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At school voucher summit, Rhee warns unions about national, organized pushback

MahurinEcon_Thumb1_884.jpg
MahurinEcon_Thumb1_884.jpg

Michelle Rhee, former chancellor of the District of Columbia Public Schools, has a warning to unions: a new organized and national interest group advocating for school choice is ready to compete against the American Federation of Teachers for political pull.

Speaking during the second of a two-day school choice summit in Washington, D.C., on Tuesday, Rhee told the audience of donors, local government politicians and advocates that, “we’ve got a powerful influencer like the unions … if you don’t have an organized, national interest group like the teachers union that’s advocating on behalf of kids, then you end up with a lopsided policy landscape.”

As reported earlier by The American Independent, the event was orchestrated by the American Federation for Children, a well-funded advocacy group headed by Betsy DeVos, former chair of the Michigan Republican Party. She is married to former Republican candidate for Michigan Gov. Dick DeVos, son of famed billionaire Richard DeVos, who made his fortune through the success of household appliance and manufacturing giant Amway.

Since leaving her role as head of public schools in the nation’s capital, Rhee, the 41-year old “card carrying” and “corn-fed” Democrat from Toledo, has been busy extending her streak as an education policy iconoclast. She founded StudentsFirst, a 501(c)4 organization that lobbies and raises money to support state and federal laws that use public tax dollars to fund private, charter and parochial school enrollment for needy children.

Rhee attempted to triangulate her status as a leader in the school choice movement, saying, “I don’t believe in choice for choice sake. There are lots of people out there who live by the free market ideals…I don’t believe in that.” She described education as an industry in need of heavy regulation, arguing that just as the airline industry is scrutinized to protect the safety of the public, “these are children’s lives at risk, and not just anyone should be able to open and run a school.”

But her criticism of AFT as a monolithic institution incapable of reforming itself was barbed, letting loose to an audience receptive to the idea unions have outgrown their role. “Their purpose is to protect the rights, pay and privileges of their members,” she said, “And they’re doing a fantastic job at that right now,” a comment that drew considerable laughter.

Rhee wasn’t the only Democrat critical of the teachers unions. Anthony H. Williams, who serves in the Pennsylvania Senate and is co-sponsor of a bill that would introduce vouchers statewide and give tax credits to companies that supported voucher tuition programs, said he’s happy to see organized entities that exist opposite teachers unions that can do “door-to-door, hand-to-hand combat” against them.

Opponents of voucher programs would be wise to pay close attention to the vote coming up in the Pennsylvania legislature. By Williams’ own calculation, a school choice bill ratified on the east coast could galvanize like-minded reformers in adjacent states. To AFC’s count, 19 states have, are likely to or may pass school choice legislation before 2013. Those on the fence that would garner significant media attention are Illinois, Wisconsin, Ohio, and New Jersey.

Image has not been found. URL: http://images.americanindependent.com/AFC-state-legislation-plans.jpgAFC's map of U.S. showing states that have passed, or are likely to pass, school choice laws (Mikhail Zinshteyn)

Jeanne Allen, founder of the Center for Education Reform, says the debate is not a Blake-ian battle between pro- and anti-union forces, but rather a discussion over what can make schools more effective and autonomous. Asked whether onlookers should be suspicious over the amount of wealth concentrated in the large banquet hall of Washington Marriot where the event was held, she said in an interview with The American Independent: “This is not a political right-wing cabal in education.”

The American Independent, in fact, asked whether AFC filed its 990 form. The organization’s chief financial officer said no; planning the summit forced her team to ask for an extension with the IRS. That data won’t be available until late June.

One thing is certain: organized labor is now competing with a movement that compels the progressive Democratic New Mexico state Representative Antonio Maestas to sit side by side with Indiana state Rep. Cindy Noe, who last week in her state helped pass the country’s first comprehensive voucher law. She told the audience the law passing was a victory over that “godless education institution.”

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