The traditional, patronizing view of teachers, that they are to be treated like saints and paid as if they’d taken a vow of poverty, has lately gone through a schizophrenic inversion. Open the newspaper most any day and you’ll read about “bad teachers” who are holding children back and, through their unions, conspiring to remain well compensated. In a remarkably short time, this view has become popular across partisan lines. Each political party filters it through its own core beliefs: Republicans fixate on the stresses that greedy unions are placing on budgets through their pay, pensions, and benefits; Democrats argue that putting better teachers in troubled schools is a matter of social justice. But they are using much the same language—and rallying around a radical change in how this country thinks about public education.
On Thursday, March 10, Wisconsin’s Republican governor, Scott Walker, published an op-ed in The Wall Street Journal justifying the bill his party had rammed through the State Senate the night before. He wrote that he wanted to do away with a “union-controlled hiring and firing process,” installing one of his own that his enemies say aims to remove veteran teachers from the classroom. The same morning, in New York, the Daily News published a column repeating many of Walker’s arguments—this one under the byline of Newark mayor Cory Booker, a Democrat. Some teachers “aren’t measuring up,” Booker wrote, “and ought to find another line of work.”
Such ruthlessness toward a profession that has been idealized for generations might seem an unlikely basis for a popular movement, but Education Secretary Arne Duncan is onboard, as is President Obama, who in this year’s State of the Union address said, “We want to reward good teachers and stop making excuses for bad ones.” So is Rupert Murdoch, who wrote a Journal op-ed of his own last fall suggesting that teachers are held to lesser standards than American Idol contestants. A few weeks ago in Providence, a Democratic mayor fired his city’s entire workforce of teachers, saying they will have to reapply so he can choose the most skilled. Legislators in Tennessee and Indiana are considering bills modeled after Wisconsin’s. Chris Christie has made himself into a New Jersey folk hero by attacking teachers as welfare queens. Florida governor Rick Scott is preparing to sign a bill abolishing tenure. Here in New York, Mayor Bloomberg is battling Governor Cuomo over the proposed repeal of a law mandating that layoffs be conducted by seniority, the “last in, first out” policy.
Though all modern presidents like to think of themselves as leading the national education debate, they rarely are; most important decisions are made at the state, mayoral, or school-board level. But if this decentralized uprising can be said to have a leader, it is the youthful, tough-talking, and telegenic Michelle Rhee. Four years ago, Rhee was chosen to run Washington, D.C.’s troubled school district by a young Democratic mayor, Adrian Fenty. She resigned just as abruptly this past fall, after Fenty was thrown out of office. But while Rhee’s head-cracking, heresy-spouting attempt to revamp the school system was a major contributor to Fenty’s electoral defeat, she left in a blaze of martyrdom, reveling in the extravagant admiration of national opinion-makers, as well as her commanding role in the polemical pro-charter-school documentary Waiting for “Superman.”
Over the past few months, rather than taking another municipal gig, Rhee has been campaigning through flash-point states, like a sort of wonky Che Guevara, lending celebrity, credibility, and covering fire to political leaders who endorse her vision of school reform. Last week, she was touring Ohio, as Governor John Kasich, a big fan of Waiting for “Superman,” promised “more choice, more accountability, more dollars in the classroom instead of bureaucracy.” The week prior, she was in Tennessee and Michigan; before that, she testified on Scott’s behalf before the Florida Legislature, where she was hailed as a “movie star.” At each stop, Rhee promotes her platform: expanding charter schools; connecting teacher pay to performance; revamping a pension-and-benefit system that “ends up excessively rewarding longevity”; ending tenure and seniority-based layoffs.
Considered alone, each of these proposals would be controversial, and anathema to the teachers unions; taken together, they amount to a staggering assault. For too long, Rhee says, the system—and her party, the Democrats—has languished in the grip of do-nothing bureaucrats and cynical labor leaders, a protean inertial force that she sometimes calls “the blob.” To fund her cause, Rhee announced in December that she would create a counterbalancing interest group called StudentsFirst, modeled on the NRA, for which she is hoping to raise $1 billion. Rhee frequently says she launched StudentsFirst because “there is no big organized interest group that defends and promotes the interests of children,” a line that, like a lot of things she says, is both highly debatable and maddening to her many critics, since it suggests that any disagreement is tantamount to child neglect. But Rhee sees no room to play nicely with others. “We’ve been doing a disservice to kids for many years,” she said in a recent speech at the Manhattan Institute. “So let’s get comfortable with a little fighting.”