Michelle Rhee plans her future with the help of Oprah, Newsweek, and The New York Times

I post this because I want to remind myself that the wife of the publisher of The Atlantic has chipped in $100,000 to help Michelle Rhee reshape her image. And who did they hire? Obama's image shaper. Is there any media that doesn't want to hold Michelle Rhee's train? Oprah, Newsweek, The Atlantic. . . . and that's just this week.

A Former Schools Chief Shapes Her Comeback, By Trip Gabriel , from The New York Times December 7, 2010

Ever since Michelle Rhee resigned under pressure as chancellor of the Washington, D.C., schools in October, rumors have flown about her next move.

Would she relocate to Newark to spend the $100 million gift from Mark Zuckerberg of Facebook to fix its troubled schools? Would she become education commissioner of New Jersey or Florida?

Ms. Rhee, one of the best recognized, and most polarizing, figures in public education, answered Monday with timed appearances on "Oprah" and the cover of Newsweek. The media splash said as much about her ability to market herself and her brand of school reform as the details of her next chapter.

She announced she would lead a new advocacy group, StudentsFirst, setting a highly ambitious target of raising $1 billion to promote “transformative reform,” primarily by backing laws and political candidates, from local school boards to Congress.

The group will solicit memberships for as little as $5 per month, but it will also take advantage of changes in campaign finance laws that allow it to broadcast political advertisements paid for by rich individuals and corporations.

"The ultimate goal is to shift the power dynamic of education in this country, which I think for far too long has been dominated by special interests, whether the teachers’ unions or textbook manufacturers," Ms. Rhee, 40, said in an interview.

One issue she would tackle, she said, was the practice of laying off teachers, according to their contracts, by seniority rather than classroom effectiveness.

"We won't shy away from the fight," she said. "We're a little too obsessed right now with harmony in public education. How can we all come together and collaborate? That's been happening the last 30 years, and because we’ve been trying to smooth each other's feathers over and make the adults happy," students have suffered, she added.

Ms. Rhee's three-year tenure as head of Washington's public schools was marked by rising test scores and the end of a long trend of declining enrollment by families fleeing dismal schools.

But her blunt style also made enemies. She fired hundreds of principals and teachers. She appeared on the cover of Time magazine wielding a broom to symbolize her desire to sweep away teachers' tenure. When Washington voters unseated Mayor Adrian M. Fenty in a primary election this fall, which some saw also as a referendum on Ms. Rhee, she jumped before she was pushed.

Since then, Ms. Rhee said, she has spoken with governors, mayors and state board of education members interested in hiring her. She declined to be specific.

Rather than accepting one, she decided that "what's really missing is a national organization pushing a national agenda that has the heft to put the pressure on the politicians," she said.

Reactions to her new group and its enormous fund-raising goal took stock of her outsize public image.

"If there's anyone who can raise a billion for this, it's going to be Michelle," said Joe Williams, the executive director of Democrats for Education Reform, recalling that Ms. Rhee was greeted like a rock star at a political event his group hosted a couple of years ago in Denver.

Joel I. Klein, the departing New York City schools chancellor, credited Ms. Rhee's outspokenness and media presence -- she is a principal figure in the hit education documentary "Waiting for ‘Superman'"-- with raising the profile of education issues.

"I never thought I'd say this, but education has become sexy in America, partly because of Michelle," Mr. Klein said.

Despite her setback in Washington, Ms. Rhee is not tempering any of the fire that sometimes made her divisive.

The Newsweek cover article, which appears under her byline, unapologetically defends her record. She writes that she was "stunned" by voters' rebuke of Mr. Fenty. She faults shortsighted parents who did not recognize that schools had improved, and the teachers' union for pursuing narrow self-interests.

"Michelle Rhee likes to say that teachers unions are the problem, but the leading states and countries in educational outcomes — such as Finland, South Korea and Singapore — are heavily unionized," Randi Weingarten, the president of the American Federation of Teachers, who negotiated the Washington contract, said in a statement.

During contract talks earlier this year, Ms. Rhee turned to Anita Dunn, the former communications director for President Obama, to help with her image.

A gift of $100,000 toward her fee was paid by an education philanthropist, Katherine Bradley, the wife of the publisher David Bradley of The Atlantic Monthly and National Journal.

Now it is Ms. Dunn's firm, SKD Knickerbocker, that is coordinating Ms. Rhee's rollout of her new group. Whatever advice it may have given her to bring all sides together when she was a public official, she clearly feels unrestricted by that now.

Andrew Rotherham, an education adviser in the Clinton White House and now a partner in Bellwether Education, a research and consulting group, said an uncensored Michelle Rhee would have an advantage.

"Most current and former large city school system leaders are reluctant to speak really forthrightly about the nature of the challenges," he said. "Rhee is not constrained that way. That's going to give her a niche and a brand in the debate."

— Trip Gabriel, New York Times, 2010-12-07


Add your own comment (all fields are necessary)

Substance readers:

You must give your first name and last name under "Name" when you post a comment at We are not operating a blog and do not allow anonymous or pseudonymous comments. Our readers deserve to know who is commenting, just as they deserve to know the source of our news reports and analysis.

Please respect this, and also provide us with an accurate e-mail address.

Thank you,

The Editors of Substance

Your Name

Your Email

What's your comment about?

Your Comment

Please answer this to prove you're not a robot:

5 + 3 =