Chamber enlists ex-DC chancellor Rhee on education reform

The U.S. Chamber of Commerce and former D.C. public schools chancellor Michelle Rhee are joining forces to promote education reform. 

On Thursday, Rhee will take part in a Chamber-sponsored conference call with former Education Secretary Margaret Spellings to push state and local business groups to get involved in improving the nation’s schools. Part of that effort will be sending out DVDs of “Waiting for ‘Superman,’ ” a documentary that has been celebrated by some education reformers. 

“A lot of the times we hear that the No. 1 issue in their communities is the workforce and education reform,” said Rosemary Lahasky, director of education and workforce policy at the Chamber’s Institute for a Competitive Workforce. “We think this movie is a great way to start that conversation and give them some ideas to get the ball moving.”

Rhee has spoken at prior events hosted by the Chamber, and Lahasky said her message of reform is appreciated by business.

“She is challenging the status quo, and that really resonates with the business community,” Lahasky said. “The things she is talking about — school board reform, improving teacher evaluation — those are things we are definitely behind.”

The film being promoted by the Chamber has won plaudits from everyone from President Obama to talk show host Oprah Winfrey and features Rhee’s attempts to reform the D.C. public school system.

The movie has its critics, particularly among educators. Several teachers unions have criticized the film for what they say is an overly negative portrayal of the public school system.

The film will be included in education toolkits the Chamber is sending out this week to state and local business groups. More than 100 local chambers are expected to participate in the internal conference call Thursday with Rhee, who is now president and CEO of StudentsFirst, an education reform group.

“Waiting for ‘Superman’ ” profiles five children as they try to win a lottery draft to attend charter schools. Rhee is featured in the film, along with reformers like Geoffrey Canada and Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates.

While celebrated by many, the film came under criticism for its portrayal of teachers unions. On its website, the American Federation of Teachers say that the film is “incomplete and inaccurate” and does “a disservice to the millions of good teachers in our schools who work their hearts out every day.” 

Rhee often clashed with teachers unions as she worked under former D.C. Mayor Adrian Fenty.

Lahasky said the Chamber does not believe that all of the nation’s education system’s problems stem from teachers unions, but added that reform is needed regarding school contracts. 

“Teacher contracts, the way that they are set up now, need to be changed,” Lahasky said. “We should remove consistently ineffective teachers from the classroom. That is something that is very hard to do in many states now.” 

The Chamber event follows several centrist senators signing off on a set of education reform principles last week. It also comes as the White House gears up for reauthorizing the No Child Left Behind law this year.

Lahasky said the Chamber will work to pass No Child Left Behind this year.

“We at the Chamber are going to play a big part in that,” she said. “At the end of the day, the business community is the ones hiring these workers. They need the skills to compete in the 21st century.”