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Posted: 9:38 a.m. Wednesday, Aug. 13, 2014

Can StudentsFirst survive without Michelle Rhee at the helm?  

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Photos of the Week, Feb 5-11, 2011
Jason Getz jgetz@ajc.com
HELP FOR GEORGIA SCHOOLS?--Former DC chancellor and education reformer Michelle Rhee talks with a legislator after she spoke to the House Education Committee in the Appropriations Committee Room at the Georgia State Capitol Thursday afternoon in Atlanta, Ga., Feb. 10, 2011.

By Maureen Downey

Former DC Chancellor Michelle Rhee will reportedly leave the top spot of the education reform advocacy group StudentsFirst, throwing into question the future of the 4-year-old organization she founded to transform American schools.

Her departure from the CEO role poses a challenge for StudentsFirst as Rhee was the focal point, a lightning rod for both controversy and fundraising. The organization has already pulled out of Florida, Iowa, Indiana, Maine, and Minnesota.

The group remains active in Georgia. "StudentsFirst has no intentions of slowing down in Georgia. In fact, Georgia is one of the states where we're focused more heavily since we shifted resources away from other states. Michelle Rhee is fully committed to education reform and leading StudentsFirst," said spokesman Lane Wright.

As an ex StudentsFirst staffer told Huffington Post: "In practice, this has always been about Michelle. I'm not claiming that she's egomaniacal, but the power of this movement has been that this is a Democratic teacher of color, and so the ability of the traditionalists to write all this off as billionaire white male Republicans was very, very hard to do when Michelle had the profile that she did."

Writing in his popular education blog a year ago, Stanford professor emeritus Larry Cuban cautioned the future of StudentsFirst depended on the staying power of Rhee: “Compared with the efforts of the deep-pocketed Koch brothers in influencing state legislatures through the American Legislative Exchange Commission (ALEC), or the well-funded Democrats for Education Reform (DFER), Rhee’s organization is minor league in political acumen,  expertise, and experience in political advocacy. Nor does StudentsFirst have any bench strength; it is all Michelle. If  she leaves the organization out of fatigue or pique, no more StudentsFirst. Moreover, such political work to be effective is back-channel and under the media radar. Such work is not Michelle Rhee, considering her few years in Washington, D.C. and since.”

In June, the Minneapolis Star Tribune  reported StudentsFirst had shut down its Minnesota office. Denise Specht, president of Education Minnesota, told the Star Tribune: “National education franchises like StudentsFirst struggle to find an audience in Minnesota because they sell policies developed far away by people who don’t know our schools. So they push ideas that appeal to wealthy donors around the country, but don’t quite fit in Minnesota, which has some of the best schools and students in the nation.”

Rhee was a welcome visitor to Georgia where she found a receptive audience for her message of stronger teacher accountability.  She has been twice in the last three years to consult with Gov. Nathan Deal and House and Senate leaders on proposed education initiatives.

According to Huffington Post:

In recent months, as local media have reported that StudentsFirst is winding down activities in at least four states, Rhee has taken on other jobs. It was recently reported that she would become board chair of St. Hope Public Schools, a charter school chain run by her husband, Sacramento Mayor Kevin Johnson (D). (Rhee recently changed her name to Johnson, but she is continuing to use Rhee professionally.) This week, Scotts Miracle-Gro Co. announced Rhee would join the company's board.

"She's been really brutally attacked personally, and StudentsFirst has not been as effective as she wanted," said a former prominent StudentsFirst staffer, who declined to be named, wanting to preserve relationships in education reform. "It's been frustrating. It's not totally shocking that eventually even she would decide to step away."

The change comes as the education reform movement that Rhee spearheaded has a new face: Former CNN news anchor Campbell Brown. Recently, Brown's organization, Partnership for Educational Justice, filed a lawsuit in New York state that organized local families as plaintiffs in an effort to have tenure deemed unconstitutional. Throughout, Brown has used talking points similar to the ones Rhee has used when discussing teacher effectiveness, and Brown's board members and the consultants she has used overlap with StudentsFirst's.

But aside from the wave of publicity that education reform has received from court cases such as Brown's, and from a similar case in California, the country has in some ways moved on from the movement's agenda, or at least its hard-charging rhetoric. This shift has been evident in the election of candidates such as New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio (D), who staked his campaign on fighting against the Rhee-like education policies of his predecessor, Michael Bloomberg. Even one of the movement's greatest proponents has noted the political sensitivity around it, saying he sought to avoid the word "reform." But Rhee's rhetoric has pervaded the messaging of several education reform groups, politicians and pundits, who still make the case for reforming tenure and judging teachers in accordance with their students' standardized test scores.

Maureen Downey

About Maureen Downey

Maureen Downey is a longtime reporter for the AJC where she has written editorials and opinion pieces about local, state and federal education policy for 12 years.

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