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Education advocate Michelle Rhee fends off accusations

Michelle Rhee, head of a group that advocates using student test scores to evaluate teachers, fends off accusations that she failed to pursue evidence of cheating when she ran the D.C. school system.

April 17, 2013|By Howard Blume, Los Angeles Times

Michelle Rhee, head of an influential education advocacy group that backs using student test scores to evaluate teachers, this week fended off accusations that she failed to pursue evidence of cheating when she ran the District of Columbia school system.

In an internal memo, a district consultant warned that about 190 teachers at 70 schools — more than half the system's campuses — may have cheated in 2008 by erasing wrong answers on student testing sheets and filling in correct ones. The four-page document was made public last week in a post by PBS journalist John Merrow, who had received the memoanonymously.

In an interview with The Times editorial board, Rhee said that although she "didn't see the memo" at the time, consultant Sandy Sanford "was just writing a memo based on something that we already broadly knew." She noted that the testing company had expressed reservations about the erasure analysis the memo relied on, and she added that later investigations found no widespread wrongdoing.

Rhee served as the D.C. schools chancellor for three years, leaving in 2010. She currently heads StudentsFirst, a national lobbying, policy and campaign group based in Sacramento. The organization has donated to key legislative races across the country and gave $250,000 to L.A. school board candidates endorsed by Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa in the March election.

Similar allegations about erasures that surfaced in Atlanta recently resulted in a grand jury indictment against former schools Supt. Beverly Hall and others.Authorities have alleged that Hall conspired to cheat or conceal cheating. The result was fraudulent bonuses for employees and a false read on student achievement, prosecutors said.

Some education activists and journalists have alleged serious flaws in the investigations cited by Rhee. They noted that early probes in Atlanta also turned up limited wrongdoing. At one point, Rhee hired a firm to conduct a narrow review in D.C. — the same company whose findings Atlanta officials cited in their defense.

There have been sharp drops in test scores at some D.C. schools that were flagged in the past for high erasure rates, according to the Washington Post. Such declines could indicate cheating, but are not proof of it. To date, no in-depth erasure analysis of the 2008 answer sheets has been conducted.

In the interview, Rhee also confirmed that one of her two daughters attends a private school in Tennessee, where the girls live with their father, that state's top education official. Rhee is now married to Sacramento Mayor Kevin Johnson.

She has previously described herself as a "public-school parent." An aide repeated that phrase when The Times asked directly if Rhee's children were in public or private school.

"I try to maintain some level of privacy for my kids by not divulging too much information," Rhee said. "I say I'm a public-school parent when my kid goes to private school.

"I believe in parental choice," she said. "I think I should be able to choose … and every parent should have that option too."

howard.blume@latimes.com

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