The day after Michelle Rhee's education lobbying group, StudentsFirst, got dumped by progressive petition site Change.org because of intense pressure from teachers' unions, StudentsFirst waved a thorny olive branch of sorts at the nation's two largest such unions.
On Wednesday afternoon, StudentsFirst, along with other education groups such as Democrats for Education Reform, Students for Education Reform and Hispanic CREO, wrote a letter to Dennis Van Roekel and Randi Weingarten, presidents of the National Education Association and the American Federation of Teachers, asking for a "new opportunity to collaborate to improve public education for kids." A source affiliated with one of the groups noted that the letter had been in the works before the Change.org breakup.
The letter, provided to The Huffington Post by StudentsFirst, points to recent education legislation in Connecticut that ultimately created a teacher evaluation system that grades teachers in part on their students' standardized test scores; a "commissioner's network" that allows the state to take over some failing schools; and increased funds for charter schools. Despite the attack ads that appeared during the legislative process, StudentsFirst's letter to the unions acknowledges that both groups have claimed victory in establishing these policies -- in some cases even going as far as to call them a "national model."
But, the letter notes, the NEA's and AFT's state affiliates outside of Connecticut continue to protest similar policies. The Alabama Education Association recently sponsored a successful lobbying campaign against the creation of charter schools there. Unlike most arguments against charter schools, which characterize them as the tools of conservative privatizers, the Alabama campaign made its case by linking charters to such liberal causes as LGBT and President Barack Obama. "They sent out mailers saying Michelle Rhee is a left-wing Obama liberal who is trying to bring her policies here," Rhee told The Huffington Post at the time.
This spring, the Missouri Education Association opposed a successful bill that expanded charter schools, and defeated a measure that would have tied teacher evaluations to test scores. Similar stories played out in Iowa, California and Pennsylvania.
While the national AFT and NEA outfits don't have total control over their state affiliates, the reform groups hope Weingarten and Van Roekel "will speak up in support of these important reforms." But Weingarten didn't readily grab the olive branch, if that's what it was.
"No one who's serious about really doing education reform for kids would also engage at the same time in the union busting and the demagoguery of teachers that StudentsFirst engages in routinely," Weingarten told HuffPost.
StudentsFirst and AFT have had a thorny -- and personal -- past that often oozes out in policy debates. When Rhee worked as chancellor for Washington, D.C.'s public schools, Weingarten came in from her national post to negotiate a union contract that greenlighted some of Rhee's priorities, such as a teacher hiring and an evaluation system that relied in part on test scores. The next day, Rhee bashed Weingarten on Fox News. The malice was returned: On the day Rhee announced she was launching StudentsFirst, Weingarten released a statement saying she wanted the groups to work together despite Rhee's "promoting education reform through conflict and division." About a year ago, it was revealed that an AFT server was hosting an opposition site that included photoshopped pictures of Rhee in a tiara and documents from her past. The site, "Rheefirst," calls itself a "truth squad" on exposing Rhee's record and still actively follows and aggregates stories about her.
"StudentsFirst ... [was] hit hard because the progressive movement said you can't be a progressive and be a union buster," Weingarten said, referring to the Change.org tiff. Weingarten also noted that Connecticut Gov. Dannel Malloy (D) pulled out of a Rhee rally to advance his agenda because she is so divisive.
Weingarten didn't have time to address the policy questions raised in the letter in her statements to HuffPost. "If they're serious, I'll meet with them," she said. "If she's changed her mind and now says that collaboration matters and is not overrated, I want to see evidence. I'd be the first one to welcome her if she actually changed." When asked what that evidence might look like, Weingarten said, "I have no idea."
Still, StudentsFirst, which has had previous difficulties in gaining trust from unions and their backers, was optimistic. "What this can't be about is the personal feelings or political interests of the AFT, the NEA or any education reform group, ours included," said Nancy Zuckerbrod, a StudentsFirst spokesperson. "In that spirit, we and our partners are very glad Randi has accepted our offer to meet."
Van Roekel was traveling, and a spokesperson said he has not yet formally received the letter, having only read an emailed version that HuffPost sent for response. (A fax receipt confirms the letter arrived at both the NEA and AFT's Washington headquarters.) "NEA members know great public schools for every student are built on collaboration through trust and engagement, not by sending messages through the media," Van Roekel said in a statement. "We welcome the opportunity to work with all interested partners, and will respond to Ms. Rhee directly once we receive her letter."
Read the full letter below:
Letter to Pres Weingarten and Pres Van Roekel
UPDATE 7:30 p.m. This story was updated to reflect that the groups began working on the letter before Change.org dropped StudentsFirst.