Michelle Rhee comes to Oakland, is greeted by protesters

Michelle RheeThe well-known former chancellor of Washington, D.C.’s public schools spoke tonight at a private event organized by the Oakland Speaker Series at the Paramount Theatre.

Michelle Rhee, who founded the Sacramento-based advocacy group StudentsFirst in 2010, after leaving her chancellor’s post, has challenged many of the labor practices that are commonplace in the nation’s public schools, including seniority-based layoffs and placements.

With her new advocacy organization, Rhee now is trying to continue with some of the reforms that she promoted during her three years in D.C. (which were featured in the education documentary “Waiting for Superman”).

I’ll post a photo soon, but a large group of demonstrators picketed outside the downtown Oakland theater before the 8 p.m. event. Some of the protesters — those with tickets — were allowed inside.

Staff Photojournalist
Photo by Aric Crabb/Bay Area News Group

I wasn’t at the event — no room for reporters who tried to invite themselves on the morning of! — but Rhee said she planned to discuss the ills of the nation’s public school system and her ideas for improving it. Betty Olson-Jones, president of the Oakland teachers’ union (and no fan of Rhee’s), was live-tweeting the talk. You can read her take on it here.

In a phone interview beforehand, Rhee said such demonstrations showed how passionate people were about the issues. “I would much rather, any day, deal with anger than apathy because it means people care,” she said.

What do you think about the ideas in the StudentsFirst policy agenda?

Katy Murphy

Education reporter for the Oakland Tribune. Contact me at kmurphy@bayareanewsgroup.com.

  • J.R.
  • cranky teacher

    Unions were built and fought for by the workers themselves because of the predations of employers, from wage slavery, the company store and the hazards of the workplace. You pretend they are some alien leech on the workers if you like, but history doesn’t support you.

    We could flip the old red-baiting “Love It Or Leave It” script onto conservatives like you: If you want to live under lassez faire capitalism and pay no taxes, the Third World is waiting for you with open arms.

  • J.R.

    What was once borne of necessity has been perversely twisted into a power struggle for self enrichment through threats,intimidation etc(political, and otherwise)instead of merit. in short cranky those people were fighting for their lives, and these days people are fighting for their ride on the parachute destind for an ultra soft landing on the couch. All this paid for by the blood sweat and tears of private sector workers who have minimal protection if any. Fair right?

  • http://www.parentsacrossamerica.org CarolineSF

    So JR, now you acknowledge that I’ve disproved your original figures, which you inaccurately claimed showed that only a small % of Oakland schoolkids like in poverty.

    Now you’re trying a new tack, claiming that the figures are false b/c families lie about their income to get free lunch. There just isn’t much I can do about that claim.

    If you say poverty is much lower than claimed and the numbers DO lie, I don’t really have a way to respond. It’s hard to argue with the truly heartless.

  • Nextset

    Some people might say that OUSD’s students are more “needy” that those in the schools I attended – and therefore OUSD had to feed them, comfort them, and perhaps provide medical clinics or whatever.

    Well actually in my class I remember kids whose parents divorced, were alcoholics, were hoarders, were mentally ill (with Rxs and periodic confinement). This didn’t dominate the the class but they were there. These kids were treated the same as everyone else. If they asked for help the counselors would do what they could. More often they merely moved out of their parent’s home into the home of a classmate. Some of them moved into the basements of their parent’s home and took meals at the homes of classmates.

    The school never pretended to “be there” for anyone, that wasn’t their role. The Police Department was at their own building, so was the Welfare Office. Call them if you need them. Fix your own problems – ask for help where it was available.

    I think everyone survived pretty well all things considered. Some died in Vietnam or maybe turned out badly with a drug and alcohol problem that was controlled during school years. If it wasn’t controlled they’d be expelled.

    It was a good school. We certainly learned not to expect the school or the government to fix our problems.

    I wish the OUSD kiddies had such a school. I believe they’d turn out far better than the stats I see now.

    Oh – we had college track and we had bonehead track. If you couldn’t cognitively handle college prep you were put into survey courses and could graduate with few UC Entrance Requirements done. But you had the same diploma. Perhaps you were better at Art or Theater or something like Music. There was Print Shop and Wood Shop. All of us took Driver’s Ed and Training. Everyone got a driver’s license around age 16.

  • Nextset

    One can argue that free lunches stifle maturation and self reliance. Perhaps it would be best to eliminate the programs. Sell $2 TV dinners for those who can’t get their own lunch. Serve Water.

    Tell the kiddies that nobody owes you lunch – learn that lesson well.

  • J.R.

    Since the 60’s and 70’s we have carefully built a system of dependence(welfare,food stamps, section 8 and so forth) and it actually encourages multi-generational dependence from people who have neither the will or the skill to survive in the world. As long as the are taxpayers to get the money from, this will always be so. Quoting one especially memorable public comment speaker “No closing schools, you just need to get the money from the state(taxpayers)”. Typical perpetual adolescent dependent with no clue about work,pay for services rendered, and taxes.

  • Cranky Teacher

    What was once borne of necessity has been perversely twisted into a power struggle for self enrichment through threats,intimidation etc(political, and otherwise)instead of merit. in short cranky those people were fighting for their lives, and these days people are fighting for their ride on the parachute destind for an ultra soft landing on the couch. All this paid for by the blood sweat and tears of private sector workers who have minimal protection if any. Fair right?”

    Not sure where to begin with this. Unions were always about power — you organize together so all the little fish can stand up to the big fish and then negotiate. Political, economic and violence power were used on both sides, it was tantamount to war. Never was that pretty.

    As for the soft parachute stuff, I think you might be thinking of civil service or cops or firemen? I guess I can’t relate because I just don’t think being a single parent in the East Bay and making 42K after 6 years on the job is all that cozy/comfy for the hardest job I’ve ever had.

    Sometimes I long for my days in the private sector, with the air-conditioned rooms, the working copy machine with free paper, the free coffee — and the 401K matching, the 4-10 % annual raises, the working technology…

  • J.R.

    Believe it or not, this is about more than just you. 42K is not the worst considering that pay is not based on a full year and don’t forget the bennies, yes those cost the taxpayer plenty. In the pubic sector we are stuck with you(unless you either kill,molest or do great bodily harm to someone. In the private sector, if the boss doesn’t need you, you’re gone just like that!

  • http://www.parentsacrossamerica.org CarolineSF

    My husband worked 36 years in the private sector, then took a buyout during a period of downsizing and became a teacher. He says it’s by far the hardest work he’s ever done, not even comparable. His ex-co-workers (he was a newspaper reporter) sometimes buy into and promote the “teachers are lazy slackers” story — he says they have no idea.

  • http://www.parentsacrossamerica.org CarolineSF

    @Nextset and J.R., the National School Lunch Program was fully realized after WWII (it had existed here and there previously), specifically because the military had found that so many recruits and draftees were malnourished. It was a national security issue.

  • J.R.

    Your union eyes are mis-reading, I have never said that teachers are slackers(most are good, some are average, and a few a treasures). The one’s we need to worry about first are the incompetent,habitually absent, ill tempered, and yes unmotivated teachers(they cost us so much more than the average,the good and the great).

  • http://www.parentsacrossamerica.org CarolineSF

    I’m not a union member, though I would be happy and proud to be one.

    The overarching message from the corporate-education-reform sector is that teachers are lazy slackers.

  • Parent in OUSD

    Last night, our dog woke us up alerting that someone was “doing something” at our front door. There we discovered a woman, I’d say about 60, stuffing papers through our mail slot. She was mortified that she had woken the inhabitants at the wrong house—-the other gray house with the blue door on the street. She was a public school teacher bringing paperwork to one of her students at 11:00pm on a Friday night, in the rain. Such a lazy siphon on the public at large!

    Nextset: what you seem to be missing is that the complete and total intolerance of your school life did produce intolerable outcomes for society. Your solution for the troubled 10 year old who disrupts class, has no parents packing a lunch, never does classwork much less homework is to Get Rid Of Him. Where exactly does he go? What happens then? You’re right, OUSD is teeming with kids who are under-prepared to actually be productive in school for themselves. Kick them all out! Simple!

    Well, we do have those large human storage facilities that cost a great deal more than public education and have produced a more powerful public sector union than educators. One of the reasons is people with your viewpoint of “disruptive” children as garbage to toss will vote to fund mulit-billion dollar prison complexes yet never, ever vote to fund that wastebasket of public education.

  • http://www.parentsacrossamerica.org CarolineSF

    A commentary relevant to the discussions of problem students and bad behavior:


  • J.R.

    Parent in OUSD,

    “One of the reasons is people with your viewpoint of “disruptive” children as garbage to toss will vote to fund mulit-billion dollar prison complexes yet never, ever vote to fund that wastebasket of public education”.

    Once again, emphatically Oakland Unified gets 11K per child in funding. This is above the average in the US, and more than all countries.


    You are completely wrong!

  • J.R.

    Parent in OUSD,
    The reality is that the apple never fall far from the tree. That is the major problem, and we have made it worse over 3-4-5 decades. Yeah, just keep handing out money,food, housing etc, that will fix everything. Tongue firmly in cheek.

  • elp

    J. R.- You emphatically say over and over again our schools get 11,000.00 per child – that is what we are supposed to get from the state, that is what the law says we should get, agreed. That is what all the web sites say. The reality is we have been getting south of 6000.00 per child for years, last year our school’s working budget was 1,956,225 divided by 430 children (approximate number +/- 10 kids, I don’t remember our exact census) that gave us a whopping 4549.36 per child. And the best part is that schools that have surplus dollars, because our principals are really good with money, are continually being threatened with having our money taken to help schools running in deficit (even if they get the extras, like title one).

    This number came straight off of the Spring financial reports of OUSD through the district portal. It is the number our principal gets to use to pay teachers,and buy supplies, and that is about all we can do because it isn’t very much money.

    Please stop saying that we get 11,000 per child because it isn’t so. The legislature keeps voting to under fund schools to the tune of 40-50% of what the state law says we should get (11,000) – they budget the money, then take it away.

  • J.R.

    I am not just saying that, I am posting the links with the numbers. It is not my opinion, the numbers are what they are. If you want to talk about reality, those numbers don’t even begin to address the total financial picture of this state meaning the bonds(interest on those), along with pension obligations, and the interest on those. The financial chasm is much deeper than anyone wants to admit(a little OT because we need some perspective here). When the state stops putting up those numbers, then I will stop repeating them, but not until then. Taxpayers are pretty tired of it by now, and maybe in November we will actually see how they feel about increased taxes. Until then………..

  • Ann F

    JR- Elp is actually right, and very well-stated I might add. The scenario Elp described is almost identical to my childrens’ school. At our SSC meeting, we learned of another school that received so much categorical funding, they didn’t know what to do with it- already bought a new computer lab with computers to fill it, already created a science lab, etc, etc… Our school doesn’t get that categorical funding– Instead, we are being asked to bring clorox wipes, toilet paper, and pencils, since the school ran out of money for anything but salaries (after getting rid of half the office staff and all but one p/t cleaning person/janitor.

  • J.R.
  • J.R.

    Here is more reality about just how massive the Oakland Unified budget is(numbers have to be adjusted downward just like all other districts)because the numbers are a few years old.Here is a relevant snippet:

    “Overall, OUSD’s budget is larger than those of most districts its size. This is due to the large amount of restricted or categorical funding that OUSD receives. Restricted and categorical funds are reserved for specific purposes determined by the state or other government entities”.


  • Nextset

    Parent in OUSD: You seem to have reality problems.

    I’m not saying we march failing kids to a firing squad. I believe that’s what you would like to point out.

    Re-read my stories of what a real school was like. Screwed up or failing children were expelled or encouraged to transfer to Continuation School. That’s where the social workers and vocational counselors were. They were not in my normal school.

    Continuation School is where the handholding and social services work to keep the children who could not function in a normal school from going to prison (or a state hospital). I worked in one of these schools on occasion when I was briefly a sub teacher during the Bar Exam. I have a grad student friend now who works occasionally in a locked juvenile facility in the Bay Area. Other friends and relatives have worked Special Ed and Special Needs schools. The failure children need services and can be trained and programmed – just not in a normal school. You cannot have a good school – one that my family would be willing to put a child into with professional aspirations – also running a corp of delinquents and non-functioning kids.

    The complete unwillingness of OUSD to terminate failing students – doubtless due to racial reasons – creates madhouses that are unfair to both students and staff. When you won’t fail anyone you can’t run a real school.

    And it’s the Black schools who have to live like this. Good White Schools don’t tolerate crazy.

    OUSD needs to run separate campuses for functioning and disfunctioning students and keep them physically separated. SF does this with Lowell High. This way even Black Students have a chance to go to a real school – one that doesn’t force them to accept failures as normal.

    You may wish to perpetuate the current policy – wonder why? White students and high functioning minorities certainly will not go as the demographics of OUSD clearly show. So exactly who are you protecting – or helping. There is also the point that lower order students are harmed by keeping them with higher functioning students. They are different and do best when they are trained for what they do best which is not exactly Calculus. Running them alongside brighter students creates frustration and rage.

  • makeitgoaway

    Great discussion! The passion shows that people still care…

    Michelle Rhee is correct, the schools are failing- not all the schools, but many of the urban ones, like Oakland’s. This should not be controversial. No Nextset we cannot go back to “the good old days ” of your youth, as the Black family structure is no longer there. but we can find bits and pieces of what works and cobble together a successful system. This will take political will and an alliance with the unions. So far, it is a no go. How long can unions stonewall?

    I don’t buy the argument that teachers are excused from high standards because of poverty, and I am impressed by the statistics posted here that the below proficient rate is FOUR times higher than the poverty rate. Teachers take their students as they find them- in poverty, with family problems, or learning deficiencies. That is part of the gig. Do firemen complain about fires?

    Rhee was on the right track. Raise teacher pay in a tradeoff for higher teaching standards (and fire the slackers) Pay the high performers more, and use teachers (not consultants) to teach other teachers. Even if you don’t like it, it’s going to happen.

  • Nextset

    makeitgoaway: You know, poverty has absolutely NOTHING to do with failing in school.

    Poverty also has nothing to do with Rape, Armed Robbery and Murder.


    Those who want to circulate that drivel are those who want to accomodate anti-socials. I don’t accomodate these people. Known too many of them.

    I’ve also know and known of way too many “poor” people who behaved and guess what – they didn’t end up poor. We are still seeing this with “poor” immigrants. Now the 2nd generation immigrants are a different issue. Once they get “Americanized” in bad public schools and have the government interfere with parental discipline you do see bad behavior creep in. And the bad is different for the boys and the girls.

    I refer you to Banfield’s “The Unheavenly City”. Best thing I ever read while at UC Berkeley. Jack-booted Law Enforcement works in controling lower class bad behavior that if left unchecked will turn a city into – Detroit… Oakland’s Mayor really needs to read Banfield. It would help her be be less “confused” all the time. She wonders why all her appeasement isn’t helping things. Banfield explains – and recounts – that any appeasement of anti-socials makes them worse. The way to have a city that works and is safe is to have absolutely no appeasement of criminals. As for the students acting like criminals – it’s the same thing exactly. You just remove them from the scene (normal schools), permanently. And those who remain can have a civilized school.

    Back to Rhee. I tend to agree with some of her critics that she is either an opportunist or is being used to dump on the teachers while at the same time holding the “chillun” sacrosanct. As a result you get wholesale cheating by teachers and staff (guaranteed by NCLB anyway) with no real improvement in ghetto schools.

    So although I find her an interesting personality I unfortunately have to conclude she bodes us – no real improvement in ghetto schools.

    The only way to turn ghetto schools into real schools is to cull the herd of bad students even before you cull the bad teachers. The bad students are a far bigger problem. No one wants to say it because they are too PC – and are willing to run the schools off a cliff rather than to say a discouraging word.

  • Nextset

    PS – I do not believe in Zero Tolerance. The decision to remove someone is predicated on a reasonable belief that they don’t belong in toto. There is such a thing as the last nerve though. I might keep someone who had a gun/Xanax/whatever while removing others. Just my point. A public school is usually too cowardly now to make these decisions subjectively for fear of being called racist or something. To each his own. The point is that disruptive, defiant or illiterate kids have special schools for them to be in not the normal ones.

  • J.R.

    Nobody said that poverty has nothing to do with failing in school, rather it is not as big a factor as people want to make it. To add to the skewed perception, people toss in phony poverty numbers(FRLP)which BTW serve a dual purpose:

    1. Subsidize lunches for already massively subsidized people.

    2. Districts get extra taxpayer money if a certain percentage of the population is on (FRLP).

    This program could be unnecessarily wasting billions of dollars each year on multiple programs that use FRLP to determine poverty.


    Everyone should look into this, and post all relevant data and findings.

  • J.R.
  • J.R.

    “At our SSC meeting, we learned of another school that received so much categorical funding, they didn’t know what to do with it-”

    Blame it on the same corrupt educational system that pays crappy teachers just as much as great teachers(more the unions fault than anything), how fair is that?

    LAUSD is one of the worst school districts in the country, and yet they are one of the best funded, and to add insult to injury, every single Californian who pays taxes(all 50% of us) also pay off the interest(matching dollar for dollar) on their massive bonds which are in the billions. Neat huh?


  • John

    Michelle Rhee has endlessly expounded on her thesis that unionization of teachers is the central barrier to improving student performance.

    To the extent she has used her self-promoting road show to focus discussion and centralize debate on this subject, she has misled parents and educational reformers. At worst, unions from time to time have supported non-performance as a part of the status quo, maintaining tenure for demoralized and/or low skill teachers kept in place by administrators using tenure rules who don’t want to rock a community’s boat.

    The central issue is motivation and helping parents create a family,home and school environment that fosters learning, motivation, and presents resources for learning achievement and advancement. Consistent, fair, rational discipline balanced with adequate recreational play and leisure opportunities surely must be apart of the formula.

    All kids are educable, though there is measurable variation in learning capability and retention. All people similarly have capacity to be imaginative and creative. Measurement of objective aspectsoflearning performance is important, since it helps us assess and evaluate needs and performance, progress, and deficits or further challenges versus accredited performance benchmarks.

    In Rhee’s “Rheevolution,” there is excessive and extreme reliance on standardized test scores,on tests and methods developed by self-serving organizations interested in product and service sales rather than students. Too much anecdotal evidence and strategy is taken in from funding sources who lack expertise in education though they may have the best intentions.

    Though she is a registered Democrat, she dismisses the significance of any politics in educational matters.

    There is excessive almost dehumanizing regimentation, standardization, and pseudo-competition. Though she extolls herself as the best friend of the urban and rural poor in their quest for educational excellence for their children, she fails to identify and implement the models that MEASUREABLY best provide it: Sidell Friends, and Harlem Childrens’ Zone.

    So, now, she has brought her “Rhamblin’ Shamblin’ Rhoad Show” to Oakland. Be certain it includes an assortment of spectacles calculated to infuriate and shock, to titiliate and tempt. Also expect she will not explain those test scores being investigated in her last salaried position back east.

    Finally,expect she will shed no light on any of the schools that are the embodiment of the standards she should be focusing the dialogue upon. To please her bipartisan moneyed old school tie sponsors, she will focus everything on resentment against allegedly lavish teacher pay and benefits (rather than on overpaid administrators and consultants and wasteful charter schools), on Draconian discipline, on nineteenth century myths of education.

    So while the pupils (and families) blessed with access to the standards and learning resources and environments sustained at places like Sidell Friends and HCZ continue to excel and progress towards Ivy League opportunities, the rest of us are relegated to prefab education factories run by the leather booted Mistress of Firm But Decisive discipline? I hope and pray not.

  • John

    As the late Hizzoner, Chicago Mayor Richard J Daley once famously said, “It’s easy to be a critic. How many trees have you planted?”

    I would similarly challenge Michelle Rhee to return full-time and permanently to the PUBLIC SCHOOL classroom at regular pay and tenure status, and make her working conditions the learning environment of perhaps thirty kids from the toughest areas of Detroit or Gary Indiana.

    Where the proverbial rubber meets the road, we’ll then be enabled to use IMPACT to evaluate what she has wrought, and assess pupils’ further needs.

  • J.R.

    If only people worried about education(and more importantly this lousy welfare system that encourages out of wedlock births and consequently the destruction of the family unit)as much as they worry about the self aggrandizing opportunist Michelle Rhee, we would really gain some ground educationally. People have bought into the lie that kids having a school, teachers, material and a curriculum is not enough. They forget that everything else is(and should be) the responsibility of the parents, and when these children fail the fault lies mostly with the parents. More money(Governor Browns new wealth re-distribution scheme will not work. You could give them 30K per kid and LAUSD(for example) will still be at or near the bottom.

    Like it or not taxpayers cannot make the world more fair and equal for these kids, the parents bear full responsibility for bringing the kids into the difficult situations that they face. There is another agenda here, Jerry has plans for that money(don’t you just love it when someone who lives off your tax money proceeds to re-distribute it at his whim)?