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Michelle Rhee's Report Card On State Education Policies Draws Union Ire

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Michelle Rhee attends the
Michelle Rhee attends the "Won't Back Down" New York premiere at Ziegfeld Theater on Sept. 23, 2012, in New York City. (Photo by Rob Kim/Getty Images)

NEW YORK -- Louisiana is ranked number one on an education score card. The Bayou State's surprising achievement comes thanks to Michelle Rhee's StudentsFirst organization, which on Monday released its first annual report card of states' education policies. The results are notable because Rhee's effort doesn't measure student performance, it looks instead at what StudentsFirst calls states' environments for passing laws to reform education.

Rhee's version of education reform favors school accountability; charter schools; teacher evaluations that rely, in part, on students' test scores; private school vouchers for some students; a policy known as a "parent trigger," which lets parents take over failing schools; and handing mayors -- not school boards -- the reins on education. Rhee graded the states mercilessly, giving almost 90 percent of them grades lower than a C; and 11 states failed. The highest grade awarded was a B-.

"The most powerful way to improve student achievement from outside the classroom is to shape policy and implement laws at the state level," Rhee said in a statement. "That is why our report card focuses singularly on the education policies in place in each of our states. And when we look solely at policy, it's clear that we have a long way to go toward improving our education system in America."

The policy report card from StudentsFirst comes as Rhee's national lobbying organization faces major questions about its focus in the wake of the exodus of several high-profile Democratic staffers. It also comes on the eve of a PBS "Frontline" documentary that investigates Rhee's tenure as chancellor of Washington, D.C.'s public schools.

The report card has once again stoked Rhee's old enemy, the American Federation of Teachers. The AFT is the nation's second-largest teachers' union, and its president, Randi Weingarten, publicly sparred with Rhee throughout a protracted labor fight over the contract for D.C.'s teachers. The two have been less than friendly since then.

Just hours after Rhee released the report card, AFT released a lengthy statement condemning the effort, noting that the grades don't correspond with student performance. "These ‘report cards’ are timed to coincide with the start of many states’ legislative sessions (27 convene their 2013 sessions this week) and are part of a broader StudentsFirst campaign to promote its agenda," AFT's Carolyn Fiddler wrote. "The real issue with these report cards is that they fail to measure what matters most to parents, teachers and students. The report cards are silent regarding student achievement, school safety, small class sizes, early childhood education, investments in education, graduation rates or reading instruction."

She proceeded to note the disparity between StudentsFirst's report card and the grades that states received on national exams and on Education Week's annual rankings. Massachusetts, for example, ranked first on national exams and scored a B on EdWeek's scale, but got a D on Rhee's report card, coming in at 14th. StudentsFirst puts Louisiana on top, but it scored 47th on national fourth-grade reading tests.

Slate blogger Matthew Yglesias wrote Monday that the focus on policies over outcomes represents a big bet on the part of StudentsFirst. "Only two states score above C+ on their ratings -- Louisiana and Florida -- and student learning outcomes in those states are far from the best in the nation," Yglesias wrote Monday. "If Louisiana starts making a lot of progress in closing the gap with, say, Maryland, then that'll be powerful evidence for the Students First approach. But if it doesn't, then you get the reverse."

California received an F, and the state's chief deputy superintendent told The New York Times that he saw the rating as a "badge of honor," since, he asserted, StudentsFirst "makes its living by asserting that schools are failing."

Rhee responded with a zinger of her own. "I'm curious as to what exactly Mr. Zeiger is calling a 'badge of honor.' Does he consider it a badge of honor that California's education policies rank 41st in the nation?" she asked in an email sent to media. "Or perhaps he considers it a badge of honor that children are going into underperforming classrooms every day in California without a way to choose a better school option?"

On a more practical level, it appears that in some cases, the report card failed to take into consideration differences between states. For example, StudentsFirst recommends that Florida give control of its school districts to its mayors -- but that would be extremely difficult, given that Florida's school districts are organized by county.

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