WASHINGTON — When Michelle Rhee announced she’d be stepping down as the head of Washington, D.C.’s public school system, one of the first statements of support came from Gov. Tim Pawlenty.
“Michelle Rhee’s resignation is more evidence of the corrosive impact of teachers’ unions in American schools,” Pawlenty began, after a salutary sentence that labeled her a “superwoman” of education.
That endorsement came a month after Pawlenty opined in the National Review that “America wants school reform,” where he again slammed teachers unions as America’s “education cartel” — “an indulgence we can no longer afford.”
In fact, over the past month and a half (beginning with that op-ed and culminating in Rhee’s departure) Pawlenty has subtly yet clearly laid out his education platform for the nation. It merges his aspirational record in Minnesota (that is, what he’s glad he did and would have liked to do but couldn’t) with related policies that fall outside a governor’s state-focused purview.
His self-association with Rhee, meanwhile, gives a large window into what Pawlenty views as an exemplary record that he would say ought to serve as a model for other school districts across the nation.
“When the governor announced that he wouldn’t seek reelection last year, he said he’d spend more time helping conservative causes when he can,” said Pawlenty spokesman Alex Conant. “Since education reform has long been a priority for him, it’s not surprising that he’s speaking out in support of reform champions like Michelle Rhee.”
The unions Pawlenty blasted, especially the ones he butted heads with so frequently in St. Paul, had a vastly different take.
“I think what he is trying to do is say that he is a hard-liner on teacher unions and that unions are bad,” said Tom Dooher, president of Education Minnesota, the state’s largest teachers’ union. “I think he’s grabbing on to the celebrity of Michelle Rhee and saying that that justifies his failed policies over the last eight years.”
As with anything Pawlenty does between now and early next year, the usual caveat applies — he hasn’t officially announced anything about his future plans. But it’s plainly obvious that he’s preparing a run for the White House and this education platform he’s unveiled is a step in that direction.
Pay for performance
Experts say that Pawlenty is making a clear statement about what he values by associating himself with Rhee’s education doctrine.
“It’s seeing teaching quality as the key factor in improving failing schools in particular and trying to approach the improvement of teacher quality both by financial incentives for high performance and for some methods of being able to release teachers who are seen as low performers,” said Robert Floden, the co-director of the Education Policy Center at Michigan State University. “She’s probably the most extreme example of someone who let a lot of teachers go on the basis of her judgments on their performance.”
Pawlenty being big on pay for performance will come as no surprise to Minnesotans who watched him attempt to implement the Q Comp program, which allows schools to opt in to a performance pay system in exchange for more money (though just 44 of 338 districts have opted in so far).
“My administration created the nation’s first statewide performance-pay program, linking teacher compensation to classroom and student achievement rather than just seniority,” he proudly wrote in the National Review. “We wanted to do so much more, and could have. But the teachers’ unions blocked us at every turn.”
The other planks of Pawlenty’s education platform:
- Make private and religious schools an “option for all Americans, not just the privileged few.” Those words are usually code for vouchers;
- Performance incentives not just for teachers and principals, but also for schools, districts and states.
- Increase the focus on “alternate-format” schools, including home schools and technical schools;
- Create “charter states” that can avoid federal regulations if they hit certain performance metrics.
Pawlenty’s education Superwoman
Pawlenty’s embrace of Rhee and shots at the education unions are somewhat synonymous.
Rhee resigned the chancellorship of the D.C. Public Schools last week after her boss, Mayor Adrian Fenty, was defeated in the district’s August Democratic primary. Among the reasons most commonly cited for Fenty’s loss: Rhee, and the $1 million the local teacher’s union poured into the race hoping to get rid of her.
Start by acknowledging that Washington’s public schools — especially at the upper levels — are generally perceived as dreadful. President Obama, in a frank moment on the “Today Show” last month, said he enrolled his two daughters at the elite private Sidwell Friends school because he didn’t think they’d be able to get the quality education he wanted for them at a D.C. public school.
Rhee couldn’t do much about the fact that many D.C. kids hail from dangerous neighborhoods, poor families where the child’s only guaranteed meal is lunch at school and homes where English is a second language. She also couldn’t do much inside three years to reverse the persistent trend of well-off and well-educated parents either moving out of D.C. or, like Obama, placing their kids in expensive and exclusive private schools.
But she could do something about the schools themselves, and specifically the teachers and school administrators leading them.
In a bid to save money, Rhee closed 21 schools. She replaced principals she deemed incompetent and fired more than 240 teachers. She wanted to end teacher tenure and replace it with a strict merit pay system, but after a year of tough negotiations she settled for a landmark deal that allowed her to fire those “incompetent teachers” while issuing bonuses to high-performing educators.
Yes, student test scores edged higher in her three years at the helm. But many school officials and parents complained that she didn’t take time to listen (especially to divergent opinion) and that she moved too hastily — charges that have also been leveled by some at Pawlenty.
Rhee describes herself as impatient, and critics say she didn’t listen to others before ramming through those reforms. At the end of her tenure, her approval ratings were underwater. Polls showed that a majority of D.C. public school parents who voted cast their ballots for mayor in favor of the guy who would get rid of her.
There are two schools of thought on the chancellor, alternately portraying her as either St. Joan of Arc or the Wicked Witch of the East. Either she was heaven-sent to fix the failing schools but politically martyred by those who opposed change when it threatened the status quo, or she was ousted from above after a reign of terror over Munchkinland.
Pawlenty is clearly in the former camp.
“Despite — or maybe because of — the early success of her school reforms, the teachers’ unions worked tirelessly to stop her, showing no compassion for the thousands of children stuck in failing D.C. schools,” Pawlenty said in that statement lauding her. “Despite the teachers’ unions’ success in defeating Michelle Rhee, her leadership is inspiring to reformers everywhere and will make it harder for the unions to defend the failed status quo.”
Multiple efforts to reach Rhee for this article were unsuccessful. But the day she found out Fenty had lost (incidentally, while at a screening of an education documentary that lauds her called “Waiting for Superman”) she reflected to the Washington Post:
“I think part of the problem in public education to date has been that we all have to feel good, let’s not ruffle too many feathers,” she said, noting that when she arrived in 2007, eight percent of the District’s eighth graders were doing math at grade level.
“I am not going to sugarcoat that,” she said. “I am not going to make you feel better about that. That is an outcome that is absolutely criminal.”
Pawlenty, Rhee: ‘acrimonious relationships’ with unions
For Pawlenty, talking education makes some amount of sense, analysts said.
“Education is an issue Pawlenty knows well, he’s thought about it for a long while and he’s put out some ideas on how to handle the problems,” said Larry Jacobs, professor and director of the Humphrey Institute of Political Affairs at the University of Minnesota. “It’s also a good issue for him because it crosses boundaries – you can be a conservative on education and still appeal to some independents and even some waffling Democrats.”
Like Rhee, Jacobs said, Pawlenty “had a very acrimonious relationship with the teachers unions.”
Dooher, whose union represents about 70,000 Minnesota teachers, recalls meeting with Pawlenty to discuss reforms. He didn’t get far – in fact, Dooher said those who didn’t agree with the governor were labeled obstructionists.
“We want to make sure that any change that happens is going to be for the betterment of our children and not because the political soup du jour, and I think that’s what Pawlenty is pushing right now — this seems to be a popular thing and therefore he’s going to grab on to it and not really have a concern if our schools in the state or nationally better — only if it helps him promote his national agenda.”
Further, Dooher said, the governor didn’t do much of anything to bridge Minnesota’s achievement gap between economically advantaged and disadvantaged children. And, he added, successes like being tops nationally in ACT scores had little or nothing to do with the man in the governor’s mansion.
Under Pawlenty, Dooher said the state Department of Education became a “mouthpiece” for the administration’s policies and a sort of policing agency, rather than one that supported school districts. He said the same would happen on the federal level if Pawlenty were elected president.
“I think in terms of Pawlenty, we are doing well in spite of his failed policies,” Dooher said. “For eight years he sort of put forward the same failed things and now that he has aspirations for higher office he thinks that he’s some great education reformer.”
Of course, even the negative relationship Pawlenty has with the teachers’ unions may wind up helping him electorally. “He’s not going to win the Republican nomination for president by agreeing with the teachers union,” Jacobs noted.
Conant wouldn’t get drawn in on the campaign aspect of the Rhee association, or Pawlenty’s education rollout, instead saying it’s “premature to contemplate 2012.”
However, Conant added that “it’s a safe bet that whatever the governor does after he leaves office, he’ll remain a strong advocate for education reform.”