RheeFirst, Michelle Rhee Attack Site, Defended By Teachers Union

Wednesday, August 31, 2011

In the eyes of Steven Brill, the American Federation of Teachers building a website attacking Michelle Rhee and masking its origins is worse than Rhee's creating a billion-dollar organization aimed at revamping education that doesn't disclose its backers.

Brill, author of the recent Class Warfare: Inside the Fight to Fix America's Schools, came to the education beat after writing a piece for the New Yorker about the "Rubber Room," a place where New York City public school teachers were paid to stay out of classrooms.

"People are generally making a mistake when they don't disclose who's donating," Brill told The Huffington Post. "But when you set up a website to attack them for it and don't define the source, that's worse."

Brill is referring to the latest public spat in the debate over school reform, which pits so-called education reformers against teachers unions over the question of how teachers are evaluated, hired and fired. On Monday, StudentsFirst, the organization founded in Janurary by former Washington, D.C., schools chancellor Michelle Rhee, circulated a statement calling RheeFirst.com "unbecoming of civil discourse." Rheefirst.com launched in March, and aggregates material critical of Rhee in both the policy-related and personal realms. The missive follows last week's revelation -- courtesy of Politico's Ben Smith -- that the site, which launched in March, is hosted by a server at the American Federation of Teachers, the nation's second-largest teachers union.

Rhee, the face of one breed of school reformers, is best known for publicly firing teachers while running D.C. schools. She gained national acclaim by posing for a Time cover with a broomstick, and a starring role in the documentary "Waiting for Superman" only increased her profile. Her critics charge that she ignores the effects of poverty on teaching, and point to allegations that her record in D.C. was inflated by cheating. A federal investigation of exams there is still ongoing.

After the mayor who appointed her was voted out of office, Rhee started StudentsFirst, a national lobbying and advocacy group that spreads her gospel about teacher quality to statehouses and the organization's members alike. Rhee has said the group aims to raise $1 billion, but even amid rumors of $50 million gifts from Rupert Murdoch, StudentsFirst has steadfastly remained silent about the origins of money behind its glossy campaign. (Murdoch's News Corp. Foundation's most recent political funding disclosures do not list StudentsFirst, but the filing doesn't include pledges or private gifts.)

On Monday, the teachers union acknowledged its connection with RheeFirst and hit back at critics who say the site goes too far with its mockery. John See, a representative for the AFT, issued a statement calling the site a "truth squad".

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