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Monday, September 3, 2012

Five Questions for Michelle Rhee


CHARLOTTE, N.C. - Michelle Rhee, the former schools chancellor in Washington D.C., is now pushing education reform through her organization Students First - and continuing to annoy the teachers' union along the way.

Ms. Rhee was at the Republican National Convention in Tampa, Fla., where she appeared alongside former Florida governor Jeb Bush, who - like many Republicans - sees her as a darling of the school choice movement.

But she's also a lifelong Democrat who believes that President Obama has done more to make major education reforms than other presidents. She is attending the Democratic convention here this week and stopped on Monday to talk to The Times. What follows is a condensed and edi ted transcript of the conversation.

Do you feel like you are behind enemy lines?

Not at all. I'm a life-long Democrat. I was at the convention four years ago. There are certainly some disagreements that we have with the teachers' unions, but there's a real growing interest in education reform amongst a group of Democrats as well, and I think you're only going to see that increase as time goes on.

One of the policies you're promoting is this idea of giving more power to parents, through this “parent trigger.” How does that work?

So, parent trigger is a piece of legislation, or a policy, that allows for a group of parents whose children attend a failing school, if more than 50 percent of them sign a petition, they can force the turnaround of that school. This is a way that you can really empower parents whose kids are in the worst situations - their children are trapped in failing schools - to get them engaged and involved.

The teachers' union s hate this. Why do they hate it so much?

It's a little confusing to me as to why the union is so against this. There was an effort to try to pass a bill like this in Connecticut and the unions put out a sort of big PowerPoint thing, this is how we kill the bill and that sort of thing. In fact, teachers' unions are one of the biggest proponents of having more parental involvement in the schools. The bottom line is that if we want parents to take a more active interest in the education that their children are getting, then we can't draw the line and say ok, well, we only want you to come to the classrooms and cut out letters and bake brownies.

Are union politics getting in the way of education reform?

I, a little more than four years ago, was sort of thinking to myself is it really possible for a Democrat to be aggressive on education reform? Since President Obama has been in office, he has not disappointed. He has taken incredibly aggressive stands, through things like Race to the Top, on issues like charter schools and teacher evaluations. I don't know that they've necessarily endorsed this particular strategy. But they've endorsed a lot of the reform agenda.

Have you thought about running for office? From which party?

Oh, goodness no. I told you, I am a registered, lifelong Democrat, always have been, always will be. My husband is the politician in the family. He's the mayor of Sacramento, also a Democrat. So I'm going to leave all of the politics up to him and I'm going to focus on making sure we are pushing better policies for our kids.

Follow Michael D. Shear on Twitter at @shearm.