NASHVILLE — The scourge of teacher unions across the country, Michelle Rhee briskly walked along a Tennessee legislative corridor on the first day of the session last week and spotted a state lawmaker, Democrat John DeBerry, of Memphis.
"Representative DeBerry!" the delighted CEO of the national education advocacy group StudentsFirst exclaimed, darting over to confer with the black socially conservative minister and school voucher advocate.
In the 2012 election, StudentsFirst put almost $114,000, mostly independent expenditures, into DeBerry's primary contest with Rep. Jeanne Richardson, helping DeBerry overwhelm Richardson.
For Rhee, a former Washington, D.C., schools chancellor and the ex-wife of Tennessee Education Commissioner Kevin Huffman, DeBerry is a walking, talking example of her group's growing political influence in the Legislature here.
StudentsFirst injected nearly $476,000 into campaigns last year, the bulk of it in state legislative races and most of it aiding Republicans, according to state Registry of Election Finance filings.
The group's Tennessee agenda includes promoting educational choice through school vouchers and creating a statewide charter school authorizer.
Last week, Rhee's group issued a report card for all 50 states, grading them on the types of reform she champions.
While ranking in the top tier, Tennessee earned an overall C minus, although it got an A-minus and two B-plusses in areas where Huffman has been active.
The American Federation of Teachers denounced the report cards. They "fail to measure what matters most to parents, teachers and students" and are "silent" on student achievement, school safety, small class sizes, early childhood education, investment in education, graduation rates and reading instruction, a spokeswoman told The Huffington Post.
Rhee told Tennessee reporters there was no need to delve into such issues because "there are already report cards that measure" those areas and she didn't want to "duplicate any of their good efforts."
Focus on Tennessee
Rhee has a particular interest in Tennessee. After her ex became Republican Gov. Bill Haslam's education commissioner, she moved to Nashville in 2011 to be near her children, who attend local public schools.
Rhee and Huffman both remarried after their divorce. Rhee said she gets along well with her former husband.
"Like any two people, I think there are things that we agree on and things that we don't agree on," Rhee said. "I think in general we're very supportive of the commissioner and the work he has been doing since he's gotten here."
She said she pays "attention to Tennessee because I live here, No. 1, because ... I have children in the schools here. But I would be paying attention to Tennessee even if I didn't live in Nashville because of the courage the governor and the Legislature have shown to date."
During Huffman's tenure, she noted, Tennessee lawmakers set up new teacher and principal evaluations that are "a model for the rest of the country."
Rhee also favors Huffman's efforts on school and district accountability, such as overhauling teacher tenure laws.
When Nashville's school board defied the state Board of Education last year and refused to let a Phoenix-based charter school open, Haslam and Huffman punished the district by yanking $3.4 million in state funding.
Now there's discussion of having a statewide authority to overrule local school boards. Charter schools are privately run public schools that are exempt from many state regulations.
Rhee said she and Huffman speak generally daily, "usually about the kids."
"We do talk about education policy sometimes in that I've known this man for the better part of our adult life, and we've always provided a lot of input to one another's careers," she said.
Asked why she doesn't push Huffman about vouchers personally, she laughed and said, "No, we don't have those kinds of conversations."
Rep. JoAnne Favors, D-Chattanooga, doesn't like Rhee's potential influence on Tennessee education.
On Friday, she called it "really selfish for people like Ms. Rhee to come to Tennessee and her ex-husband is the commissioner of education. That just doesn't sit well with me. I think there might be a conflict there. ... She's out trying to get vouchers."
Efforts to reach Huffman were unsuccessful.
The governor and Huffman have yet to embrace StudentFirst's call for school vouchers, or "scholarships," as backers often call them.
At Haslam's direction, Huffman last year headed a task force that made recommendations on how a voucher program might work. Haslam hasn't said if he'll ask for vouchers in his legislative package, but expects some lawmakers will push them.
StudentsFirst also favors a law allowing parents to force local school boards to kick out school administrators or convert schools to charters.
Other priorities include pay-for-performance for teachers, ending seniority as a consideration in layoffs and eliminating additional pay based on advanced degrees.
Money is power
Tennessee Education Association President Gera Summerford did not return a telephone call Friday.
In 2011, the Republican-dominated Legislature stripped the union of its collective bargaining powers. Though Haslam hadn't come out in favor of the bill, he signed it. Huffman became commissioner more than midway through the 2011 session.
In last year's campaigns, StudentsFirst outspent the teachers' union which put nearly $320,000 into mostly Democratic campaigns.
When starting StudentsFirst in 2010, Rhee declared she would raise $1 billion over five years to promote her ideas about education reform.
"Why we're doing it is very clear," Rhee said. "If you look at education policy and how it's operated in this country over the past two or three decades, it has been driven largely by special interest groups."
The list includes teacher unions, textbook publishing companies and education testing companies, she said. They have used their "tremendous resources" to "wield tremendous influence and get the laws and policies in place that benefit their organizations," she said.
That's simply the "way America works," Rhee said, but "what I do see as being problematic is that to date there has been no organized national interest group ... that is advocating on behalf of children."
Rhee says she is a Democrat and explains her group's overwhelming backing of Republicans by saying, "We are people who support anyone who is pro-child." She said StudentsFirst's support of Democrat DeBerry represented the organization's largest single expenditure in Tennessee.
Rhee operates two political action committees, one of which funds a Tennessee subsidiary. Under IRS rules, they don't have to disclose most donors except for foundations.
Rhee wouldn't say who her donors are except generally -- foundations, "high net-worth individuals, etc."
Asked whether the list includes interests that stand to make money off public education, such as charter school operators or online schools, Rhee said no.
"To be honest with you, none of them have offered to give us any money so we don't accept any money from groups like that," she said.
StudentsFirst's board of directors includes actor and comedian Bill Cosby, former New York City school chief Joel Klein, a top News Corp. executive, and former CBS Evening News co-anchor Connie Chung.
Andy Sher is a Nashville-based staff writer covering Tennessee state government and politics for the Times Free Press. A Washington correspondent from 1999-2005 for the Times Free Press, Andy previously headed up state Capitol coverage for The Chattanooga Times, worked as a state Capitol reporter for The Nashville Banner and was a contributor to The Tennessee Journal, among other publications. Andy worked for 17 years at The Chattanooga Times covering police, health care, county government, ...