Mayor Kevin Johnson and wife Michelle Rhee bring Students First education road show back to Sacramento
Sacramento’s first couple brings education road show back to Sacramento
Mayor Kevin Johnson and his wife, Michelle Rhee, played a hometown gig last Wednesday night. But groupies didn’t cheer the couple at the venue. Instead, some 40 silent protesters, wearing masking tape over their mouths and holding anti-Rhee signs, picketed the education event outside downtown’s Tsakopoulos Library Galleria.
Both Rhee, who heads education-advocacy outfit Students First, and the protesters agree that schools are broken. Both disagree, however on how to go about fixing them.
At one end of the spectrum, activists say Rhee just wants to ratchet up testing, fire bad teachers and shut down underperforming schools. Rhee argues that teachers are protecting their own and not looking out for students’ best interests.
At the event—which was touted as a “listening tour” where Rhee’s Students First group could hear from real people about the state of California education—the mayor and Rhee charmed with personal anecdotes while a crowd of nearly 400 did most of the listening.
For instance, Mayor Johnson asked, “Is education the civil-rights issue of our time?”—twice—before introducing his wife, who spoke for 10 or so minutes about her experiences as a teacher and chancellor.
“Sometimes you have to take on the tough fights,” Rhee began. Her lobbying outfit, Students First, recently started hiring new staffers, who will be moving to its Sacramento headquarters at K and Ninth streets in the coming months.
Of the protesters, Rhee urged the audience to “ask them why they hate Michelle Rhee,” adamant that “they’ll give you a bunch answers that attack me.”
“Let’s talk about the issues,” Rhee insisted.
Protesters like Kate Lenox were critical—she called the event a “sort of a fake, an Astroturf event for an Astroturf organization.” But she also spoke to the issues.
“[Rhee] represents all that is bad with the education-reform movement,” she argued. “She ignores poverty. The biggest determinate for a child’s success in school is income level. Instead of closing a school, schools ought to be given the resources they need to help kids.”
Students First is backing legislation in multiple states this year, but not California; Rhee concedes that the state isn’t amenable to her teacher-reform agenda “just yet.”
However, Rhee’s husband—who has no real authority over local schools—proposed during his annual State of the City speech on Monday, January 30, that local schools receive letter grades, so parents can evaluate their performances.
Meanwhile, Gov. Jerry Brown last week announced a desire to limit standardized testing and federal influence over state schools. This position contrasts sharply with Rhee’s agenda for expanded testing and teacher-seniority reform—and even President Barack Obama’s Race to the Top policy.
But the governor does have support of Lenox and local education activists.
“That was really positive,” Lenox said of Brown’s comments. “Because the less time you spend on the test, the more time you can spend educating kids.”