From obscurity to Oprah, an education celebrity divides

Lyndsey Layton / The Washington Post /

In camera-ready red, Michelle Rhee started the week on the set of MSNBC’s “Morning Joe.” The next night, she was the subject of an hour-long documentary on “Frontline.” In several weeks, she’ll tour the country to promote her new memoir, “Radical.”

In the two years since her short and stormy tenure as chancellor of Washington’s public schools, 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 Rotherham, a former Clinton administration official who now runs Bellwether Education, a nonprofit 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.”

Rhee has created a political organization, StudentsFirst, that gives her a national platform. In just six years, she has rocketed from obscurity to the kind of fame that turns heads at the airport.

“Michelle has accomplished becoming a celebrity,” said Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers and Rhee’s frequent nemesis. “She spends a lot of time trying to show that she’s very important.”

And the division she inspired in the District of Columbia — where she was condemned by some, lionized by others — has followed her to the national stage.

Rhee’s philosophy

Rhee embodies one extreme in the debate over public education. She believes that every child can achieve, regardless of conditions such as poverty, broken homes, underfunded schools. In her view, the main obstacles are weak teachers, bloated bureaucracies, union contracts. She is driven by data, convinced that learning and teaching can be measured with as much certainty as a dieter tracks progress on a bathroom scale.

Her agenda has provoked aggressive pushback from teachers unions and many progressives, who say that social factors have a profound impact on children and that Rhee’s policies unfairly scapegoat teachers. They say the worship of test data has created a “drill and kill” culture that has narrowed curriculum, sucked the joy out of the classroom and, in extreme cases, resulted in test scandals in Atlanta, Washington and elsewhere.

The AFT maintains a website, RheeFirst, that carries an image of Rhee wearing a cartoon crown. A “Where is Rhee?” map tracks her appearances across the country, and a “RheeTweet” section scrolls 140-character blasts of snark from Rhee-haters across the Web.

Conservative groups and many leading Republicans adore Rhee. She frequently appears with tea-party-backed governors, schmoozes billionaire donors, and collects awards from right-leaning think tanks and organizations dedicated to shifting tax dollars to private schools.

Some high-profile Democrats also embrace her. “Michelle is a fearless advocate, fully determined to put the focus back where it belongs — on kids,” said Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, a onetime organizer for the teachers union who now says the union is an obstacle to better education in his state.

Rhee, 43, aims to spread the kind of change she promoted in District of Columbia: closing failing schools, evaluating teachers based in part on how well their students perform, firing weak teachers and paying bonuses to successful ones. She also supports private-school vouchers for low-income children and says parents should be able to shut down weak schools through “parent trigger” laws.

In Rhee’s worldview, if a student isn’t learning, adults — in the form of bureaucracy — are to blame. “There’s no shortage of highly effective educators, of innovators,” Rhee said in an interview with The Washington Post on Wednesday. “The problem is that the kids and educators have to operate in an insane bureaucracy.”

A political force

After her boss, Washington Mayor Adrian Fenty, a Democrat, lost his bid for re-election in 2010 — due in part to political fallout from Rhee’s teacher firings and school closures — Rhee mapped out her next move. Convinced that Fenty’s defeat came at the hands of the teachers union, Rhee believed the nation needed a political counterweight to the unions in debates over education that were taking place nationwide.

With help from her husband, Kevin Johnson, a former NBA player who is the Democratic mayor of Sacramento, Rhee created StudentsFirst to push her agenda in state capitals, where most education policy is set. “There hasn’t been a national group advocating on behalf of kids,” Rhee said. “The unions have a 30-year start on us. But we’re creating that balance. Putting pressure on legislatures to make decisions in the best interest of kids.”

She communicates that idea in ways that grab attention — by wielding a broom on the cover of Time magazine as if she is sweeping out bad teachers or by unflinchingly firing a principal as a television camera rolls, with little regard for his dignity.

“She’s got a very simple message that is highly seductive because it appears to give an answer to our difficult education problems,” said Richard Kahlenberg, a senior fellow at the Century Foundation, a liberal-leaning research group.

It would be great if her ideas translated into good results for kids, Kahlenberg said.

“But, in fact, we’ve got two grand experiments of her theory,” he said. “The first is the American South, where teachers unions are weak and the schools are not lighting the world on fire. The other is charter schools, which are 88 percent non-unionized. In charters, you can do everything that Michelle Rhee wants to do — fire bad teachers, pay good teachers more. And yet, the most comprehensive studies looking at charter schools nationally find mediocre results.”

So Rhee’s premise is faulty, he said. “But it’s a simple idea, and in the media, it’s powerful to have heroes and villains,” Kahlenberg said. “The fact that evidence doesn’t back her up doesn’t seem to prevent her from getting wide notoriety.”

Rhee notes that her brand of education reform is increasingly gaining traction. The idea of using student test scores to evaluate teachers, for example, began in the District of Columbia in 2009 under Rhee. Today, 38 states have implemented similar systems or plan to do so.

“Things that five years ago people never would have said were possible are happening at a large-scale level nationally,” she said.

Rhee announced the creation of StudentsFirst two years ago from the best perch possible: Oprah Winfrey’s couch. She declared the birth of a national movement, pledged to raise $1 billion in five years and got a hug from the TV host.

But StudentsFirst has a long way to go.

From its founding in October 2010 through July 2011, the organization raised $7.6 million, the most recent federal tax filings show. Kahlil Byrd, who became president of the group in November, said donors have pledged $150 million by 2016.

Rhee, as the chief executive of StudentsFirst, which employs 124 and is based in Sacramento, earns an annual salary of $61,000, according to federal tax filings.

But she can make almost as much as that through a single speaking engagement. According to Creative Artists Agency, Rhee Enterprises charged $50,000 per speech in 2011.

In the 2012 general election, StudentsFirst contributed to 105 candidates in eight states. Most of those candidates — more than 80 percent — won their races. And the vast majority were Republicans.

Rhee, who calls herself a liberal Democrat, says StudentsFirst is bipartisan. “The unions want to frame us up as right-wing Republicans. The reality is the landscape is shifting now, the Democratic Party is shifting. The policies on our agenda — the vast majority are things that (Education Secretary) Arne Duncan and President Obama have made priorities. We’re not right-wing crazies.”

Indeed, when Rhee left the District of Columbia, Duncan saluted her as “a pivotal leader in the school-reform movement” and predicted that she would be a “force for change wherever she goes.”

As state legislatures reconvene, StudentsFirst last week issued its first “Report Cards” that graded states according to whether they embrace the policies of StudentsFirst. The group, Byrd said, has staff in 17 states and is aiming to pass laws and run candidates in 2016.

Meanwhile, new questions were raised by the “Frontline” documentary about Washington students’ test score gains during Rhee’s three years as chancellor and whether teachers — offered hefty bonuses by Rhee for academic gains — changed scores. Although Washington public schools officials have said that the allegations were investigated thoroughly and that there was no evidence of widespread tampering, the claims have lingered, casting a shadow over Rhee’s tenure.

Still, Rhee navigates the national debate over the best way to educate children, seemingly unfazed.

On the Web

www.studentsfirst.org