Michelle Rhee is a lightning rod. Gwen Samuels, a former Head Start teacher and current education activist in Connecticut, knows what it is like to stand too close. When Samuels partnered with Michelle Rhee in Connecticut, a previously civil debate about education policy quickly turned into all-out warfare. “People I didn’t even know existed started coming after me,” Samuels told the HPR. Unwittingly, she had stumbled into the political minefield that surrounds America’s most beloved and hated education reformer.
Rhee first entered the national conversation as the hard-charging Chancellor for D.C. public schools. She was an unconventional choice for the job: 37 years old, Korean-American, and without significant school management experience. However, after being appointed by Mayor Adrian Fenty, she quickly established herself as a juggernaut in the national education reform movement.
She took on politically difficult fights, firing hundreds of school officials, closing under-enrolled schools, and pushing for a new contract incorporating a controversial merit pay provision. Meanwhile, she forged a national media presence, appearing on covers for Time and Newsweek and giving countless TV interviews. Rhee’s slew of transformative reforms ended when Fenty lost his reelection bid. She resigned the next day, but mere weeks later Rhee announced that she was founding StudentsFirst, an education reform organization. With unprecedented resources and unique media savvy, Rhee is reshaping the landscape of education reform.
The expectations surrounding StudentsFirst’s creation were high. Rhee announced intentions to raise a billion dollars and create a political counterweight to entrenched interests, fundamentally reshaping the landscape of education politics. Asked by the HPR to evaluate its success, Rhee expressed cautious optimism, saying, “We’ve made tremendous progress… we met our original goal of having one million members by our first year… We’ve raised a lot of money, changed a lot of laws, engaged in a lot of races. So, have we made a lot of progress? Yes, 100 percent.” “Have we changed the game for kids?”, Rhee asks rhetorically, answering, “on that front we’ve started to build an organization that is on track to do that.”
Many education reformers acknowledge StudentsFirst’s tremendous resources, given Rhee’s unparalleled fundraising capacity. Rhee biographer Richard Whitmire told the HPR, “She can do this because moguls will give her lots of money and it takes lots of money. Who else can do that? I can’t think of anyone.” These resources have the potential to reshape the politics of education reform.
StudentsFirst has spent those resources aggressively on advertising, lobbying, and support for endorsed state-legislators. John DeBerry, a Tennessee legislator who was endorsed by StudentsFirst, told the HPR, “They have the resources to support candidates and send people into communities to talk to people.” StudentsFirst has aggressively pushed back against DeBerry’s critics, sending paid canvassers into the district and trying to boost his pro-reform record.
The organization’s rapid expansion has not come without growing pains though. One local activist felt the organization’s style hurt long-term reform efforts, and most agree that Rhee’s claim that StudentsFirst is a grassroots organization is overstated.
The Lightning Rod
Samuels entered education activism because she wanted to improve her child’s school. She decided that a ‘parent trigger’, which would give parents a mechanism to demand turnaround of an underperforming school, should be introduced in the Connecticut state legislature. Samuels received pushback from teachers unions, but was unfazed until she started working with StudentsFirst. She says, “If I thought the union fight was hard, this was like me going in the ring with Mike Tyson.” The governor backed out of a rally he had previously committed to when Rhee announced she would attend. When the dust settled however, aggressive reform was passed.
The case highlights the effect that Rhee often has on a situation. Simply by showing up, she politicizes, nationalizes, and polarizes a situation. Those within the movement, however, insist that this can be beneficial. “She’s the lightning rod, the right flank” said the President of Students for Education Reform; “She changes the polarization.” Whitmire adds that many education reformers feel they have political cover to be more aggressive because “everyone has agreed to hate on Michelle,” and when they do, everyone else has more space to create consensus.
Rhee insists this isn’t a role that she intentionally fills. “ If some education reformers say [I’m] good to have around because then all their vitriol can be directed towards [me], and they have more cover to do their work, that’s fine. But that’s not really what I do.” Her role, she says, is just to advocate what’s best for kids. Ultimately, though, even those who have seen the costs of Rhee’s polarization at work acknowledge its effectiveness. “We needed our voices to be heard,” Samuels reflects, and Michelle Rhee brought along a loudspeaker.
“Michelle Rhee is a wimp”
Although legislative activism has largely been confined at the state level, StudentsFirst is also setting its sights on reshaping the national politics of education reform. Rhee herself insists that she is a liberal Democrat, but traditionally her style of education reform has been more popular with Republicans.
Rhee is confident that this is changing, stating, “When I started in education reform 20 years ago the Democratic Party was in general very reticent to get involved in these education reform issues…. The dynamics have shifted.” There has been tangible success: “The U.S. conference of mayors, through the leadership of my husband (the Mayor of Sacramento) passed some very controversial resolutions and they did it with a unanimous vote.”
Despite her interest in national policy making, Rhee insists that she will never run for public office. When pressed about whether or not she would accept the position of Secretary of Education, Rhee deferred, insisting, “I think Arne Duncan is doing an excellent job.” She believes she is more effective operating outside the system, commenting, “I think the most important thing I could be doing right now is exactly what I am doing at StudentsFirst.”
In the long-term, she sees the movement being driven by a new generation. “Someone should come along who is even more radical than I am… I’m waiting for the next person to come from behind and say ‘Michelle Rhee is a wimp’… the new kind of reformers should be pushing the wall forward’” For now, however, Rhee seems content to be running head-on into anything in her way, and although she’s been called many things, it seems unlikely anyone will be calling Michelle Rhee a wimp anytime soon.