Michelle Rhee Makes Her Mark

Former D.C. schools chancellor sets up shop in Sacramento

It's been more than a year since the state Assembly passed AB5, a hotly disputed measure meant to change the way California's public schoolteachers are evaluated. It's been in the legislative deep freeze ever since. But the bill, which has raised labor's ire, is being thawed out in the closing weeks of the legislative session.

And guess who's wading into the controversy?

Michelle Rhee, whose focus on teacher accountability has drawn the wrath of the powerful teacher unions.

During her nearly four years as chancellor of the Washington D.C. public schools, Rhee was a lightning rod for controversy. She pushed hard-nosed reforms that focused on teacher quality. Those evaluations led to the firing of several hundred teachers, and hostility from teacher unions.

Rhee stepped down from her D.C. job in 2010 after her political mentor, Washington Mayor Adrian Fenty, lost a bid for reelection in what was widely perceived as a referendum on her policies.

Now Rhee has a new perch in Sacramento, where she's set up headquarters for her education lobbying group called StudentsFirst. The organization has a national focus, but Rhee set up shop in Sacramento for personal reasons; she married the city's mayor, former NBA player Kevin Johnson, last year.

Rhee's group has now weighed in on the controversy over AB5, which the author -- Assemblyman Felipe Fuentes, D-Sylmar -- says is meant to implement an improved system for grading teacher performance.

Not surprisingly, Rhee's group says the measure is flawed and doesn't go far enough to consistently and objectively measure how well teachers are doing their jobs in California.

"If teachers across the state are not held to the same high standards, students may not have equitable access to truly effective leaders," says a letter from Tim Melton, Vice President of Legislative Affairs for StudentsFirst.

Rhee's group also faults AB5 for not measuring teacher growth through such means as test scores. It says the bill takes too long to implement change by waiting until the state's finances are stabilized. And StudentsFirst objects to language that would allow teacher unions to negotiate, through collective bargaining, how its members are evaluated.

Ironically, the powerful California Teachers Association is on record as opposed to the bill that passed the Assembly last year. But the measure is the focus of intense talks at the Capitol. Labor groups say standardized tests are not a valid tool for measuring teacher performance, and they'll push back against that change.

AB5 is scheduled to be dusted off for a vote in the Senate Appropriations Committee on Monday. It's an important test of what direction California travels with regard to measuring teacher performance in a fair and effective manner.

Michelle Rhee may be new to Sacramento. But for her, AB5 represents a familiar fight.

Author Kevin Riggs, an Emmy-winning former TV reporter in Sacramento, is Senior Vice President at Randle Communications.

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