She spoke for only a few minutes Wednesday, but the message from the controversial former chancellor of Washington D.C. schools was clear: The eyes of the nation are on Connecticut.
Rhee was visiting the state to endorse Gov. Dannel P. Malloy’s education reform package, which changes how teacher tenure is earned and how contracts are collectively bargained.
“If this bill is defeated it will send a message to other Democratic governors in other states: ‘Don’t take this issue on’,” Rhee told the crowd of about 75 parents and students gathered at the Capitol.
During her brief appearance, Rhee applauded Malloy’s “aggressive stance,” on linking teacher pay to their performance in the classroom. She also described her experience putting her own children through the D.C. public school system while she was chancellor, and sought to deflect criticisms that she is anti-union and anti-teacher.
“I actually just consider myself a ‘mom,’ just a regular mother,” Rhee said to cheers from the crowd.
Hours before her appearance the state’s largest teacher’s union put out a statement touting its support of parental involvement, and telling the public and the media to ignore Rhee.
“Rhee is recognized for divisive politics as evidenced by her short-lived tenure in Washington, D.C. Why should CT citizens want to import outsiders like Rhee, when there are so many solid ideas for education reform right here in our own state?,” Mary Loftus-Levine, executive director of the Connecticut Education Association, said.
But Rhee may be difficult to ignore since her StudentsFirst organization plans on spending more than six-figures on television advertisements endorsing Malloy’s plan until the legislature adopts it. Right now the bill is with the Education Committee and some lawmakers have their own ideas about how to reform education in the state.
Last week after Malloy’s Education Town Hall in West Hartford, state Rep. Andrew Fleischmann, co-chairman of the Education Committee, said very firmly that he expects there will be changes to the package.
“Folks elect me to exercise my best judgment,” he said. “So I’m attempting to do that with every section of the bill. This General Assembly is not a rubber stamp.”
Malloy had been scheduled to speak at the rally organized by the Connecticut Parents Union, but backed out of the appearance after learning Rhee would be speaking.
“As much as the governor respects people’s rights to be a part of the education dialogue, Ms. Rhee has at times been a divisive figure,“ Malloy’s Senior Communications Adviser Roy Occhiogrosso said Feb. 20. “And the governor is determined to try and have this discussion about education reform in a way that’s not divisive.”
Federal investigators are currently trying to find out whether Washington D.C. school officials faked the high testing scores under Rhee’s tenure that brought her to national prominence. But that didn’t stop U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan from sharing a stage with Rhee last month .
Gwen Samuel, founder of the Connecticut Parents Union, said she was disappointed that Malloy backed out of the speech, but chalked it up to political pressure from teachers’ unions. She also alluded to other lawmakers who backed out of the event.
“Everyone was just busy all of a sudden,” she said.
However, a handful of state lawmakers did show up to lend their support, including Kevin Roldan, D-Hartford, who called the process of education reform the “business of saving lives.”
Hartford’s Superintendent of Schools Christina Kishimoto, also took the podium and championed Hartford’s four years of improvements.
Kishimoto described her experience of growing up poor in the South Bronx, and how it led her to believe in the importance of parents’ roles in education.
“I grew up sleeping on a couch, I grew up with parents who did not graduate from high school,” she told the mothers of children from Meriden, Waterbury, Hartford, and New Haven.
“As a family, we went together to college. We helped each other.”
Kelley Williams-Bolar, the Akron mother who has become something of a martyr for school choice, asked a simple question: How far would you go for your children?
Williams-Bolar spent 9 days in jail and 2 years on probation for using her father’s address to enroll her children in a neighboring (and better) school system.
Williams-Bolar, along with several speakers at the rally, made reference to the case of Tanya McDowell, the homeless Bridgeport mother who used a babysitter’s address to enroll her son in Norwalk schools. McDowell pleaded guilty last month to first degree larceny.
“Free Tanya McDowell!” a woman yelled from the crowd.
Samuel, who founded CPU, asked the crowd to call their legislators and demand their support for the governor’s bill.