Michelle Rhee's Key Hire Finds Difficulty In Diffusing Union Distrust

Friday, September 9, 2011

WASHINGTON -- Attempts to bridge the divide between self-styled education reform groups and teachers unions, backed by progressive organizations, hit another snag last week, raising doubts about whether the two sides will ever be able to find true synchronicity.

The most recent flashpoints are, inherently, rehashes of old arguments. A new book authored by Steven Brill, Class Warfare: Inside the Fight to Fix America's Schools, makes the argument that absent a buy-in from unions, comprehensive school reform is likely elusive. Meanwhile, it was recently reported that the American Federation of Teachers helped originate a website attacking Michelle Rhee, a former Washington D.C. school chancellor and prominent education reform advocate, as beholden to conservative interests and hellbent on undermining collective bargaining rights.

Neither revelation was, in and of itself, groundbreaking. But they do cast additional doubts on Rhee's efforts to accentuate the similarities between her politics and those of the unions she's often fought. Several months ago, Rhee's organization, StudentsFirst, announced that it was hiring former Democratic National Committee Press Secretary Hari Sevugan to serve in a communications role -- implicitly as an ambassador to the progressive community.

"I don't feel [the story of StudentsFirst] has been captured, not wholly," Sevugan told The Huffington Post at the time. "If we're able to tell the story of how we've been working with people on both sides of the aisle, how it's a national movement made up of Democrats, Republicans and Independents, that are fighting to give students a voice, then I will have done my job."

Despite the skepticism that accompanied Sevugan's hiring, there were some early, encouraging results. Rhee formally came out in support of the DREAM Act, which provides a path to citizenship -- either through military service or scholastic achievements -- for the children of undocumented immigrants. Rhee also offered stronger indications that she did in fact support collective bargaining rights. And StudentsFirst, often accused of working solely with Republicans, recently hired a Democrat, Michigan State Rep. Tim Melton, to work on legislative issues.

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