Rhee to lead reform advocacy group

By Bill Turque and Nick Anderson
Washington Post Staff Writers
Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Michelle A. Rhee, who often expressed impatience with politics in more than three years as D.C. schools chancellor, launched a new political organization Monday that plans to spend $1 billion to bring her aggressive brand of education reform to the national stage.

Rhee said the new group, StudentsFirst, will pressure elected officials and bankroll candidates at all levels of government who support her approach. The agenda includes recruiting high-quality teachers who are held accountable for student growth, swiftly removing those who do not perform, offering merit pay to reward top educators, expanding school choice and fostering parent and family involvement.

"We'll support any candidate who's reform-minded, regardless of political party, so reform won't be just a few courageous politicians experimenting in isolated locations," Rhee, a longtime Democrat, said in a first-person essay in Newsweek. "It'll be a powerful, nationwide movement."

The announcement marks the widely anticipated next chapter for Rhee, 40, who resigned in October after Mayor Adrian M. Fenty's Democratic primary loss to Vincent C. Gray, who was elected mayor in November.

While Rhee made news last week by accepting an unpaid position on the education transition team of Florida Gov.-elect Rick Scott (R), her new venture will be her principal vehicle to promote educational change. StudentsFirst was rolled out in a carefully coordinated media blitz on Monday that included the Politico Playbook, the cover of Newsweek, a segment on Oprah and a new Web site. Rhee will be the group's chief executive and public face as it tries to raise $1 billion from corporations and individuals.

As D.C. schools chancellor, Rhee upended a school system with a history of low academic achievement, imposing a rigorous teacher evaluation system that triggers dismissal for low-performing teachers and negotiating a labor contract that provides performance pay and new latitude for principals in choosing their faculty. She closed more than two dozen schools and fired or laid off teachers and principals by the hundreds.

Standardized test scores generally improved.

But Rhee and Fenty alienated large segments of the public school community. Parents said that she appeared not to be interested in their input. Teachers said that she blamed them completely for the system's poor academic record. Some members of the D.C. Council said they found her dismissive and uncommunicative.

In the aftermath of Fenty's loss - which she said "stunned" her - Rhee acknowledged she had erred by paying scant attention to the political impact of her changes.

"I thought, very naively, that if we just put our heads down and we worked hard and produced the results, people would be so happy that they would want to continue the work," she told a D.C. audience in October. "We were absolutely incorrect about that."

She said in Newsweek that StudentsFirst is the product of her realization that results alone are not sustainable without political support.

"From the National Rifle Association to the pharmaceutical industry to the tobacco lobby, powerful interests put pressure on our elected officials and government institutions to sway or stop change," Rhee said. "Education is no different. We have textbook manufacturers, teachers' unions and even food vendors that work hard to dictate and determine policy. The public-employee unions in D.C., including the teachers' union, spent huge sums of money to defeat Fenty . . . but there is no big, organized interest group that defends and promotes the interests of children."

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