Behind closed doors: No press allowed at Michelle Rhee's education gathering

Get ready for more charter/private school legislation this session:

Some North Carolina public education activists are crying foul over a private legislative meet state lawmakers are scheduled to attend with controversial school reformer Michelle Rhee next month.

This week, Policy Watch requested access to next month’s event, but BEST N.C. President & CEO Brenda Berg said no members of the media will be granted access. Berg said such a rule will allow “candid” conversations between participants, which includes an unspecified number of state lawmakers and school stakeholders.

Stating the obvious: If such conversations can only be "candid" if the public is kept in the dark, then maybe those conversations *are* the problem, not the solution these people are looking for. And if you want to see what can happen when those lines are blurred, let's travel to the West Coast and take a look at Sacramento:

Johnson served on the board of the California Charter Schools Association. As president of the U.S. Conference of Mayors, Johnson pushed through pro-charter resolutions to speed the school privatization agenda on a national scale.

As it happens, the charter hustle is a Johnson family business. His (then future) wife and former St. Hope board member, Michelle Rhee, was hired by D.C. mayor Adrian Fenty as the first Chancellor of D.C. public schools in 2007. That year, the city passed reforms that took power away from D.C.’s elected school board and put control of the schools in the mayor’s office. This “mayoralization” of schools is a favorite KJ policy reform.

Fenty would lose reelection in 2010, in part because of Rhee’s confrontational tactics—like her ill-timed announcement that she was firing 241 underperforming D.C. public school teachers (and putting 737 more D.C. public school employees “on notice”) weeks ahead of the mayoral ballot. Once Rhee was sent packing along with Fenty, she was well positioned to clean up on the well-heeled foundation and government-affairs circuits, beginning with the anti-teachers’-union lobbying shop Students First, headquartered just two blocks north of California’s State Capitol and two blocks south of Sacramento City Hall.

In most cases, I refrain from conflating married couples' unethical behaviors with each other, mostly because it can be a pointless distraction. But Rhee and Johnson are different. They're more like fellow mafia capos than domestic partners, and there doesn't seem to be one iota of ethics between them:

But KJ was surprised and frustrated to learn that the mayor of Sacramento wasn’t all that powerful compared with big-city mayors like Michael Bloomberg in New York or Antonio Villaraigosa in Los Angeles, another ed reformer who tried to take the reins of that city’s schools.

He envied their staffs and their power to shape their cities’ agendas. But California cities had largely jettisoned the East Coast boss-mayor system during the Progressive Era, a century before KJ came on the scene. More galling, mayors in East Coast cities got to control city schools. In California, as Villaraigosa learned the hard way, the state constitution mostly prohibits mayors from meddling in the affairs of local school boards.

From day one, Johnson was preoccupied with enlarging the footprint of the mayor’s office—in both a political and physical sense. He moved his offices away from those of his fellow council members on City Hall’s fifth floor and took over the underused third floor. Soon KJ’s bullpen was teeming with interns and political consultants, “professional volunteers,” and friends, many of whom followed him over from St. Hope. Johnson was sworn in on December 2, 2008. A few days later he launched a ballot measure—the first of several—to institute a “strong mayor” system of government that would dramatically expand his power and budget.

It was rough going. The courts found one strong-mayor ballot measure unconstitutional, and the city council blocked two others. Subsequent elections resulted in a much more pro-KJ council. But when Johnson finally got his strong-mayor plan on the ballot in 2014, voters emphatically said no.

Now Johnson has the next best thing, a sort of shadow government embedded in the mayor’s office, made up of nonprofit auxiliary organizations and “volunteers,” many of whom are paid with money from big donors who have business at City Hall. This network of 501(c)(3) corporations is ostensibly set up to tackle specific policy areas—such as the environment, the arts, homelessness, education, and economic development. They are funded by private donors, at the behest of the mayor.

It's crap like this that gives public-private partnerships a bad name. When done properly (openly), public-private endeavors spread the risk around, and keep needed projects on target. But they need to be constantly scrutinized, and public awareness is the best (and cheapest) way to do that. There are some solid Progressive members of the BEST NC Board of Trustees, and they need to open this education "summit" (or whatever) up to the press.

Tags: