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 the District’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 J. Rotherham, a former Clinton administration official who now runs Bellwether Education, a nonprofit group 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 — where she was condemned by some, lionized by others — has followed her to the national stage.
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 push-back 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, the District and elsewhere.
The AFT maintains a Web site, 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 the District: 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 world view, 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.”
After her boss, D.C. Mayor Adrian M. Fenty (D), lost his bid for reelection 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 that 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,” she 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.”