Michelle Rhee, center, answers questions after delivering a speech to… (Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles…)
SACRAMENTO -- As Michelle Rhee pushes her controversial brand of education reform in California's capital, she has tapped one of the town's most influential power brokers, Fabian Nunez, to guide her strategy.
The former Assembly speaker and high-powered consultant is serving as an advisor to StudentsFirst, the national advocacy group Rhee founded here.
As detailed in the Los Angeles Times, the organization is positioning itself as a political counterweight to teachers unions in the education debate. Funded by entrepreneurs and philanthropists, it's pushing to elect candidates and rewrite policies on charter schools, teacher assessment and other charged issues in at least 17 states, including California.
Hiring Nunez is a sign that Rhee's group is serious about pushing its hot-button agenda in the Democrat-dominated Legislature, which has deep ties to the powerful California Teachers Assn.
In an interview, Nunez, a Democrat who cut his political teeth as a union operative, said he hopes to play the role of mediator for StudentsFirst and labor leaders, though he made it clear that he thought the CTA had abused its clout with lawmakers. He cited the union's successful efforts last year to kill legislation that would have sped the dismissal process for teachers who abused students.
Teachers unions said the bill was an attack on teachers' due-process rights, giving school boards, rather than an administrative judge and two educators, final authority over dismissals.
"When that bill died, I think it gave a lot of people heartache," Nunez said. "I think there are a lot of labor Democrats who are coming to the conclusion that we can't read from the CTA script anymore."
The CTA has since announced its support for similar legislation this year.
Nunez said high-profile Democrats, including President Obama and Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, are pushing the party to adopt much of Rhee's agenda, something he plans to remind lawmakers in Sacramento.
"The status quo has been the biggest obstacle to making sure that our young people succeed academically," said Nunez, who counted the CTA as a close ally when he was Assembly speaker. "All of us have to take responsibility for that culture. I didn't focus on education as my top priority. Do I bear some responsibility? Of course. All of us do."
Nunez said past education initiatives have not closed the achievement gap, particularly for African American and Latino students.
"You now have a spotlight on this, and we've run out of excuses," he said.
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