Michelle Rhee's Key Hire Finds Difficulty In Diffusing Union Distrust

Michelle Rhee's Key Hire Finds Difficulty In Diffusing Union Distrust

WASHINGTON -- Attempts to bridge the divide between self-styled education reform groups and teachers unions, backed by progressive organizations, hit another snag last week, raising doubts about whether the two sides will ever be able to find true synchronicity.

The most recent flashpoints are, inherently, rehashes of old arguments. A new book authored by Steven Brill, Class Warfare: Inside the Fight to Fix America's Schools, makes the argument that absent a buy-in from unions, comprehensive school reform is likely elusive. Meanwhile, it was recently reported that the American Federation of Teachers helped originate a website attacking Michelle Rhee, a former Washington D.C. school chancellor and prominent education reform advocate, as beholden to conservative interests and hellbent on undermining collective bargaining rights.

Neither revelation was, in and of itself, groundbreaking. But they do cast additional doubts on Rhee's efforts to accentuate the similarities between her politics and those of the unions she's often fought. Several months ago, Rhee's organization, StudentsFirst, announced that it was hiring former Democratic National Committee Press Secretary Hari Sevugan to serve in a communications role -- implicitly as an ambassador to the progressive community.

"I don't feel [the story of StudentsFirst] has been captured, not wholly," Sevugan told The Huffington Post at the time. "If we're able to tell the story of how we've been working with people on both sides of the aisle, how it's a national movement made up of Democrats, Republicans and Independents, that are fighting to give students a voice, then I will have done my job."

Despite the skepticism that accompanied Sevugan's hiring, there were some early, encouraging results. Rhee formally came out in support of the DREAM Act, which provides a path to citizenship -- either through military service or scholastic achievements -- for the children of undocumented immigrants. Rhee also offered stronger indications that she did in fact support collective bargaining rights. And StudentsFirst, often accused of working solely with Republicans, recently hired a Democrat, Michigan State Rep. Tim Melton, to work on legislative issues.

Several months into the experiment, however, union officials and progressive advocates have been unconvinced, noting that for all of the rhetorical support for teachers and collective bargaining, Rhee often associates herself with efforts that run counter to those groups and interests.

The most glaring moments have occurred in the states where StudentsFirst has been tied to legislative reforms that curb collective bargaining rights or tenure policies, or ones that involve major budget cuts that would affect school systems. Recently, however, the tiffs have grown a touch more personal. Rhee's appearance at a conference organized by Pastor Bill Hybels and the Willow Creek Leadership Summit became fodder for critics amid protests over Willow Creek's anti-gay marriage platform. So too did Brill's revelation that StudentsFirst had been funded by NewsCorp.'s Rupert Murdoch.

There were wrinkles to each item. President Bill Clinton had previously spoken at a similar Willow Creek Leadership Summit, without protest. And while Murdoch himself may have donated to StudentsFirst -- the organization won't confirm or deny the report -- he allegedly did so as an individual, not through his conservative-leaning media conglomerate.

Nevertheless, the friction came to a head last week, when it was revealed that the AFT had registered the domain for RheeFirst, a website that tracks Rhee’s activities, compiles her controversial statements and examines her record. The site also includes information on her personal life, linking to police records of sexual misconduct allegations made against her fiancé, Kevin Johnson, the mayor of Sacramento, Calif.

Sevugan, for his part, has done the job he was asked to do, denouncing the website -- "we were disappointed... that teachers unions were not disclosing their association with supposed grassroots voices attacking reform efforts and Michelle personally" -- and taking to various outlets in an attempt to squash the flames of controversy. He told The Huffington Post soon after he was hired that he viewed educational opportunity to be as much of a civil rights issue as marriage equality. When asked about the Hybels association, he re-affirmed that sentiment.

For critics, however, Sevugan's personal politics matter only to the extent to which he can influence StudentsFirst.

"Everything I know about Hari is that the guy is really smart and a real professional. But as good as he is, you can't overcome Michelle Rhee's agenda," said Michael Powell, assistant to the president for communications at the AFT. "I mean, she spent months working with [Wisconsin Governor] Scott Walker and [Ohio Governor] John Kasich and Governor [Rick] Scott down in Florida ... to take away collective bargaining rights of teachers. So as good as he is and as well-intentioned as he is, you can't overcome what the organization is doing."

Labor groups remain deeply suspicious that Rhee brought Sevugan on board simply to placate progressives. "She knew what she was doing when she hired the best bomb-thrower in politics," said one union ally.

Sevugan declined to discuss the terms of his contract but offered that he still drives "the same shitty 12-year old Jeep that doesn't have working air-conditioning" and wears canvas shoes. "The fact is, a lot of folks took significant pay cuts to join StudentsFirst because we felt it was the right thing to do," he added, noting that he himself was once a teacher. He also quit a high-paying law firm job in order to get into politics.

At the DNC however, he did spend much of his time criticizing the very Republican governors with whom Rhee now works, often taking aim at their policies towards teachers and unions. StudentsFirst hired an Ohio lobbyist to keep track of Kasich's SB5, a bill that partially restricted the collective bargaining rights of Ohio teachers. The group worked with Michigan lawmakers on similar legislation in that state. Rhee herself took on a consulting role for Scott, whose policies were viewed by Democrats as emblematic of dangerous conservative ambition.

"I was a part of that effort, to call out governors for overreach," Sevugan said shortly after joining StudentsFirst. "It's important to tell people when you disagree with them that you disagree with them, and it's important to work with them on issues that you agree with. That's how democracy works, that's how it should work."

"[B]ut to say that we're not going to work with folks who will help students because we disagree with one part of their agenda is not going to serve students or teachers or the country," he added.

And therein lies the problem. For unions and a progressive community feeling threatened by the brew of state and federal politics surrounding them, there is a point at which compromise is no longer a virtue.

StudentsFirst did not work directly with the Michigan legislature on the collective bargaining portion of the bill. It did not formally endorse SB5 ("We never did," said Sevugan) and has no position on its repeal, which is currently on the November ballot. It worked, instead, to advance a separate policy agenda attached to each: one that implemented new evaluation processes for teachers, ended a "last in, first out" system of layoffs and advanced performance-based reviews.

Those policies are contentious in their own right. But the problem, for progressives, is with the cover that Rhee and now Sevugan offer those governors when they take even more controversial swipes at collective bargaining. And as the education reform battles progress, it's not clear how successful Sevugan will or can be at silencing those concerns.

"I continue to believe that there are areas where we can work together," Sevugan said last week. "But we need an honest and civil discourse to find that common ground and achieve progress."

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