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School reformer urges California to change teacher tenure rules

Michelle Rhee

Former District of Columbia schools Chancellor Michelle A. Rhee urged a Los Angeles audience of educators and parents to pressure state leaders to change teacher tenure and seniority rules.

Her appearance Wednesday night before an enthusiastic crowd of about 600 marked the third of four appearances statewide for Rhee, who is attempting to build a base of influence in California.

Rhee’s 1-year-old organization, StudentsFirst, has worked in other states with governors and powerful legislators but not in California, even though her organization is based in Sacramento.

In her remarks and a question-and-answer session, Rhee took on “last in, first out” rules that govern teacher layoffs. She characterized this approach as “incredibly detrimental to students and schools,” because gifted, less-experienced teachers are put out of work while less effective teachers with more seniority get to keep their jobs.

“California is one of the few states left that mandates in state law that layoffs happen this way,” Rhee said. “What we’re going to have to do is get politically active.”

She added a glancing reference to Gov. Jerry Brown and state Democratic leaders: “It’s clear we’re not going to get invited in,” she said. “Are you guys ready for this?”

Brown has expressed skepticism about some of the more recent directions in education reform.

Rhee’s staff billed the L.A. event as part of a “listening tour,” but for the most part a largely appreciative audience at the Robert F. Kennedy Schools’ auditorium was content to listen to Rhee, and also to her husband, Mayor Kevin Johnson of Sacramento.

“We don’t use data effectively to say who the best teachers are,” Johnson noted at one point.

In a Wednesday interview, Rhee explained some views that are unorthodox for a Democrat, such as supporting government-funded vouchers for students from low-income families to attend private schools.

“If you run a school system and your job is to preserve and defend the system, you should be anti-voucher,” she said. “But I could not find it in myself to look a mother in the eye and say, 'I’m going to force you to keep your kid in a failing school' " that might take five years to fix.

Rhee was criticized recently for avoiding questions about alleged cheating on test scores in the District of Columbia, the school system she used to run. On Wednesday, however, she said she fully supported an investigation that is now underway.

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-- Howard Blume

Photo: Michelle A. Rhee in 2010. Credit: Stacey Wescott / Chicago Tribune

 
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