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“…I think fundamentally there is just a group of folks who are troubled by the basic notion of public education. It’s, it’s not a free market thing. It’s very much a collective effort of our country and of our state. It’s saying, this is important, this is essential for Democracy, this is essential for everybody’s economic well being, we pool together our resources. There are folks who just don’t, that’s just not their approach to things, they don’t like the idea that we work together and we support and, and help everybody move forward together…”

In the last month or so we’ve received four separate very slick mailings from Michelle Rhee’s organization, Students First.

Yesterday in Jefferson City we had the opportunity to speak briefly with Otto Fajen, the Missouri National Education Association Legislative Director, about education issues at the Capitol:

Show Me Progress: What’s your assessment of the legislative session?

Otto Fajen, Legislative Director, MNEA: I think the assessment is that they are in danger of, uh, really dropping the ball when there was consensus on some common sense pieces because those have been held hostage to, uh, kind of an out of state well funded Wall Street, uh, agenda.

Show Me Progress: And, and this is, uh, in, in reference to, uh, sort of an education, uh, kind of reform movement that’s funded from out of state?

Otto Fajen: Right. Right, I’m talking about Students First. Uh, it’s a new, relatively new group. They set up shop in Missouri. They’re in about a dozen other states. Um, they’ve set up, within the last year or so, here in Missouri. And they’re pushing various versions of kind of an anti, uh, worker anti union agenda couched in terms of, oh, we’re all about the kids, uh, hence the name, Students First…

Show Me Progress: And, and we’ve noticed it in, in our area, we’ve been getting a lot of mail from them.

Otto Fajen: Yeah, they’ve had a lot, they have the money to do a lot of media campaigns. And it’s interesting because they, they want to portray themselves as, um, you know, very progressive, you know, kind of, friendly to both parties and yet, when you look at their leadership, you look at Michelle Rhee, she’s kind of working in, in, uh, partnership with all of the usual figures, Scott Walker, Chris Christie, all the folks you see leading the charge in their respective states to try to take away rights for workers.

Show Me Progress: Uh, and, and do we have any idea who’s funding this?

Otto Fajen: Um, I think I, we’ve heard that indications that Eli Broad, uh, the Koch brothers, um, I think we’ve seen some indications that there’s a bit of an alliance with Rex Sinquefield, the Missouri, uh, funder of such causes. And I’m sure there are others.

Show Me Progress: And, and ultimately, what is their agenda?

Otto Fajen: Well, it, it’s hard to tell exactly what their specific policy desire is this year in Missouri ’cause their legislation has bounced all around. Um, but in general there’s a mistrust that, um, organization of workers can play a positive role, in particular in education. You know, when Americans come together with a collective voice somehow that’s gonna necessarily be something that’s to be distrusted and, and, uh, also, and I, the notion they communicate is that teachers get lazier and, and less, less productive as they get older. Uh, that there’s no value to experience, of learning how to really work your classroom and make sure that you’re taking care of the need of all the kids.

Show Me Progress: Uh, isn’t a big part of, uh, their agenda, this, sort of like standardized testing?

Otto Fajen: We’ve also seen that they want to really push that and it, it’s so the wrong direction for Missouri to overemphasize a very limited notion of the overall goal of public education. Uh, we’re really at risk of restricting, kind of dumbing down and confining the focus of public education. And it’s really, there’s no evidence whatsoever that this mania caused by No Child left Behind and, and state efforts that are leveraged by that has really produced anything beneficial. And in fact, most of the evidence is it’s a problem for school systems that left to their own devices would be better able, have more flexibility to really meet the needs of the kids and the parents and the district.

Show Me Progress: and, and isn’t this kind of ironic given, sort of, Michelle Rhee’s history?

Otto Fajen: Yes, it is kind of ironic. She has a kind of a dubious record I would say. Um, from the evidence we see from her history in D.C. public schools, uh, she was only there for a little over two years. Uh, she was very confrontational rather than trying to move the district forward together. She really wanted to attack the teachers, um, caused her to be un, her and the mayor to be unpopular. And now we’ve, you know, although she had touted that her kind of a hard line changes to the ay the district was running were great reforms that were producing great results. Now there’s a federal investigation going in to the, the test company flagged, uh, evidence that there was a lot of right to wrong test erasures. It’s an indicator of some kind of, uh, malfeasance going on in the, in the testing process. And so that, that, uh, kind of a systemic investigation is underway to determine if there, some of those gains were actually brought about because of improper conduct and cheating.

Show Me Progress: In, in the past when, uh, you know, I’ve seen the kind of polling data, when you ask people about their local public schools they have a very high opinion of them and the teachers that are in them. And yet, we get rhetoric that sort of demonizes teachers as, as a group, you know, collectively. Uh, how did we get there?

Otto Fajen: I think fundamentally there is just a group of folks who are troubled by the basic notion of public education. It’s, it’s not a free market thing. It’s very much a collective effort of our country and of our state. It’s saying, this is important, this is essential for Democracy, this is essential for everybody’s economic well being, we pool together our resources. There are folks who just don’t, that’s just not their approach to things, they don’t like the idea that we work together and we support and, and help everybody move forward together. And so the teachers are kind of at the center of the wok of doing that, and so they, unfortunately, have kind of become the target. Even though Gallup polling shows that right now, they’ve been polling on what people think about their local school district, and the support for the district, the teachers and, and the programs, it’s never been higher than it is now in twenty-five years they’ve polled.

Show Me Progress: well, thank you very much for your time.

Otto Fajen: You’re quite welcome.

Oh, and Michelle Rhee? She’s a registered lobbyist in the State of Missouri, via the Missouri Ethics Commission:

LOBID:L003301 Received Date:1/30/2012

Lobbyist’s Name Michelle Rhee Termination Date:

Lobbyist’s Address 825 K Street

Lobbyist’s Address2 2nd Floor

Lobbyist’s C/S/Z Sacramento, Ca 95814

[….]

Principal(s) listed by Lobbyist

[….]

STUDENTS FIRST

PO BOX 5280

SACRAMENTO CA 95817

(916) 287-9221 A 2/8/2012

Go figure.