Rhee: Connecticut is the state to watch

Michelle Rhee, one of the biggest names in the national education reform movement, traveled to Connecticut’s Capitol Wednesday with a message: Democrats nationwide are watching.

“This is the state that has a Democratic governor and a Democratic legislature that is taking the most aggressive stance on education reform,” Rhee told a crowd of about 75 parents and their children at a rally outside the Capitol. “If this bill is defeated, it will send a message to other Democratic governors in other states, ‘Don’t take this issue on. Don’t take it on. It’s not worth it. It’s politically too hard.'”

The proposed reforms Rhee is giving Gov. Dannel P. Malloy accolades for include tying teachers’ performance evaluations to their pay and tenure. Malloy’s plans also would limit teachers unions from bargaining to offer incentives to attract the best teachers, the transfer of teachers and requiring additional training for staff in the state’s lowest-performing districts.

Rhee, Michelle

Michelle Rhee, center, addresses a rally on the state Capitol steps Wednesday.

“We have to make sure this bill and our governor succeed,” Rhee told the crowd sporting bright orange T-shirts provided by Rhee’s StudentsFirst organization. “The eyes of the nation are on Connecticut right now, people.”

But Malloy faces an uphill battle as he tries to persuade legislators to send significant reforms to his desk for him to sign into law. Sixty-five percent of state lawmakers are Democrats, and all face re-election in the fall. It also doesn’t help that the state’s two teachers’ unions vehemently oppose several key components of Malloy’s plan.

Rhee, and her focus on teachers during her three-year tenure as the chancellor of Washington, D.C., public schools, has led her to butt heads with teachers unions on many occasions.

Her teacher evaluation system, often criticized, led to the firing of 241 teachers.

Hours before Rhee was set to speak Wednesday, the head of the state’s largest teachers union offered a suggestion for legislators considering a gamut of education reforms: ignore her.

“Michelle Rhee is recognized for divisive politics as evidenced by her short-lived tenure in Washington, D.C. Why should [Connecticut] 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, head of the Connecticut Education Association, wrote in a statement.

Rhee did not meet with Malloy or the administration while she was in Connecticut, which follows a flurry of emails to the media about what it would mean if he stood side-by-side with such a controversial figure. The group organizing the rally initially announced that the governor would be attending, but reporters were quickly told that was not the case.

But this slight from the administration won’t hurt Rhee’s advertisement blitz, as she vows to spend tens of thousands of dollars for ads over the next 56 days until the legislative session ends.

“We’re committed to having a long-term effort around the initiatives,” Rhee said.