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Star School Reformer’s Quick NJ Stop Leaves People Talking

Michelle Rhee's celebrity turn in Trenton, a statement of solidarity or a distraction from Christie’s controversial education record?

Credit: (Governor's Office/Tim Larsen)

Was Michelle Rhee’s high-profile visit to Trenton this week a powerful statement that puts New Jersey in the national forefront of school change? Or was it a political prop for the governor to distract his critics, as one Democratic leader claimed?

From her fans to her foes, Michelle Rhee’s presence at Gov. Chris Christie’s State of the State address on Tuesday sparked plenty of reaction and conjecture to the role she may play in the future for New Jersey and nationwide.

In the chair next to governor’s wife for the half-hour speech, Rhee sat smiling as Christie heaped praise on her like nobody else in the Assembly chamber.

"No one in America has been more clear that we must change our public education system -- from one that caters to the feelings of adults to one that prepares our children for the 21st century," the governor said.

"Michelle, thanks for coming today, and I want you to count New Jersey among those who are finally putting our students first," he said.

The Bully Pulpit

It may not be the last New Jersey has seen of Rhee as she takes to a national bully pulpit with her new advocacy group StudentsFirst, launched this winter after Rhee left the Washington chancellor job she held since 2007.

Rhee herself put out that signal in a column for the Wall Street Journal the day before, saying Christie and Newark Mayor Cory Booker were among those expressing interest in joining the StudentsFirst campaign, which mixes educator accountability, parental choice and fiscal prudence.

"Several governors, in states such as Florida, New Jersey, New Mexico and Nevada have been interested in how we might join forces," Rhee wrote. "Mayors in big cities such as New York, Los Angeles and Newark want to push the envelope, too."

What exactly Rhee’s influence -- formal or otherwise -- means to New Jersey and its schools is yet to be seen, since her group is nascent and its role in individual states not yet determined.

But she carried a glow of celebrity into the Statehouse this week that had people buzzing on Tuesday and still talking on Wednesday.

"Michelle Rhee and her message of truly putting students first will resonate across this state," said Kathleen Nugent, state director of Democrats for Education Reform. "Michelle is an expert at closing the achievement gap, and in New Jersey, like D.C., we have some of the best and worst school systems merely miles apart.”

On the Agenda

Some said the agenda set out by StudentsFirst looks very similar to that pitched by Christie, including its push for better evaluation of teachers and principals, its elimination of teacher tenure, and its call for more school choice, namely in charters.

She’s hardly alone in carrying the message, nor even the first. Still, her reputation in Washington, D.C., in instituting some of these changes, including taking on the teachers union and closing low-performing schools, carries the kind of no-nonsense tone that Christie has mirrored in New Jersey. It was no secret that he courted her to be New Jersey’s own state commissioner, something she passed up to start the new organization.

Some said the fall’s upcoming legislative elections here and in Virginia serve as a perfect platform for Rhee to exert her influence.

"Elections matter. And elections are part of what StudentsFirst is supposed to be a part of," said Derrell Bradford, executive director of the Excellent Education for Everyone, a school choice group based in Newark. "If you want to (make a difference), there are two places you can be involved this year. Virginia and New Jersey."

The man Christie did name as his commissioner, former New York City deputy chancellor Chris Cerf, yesterday bestowed his own praise on Rhee, while stopping short of going into any detail as to what, if any, work she’d be doing here.

"Michelle represents the unapologetic view to the moral urgency or serious school reform," Cerf said. "That sense of urgency is clearly shared by the governor and by me."

But Democrats were also citing Rhee’s presence in Trenton this week in less flattering terms. Assembly Speaker Sheila Oliver (D-Essex) said that New Jersey is a far more complicated system than the one Rhee led, a district not much larger than the Newark public schools.

Not a Viable Model

"The state of New Jersey is much larger than the District of Columbia, so wholesale closure of schools is not a model that works in our state," Oliver said.

State Sen. Paul Sarlo (D-Bergen) was the most dismissive, calling Rhee little more than a political showpiece for the governor to sugarcoat his education record, which included steep aid cuts, the bungled Race to Top grant application and a fired commissioner.

"She is a prop to say 'Look at her, look at her,' and not at his failed education policy," said Sarlo, chairman of the Senate’s budget committee.

And a spokesman for the New Jersey Education Association (NJEA), hardly a friend of the governor’s, said he was not going to give Christie too many points for his new ally.

"Clearly, she's setting up shop in New Jersey and Christie will be spending some scarce tax dollars on her services," said Steve Wollmer, the NJEA’s chief spokesman.

Whatever the perspective, the back and forth provided only further evidence that Rhee has become a seminal player in the nation’s education debates. One outside observer remarked yesterday that it’s a role that Rhee likely would never have if she remained head of a single district or even a state.

"Starting a new non-profit organization to promote this policy agenda nationally was rather brilliant on her part," said Ada Beth Cutler, dean of College of Education and Human Services at Montclair State University.

"It gives her a much wider sphere of influence than she could have running one district or even one state department of education," she said. “It provides her with a readymade bully pulpit, and it enables her to fund-raise to support her efforts."

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