When Michelle Rhee resigned from running the District of Columbia public schools in October, she entertained offers from governors, considered leading another district and mulled policy or for-profit work.
What she decided to do, instead, is launch a national advocacy group called Students First, with the goal of raising $1 billion and rallying one million members around a stated mission of putting kids’ needs before those of adult special interests.
A week after its Dec. 6 launch on Oprah, Rhee said in Denver on Monday, the group has signed up more than 100,000 members and collected more than $700,000 through its website alone. The average contribution is $63.
“I had lots of conversations with people about taking over another district and doing a superintendent’s job,” Rhee said before speaking to an audience of 300 at the Denver Athletic Club. “I felt like I could go in, do a lot of the same things I had done in D.C., try to avoid some of the mistakes I had made and do a better job …
“But fundamentally, I think that part of the problem in education reform today is that we don’t have an environment in which reformers can have the impact that is possible.”
As an example, she cited the KIPP charter network of schools, which have won acclaim for improving academic outcomes for poor and minority students. KIPP schools continue to fight for access to facilities in some districts or face charter school caps in others.
“So they’re fighting all of those fights individually, which are incredibly time and resource intensive,” Rhee said, “instead of us creating an environment where nationally we are solving these problems.”
Students First plans to fill that national role, she said, by promoting education reform in cities across the country.
One of its first steps will be rolling out a legislative agenda that outlines “different things that need to happen with contracts, with policies, with regulations, with laws … that create the right environment for the most aggressive school reform.”
“The only way that we’re going to be able to do this is if we have this going on in multiple cities across the country, a national organization with a national agenda,” Rhee said. “We’re being very strategic that a critical mass of jurisdictions is pursuing the same agenda at the same time.”
Students First will go into communities by invitation only, she said, from a governor or a mayor or community group seeking its help.
Rhee battled the teachers’ union in D.C. over a myriad of contract issues, including tenure, and the union’s support of his opponent helped oust her boss, Mayor Adrian Fenty. She said Students First is intended to “balance” the influence of teachers’ unions nationally.
“The purpose of the teachers’ union is to protect their members and to maximize their pay privileges. It is not to ensure the highest levels of student achievement,” Rhee said. “The problem is that they’re advocating incredibly effectively and there isn’t another organized interest group in this country that has the heft that they do.”
To be successful, she said, Students First “has got to be an organization that has the credibility, the ability to influence and the resources to be able to create that balance. And if not, you’re always going to have a lopsided landscape and therefore lopsided policies and laws.”
Video clips of Rhee’s talk in Denver
Rhee describes how Students First will tackle one issue, seniority-based teacher layoffs – 1:02 minutes
Rhee says Students First will fight to get parents value-added data on teachers – 1:30 minutes.
Rhee says teachers who don’t believe they can make a difference shouldn’t teach – 1:17 minutes.