She’s here to answer questions from women who are eager for inspiration: How did Rhee find the confidence to take on a high-profile job for which, she openly says, she lacked obvious qualifications? How has she — founder of the national lobbying group StudentsFirst and a leader in the education reform movement — managed life as a working mom?
“You can’t let the fear that you’re going to do something wrong stop you from taking action,” Rhee tells the gathering of about two dozen women as they lunch on salmon and polenta. “You’ve just got to be kind of fearless about how you run your life.”
For most of the past decade, Rhee was the lightning rod at the center of bitter national quarrels about education policies, including such issues as teacher tenure and standardized testing.
But now she has stepped away from that role, making her more of a fading figure in the education wars. She said she made the move to spend more time working with her husband, Sacramento Mayor Kevin Johnson, who is said to be interested in running for statewide office in California.
She said she will continue to travel the country for StudentsFirst, meeting with governors and legislators in an effort to persuade them to adopt education policies she favors. But as of Jan. 1, she no longer runs the organization, which never came close to the $1 billion fundraising goal she announced on Oprah Winfrey’s talk show in 2011.
She has joined the board of a California charter school chain her husband founded and the corporate board of Scotts Miracle Gro. And she fields a lot of requests to talk to women about the challenges they face in the workplace.
“People are like, ‘Are you relaxing?’ and I’m like, ‘No, I’m just as busy with all this stuff,” she said Thursday.
Rhee was in Washington with her husband for the winter meeting of the U.S. Conference of Mayors. She did not collect a fee for speaking Thursday; the lunch was organized by Safiya Jafari Simmons, who did public relations for Rhee in the D.C. school system and said it is the first in a series of women’s empowerment events she is planning.
Those who came to hear Rhee included fans from the education policy world: a D.C. parent who credited Rhee with “fighting for our kids,” an accountant, and a freelance writer who saw Rhee talking about the event on local television Thursday morning and decided to attend on a lark.
“I was very inspired by the idea of getting together with other women to talk about empowerment,” said the writer, Jacqueline Byrd of Greenbelt.
The question-and-answer session covered the familiar ground of working-women’s issues. Asked about finding work-life balance, Rhee said that in the debate over whether women can have it all, she firmly believes they can.
“You just can’t have it perfect,” she said, adding that women need to be open to life arrangements that allow them to have both a career and a family. Rhee’s husband lives in California, and her children live in Tennessee, with her ex-husband, so she travels often between Sacramento and Nashville, staying 10 days at a time in each city.
“It’s a little crazy,” Rhee said. “If my concept of what it is to be a good mom is the ’50s version of the room mother who bakes the brownies . . . then you’re right, I can’t have it all. But I actually think I’m a good mom.”
Discussion veered only occasionally into education policy, but Rhee told plenty of career war stories to illustrate her points about women as leaders.
During her time as D.C. chancellor, Rhee closed schools, fired teachers and appeared on the cover of Time magazine wielding a broom. Her legacy is still a matter of fierce debate in the city and across the nation. Textbooks were delivered on time; crumbling school buildings were rebuilt; and student test scores improved. But allegations of cheating have persisted for years, and the achievement gaps between black and white children, and poor and affluent children, remain among the largest in the nation.
Rhee’s champions and critics would agree that she has never lacked confidence. Her advice about finding an assertive voice at work: “It’s my nature to just speak my mind. I don’t know how to do things any other way. My husband would say: ‘Can’t nobody win an argument with you. Even when you know you’re wrong, you can come up with some kind of argument.’ ”
Rhee said the future likely holds more arguments over education policy, even if she has stepped away from the spotlight for now. “Somehow I manage to get dragged into stuff still,” she said. “I think that will always be the case.”