Michelle Rhee hires Democrat, continues working with Republicans

The divisive school reform champion picks up a flack from the DNC, fights public employees unions in the states

Published June 6, 2011 6:40PM (EDT)

Former DC schools chancellor Michelle Rhee
Former DC schools chancellor Michelle Rhee

Michelle Rhee has a very well-connected and talented new employee: Hari Sevugan, formerly the spokesman for the Democratic National Committee, is now the top flack for Students First, the school reform nonprofit founded and run by the former Washington DC schools chancellor. This, Ben Smith reported over the weekend, will help Rhee remind everyone that she is a Democrat:

But while Sevugan's role includes setting up a rapid response operation and press shop for a group that didn't have a full-fledged communications operation, the move also sends a political signal: Michelle Rhee's push to weaken the hold of teachers unions has won her enemies in the labor movement and among some Democrats, and allies on the Republican right, and Sevugan will aim to clarify her attempt to establish a bipartisan profile, the source said; he has already begun to reach out to some of the group's progressive critics.

Strategic communications operations are what the powerful turn to when they really don't want to stop doing the things that keep getting them bad press. In Rhee's case, one of those things that's making her so unpopular among erstwhile and potential allies is her recent habit of working extensively with Republican politicians. Which, Ben Smith also reports, she is still doing. Rhee joined with former Senator Bill Frist to endorse legislation designed to -- three guesses! -- limit the collective bargaining powers of Tennessee teachers. The bill also bars the teachers union from making campaign contributions or lobbying state legislators. Once only the Kochs and the Gates Foundation have any say in public policy, our children will finally win the future.

Even if one agrees with Rhee about the policies that broadly constitute "education reform," there's no denying that she's a problematic public face for the movement. She is confrontational, combative, and abrasive in dealing with both teachers and parents, instead of emphasizing the collaboration and consensus-building that reform needs to flourish. She was hated in DC as much for her attitude and statements -- like when she tarred teachers she fired as sex offenders -- as for her official actions. She seems to have exaggerated her success as an educator herself in Baltimore, casting doubt on the creation myth that fed her initial legend. Some of the reported test score gains made by certain DC schools under her tenure look suspicious. And now she aligns herself with Republican governors across the country, aiding the GOP's campaign to decimate the public employees' unions, which they hope to do in order to cripple a powerful Democratic interest group, and which she hopes to do... for the children, somehow. (Certainly not because she blames teachers' unions for her newfound image problem!)

So, yes, you can see why Rhee'd need a highly qualified communications expert on staff.

By Alex Pareene

Alex Pareene writes about politics for Salon and is the author of "The Rude Guide to Mitt." Email him at apareene@salon.com and follow him on Twitter @pareene

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