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 Calderon’s brother, state Sen. Ronald Calderon, 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, Senator 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 earlier had 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 the young Calderon’s successful campaign for the California Assembly.
Senator 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.