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How Will Michelle Rhee's Policy and Politics Work Fare in States?

The biggest national education story of the past week was John Merrow's discussion of a memo about possible, even likely cheating in D.C. Public Schools under former Chancellor Michelle Rhee, and how she may have swept the issue under the rug, or just passively let it get buried and lost under other paperwork, depending on how you look at it. (As my colleague Lesli Maxwell documents, Rhee claims not to remember the memo.)

But it's important to remember that Rhee is not an abstraction, and she hasn't retired—she's the leader of a K-12 advocacy group that is steadily expanding its role in many states, getting involved in both policy lobbying and campaign donations. StudentsFirst's website now says it is active in 18 states, including California, New York, and Florida, three of the five biggest states in the country by public school enrollment. It has also begun grading state policies, a key component of older groups with similar views like the Center for Education Reform and the American Legislative Exchange Council. So the important question on that front is, will doubts about the integrity of D.C. schools under her tenure damage StudentsFirst's work in statehouses and with elections?

On the one hand, the "brand" of StudentsFirst could be permanently tainted by Rhee's association with possible widespread cheating. To put it in general but concrete terms, it's easy to imagine someone testifying against a bill backed by StudentsFirst in a state capital inserting a few choice lines about the legislation's tainted association with a woman who allegedly ignored a cheating scandal even as she rose to education stardom.

On Twitter, for example, Andy Ford, the president of the Florida Education Association, branded Rhee the "erasure queen." If that kind of sentiment, along with a catchy and derisive nickname, catches on in a few places where a few fence-sitting lawmakers hold the fate of a controversial K-12 bill in their hands, there could be a tangible political effect for anti-Rhee activists.

On his blog for philly.com, Will Bunch summed up his view of why Rhee failed to act in this situation: "Because it would have demolished her credibility as an 'education reformer' and an author."

But there's also an argument to be made that the ultimate impact for Rhee's organization will be determined by D.C. officials, and that the momentum behind the kind of policies Rhee's group supports may have too much power, time, and cash behind them. It's also not clear who exactly would have the standing to launch such an investigation in D.C. government or outside it, and who would have the appetite for it.

According to Mike Petrilli, who also counts himself as an "education reformer" at the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, if no official investigation is launched into cheating on Rhee's watch that could lead to metal bracelets, frog-marching, and jail time, then it may have minimal damage on StudentsFirst's lobbying and political donations.

"There's a good chance the official reaction could be nothing," he said.

And on the crucial question of whether state lawmakers could start shying away from not only Rhee herself, but also the policies she supports, Petrilli said: "I don't know that that's going to change very many minds."

Petrilli said this highlights the fact that unlike other K-12 lobbying groups, StudentsFirst has chosen to hitch its wagon to one prominent, controversial personality. While there have been benefits to that strategy for the group so far, Merrow's reporting could reveal its downside. (Compare the name-recognition for Rhee to, say, the education task force chairman at ALEC.)

At the same time, he said recent news about Atlanta and D.C. schools has revealed what he said was earlier naïvete on the part of like-minded advocates like himself, and Rhee, about how widespread such incidents of cheating could be.

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