Florida's lawmakers were starstruck.
Before them stood Michelle Rhee, the former Washington, D.C., public schools chancellor recently featured on The Oprah Winfrey Show, on a Newsweek cover and in the documentary film Waiting for Superman.
"I am here today to ask you to keep being a leader," Rhee said, urging members of two education committees to tackle one the few reforms that Florida has yet to achieve: a streamlined way to get "ineffective" teachers out of the classroom. "There is so much more to do."
Senate Pre-K-12 Committee Chairman Steve Wise called her a movie star, and even Sen. Eleanor Sobel, a more skeptical Broward Democrat, gave a nod to Rhee for "bringing new energy to the education debate."
But as he watched from the audience, the spokesman from Florida's teachers union wondered why lawmakers were listening to her. "It's a little difficult to understand why she is given rock star status," said Mark Pudlow of the Florida Education Association.
Sure, Rhee might have the ear of the governor and the praise of the president. Sure, Rhee has made national headlines pushing through controversial measures relating to teacher tenure, evaluations and salaries in D.C.
But Pudlow noted that Washington, D.C., schools score at the bottom of the national Education Week Quality Counts ranking, while Florida rates close to the top. He observed that some of Rhee's controversial efforts to fire "ineffective" teachers have been overturned by an arbitrator after the Washington Teachers Union fought the effort tooth and nail.
Valid concerns, said Rhee, an unpaid, informal adviser to Florida Gov. Rick Scott. She suggested looking through a different lens for some perspective.
"Over the three years that I was there, we saw really record gains in academic achievement on the NAEP (National Assessment of Educational Progress) examination," she said. "We went from being last in the entire nation to leading the entire nation in gains in both reading and math at both the fourth- and eighth-grade levels. And we were the only jurisdiction in the entire country in which every single subgroup of children improved their academic standing."
The 75,000-student district still isn't the best, she acknowledged. Far from it, in fact. But Rhee proposed that the gains that D.C. schools made might be replicated if other school systems adopt some of the "drastic changes" that she pushed through.
Her new national organization, Students First, seeks to get states to adopt similar changes. Rhee has made presentations to leaders in New Jersey and Indiana about these efforts, and she headed to Atlanta right after her Tallahassee stop to make a pitch to Georgia lawmakers.
But she sees Florida as the logical leader for altering the teacher contract landscape, she said, because of its history of adopting school accountability measures and the willingness of its leaders to take on the tough challenges that lie ahead. She credited former Gov. Jeb Bush — whom she has met with — for starting the ball rolling, and current Gov. Scott for taking the next step.
Some of Rhee's points to Florida lawmakers last week:
• End the practice of relying on seniority to determine which teachers stay and go during layoffs.
• Reduce the length of time low-performing teachers get to improve, so children's education is not wasted.
• Separate teacher evaluations from the collective bargaining process.
• Eliminate "tenure" and related systems.
House Rep. K-20 competitiveness subcommittee Chairman Erik Fresen thanked Rhee for creating a national blueprint for education reform.
"We have to start treating teaching as a profession," Fresen said.
Some observers question whether Rhee's approach does that at all.
Rhee has endured much criticism for her tough approach to the issue, where she didn't always wait for everyone to join forces with her before forging ahead. Some have contrasted her with Hillsborough County superintendent MaryEllen Elia, who is attempting to change the face of teacher evaluation with the local teachers union on board.
Richard Whitmire, a former USA Today editorial writer who wrote the Rhee biography The Bee Eater, said Rhee made things happen in a district that hadn't moved much before her tenure. Her relentless push for teacher quality won devoted followers, he said, but also had its fallout.
That's a lesson that Florida could draw from, Rhee said, acknowledging her own failure to communicate well with the public about her efforts.
"I didn't do as good a job as I needed to, to proactively go out to the great teachers and say, 'We're not talking about you. What I need you to do is stay. We want to recognize what you are doing. It's so important,' " she said. "You have to be careful not to send a message that you are blaming teachers or that you don't think teachers are good."
In fact, she said, teachers are critically important to the success of any effort to improve education. The strong ones want the weak ones out of their schools, Rhee related, and students deserve nothing less.
Wise stressed this point just before his committee passed its "teacher quality" bill on a unanimous, bipartisan vote.
"We are not here to punish teachers," Wise said, adding that he wants to hear from more teachers, as well as parents and others in order to improve the measure before it gets to a final vote.
Nathan Saunders, president of the Washington Teachers Union, said Florida lawmakers should think twice about heading down D.C.'s path. The full costs of Rhee's tenure have yet to be borne out, he said, but already they have begun to arise in the form of deficits and back pay for improperly fired teachers.
Boiled down, Saunders had one simple message for Florida lawmakers: "Florida should not be listening to Michelle Rhee."
Jeffrey S. Solochek can be reached at [email protected] or (813) 909-4614. For more education news, visit the Gradebook at www.tampabay.com/blogs/gradebook.