Michelle Rhee made a splash Monday with her announcement of a new organization – Students First – to push her education reform priorities.
The advocacy group will be “a new voice to change the balance of power in public education,” Ms. Rhee promises in a Newsweek cover story that she wrote, which was kept under wraps until after her appearance on "The Oprah Winfrey Show" Monday morning.
And – as was the case when she was chancellor of Washington, D.C., schools – she promises not to “shy away from conflict.”
“When [Rhee] left D.C., she kept saying she recognized that there was a need for a political support and political ground game to support that kind of reform,” says Frederick Hess, the American Enterprise Institute’s director of education policy studies, referring to controversial changes Rhee enacted in Washington, including closing schools, firing teachers, and changing union contracts. “She very explicitly is setting out to be a political answer to the unions.”
Rhee has long been a lightning rod in the education world.
She’s lionized by reform advocates who admire her willingness to take on teachers' unions and push ahead on controversial ideas, and was one of the heroes of the recent education documentary “Waiting for ‘Superman.'”
At the same time, she’s vilified by many in the unions, who say her methods – which tend to shun the consensus-building approach that other districts have tried – are counterproductive and unfairly demonize teachers. She stepped down from her post after former Washington Mayor Adrian Fenty lost his primary – a loss attributable at least in part to his education policy.
“Michelle Rhee likes to say that teachers unions are the problem, but the leading states and countries in educational outcomes – such as Finland, South Korea, and Singapore – are heavily unionized,” the American Federation of Teachers said in a statement Monday. “They focus on building on what works … and they do so through collaboration, not conflict or scapegoating.”
In the Newsweek article, Rhee says that across the country, “the rationale for the decisions [in school districts] mostly rests on which grown-ups will be affected, instead of what will benefit or harm children.” And she takes a swipe at the unions, saying that “I don’t think the unions can or should change. The purpose of the teachers’ union is to protect the privileges, priorities, and pay of their members. And they’re doing a great job of that.”
She acknowledges, however, that in Washington she could have done a better job of communicating and of expressing how much she values good teachers.
Students First will be a membership-driven organization, and Rhee’s goal for the first year is to garner 1 million members and raise $1 billion, a large sum of money that could be spent backing reform-minded candidates and policy changes around the country.
Already, the announcement has gathered outsize attention – largely attributable to Rhee’s recognizable name and popularity with the press. She was a trending topic on Twitter Monday morning.
“Something that’s different about Michelle that isn’t in this space right now is her ability to get attention from people that normally wouldn’t be paying attention to education,” says Joe Williams, president of Democrats for Education Reform, which supports many of the more market- and performance-based reforms that Rhee espouses. “I think she’s going to have the ability to really set the agenda.”
Others say that her willingness to charge directly into conflict – in a very different style than that favored by most policy advocates – sets her apart and may allow her to fill a different niche in the already crowded world of education-reform groups.
“She’s a charismatic, high-profile national leader,” says Andrew Rotherham, cofounder and partner at Bellwether Education, and author of the Eduwonk blog. “And she’s unafraid to break a lot of china.”
[Editor's note: The original headline was changed to clarify the purpose of Students First.]