As schools in California brace for another difficult year, new forces have emerged that are poised to reshape the education landscape in California.
In recent months, most attention has focused on traditional power centers of educational politics in California, including the governor, the State Board of Education, local school boards, and teachers' unions. But the appearance of new players, some with substantial financial backing, has added an element of unpredictability to the mix.
Most prominent is StudentsFirst, the new organization formed last month by Washington, D.C.'s controversial ex-schools chief Michelle Rhee. She has not yet spelled out her plans for California, but she is engaged to Sacramento Mayor Kevin Johnson, who announced last week during his State of the City address that the organization will be headquartered in Sacramento.
As we anticipated several months ago, Rhee's involvement with education politics in California was almost inevitable after her mentor, D.C. Mayor Adrian Fenty, lost his re-election bid last September. She told the Sacramento Bee editorial board last month that she would not consider moving to California until her daughters finished up school at the end of the year.
But she is already spending a good deal of time here. This Thursday, for example, she is scheduled to meet with parent groups in Los Angeles.
Rhee has set a goal of raising an astonishing $1 billion and recruiting 1 million volunteers. She may be the only person in the country who could reach her fundraising goal, in light of her embrace of and by philanthropists, corporations and major media companies. Los Angeles billionaire Eli Broad has already declared that he expects to be a major donor.
A good portion of the $1 billion will be used to help elect school board members and other elected officials sympathetic to Rhee's education agenda, which includes charter schools, changing the way teachers are evaluated and the teacher tenure system. StudentsFirst could emerge as the first major electoral counterweight to teachers unions in electoral politics in the state.
Another group to watch is Democrats for Education Reform, a New York-based group established with the backing of hedge fund billionaires like David Einhorn. Until now it has not been active in California, but it recently hired former State Sen. Gloria Romero, the former chair of the Senate Education Committee, and author of the controversial "parent trigger" law allowing a majority of parents to force major changes in their children's school.
Romero ran unsuccessfully for Superintendent of Public Instruction last year, and was defeated at least in part because of opposition from the California Teachers Association which backed the ultimate winner, Tom Torlakson.
Romero's hiring was announced explicitly as part of the group's strategy to expand its activities in California. She has already allied herself with Rhee and her agenda. "I am proud to march shoulder to shoulder with Michelle Rhee and millions of parents and children. ... Si se puede – yes we can!" Romero was quoted as saying in the press release announcing the formation of StudentsFirst in December.
Its major focus will be on the Democratic Party in California, Romero explained in an interview. Because of Democratic dominance here, that would inevitably touch the core of the political power structure.
"We have to tackle the special interests which for too long have dominated the education discourse in our party," Romero said in an interview. By special interests, Romero had in mind not only teachers unions, but also school administrators represented by the Association of California School Administrators. "There has been a reluctance to embrace reform that has been good for kids, because of the political interests that have supported the Democratic Party," she said. Charter schools will be "a part, but not the main part" of its agenda.
Romero said the group will be forming political action committees that will also be involved in electoral politics and education-related initiatives in the state. The organization, she said, would take on "political reform, not just education reform.
Not surprisingly, her organization has been harshly criticized by teachers' unions.
On a more grassroots level, two new parent-driven groups, Educate Our State from the San Francisco Bay Area and Support California Kids from the Sacramento area, joined forces last month to put more pressure on the Legislature to support K-12 schools.
"Working together rather than as isolated individuals is the common theme of organizations like ours," said Catherine Goddard, President of Support California Kids. "We are joining together to put more steam behind a train running straight to the state Capitol”
The two organizations will merge under the Educate Our State banner. Unlike StudentsFirst and Democrats for Education Reform, they have no billionaire backing, and have no paid staff or office. Their fundraising is limited so far to a "donate" button on the group's website.
Goddard, whose three children all graduated from Shelton High School in the Elk Grove Unified School District, told California Watch last month that she had not talked with Michelle Rhee, but hoped to do so in the future. Without providing specifics, she said while her organization is not against the PTA, she felt that it was PTA was excessively influenced by unions and driven more by teachers interests rather than parents.
The smallest new group is NewTLA, a dissident group with a catchy name formed by teachers in Los Angeles as a force for change within UTLA, by far the most powerful local teachers union in California. Last month, Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa blasted the union as "one unwavering block to reform." LA Unified school board member, and Villaraigosa ally, Yolie Flores welcomed the new group as "music to my ears."
Co-founder Mike Stryer, a social studies teacher at Fairfax High School, told California Watch that NewTLA only has 50 members (out of some 35,000 teachers in Los Angeles). But, he said, "we represent the silent majority of teachers who are looking for a different approach within our union."
The group has no office, officeholders or funding – and isn't looking for any. "Our immediate goal is to built up our presence and to clearly articulate our positions," he said.
NewTLA's goal is not to become an alternative to UTLA, but to become a force for change from inside the union. "Our major concern is that we feel the union has not focused on broader educational issues, and instead has focused on narrow contractual concerns, or issues tangential to the educational enterprise," he said.
NewTLA feels the union should be at the forefront of reforming the way teachers are evaluate, firing based on seniority, and improving the quality of professional development teachers receive.
Just how all these groups will fit into the jigsaw puzzle of existing advocacy groups and legislative bodies, from the California State PTA to the State Board of Education, is as yet unknown. "You are always looking for allies when you are doing advocacy," said Bill Lucia, executive director of EdVoice, a prominent Sacramento-based advocacy organization.
Referring to Rhee's organization, he said, "The outstanding issue is what they will be advocating for as a top priority, and where."
Will her focus be on state legislatures, including California's? On local school boards? On collective bargaining agreements?
"The potential is there," he said. "She (Rhee) is thick-skinned, and she has proven she can get things done."