The day after Washington, D.C., Mayor Adrian Fenty lost his reelection bid last September, Michelle Rhee, the city's schools chancellor and No. 1 lightning rod, had an OMG moment. For three years, Fenty had constantly spent political capital defending Rhee as she fired hundreds of teachers and principals, closed schools, and earned both education reformers' adoration and teachers' unions' wrath. He eventually paid with his job — and she knew she'd soon pay with hers. What am I going to do? she thought.
She went to Hawaii with her fiancé, Kevin Johnson, the former NBA star, charter-school founder, and Sacramento mayor. At this point, she was flooded with job offers. "I know how you are. You just want to make a decision and jump into the next thing," Johnson said to Rhee. "I'm not going to let you do that. We're going to take our time." She replied, "That's not how I operate." "Well, this is the way you're going to do it this time," he said.
On October 13th, Rhee announced her resignation. Suitors — rumored to include Chicago mayoral hopeful Rahm Emanuel and New Jersey Governor Chris Christie — kept coming after her. She says one private-sector exec offered her well north of $1 million a year, "and I literally wasn't going to have to do anything." Says Johnson: "She was getting really antsy because she doesn't like being in limbo."
In October, Charlie Rose interviewed Rhee at the Forstmann Little conference in Aspen, Colorado. As they discussed the problems with America's education system, a plan began to crystallize in her mind. Later that day, Rhee flew to Sacramento and went with Johnson and his mother to dinner at Mulvaney's, one of her favorite restaurants. Johnson could sense something was up. "She just had this clarity and this peace," he recalls. He gave Rhee his business card, and she started scribbling on the back. By dinner's end, they had the outline of an organization that would throw huge amounts of money behind the brand of reform that Rhee has long advocated, first as founding CEO of the New Teacher Project and then as D.C. chancellor. It would be set up not as a charity but as a political-advocacy and membership group, along the lines of AARP or the NRA, and it would rely on private donations and Rhee's star power. "This is it," Johnson told her with a smile.
On December 6th, Rhee announced on Oprah that she would not work for anyone else. Instead, she was starting an organization called Students First. She planned to raise $1 billion and recruit 1 million supporters in year one. Right after the show, Rhee's 11-year-old daughter, Starr, texted her, saying, "I plan on signing up to be a supporter."
A base of a million people and a billion dollars would be unprecedented within education reform. Rhee is reluctant to name her potential donors, but IMG chief Theodore Forstmann tells Fast Company that he is "very supportive of everything she stands for — and will continue to be." Philanthropist Eli Broad says he "expects to be a major contributor." "People supporting the status quo have spent hundreds of millions of dollars a year to maintain it," Broad says. "I think she'll be a game changer."
In the coming weeks and months, Rhee plans to push her main points. She wants to change the tenure and seniority rules that she says have favored adults and their jobs over kids' educations. She'll campaign for parents to have more control over what public schools their children attend. She will lobby for cities to choose mayoral, rather than board, control of schools, because she believes that concentrating authority — as in New York and D.C. — is a prerequisite for real reform. And given the soaring spending but middling performance of American public schools, she'll advocate stronger fiscal responsibility.
A key pillar of Students First's strategy is to build grassroots support, much as Barack Obama did during the 2008 presidential campaign — with thousands of small donors and on-the-ground campaign workers. Johnson has pushed Rhee hard on this: "They didn't do as good a job as they should have on community involvement in D.C.," he says. "Unless you have the grassroots folks who want it even more than the policy makers, it's never going to happen."
Rhee may have to modulate her sales pitch to succeed. "An important segment of the education community sees her as divisive, anti-teacher, and confrontational," says Jeffrey Henig, a professor of political science and education at Columbia Teachers College. Andrew Rotherham, cofounder of the ed-reform not-for-profit Bellwether Education Partners, adds that Rhee cannot act as she did in D.C. "There is a half-life to the ass-kicking Michelle Rhee," he says. "She's also the very thoughtful Michelle Rhee of the New Teacher Project. She has to strike that balance."
In a series of interviews in New York and Sacramento, Rhee told Fast Company the inside story of the genesis of Students First, discussed her hopes for the organization, and talked about those audacious goals.
FC: When did you get this idea?
It's been percolating in my and Kevin's minds for four or five years. He has always talked about the inside-outside — a great superintendent can't change the system alone. You have to have a great mayor and work both sides of the system. And you need to mobilize people. The problem was, we could never think of a call to action.
It seems that, especially after Waiting for Superman [Davis Guggenheim's ed-reform documentary, which features Rhee], many people want to do something.
In April, Kevin and I went to see a first cut of Waiting for Superman. We were talking to the producers, and they said, "We need a call to action!" By the way, I think that movie should be required viewing. I get emails all the time from people who saw it, who want to know, What can we do to help?
What finally helped you answer that question?
It occurred to me that we were going to politicians and appealing to their sense of what is good and right, but they have the unions helping fund their campaigns. You're going to go with the money people who get you into office. I started to get the feeling we were playing the wrong game.
Wrong? Is that the right word?
It was a noble effort.
Explain the organization's name.
We were originally thinking of calling it Fix Our Schools, but we were talking about other options. When Students First came up, someone said, "How cool would it be if you were on Meet the Press, for David Gregory to say, 'This is Randi Weingarten from the American Federation of Teachers and Michelle Rhee of Students First'?"
You've said that no other organized interest group is devoted to kids. That bothers some ed-reform groups working on these issues.
Yes, there are organizations doing good work, but they're not playing at the national level. That's going to drive the influence that you can have. I'm talking about building an organization that has equal heft with the current interest groups that are driving the agenda.
The arguments on tenure and seniority really rankle the unions. [After Rhee announced Students First, Weingarten issued a statement saying, "We wish Michelle Rhee well and hope she learns, as we have, that promoting education reform through conflict and division will not serve the interests of children."]
People make it sound as if I hate the unions. No. The unions are doing what they are supposed to do: representing the interests of their members. But let's talk about layoffs. There are lots of problems with seniority-based layoffs. The L.A. Times looked at which teachers were recently laid off in Los Angeles and bumped that list up against the teacher-performance data they have there. Many who were laid off were in the top quintile. That's just insane! The union president says this is the only way to do it that's fair. But it's in direct contradiction to what's right for kids. If they had done it by quality, not seniority, it would have been more cost effective and better for stability; you would have laid off fewer teachers. Those are the kinds of policies we're going after — and they exist everywhere.
So will you be working on the federal level?
This is going to be a national movement, but we'll work mainly at the municipal and state levels. That's where the laws need to be changed. People think about the obvious cities — New York, L.A., Denver, Detroit — but I've gotten a disproportionate number of emails from places like New Mexico. Who knew there were so many people who wanted education reform in New Mexico?
What kinds of political candidates will you back?
Colorado is a place where a lot of human-capital issues are being addressed, and Democratic state senator Mike Johnston is an example of someone who is driving that. Another good example is Democrat Gloria Romero, who ran to be the superintendent of public instruction in California and lost. She took some bold and courageous stands, so the teachers' unions got behind the other candidates. She got no cover.
What kind of activism are you hoping for from parents?
In California, there's a new law called the Parent Trigger. It says that if 51% of parents sign a petition, they can take over a school or turn it into a charter. In November, I went and met with a group of parents trying to pull the trigger in Compton. My job was to rally the troops. It was terrifying to hear some of the parents' stories. This group was about 75% Latino, 25% African-American, and some of them had been told, "If you sign the petition, you will get deported." They were scared. If 51% of the people in that community are willing to say, "Enough is enough" anyway, that's huge.
How does your D.C. experience inform your call for more grassroots involvement?
In D.C., we weren't able to connect all the dots on this. We need to be invited into communities. We can see a need all we want, but there has to be a grassroots component that can compel others to act for change. Who goes to school-board meetings? Not many people. But board members are driven by the loudest voice in their ears. If you get 200 people to show up and say, "Let me tell you something ..." it will make a difference. We need more sunshine put on the folks making the decisions.
Why are you the right person to do this?
A flight attendant told me the other day, "You say things that normal people can understand." Maybe part of the reason is that I talk a lot about my perspective as a mother.
You're sounding more like a politician.
We're going to be in the political arena, we are going to be putting pressure on politicians to be more radical on education, and we're going to make sure the politicians are not compromising things away. But I'm not a politician!
But you're sounding more like one, which maybe you have to be.
The number of people with school-age kids in this country is something like 20%, but 20% does not a movement make. We need to create a sense of urgency among a much broader group of people. This is not just about poor kids in inner-city D.C.; this is about the U.S.'s competitiveness, its security, and its stability. We need the people who are getting screwed by the system to do something about it, and in this case, that's everybody. We need collective outrage for this to succeed. People have to want the change, and then we can help them get there.
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A version of this article appeared in the February 2011 issue of Fast Company magazine.