The Grassroots-ification of Education Reform

This afternoon, former D.C. schools chancellor Michelle Rhee appeared on "Oprah" to announce the launch of her new non-profit, Students First. "I'm going to do something different," Rhee told Oprah. "I'm going to start a revolution…a movement in this country on behalf of the nation's children."

Perhaps in recognition of the PR fiascoes that have greeted school reform efforts under Mayor Mike Bloomberg in New York (Cathie Black) and Mayor Adrian Fenty in D.C. (his reelection loss),  education reform power players have been paying extra attention in recent months to attracting grassroots support to their causes. 

Rhee's Students First will be harvesting email addresses and launching "chapters" across the country of educators, students, and parents who support taking on the teachers' unions over issues such as tenure and seniority-based firings. It's an online/real world advocacy model, not dissimilar from how President Obama used Organizing for America during the 2008 election. Meanwhile, in Newark, New Jersey, Mayor Cory Booker has launched PENewark using the first $2 million of the matching grants to Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg's $100 million gift. The group's goal is to raise public awareness of the Zuckerberg donation and survey Newark residents on how they'd like to spend the money–all while building public trust in Booker's own bid to assume control of the Newark schools.

A New York City PR firm working on the Newark project, SKDKnickerbocker, also represents Rhee. And the Newark team–Booker, Zuckerberg, and Gov. Chris Christie–also rolled out their big announcement on "Oprah."

In June 2009 I reported "The Selling of School Reform" for The Nation, which recounted how a number of anti-union ed reform players had wooed Al Sharpton with donations, in an attempt to attract more community-level African American support to causes such as expanding the charter school sector and instituting teacher merit pay. So in part, all of this is nothing new–though the efforts are certainly growing more sophisticated. 

One thought on “The Grassroots-ification of Education Reform

  1. Nick Schueller

    She is going to start a revolution with the backing of big business!? Her beliefs are neoliberalism at its worst. She hardly says anything at all about education. Only that there need to be great teachers. The mission statement is so vague. What there really needs to be is more funding for school, less standardized testing and more meaningful assessments, more teachers, education that promotes and practices the ideals of democracy, equality, and social justice, and education that is based on idea that learning should be done for the joy of learning instead of preparation for the workforce. We need student who can think critically and Rhee’s ideas would rather that student be molded to fit in the box that big business wants them to. Calling it Students first is a crock. Yes there are some bad teachers, but the problems with our schools are systemic and eliminating the bad ones and de-skilling the rest is not going to change the problems in education.


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