The Donald’s pageant-style cabinet auditions.

For her part, Rhee has largely maintained radio silence on the topic of Trump. Like other media outlets, SN&R was unable to reach Rhee for an interview, and the mayor’s office ignored multiple requests for comment.

On Tuesday afternoon, Rhee tweeted that she was not interested in the cabinet position, but supportive of the president-elect and “hopeful about the opportunity to find common ground on this important issue of education.”

There are plenty of signs why Trump and Rhee could make a simpatico team, and what Rhee’s candidacy suggests about the president-elect’s education goals, say education policy experts.

According to Julian Vasquez Heilig, a Sacramento State University professor of educational leadership and policy studies, Trump is espousing a pro-market philosophy adopted by the corporate education interests that Rhee runs in circles with. Trump has also indicated a desire to completely warp the public educational system by shifting $20 billion in federal education spending into expanding student vouchers and privatized charter schools. Heilig says that could only happen if Trump guts federal education entitlements like Title 1, which provides funding to the poorest public schools.

The effects could speed up the segregation that already exists in many school districts, Heilig says, and wither public schools into near collapse.

“A lot of people think that what Trumps says sounds good, but a lot of people don’t understand the implication of what it means,” said Heilig, director of Sac State’s Doctorate in Educational Leadership program and an education blogger.

“Our public education would be completely different than what we have now,” he added. “You could actually see more districts go bankrupt.”

The teachers’ unions actually invented the idea of charter schools during the 1980s, Heilig says. Back then, the notion was to create schools run by teachers and community members, cutting out middle-men administrators. But by the ’90s, the plan had been co-opted by private management conglomerates that looked to schools as profit-vessels, and teachers disavowed the model.

Vouchers, on the other hand, originated in the South as a way to outmaneuver the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling in Brown v. Board of Education, “to make sure white kids don’t have to go to school with black kids,” Heilig said. They’ve since been repackaged as a golden ticket to poor students in failing schools, but that’s not how they work over time, Heilig says.

In Florida, for instance, vouchers were first issued to low-income students, but then expanded to the greater population in a bait-and-switch that left poor children stranded in undercapitalized schools.

“Over time, it actually made schools more segregated,” Heilig said.

That’s because privately-run schools can decide which vouchers they accept, while public schools cannot. So a private or parochial school can deny a minority student with special needs, for instance, and only accept vouchers from affluent white students with good test scores and who can pay additional tuition.

“It might even exacerbate segregation of rich and poorer schools,” said Robert Bifulco, an associate professor of public administration and a senior research associate at the Center for Policy Research at Syracuse University.

Public schools are then left with the most challenging students and not enough resources to serve them, creating a vicious cycle of plummeting enrollment, school closures and bankruptcies.

And that’s really the intent, Heilig says, borne of a free-market ideology that believes schools should be able to profit and segregate. “It has nothing to do with poor kids,” Heilig said of vouchers.

Like Trump, Rhee’s rise to celebrity owes more to attitude than accomplishments.

“Michelle Rhee is more of a pundit than she is an educator,” Heilig noted.

The former chancellor of Washington, D.C.’s public school system, Rhee earned a tough reputation for taking on teachers and raising test scores. In speaking engagements and media interviews, Rhee has been eager to paint herself as a fearless reformer who stuck up for poor kids and axed bad teachers.

But her actual record is mixed.

As chancellor, Rhee fired more than 600 teachers over low test scores and awarded more than $1.5 million in merit-pay bonuses in 2007 and 2008 for boosted test scores, USA Today reported in 2013. But those improvements were cast into doubt when a widespread cheating scandal at as many as 70 schools came to light, prompting two government probes and leading to Rhee’s abrupt exit in 2010.

“Rhee’s tenure in D.C. was quite explosive,” said UC Berkeley education and public policy professor Bruce Fuller. “The objective record is mixed … and she overplayed her hand politically.”

The latter trait continued in 2011, when Rhee founded StudentsFirst, claiming the organization would be a political wrecking ball able to swing elections against powerful teacher lobbies. But the organization sagged below its founder’s $1 billion fundraising vow and Rhee stepped down in 2014, she wrote in a blog post, so she could focus on her family and support “my husband in the tremendous work he is doing as he continues to move forward with his career.”

That political career stalled over resurgent allegations that Johnson has sexually abused girls while a professional basketball player in Phoenix and at the St. Hope charter schools he founded in Oak Park. Ironically, it would have been Rhee’s career that took off if she was chosen to steer education policy at a national level by a politician who also faces numerous allegations of sexual abuse.

Politico reporter Carla Marinucci tweeted on Sunday that Trump spokesman Sean Spicer said the Republican and Rhee “enjoyed an in-depth discussion” about education topics like merit pay for teachers and charter schools.

Spicer didn’t respond to an SN&R request for comment. But three education policy experts interviewed by SN&R all said that Rhee would have been a polarizing choice for education secretary, and worried that Trump could worsen America’s school system, especially if he intends to sharply expand school-choice vouchers across the nation. He’s also threatened to dismantle Common Core, a program that Rhee supports.

Noting a bipartisan fatigue over “the militarized pursuit of more and more testing,” Fuller believes Trump could face a backlash.

“Centralized and pro-market reform has run its course,” he said. “Essentially, it’s collapsed from opposition from both the right and the left. And if Michelle Rhee wants to bring that back, good luck.”

Reached by phone, St. Hope’s vice president of programs and operations, Adrianne Hall, confirmed that Rhee still served on the board of St. Hope Public Schools, but declined to comment on the education secretary rumors. She referred further questions to the company’s spokeswoman, who didn’t respond to a request for comment by deadline.

The California Charter Schools Association also declined comment until after an official nomination was made, a spokesman said.

Today, Rhee sits on the boards of 50Can Action Fund Inc., Scotts Miracle-Gro Co. and St. Hope.

Fuller thinks Rhee might not be on board with all of The Donald’s ideas.

“I think she actually cares about poor kids,” he said.

Clad in slacks and collared shirts, roughly 100 students attending St. Hope’s PS7 and Sacramento High charter schools came to the Serna Center to support the rechartering of their schools last Thursday. They snapped their fingers to punctuate the speech of Jim Scheible, St. Hope’s chief advancement officer, as he explained that the two schools surpass state and county achievement levels for Hispanic and African-American students—particularly those who are socioeconomically disadvantaged.

“The kids just have a fire unlike any I’ve seen before,” said Dianna Tejada, an English teacher at Sac High. “Everything we do is very centered on making sure our kids make it to college and make it through college.”

Jazzie Murphy, a sixth-grader’s parent, exemplified this by relating that PS7 considers her daughter to be a member of the class of 2027—because that is the year she would graduate from a four-year college. Marina Hernandez, a seventh-grade math teacher, said that due to the extended school days, students who go from pre-K to eighth grade at PS7 receive a cumulative two years in extra instruction.

Another speaker, Rayonna Thompson, Sac High’s junior class president, starts her days at 7 a.m. to plan student events and ends them at 8 p.m., when basketball practice concludes. Her favorite subject is chemistry and she wants to be anesthesiologist after studying medicine at New York University.

She invited the Sacramento City Unified School District’s Board of Education members to join her for a day, then joked, “I’ll understand if you cannot.”

In the past, St. Hope has been dogged by allegations of misusing federal funds and sexual abuse allegations leveled against Johnson. But the malfeasances of the higher-ups don’t seem to have impacted the day-to-day.

Scheible admitted he’d like to increase diversity, bolster special education programs and improve Sac High’s lower-than-average SAT and ACT scores. But he also noted that, in 2015, 86 percent of their students took the SAT and 100 percent took the ACT—twice and five times higher than the state and county rates.

Among African-American males at Sac High, 91 percent are UC/CSU eligible, compared to 27 percent at both the county and state level. And more than 90 percent of the current senior class has been accepted to at least one four-year college—a rarity for a school where 61 percent of the students are African-American, 26 percent are Hispanic/Latino and 69 percent come from low-income families.

The final student speaker, senior Yuliett Gonzalez, played a Univision clip about a Sac High graduate who was the first in her family to attend a four-year college. She translated as it played in Spanish, just nine days after Trump’s upset election.

At the end of the passionate, yet polite hearing, SCUSD board president Christina Pritchett surveyed the packed room. The board will announce its decision to recharter the schools on December 8. If it denies the charters, St. Hope can appeal to the county and state. But Scheible figures it’s likely they will approve, as Pritchett closed by saying, “A school that’s not doing it right, doesn’t have this sort of pride.”

The students snapped in agreement.

Rhee, preparing for her interview with Trump, was not in attendance.