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Rhee's Advocacy Group: Abolish Tenure, Give Districts Evaluation Prerogative

Former District of Columbia Chancellor Michelle Rhee has unveiled her new advocacy group's much-awaited set of policy priorities.

Rhee's profile in the education world is so huge that, unless you've moved to Jupiter for tax reasons, you have probably heard at least tangentially of her hard-charging style in D.C. For wonks closely following her actions, like those of us here at Education Week, most of the teacher-related ideas outlined in this paper from Students First aren't a big stretch from ideas she's espoused in the past.

But there are a few surprise additions in other sections, including an endorsement of California's "parent trigger" and support for private-school choice programs.

Let's take teacher issues first. The group says that decisions about professional development, compensation, hiring, assignment, and so on should be based primarily on performance, rather than on traditional factors like seniority.

One thing in particular caught my attention in this section: The group argues that teacher evaluations must be uncoupled from collective bargaining. That clearly stems from Rhee's experience in Washington. Everywhere else in the country, states specify some parameters for teacher evaluations in their districts, and beyond that, evaluation protocols often have to be bargained. But D.C.'s IMPACT evaluation system did not have to be bargained—a sore spot with the D.C. affiliate of the American Federation of Teachers. It was one reason why the district was able to roll out the system so quickly and to implement some performance-based dismissals.

Essentially, the Students First proposal says that a school district should get feedback from teachers and their representatives on the plan, but should maintain the final say over its implementation. As you'd expect, that is not likely to be a popular idea with the unions, which would probably argue that such a proposal limits the scope of collective bargaining.

The proposal also advocates ending tenure outright for teachers. In the document, the group says that state and federal policies provide enough anti-discrimination protections for teachers that the addition of due process should no longer be needed.

Again, ending tenure is an idea that's not popular with the unions. But could there be any takers among states? A few years back, such a proposal probably would have been risible, but it's a different story today. In Florida, Gov. Rick Scott, a Republican whom Rhee is advising, has also mentioned eliminating tenure. Rumors have it that he'll try to get a bill similar to S.B. 6, which would have ended tenure but was vetoed by former Gov. Charlie Crist last year. And Wyoming is also poised to debate the idea of ending tenure altogether for teachers.

As for new ideas: One would require districts to obtain parental consent for a student to be taught by an "ineffective teacher," and to allow them the option of having their child taught by one deemed effective.

Though the parent trigger permitted in California is still largely untested, Rhee says she supports it as an option for empowering parents.

And finally, she supports a mix of school choice options, including traditional schools, charter schools, magnets, virtual schools and private schools.

That is somewhat different from her position on private-school choice while in D.C. While serving as chancellor, Rhee said that she didn't oppose the D.C. Opportunity Scholarships program, but didn't weigh in on vouchers as an educational intervention writ large. Now, she seems to have taken a stance on them. (Interestingly, Gov. Scott is taking a similar tack on vouchers in Florida, leaving the intriguing question of which of the two figures is rubbing off more on the other one!)

Also of interest: The teachers' unions came out swinging against this proposal (read the American Federation of Teachers' statement and the National Education Association's one here).

Dave Murray at the Grand Rapids Press offers an interesting perspective on the situation: It may be evidence that, while Rhee is far from proving that Students First can be a viable force for change, the unions are clearly taking no chances that her ideas will catch on.

"There are dozens of education advocacy groups out there, constantly churning out policy papers. But the swift and strong reaction to Rhee's Monday announcement shows the unions are taking this new organization seriously," he wrote.

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