I will protect your pensions. Nothing about your pension is going to change when I am governor. - Chris Christie, "An Open Letter to the Teachers of NJ" October, 2009

Saturday, January 5, 2013

UPDATED: Rhee Can't Play Both Sides Anymore


Yesterday, we found out that Democrats are abandoning StudentsFirst, Michelle Rhee's right-wing, Republican money funnel that pretends to be a bipartisan education "reform" group. Among those leaving are Hari Sevugan, a Democratic insider who was serving as Rhee's communications director. According to Joy Resmovits's reporting, Sevugan and other Dems were leaving SF because "It gets tiresome to have to defend who we are." 

Well, it looks like Sevugan got nervous when this story starting making its way around the edu-blogosphere. When Diane Ravitch linked to Resmovitis's story, Sevugan rushed in to make sure he wasn't burning any bridges unnecessarily:

Diane – I’ve never posted a comment on your blog, but as one of the subjects mentioned in the article you have extrapolated from to make your point in this entry, I felt that I needed to on this occasion. I’m also writing this on my iphone, so please forgive me any wayward autocorrects. [emphasis mine]
Couldn't wait to get home to write this, huh, Hari? Were you nervous that this story was going to get out in front of you and paint you as a Democrat who had abandoned his party for the lure of StudentsFirst's tasty money?

You have often suggested, as you have here, that folks at StudentsFirst and more broadly the education reform community are working to privatize education and diminish teaching and teachers.
You afforded a story regarding my time at StudentsFirst enough validity to use it to criticize the organization. So, I hope you will afford my opinion based on that time the same credibility when I tell you this:
To suggest that folks working at StudentsFirst or in education reform are doing anything but working for the benefit of kids is plain wrong.
Everyone I worked with at StudentsFirst and in the education reform community was and is exclusively interested in improving the lives of children. They are not out to diminish teachers, but rather they recognize the importance of teachers in ensuring children have the best education possible. They are not out to destroy public education, but rather their fealty belongs to the public school students served by that system.
The thing is – I believe the same is true of teachers unions and many advocates, including you, who are opposed to education reform.
While I no longer work at StudentsFirst on a day-to-day basis, I will continue to work with them in other ways, as well as with other reformers, toward their goal of ensuring every child has access to high quality education.
Read the whole thing: it's a classic case of someone trying to play both sides of the fence. StudentsFirst is great! Unions are great! Everybody's so freakin' great! Can't we all just get along?

This is, of course, how the political consultancy class operates: you never know where your next gig is coming from, so don't piss off anyone if you don't have to. And Sevugan is quite the political animal : DS Wright reminds us of the announcement SF made when Sevugan first came on board:
Democratic National Committee national spokesman Hari Sevugan will move to a top post at the former Washington, D.C., school chief Michelle Rhee's new advocacy group, Students First, a move aimed at strengthening its hand in the complex and high-stakes politics of education policy.

Sevugan, 36, a lawyer and veteran politico who also taught for two years in a public middle school in Upper Manhattan, will serve as vice president of communications, a source familiar with the plan said.

But while Sevugan's role includes setting up a rapid response operation and press shop for a group that didn't have a full-fledged communications operation, the move also sends a political signal: Michelle Rhee's push to weaken the hold of teachers unions has won her enemies in the labor movement and among some Democrats, and allies on the Republican right, and Sevugan will aim to clarify her attempt to establish a bipartisan profile, the source said; he has already begun to reach out to some of the group's progressive critics.

The move is intended to bring "the reputation of the group back to a non-partisan place after being seen, undeservedly, as overly friendly with Republicans," the source said. "Students First has strong relationships with many Democratic establishment hands including [former White House Communications Director] Anita Dunn.. and has worked with Democratic and Republican officials on a number of issues. But because some of the more prominent work has been with Republican governors including scoring some stunning successes in unlikely states like Nevada, that partisan reputation has been thrust upon it," the source said. [emphasis mine]
Now, maybe some particularly gullible saps within the Democratic establishment bought this line back in 2011. They wanted to get their hands on some of that lovely billionaire lucre; if that meant screwing over the teachers unions, it would be worth it to them.

The problem is that StudentsFirst has now been through an election cycle, and Rhee's loyalties are crystal clear:
Rhee makes a point of applauding “leaders in both parties and across the ideological spectrum” because her own political success — and the success of school reform — depends upon the bipartisan reputation she has fashioned. But 90 of the 105 candidates backed by StudentsFirst were Republicans, including Tea Party enthusiasts and staunch abortion opponents. And Rhee’s above-the-fray bona fides have come under heavy fire as progressives and teachers unions increasingly cast the school reform movement, which has become virtually synonymous with Rhee’s name, as politically conservative and corporate-funded. [emphasis mine]
There is simply no way anyone in the Democratic Party can seriously consider Michelle Rhee an ally anymore. She gives the vast majority of her masters' money away to Republicans - including Tea Baggers - spreads money to Republicans in swing states, and pals around with Republican governors like Chris Christie and Rick Scott.

If that isn't enough, she stepped on eggshells after the Newtown tragedy in a way that would have made the NRA proud; she only came around after it was apparent her tone-deaf response was not playing well with both progressives and moderates:
Similarly, after the Newtown shooting, the group first told HuffPost reporter Dave Jamieson it declined to take a position on a Missouri bill that would allow concealed firearms in schools. The group then followed up with a letter from Rhee opposing the legislation.
"They were able to talk the talk that it is bipartisan," said Kombiz Lavasany, who directs strategic campaigns for the American Federation of Teachers, a union Rhee has sparred with. "But [after things like the guns episode] … I can see how it would be harder and harder for the Democrats to work there."
Rhee's flip-flopping on Michigan's right-to-work (for-less) laws similarly left a bad taste in many lefties' mouths. She's tried to play both sides, but she simply can't any more.

The evidence is in, and it's overwhelming: Michele Rhee is an ally of Republicans and an enemy of progressives and Democrats. She can pretend otherwise, but her record is clear and extensive.

So now Sevugan and others are going to try to come back into the Democratic fold. It will be easier for Sevugan to do so if he can maintain the illusion that Rhee is bipartisan. Perhaps he can con a few Democrats into believing it; the moderate wing of the party, including the president, will believe just about anything these days when it comes to education, so it's certainly possible.

I do find it curious that Sevugan made this decision just before a new Frontline special on Rhee is scheduled to air this week - a show that examines her record in Washington D.C., including the cheating scandal that has left a big, black cloud over her entire career (perhaps they'll get around to talking about her other serial exaggerations in the report).

Maybe Sevugan senses that Rhee is becoming damaged goods. Maybe he's come to the conclusion that the more the public sees of Michelle Rhee, the less likable she is. Maybe he thinks people are getting sick of her continuous schtick of bad-mouthing our nation's students. Maybe he wonders if the money will continue to pour in from the Billionaire Boys Club, when the best StudentsFirst can do to generate real grassroots support is to fertilize some AstroTurf with gift cards.

Maybe Sevugan, even as he keeps his options open, got out while the getting was good. Smart Democrats would be well advised to follow suit, because it's no longer possible for StudentsFirst or Rhee to pretend they are anything but right-wing partisan hacks. And we all know how much people love Republicans these days...

What's not to love?

UPDATE: Some commenters at Diane Ravitch's have made the case that StudentsFirst is bipartisan, because so many Democrats share their ideas about education "reform." Well, it may be that (unfortunately) "reform" is bipartisan, but StudentsFirst is not. Again:
But 90 of the 105 candidates backed by StudentsFirst were Republicans, including Tea Party enthusiasts and staunch abortion opponents.
You can't give so much money to Republicans and claim you are a bipartisan group. SF is a Republican money funnel; Rhee can no longer pretend otherwise.


ChrisGuerrieri said...

I want to take your blog to see Argo it is so good. Keep up the great work!

Amelia said...

Thank you for your deconstruction! After reading his very long comment in Diane Ravitch's blog, I thought he was rationalizing why "Democrats" were quitting. I didn't realize that he was one of the Democrats who quit her organization. It's surprising that with all the verifiably negative and unflattering i articles and commentary about Ms. Rhee's career, that she has any credibility at all with her wealthy backers. She didn't actually succeed in her endeavors, it is all an illusion that panders to preconceived notions of why students fail. I see now, from Hari Sevugan's letter, how she has succeeded so far. She and her spokespersons/speechwriters present her as a heroic victim of her critics, liars and lazy defenders of the status quo. That's how poverty and racism lose factual basis and become excuses. StudentsFirst probably couldn't pay him enough to keep up the fantasy of the Rhee as heroic leader.

Unknown said...

Hari. Busted. Rhee's brand is melting down but, unfortunately, not gone.

Maybe StudentsFirst will change its name like when Philip Morris became Altria after the tobacco industry was exposed for its lies. Or When Blackwater, after it was exposed for its murdering mercenaries, changed its name to Xe.

be careful said...

Excerpts from Washington Post article about upcoming Frontline piece on the Rheeject:

Investigators found some test-security problems at Noyes but no evidence of answer-sheeting tampering. Based on those findings, they decided not to examine other schools.

But Cothorne, the former principal who alleges that she saw staff members after hours with erasers and test booklets, said investigators never interviewed her.

“My speculation: They didn’t want to hear what I had to say,” she told “Frontline.”

The inspector general’s office declined “Frontline’s” request for an interview about its investigation, saying the report speaks for itself. The office also declined The Post’s request for comment Friday.

Cothorne told “Frontline” that she tightened test security. On the end-of-the-year test, math and reading scores dropped more than 25 percentage points from the year before. The principal left Noyes at the end of that school year and opened a cupcake shop in Ellicott City.


Duke said...

Chris: sorry, the blog is only three years old and too go to the movies with strange men. ;-)

Amelia: I think it was easy to get confused about what he was saying because he clearly rushed it out so fast. Damage control.

jcg: Ha! It's all about the branding. Of course one of Rhee's masters gave her $100K for an "image makeover," so she's used to it.

BC: Yeah, I saw this. Going to wait until the show airs to comment. But it doesn't look good.

Thx, everyone.

caroline said...

Don't you think it's likely that Sevugan has some kind of severance agreement with SF and part of it is to spin the departure story? I'm always surprised that anyone thinks anything "reformers" do is done out of sincerity. Follow the money.

tmare said...

I will be surprised if Rhee doesn't pull a Glen Beck on everyone. He spent time at CNN looking like a somewhat sane person but as soon as he moved to Fox, the nuttiness came out in full force. She will now be free to show us just how nutty she is and finally the baggers can fully align with her and everyone else will see her for the fraud she is.

Unknown said...

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