The Pale Horse of Education Reform

The Pale Horse of Education Reform

Controversial and contrived, Michelle Rhee is pursuing a reform agenda backed by big money and little evidence of success.

The controversial former superintendent of Washington D.C. public schools, Michelle Rhee, formed the StudentFirst organization several years ago in an effort to promote school reform. Now, in 2012, she’s consolidated enough celebrity and enough funding to start a national campaign toward education reform. That campaign, according to her, is about, “fighting for kids, and whoever is standing in the way ... we are willing to go up against those folks because we can't maintain the status quo." The “folks,” she’s speaking of are primarily teachers’ unions and the conventional public school system. Her organization is using media and lobbying campaigns, backed by billions of dollars from philanthropists, religious organizations, conservative-backed SuperPACs and business leaders.

Rhee has been an advocate for now well-known education reform agenda, including eliminating teacher tenure, using student achievement to determine teacher compensation, increasing external accountability while decreasing funding, and using charter schools and voucher programs as a way of insuring a quality education for every student. Her views have managed to influence some very powerful people, including Education Secretary Arne Duncan and Bill and Melinda Gates of the Gates Foundation. President Obama’s education initiative The Race to the Top reflected this agenda, as will the reauthorization of the ESEA (currently the No Child Left Behind Act). In fact, even the state legislatures that did not pursue Race to the Top money are pushing agendas that cut school funding and undermine teachers unions. It’s with these conservative Republican governors that Rhee, who is a self-described lifelong Democrat, is primarily working.

At issue is not only the agenda that Rhee promotes, but the partnerships she’s using to promote it. StudentFirst has its own SuperPAC, and although oit will not release official fundraising records, public records reveal a “who’s who” list of billionaire financiers, conservative organizations, and wealthy foundations. Many of these groups have vested interests in privatizing the $900 billion a year public education system. Privatization, however, runs contrary to one of the founding principles of the country and most experts agree that privatization causes massive inequities within the educational system. Although StudentFirst claims to be a bipartisan organization, its relationships and financiers are primarily conservative, and their reform agenda has a distinctly conservative bent.

“The road to hell is paved with good intentions,” and although Michelle Rhee and many of her public school supporters may be working toward improving education for all students, the approach is wrong and the implications for the future could be devastating. Allowing any privatization of schools, either through charter schools or for-profit charters management firms, opens to the door to further privatization.

Furthermore, the corporate culture inherent in many of policy reforms that Rhee and StudentFirst promote actually deteriorate the culture in a school. By cutting funding and by depending on external accountability measures to make schools more “efficient,” they are actually dismissing some of the primary functions of a school. Public schools today serve as community centers just as much as educational institutions. A slavish devotion to standardized test scores combined with austerity cuts to state education budgets will only result in standardized test assembly lines, and extract the human and community components inherent in public schools.