Public education advocates cry foul over legislators’ private meeting with controversial school reformer Michelle Rhee

By: - January 27, 2017 4:28 pm
Controversial public school reformer Michelle Rhee

Some North Carolina public education activists are crying foul over a private legislative meet state lawmakers are scheduled to attend with controversial school reformer Michelle Rhee next month.

Rhee—the former chief of public schools in Washington, D.C., and, at one time, a rumored pick for U.S. education secretary under President Trump—is a “special guest” for an annual legislative gathering hosted by the lobbying group BEST N.C. on Feb. 7.

BEST N.C. (which stands for Business for Educational Success and Transformation) counts powerful North Carolina business leaders among its membership, including retired Wells Fargo banker Walter McDowell, Ann Goodnight of Cary-based software developer SAS and controversial right-wing philanthropist Art Pope.

During her three-year tenure in D.C., Rhee was a highly polarizing figure who stormed into the spotlight in the late aughts, instituting stiff testing-based accountability measures, firing hundreds of teachers and administrators, closing schools and lobbying for an end to teacher tenure rights.

Since leaving D.C., Rhee has also become an outspoken advocate for charter school expansion and private school vouchers, the latter of which is intensely unpopular among public school backers nationwide and in North Carolina.

Next month’s event will also include George Parker, the former president of a D.C. teachers union who once openly clashed with Rhee over her stringent teacher accountability policies but later joined forces with her in Rhee’s StudentsFirst organization, a nonprofit she began after her D.C. posting to lobby for school choice and teacher accountability measures in state legislatures, many of which are particularly popular with GOP lawmakers in North Carolina in recent years.

This week, Policy Watch requested access to next month’s event, but BEST N.C. President & CEO Brenda Berg said no members of the media will be granted access. Berg said such a rule will allow “candid” conversations between participants, which includes an unspecified number of state lawmakers and school stakeholders.

“The legislative gathering is always closed to media, always has and always will be as a promise to members,” said Berg. “Because they want to feel comfortable asking elected officials and experts candid questions off the record.”

That doesn’t sit well with public education leaders who spoke with Policy Watch Friday.

“All organizations have the right to hold meetings,” said Mark Jewell, president of the N.C. Association of Educators (NCAE), an influential teacher lobbying organization based in Raleigh. “But when you’re having a public dialogue on public dollars and—clearly Michelle Rhee has been a supporter of private school vouchers and that’s a very hot topic here—you would think you would want to have a very open dialogue.”

Natalie Beyer, a Durham school board member and outspoken state public school advocate, called Rhee and Parker “controversial figures, to say the least.”

“I just think it’s alarming and certainly not in keeping with best practices for public engagement,” said Beyer. “Any issues that affect North Carolina public school students should be open for parents and teachers and the press to observe, hear and witness.”

Officials with the N.C. Ethics Commission could not be reached for comment Friday, but, given that state lawmakers are exempted from many of the public gathering requirements imposed on local political bodies, legislators talking education reform at the BEST N.C. forum is not likely a violation of any open meetings laws.

And BEST N.C. is not the only policy organization that holds private gatherings with lawmakers. Berg points out the Durham-based Hunt Institute holds an annual legislative retreat on education policy convened away from the public and media.

That said, policy organizations similar to BEST N.C. frequently hold broad public policy discussions that may include elected officials and are open to media coverage. Indeed, this week, the Public School Forum of N.C., an advocacy and research group in Raleigh, convened its annual “Eggs & Issues” gathering, which included an interview with Gov. Roy Cooper covered by many media outlets, including this one.

Still, Berg said there’s nothing secretive or inappropriate about BEST N.C.’s gathering with Rhee and lawmakers, which she described as a reception with a guest speaker, followed by a brief Q&A session. No state policies will be on the table; nor will legislators be holding a discussion of state public policy.

“The beauty of this is we want our members to ask really blunt questions,” said Berg. She acknowledged, however, that she’s not surprised, given the press attention surrounding Rhee’s education reforms, that some would be anxious over her attendance.

“I don’t have concern with people being upset about the national speaker,” Berg said. “She shut down schools. That made some people mad.”

Indeed, a Time Magazine cover in 2008, depicting Rhee with a broom, made her one of the more famous and polarizing school reformers in the nation. Test scores were on the rise in D.C., even as her leadership seemed to grow increasingly unpopular with residents.

(Note: Due to a typo, an earlier version of this story indicated Rhee’s policies as D.C. public schools chancellor grew “increasingly popular” during her tenure. It should have read “increasingly unpopular.”)

Critics denounced her as unresponsive to the public and district leadership, while slamming a punitive form of teacher accountability that some worried would drive desperate educators to “teach to the test” to stave off termination.

Meanwhile, her tenure in the district was marred by allegations of cheating on exams, although subsequent investigations by district and federal officials found no evidence of wrongdoing by Rhee’s office.

When the D.C. mayor who chose her for the role lost his re-election bid in 2010, some say because of Rhee’s unpopular reforms in the district, Rhee resigned from her post. Shortly after, she launched StudentsFirst. Today, she works with a California charter school chain founded by her husband, former NBA basketball player and former Sacramento Mayor Kevin Johnson.

Through it all, Rhee has remained a divisive figure among teaching advocates like the NCAE, despite winning the support of former adversaries such as Parker.

NCAE President Mark Jewell

“She doesn’t have a strong record for being collaborative with teachers and parents and community,” said Jewell of the NCAE. “Her viewpoints aren’t very supportive to many of us who have spent our careers fighting for all students.”

Jewell added that the tough, testing-based accountability initiatives Rhee helped to popularize lack empirical evidence that they spur improvement in long-troubled schools.

“They’re supposed to be used for diagnostic purposes,” says Jewell. “And not just for punitive measures.”

Jewell also criticized Rhee’s support for private school vouchers, which allow children to use public funds to attend private schools. As Policy Watch has reported, the vast majority of voucher-eligible private schools in North Carolina are religious schools that lack the same accountability measures as public schools.

Private religious schools in the state have also been accused of imposing policies that are discriminatory toward LGBTQ students and their families.

Jewell said, given the rapid expansion of private school vouchers in North Carolina’s budget in recent years, it’s important that lawmakers’ meetings with charter school operators and private school backers are open to public scrutiny.

Yevonne Brannon, a former Wake County commissioner who now leads the nonprofit advocacy group Public Schools First N.C., also took umbrage with Rhee’s planned appearance at the BEST N.C. event.

“These are people profiting off our public schools instead of working to strengthen them,” said Brannon, agreeing with other public school advocates that such a gathering should be open to all.

“You’re having an organization bringing in people to share their opinions on public education reform in a closed setting with elected officials and no media?” said Brannon. “Is that a good way to way to have discourse? That doesn’t sound like a good message to North Carolina.”

Beyer agreed. Parents and teachers should be “alarmed” by such private meetings, she says.

“These are real decisions that are taking public money and putting them into private hands without much evaluation,” said Beyer. “Reporters and citizens need to understand where taxpayer dollars are going in North Carolina. It’s exactly the kind of conversation that needs to be open to the public.”

Our stories may be republished online or in print under Creative Commons license CC BY-NC-ND 4.0. We ask that you edit only for style or to shorten, provide proper attribution and link to our web site. Please see our republishing guidelines for use of photos and graphics.

Billy Ball

Billy Ball, worked at NC Policy Watch from 2016 to 2020 — first as an education reporter and later as managing editor.