The Magical Populism of Michelle Rhee

Black Friday set off the sale of trinkets, capes, and magic wands, and Michelle Rhee bought a few of the latter. Before Thanksgiving, I would have pegged her for a neoliberal overbearing contessa. After the edu-world lauded Washington, DC's unseating of Mayor Adrian Fenty, and in turn Ms. Rhee, even those who didn't follow education news the way DC residents and interested thought leaders did got a glance at the former chancellor for what she really was. After essentially negotiating away DC teachers' due process or equity in their latest ratified contract, we knew she'd still find a job to do. Little did I know it'd be as the 21st century Mr. Mistoffelees.

How she's been promoted as a students first education reform is definitely a work of prestidigitation and legerdemain. She'll defy examination and deceive you again.

Take, for example, this week's cover of Newsweek where her big blurb is "I'm not done fighting." Yet, her fight looks like a back yard brawl and more like an arms race. With big media arms like Time magazine, Newsweek, Oprah (an entity unto herself), Paramount-Vantage (one of the companies behind Waiting for "Superman"), and NBC on her side, she can get her message out to the masses more aggressively than the plethora of teacher groups combating this agenda. She's also got a bevy of powerful friends that include U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, NYC Chancellor turned News Corp. employee Joel Klein, former NBA player turned Sacramento mayor and fiancee Kevin Johnson, and a host of other well-funded officials and bosses who, for all intents and purposes, follow in lockstep on trampling the basic tenets of public education.

I also find the trickery behind her new organization, StudentsFirst, a work of invention and alchemy. The pseudo-populist rally cry on the top of her page states that "we need a new voice to determine the agenda for public education in this country ..." How is that any different than what anyone's been saying when they want to impose their will on the education issue? Just because it's someone else saying it doesn't make it new. Rod Paige, Mike Bloomberg, Barack Obama, Bill Gates, Eli Broad and a host of others have said what she's said now for the last decade.

Plus, how can she allege she's students first when the first tab is directed at educators? Or is it another act of hypnotism from the web designer so I'd see it third?

Nevermind that, during her term as Chancellor of Washington, DC, she made monies disappear and reappear before our very eyes and during the most convenient times, like when negotiations came up. Nevermind that she conjured spells on union leaders and business reps, pressuring educators of Washington, DC to raise test scores while holding their salaries to it, ensuring teachers don't get to explore anything other than what's on 30 to 60 bubbled questions, and a few write-ins. Nevermind that her double talk results in her saying that she has little intention of collaborating with anyone (Kumbaya!) unless, of course, it's for the students, which really means her.

After all, it's about the students first. In the nation's capital, where the poverty rate is close to 20 percent and the largest school systems continue to get more third-party vendors and lobbyists (like her company), some of her first words were "We will no longer describe failure as the result of vast impersonal forces like poverty or a broken bureaucracy." Her failure to even mention poverty as a huge factor in this capitalist system pales in comparison to the vanishing act of those words in the lexicon of the cabal of education reformers. As someone whose message reeks of popular consent, she's put a playhouse mirror on her entire message and reflected it so it looks egalitarian.

In other words, how did that StudentsFirst thing working out for ya?

If this continues, her national voice, with all the tricks and traps, will rise and rise again we call attention to it, and you never, did you ever, know a education shock therapist as clever as the magical Ms. Rhee!