Michelle Rhee to step down as StudentsFirst chief, take ‘next step in life’


Michelle Rhee (Alan Diaz/AP)

(Update: Confirmation of Rhee plans to step down; Rhee comments)

Michelle Rhee has been the most visible star in the nation’s galaxy of school reformers since she became D.C. schools chancellor in 2007, abruptly quit in 2010, and started an advocacy organization called StudentsFirst in 2011. Now, she is preparing to step down soon from her role as head of StudentsFirst at a time when the organization is facing questions about its effectiveness, and when she is ready, she said, to focus “on my family and supporting my husband.”

She is not, however, disappearing entirely from the reform world even as she takes up a new position as board member of the Ohio-based Scotts Miracle-Gro Co., a company that makes lawn, garden and home protection products. (Yes, Scotts Miracle-Gro.)

Rhee’s plans, first reported by Joy Resmovits of the Huffington Post,, call for her to vacate her post by the end of this year. She will remain active on the StudentsFirst Board of Directors, which is headed by Connie Chung and whose members include Bill Cosby and Joel Klein. Rhee has been quietly telling friends of her plans, Resmovits reported. Rhee, who is married to Sacramento Mayor Kevin Johnson, apparently has changed her last name to Johnson. The Scotts Miracle-Gro announcement of her appointment says her name is Michelle A. Johnson.

In a blog post on the StudentsFirst website titled “Our Next Chapter”, she wrote in part:

While I remain 100 percent committed to the success of StudentsFirst, it’s time for a shift in the day-to-day management of the team and our advocacy work. We’ll be sharing more of the nuts-and-bolts details about that in the coming weeks.

It’s also time for my next step in life, which will be focused on my family and supporting my husband in the tremendous work he is doing as his he continues to move forward with his career. His focus and passion for underserved communities and ensuring access to equal opportunity will be central to whatever comes next for us.

Rhee has two daughters with her first husband, Kevin Huffman, the education commissioner of Tennessee.

The news comes after she was recently named interim board chairwoman of St. Hope Schools, a small group of Sacramento charter schools founded by her husband. She was also just appointed to serve on two of the Scotts Miracle-Gro board’s committees — innovation/marketing and compensation/organization, according to Columbia Business First.

Francisco Castillo, spokesman for StudentsFirst, confirmed in an e-mail that StudentsFirst was close to hiring a new president to run the organization’s day-to-day affairs, filling a post that has been empty for some time. Rhee wasn’t the president but rather the CEO. He would not say whether a new chief executive would be named.

Rhee will be stepping down at a time when StudentsFirst’s visibility in states around the country is shrinking — it is pulling out of five states (Florida, Minnesota, Indiana, Iowa and Maine) and will remain in 13 — and after it has repeatedly failed to meet fundraising goals.

When Rhee founded StudentsFirst in 2011, she appeared on Oprah Winfrey’s show to announce that she planned to raise $1 billion to support political candidates who believed in her style of corporate school reform and to promote those reforms around the country. First she said it would take a year, then five years. Tax records, however, show that the group hasn’t come close to the original projection. Andrew Ujifusa of Education Week notes here that the latest records show that StudentsFirst has “distributed about $5.3 million” in political contributions since 2011.

This 2013 profile of her by my colleague Lyndsey Layton said that Rhee attained a unique celebrity status in the reform world as a result of her controversial tenure as D.C. schools chancellor and then as head of StudentsFirst:

… Rhee has transformed herself into an education celebrity, the likes of which the country hasn’t seen before.

“There is no one else in this space who can command attention like she can,” said Andrew J. Rotherham, a former Clinton administration official who now runs Bellwether Education, a nonprofit group that works to improve education for low-income students. “She has star power. People in the business call it a Q score. . . . For an issue like education, definitely a second-tier issue, that’s no small thing.”

Attention she did command, becoming not only the most visible reformer but also the most controversial, and not only because she appeared while D.C. chancellor on the cover of Time magazine holding a broom, a symbol for her intent to push out anyone who got in her way. She instituted a controversial assessment system that included linking student standardized test scores to the evaluations of every adult in a school building — including the janitors — and a merit pay system that was funded by private money she attracted from foundations. She quit in 2010 after Vincent Gray defeated her mentor, Mayor Adrian Fenty, in the Democratic primary. StudentsFirst became her vehicle for pushing her reform view as she flew around the country and met with governors and state legislators, persuading them to pass reform laws she supported even as opposition to her agenda grew among teachers, principals, superintendents, parents and students.

Meanwhile, in D.C. Public Schools, the black-white achievement gap she said her reforms would be helpful in closing remains stubbornly large.

Valerie Strauss covers education and runs The Answer Sheet blog.
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Valerie Strauss · August 13