Michelle Rhee is jumping into another union battle -- this time in Michigan.
As Washington, D.C. schools chief, Rhee sparred with American Federation of Teachers president Randi Weingarten over the school system's contract. Since then, Rhee, who is CEO and founder of nonprofit StudentsFirst, has said time and time again that she believes unions have a strong role in education and that collective bargaining is important.
Now, the political action committee of StudentsFirst is pumping $500,000 into a campaign against Michigan's Proposal 2, a ballot measure that would protect collective bargaining by enshrining it in the state's constitution. Mlive.com first reported the contribution Thursday morning. StudentsFirst is a national lobbying and advocacy shop based in Sacramento, Calif., that has received heavy support from bundlers for both Barack Obama and Mitt Romney. Under Proposal 2, any Michigan laws that limit workers' ability to join unions would be invalidated -- and many education reform laws of the variety supported by Rhee require drastic changes to the way teachers are hired and fired in the name of making schools better.
In Michigan, for example, StudentsFirst and other local reform groups pushed the state legislature to pass laws that ended what's known as "last in, first out," the process by which teachers are fired in reverse order of their seniority. Instead, teacher evaluations will factor into those decisions. Additionally, Michigan recently passed a law that tweaked teacher tenure, extending the amount of time it takes for new teachers to get tenured and making tenure dependent on performance evaluations, even for more experienced teachers. (StudentsFirst later hired Tim Melton, a Democratic legislator whose vote was critical to passing these education laws, as its national legislative director.)
It is unclear exactly what Proposal 2 does to these laws, but StudentsFirst is preparing for the worst. "When you look at Proposal 2, from issues that are important to us, it would set Michigan back tremendously," Andy Solon, StudentsFirst's Michigan director, told The Huffington Post. "It would undo important education reforms. Many of them have not had an opportunity to even be implemented. We think this is about adults protecting their own interests." (Michigan Attorney General Bill Schuette has said Proposal 2 would immediately upend 170 laws, including many that keep children safe in school.)
StudentsFirst's $500,000 went to Citizens Protecting Michigan's Constitution, a coalition fighting Proposal 2 with support from businesses and school management groups.
Sara Wallenfang, a spokesperson for Protect Working Families, the $8 million labor coalition supporting Proposal 2, said she wasn't surprised. "We expected a lot of corporate special interests coming in from out of state," she said. "We think that education works best when teachers are able to advocate on behalf of their students, and we are disappointed that StudentsFirst would come out so strongly in the opposite direction."
Solon, though, said he thinks collective bargaining plays an important role in education policy. "We've said collective bargaining is important, especially for teachers to be able to bargain over wages and benefits," he said. But expanding it as broadly as Proposal 2 does, he said, is "an end-run around the Democratic process," and that "there's a role for the legislature and state education officials in setting policies."
"Actions speak louder than words, and half a million dollars says otherwise, that she's [Rhee] not committed to the rights of teachers and collective bargaining," Wallenfang shot back.
"They're silencing the voices of the practitioners in the classroom," said Doug Pratt, a spokesperson for the Michigan Education Association union. "Their backers don't want teachers to have a real voice." Pratt noted that the tenure reform law already made it illegal to bargain over teacher discharge, discipline, evaluation and merit pay.
The contribution fits into the broader picture of non-Republican education groups supporting measures that don't directly touch on public schools. In California, the state arm of Democrats for Education Reform recently endorsed Proposition 32, a ballot measure that would disallow unions from using payroll deductions to sponsor political activity. Sensing a touchy issue, other education groups -- including DFER's national headquarters and StudentsFirst -- have kept mum.
In Michigan, however, StudentsFirst isn't the only education-oriented group fighting Proposal 2. Harrison Blackmond, who leads DFER's Michigan arm, said the group agrees with StudentsFirst on the issue. "I'm opposed because it's pretty broad-ranging," he said. "If it were a proposal that just said that people have a right to collective bargaining, I wouldn't be against it, but this makes it very difficult for principals to manage."
But, he added, "nobody really knows" what the Proposal 2's implications for the state's recent education laws would be. "It's going to be mediation and litigation up the wazoo if this passes," Blackmond said.
StudentsFirst is also taking a position on several other ballot initiatives: StudentsFirst is on the same side of the union in Cleveland, where both groups support a levy that would increase school funding by $15 million. In Bridgeport, Conn., StudentsFirst is supporting a measure that would designate school board members by appointment, rather than election. In Georgia, the group is supporting a charter school amendment.