Students First

December 13th, 2010 by Jeff Chu

Michelle Rhee’s groundbreaking education reforms take the national stage.

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The Responsibility Project

Over the past couple of months, the education world has been rife with speculation and rumor about what Michelle Rhee, whose rocky but groundbreaking three-year tenure as D.C. schools chancellor ended Oct. 31, would do next. Among the jobs mentioned: New Jersey education commissioner. Newark, New Jersey, schools superintendent (someone needs to spend Mark Zuckerberg's $100 million). Head of the NYC Department of Education (one particularly juicy conspiracy theory posited that Cathie Black, Michael Bloomberg's surprise choice to head the DoE, was just a decoy paving the way for Rhee, who would look totally overqualified by comparison). Last week, after Rhee agreed to join the transition team for Florida Governor-elect Rick Scott, the chatter was that she would soon become that state's education chief.

So which job would it be? None of the above. Rhee announces on today's episode of the Oprah Winfrey Show that she is launching an organization called Students First, an interest group/political lobby that will advocate her brand of education reform. In an exclusive interview with Fast Company, she says Students First reflects some of the lessons she learned in D.C. "If you look at how things get done in this country, it's influence and how much you can exert influence," she says. "That's how things happen, even in education. So you have textbook manufacturers, you have the teachers' unions, you even have food-service people. The problem is that there is no organized interest group solely for kids. Because you don't have that, policy-making is happening in a lopsided way. What we need to do is to create a positive, balancing force for change for kids that has a lot of clout and a lot of influence."

 By influence, Rhee clearly means money: Her goal is to raise $1 billion for Students First. She also hopes to recruit, within the next year, 1 million people from all walks of life to join the organization and build momentum to change public education across America. "There are people everywhere who want to do something about this," she says.

 Rhee says she learned that in the weeks after she left her D.C. job. On the day of her departure, michellerhee.org went online, inviting Americans to submit their ideas for education reform. According to Rhee, she was deluged--less with ideas, more with pleas, encouragement, and many, many stories. "I was getting emails from people all over the country, saying, 'You cannot stop doing this work.' It was teachers, parents, kids. Moms and dads would tell me their story, how they're struggling, how their kids are not getting enough of whatever, and the one thing that all of them had in common, which was moving, was that they all felt alone," she says. "It was them against the big, mammoth school bureaucracy."

 She recalls one email that she found particularly moving. The subject line, she says, was especially unforgettable: "Two moms desperate for your help." As Rhee tells it, "These two moms live in Florida, in a place where the high school they zone into is rated a D, so they're trying to start a charter, but the district is blocking them every step of the way. So they said, If you could talk to us for five minutes ... Well, I'm a sucker for this stuff, so I get on the phone, and they're like, 'Oh my God!' I said, 'Tell me what's going on,' so they do, and I say, 'You're getting screwed by the district and I feel bad for you, but there's nothing I can do for you.' And the one woman says, 'Our school board meeting is next Wednesday, and we think if you came down and it got coverage, then people would be shamed into doing the right thing.'" 

But Rhee's ambitions at this stage are clearly not about shaming one school board or focusing on one district--they're much bigger. "I decided that part of what I wanted to do was to create this movement," she says, "so that people would know: You're not alone."