Rhee often says she is still naïve when it comes to politics—she claims never to have heard of Citizens United when I bring it up—but her critics scoff at that notion. “She’s raising money for Goliath,” Diane Ravitch says of Rhee, arguing that if there really is some monstrous force of special interests—“the blob”—working against children, it isn’t the beleaguered unions. Randi Weingarten, the president of the American Federation of Teachers, calls the obsession with blaming her membership “cheap” and insidious. “If you say everything is about the individual teacher, in an individual classroom, then you actually don’t have to create any systems, you don’t have to spend any money,” she argues. “You don’t have to do anything but have a rhetorical war.” Weingarten, who negotiated with Rhee during the acrimonious contract talks in Washington, points out that other superintendents have come to similar agreements without demonizing teachers in the process.
Many teachers say Rhee’s fixation on “quality” ignores contrary research and defies common sense. If Rhee’s theories were correct, says Dennis Van Roekel, a former math teacher who heads the National Education Association, the best-performing schools should be in the South, where there are few unions. “The opposite is true, so that makes her assumptions false,” he says. “It’s called an indirect proof in geometry.” The unions tout a recent federal study that suggests test scores in Washington improved more modestly than Rhee claims. “For every complex problem, there is a simple solution,” Van Roekel says, “and it’s usually wrong.”
Rhee’s most vehement opponents believe that her movement is a stalking horse for extreme conservative objectives—maybe even the end of public schools as we know them. She has served on an advisory committee to Florida’s Rick Scott, who floated the idea of rechanneling public-education funding into a statewide system of vouchers. Rhee didn’t agree with that particular idea, which Scott later backed away from, but she says she’s open-minded. “Quite frankly, it doesn’t matter to me whether a school is a private school or a charter school or a traditional public school,” she says. “I’m agnostic as to the delivery mechanism. I happen to believe, personally, that public schools can work, and I’m going to work for the rest of my career to make public schools better. But if it turns out that I’m wrong, and that kids can get a better education through some other means, I have no problem with that.”
When, in the midst of Wisconsin’s standoff, I ask Rhee whether she was supportive of the draconian anti-union bill, she says no. She believes that teachers should be able to collectively bargain salaries and benefits, though not issues surrounding in-class performance. But she adds that she sympathizes with the impulse behind the legislation. “There’s frustration, and rightly so, with the way collective bargaining has played out over the last couple of decades.”
“Rhee is trying to hold together a coalition of Democrats who are somewhat skeptical of teachers unions and right-wing ideologues who want to destroy unions entirely,” says Richard Kahlenberg of the left-leaning Century Foundation. He argues that the popular position of the moment—love the teacher, hate the union—is internally inconsistent and unsustainable, and wrote in a recent Washington Post column that “Democrats like Michelle Rhee paved the way for Scott Walker.” Ultimately, reformers may be forced to decide which side of the equation matters more to them, and even some of Rhee’s supporters have begun to express concern that she may be tying their movement too closely to Republicans. “The workforce is teachers, and demonizing their organizational representatives is not a way to move forward,” says Cynthia Brown, an education specialist at the Center for American Progress. “Going to war? I think there’s got to be some nuance here.”
Liberals like Brown would like to see reform proceed in collaboration with the unions and credit them for some tentative concessions. Rhee, however, thinks cooperation is overrated. “I don’t see teachers being demonized; I see politicians saying we have to change these structures we can no longer afford,” she says late one evening on her cell phone after a long day of campaigning through Tennessee. “I think that what’s problematic is that when you start to question or challenge the union, you are labeled a union-basher.” Someday soon, though, Rhee, and the rest of her movement, will have to decide how far they are willing to take the fight. After the Wisconsin vote, polls registered public support swinging to the union position, raising the question of overreach. Rhee would like to distance herself from conservatives when it’s convenient. But instigators can’t control who takes up their cause. Unschooled as she may be, Rhee could soon learn an important lesson of politics: Your allies can damage you as much as your enemies.