U.S.

National education reform advocate sought Calderon's influence

A meeting with lobbyists for Michelle Rhee occurred before the California state senator sponsored education reform bill

Michelle Rhee, founder of StudentsFirst and a former District of Columbia Public Schools chancellor, at a discussion on education reform in September.
Danny Moloshok/UPI/Landov

SACRAMENTO, Calif. — Lobbyists representing the nonprofit founded by education-reform activist Michelle Rhee met privately with Thomas Calderon, a political dealmaker here, the day before his brother Ronald Calderon, a state senator, introduced a controversial bill that would have toughened teacher performance evaluations, according to people familiar with the matter.

The meeting with lobbyists for StudentsFirst, Rhee’s nonprofit lobbying organization, occurred on Feb. 20 of this year. The next day, state and other public records show, Ronald Calderon introduced the bill championed by Rhee’s group. There is no indication that Rhee attended the meeting, and she did not respond to requests for an interview.

Ronald Calderon’s push for the education bill came after Rhee’s organization provided critical financial support to the political campaign of his nephew Ian Calderon. In May 2012, state records show, StudentsFirst funneled $378,196 through a political action committee to Ian Calderon’s successful campaign for the California Assembly.

Calderon
Click for more on the Calderon dynasty

Ronald Calderon, who declined to answer questions, faces the toughest challenge of his political career. In an earlier report, Al Jazeera’s Investigative Unit revealed that the FBI is investigating him for allegedly accepting $60,000 in bribes from undercover agents. In an undercover sting lasting more than a year, federal agents posed as independent movie executives. The story was based on a 124-page sealed affidavit.

Rhee is a polarizing national figure — a hero to those calling for radical changes in public education and a villain to teachers’ unions. Since stepping down as chancellor of District of Columbia Public Schools after only three years, Rhee has used StudentsFirst to enhance her profile in national politics. Her organization has spent hundreds of thousands of dollars backing education-reform campaigns across the country.

She is particularly active in Sacramento, where her husband, former NBA player Kevin Johnson, is mayor. In California, Rhee’s political action committee has spent $1.6 million backing political figures who support her agenda.

On Feb. 20, lobbyists for StudentsFirst met privately with Thomas Calderon, a well-heeled political consultant. Initially, Ronald Calderon was at the meeting but left at the suggestion of his brother, according to the account provided to Al Jazeera. Thomas Calderon and StudentsFirst representatives did not respond to Al Jazeera’s requests for comment.

The next day, state records show, Ronald Calderon introduced a bill that would have adopted many of the education reforms advanced by Rhee and her nonprofit. Calderon’s legislation sought to increase the frequency of teacher evaluations and would have created a new rating scale to replace the state’s pass-fail system. The bill failed in committee.

State campaign-finance records show that StudentsFirst earlier invested heavily in the campaign of Democrat Ian Calderon, who won a seat in the California Assembly in 2012. Rhee’s political action committee provided $250,000 to support an advertising drive, the records show, and another $41,000 to sponsor a voter poll, among other expenditures.

The infusion of campaign cash was vital. Calderon, 28, the youngest member of the Calderon political dynasty, was in a tight primary race against Assemblyman Rudy Bermudez, whose polls showed Calderon trailing.

Then, just before primary voters went to the polls, the race changed dramatically. “All of a sudden, it was like a flood,” said Patrick Reddy, the operations manager for Bermudez’s campaign. “Every night, Ian Calderon had mailers in people’s boxes. He had extra phone banks. If we had that money, we would have won easily.”

Ian Calderon claimed a narrow victory.

Ronald Calderon was a busy legislator the following February. Not only did he push the StudentsFirst’s education legislation, but he also sponsored a measure designed to change the rules governing movie tax credits — legislation an FBI undercover agent had given him tens of thousands of dollars to introduce, according to the FBI affidavit Al Jazeera obtained. The tax-credit legislation is the focus of the FBI’s criminal investigation. 

Katie Lannigan of Al Jazeera’s Investigative Unit contributed to this report.

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