UPDATE: Michelle Rhee confirmed The Huffington Post's Tuesday report about her departure from StudentsFirst in a blog post on the group's website, as well as in a statement to the Sacramento Bee, late Wednesday. Rhee did not provide a date for her departure.
"While I remain 100 percent committed to the success of StudentsFirst, it’s time for a shift in the day-to-day management of the team and our advocacy work," Rhee wrote in the blog post. "We’ll be sharing more of the nuts-and-bolts details about that in the coming weeks."
See full statement below.
PREVIOUSLY: Former Washington, D.C., schools chancellor Michelle Rhee has told people close to her that she is preparing to step down as CEO of StudentsFirst, the advocacy organization she created after leaving her chancellor post, according to three sources close to the organization.
Rhee is expected to remain active on StudentsFirst's board after she steps down, likely by the end of this year. The sources requested anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss details of Rhee's move.
Francisco Castillo, spokesman for StudentsFirst, said in a statement to The Huffington Post: "Michelle remains fully committed to education reform and leading StudentsFirst." He declined to elaborate.
StudentsFirst is preparing to hire a new president to help manage the organization's day-to-day functions, a staffer told HuffPost. "The organization is near the finish line with a viable candidate and hope to be in a position to announce it very soon," said the staffer, who declined to be named because they were not authorized to speak about the process.
As Washington's schools chief, Rhee's rhetoric about firing bad teachers angered many. But she also rose to national prominence with network television appearances and, most notoriously, a Time magazine cover depicting her holding a broom -- ostensibly for sweeping away the worst teachers.
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."
If Rhee steps aside, the organization would be without its main attraction. StudentsFirst has recently pulled out of states such as Minnesota and Florida, and its relationship with a New Jersey partner organization ended about a year ago. It's unclear whether StudentsFirst will draw as much attention without its famous founder.
"In practice, this has always been about Michelle," said the former staffer. "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."
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.
StudentsFirst was launched on Oprah's TV talk show in late 2010 and immediately set ambitious goals, such as amassing $1 billion in its first year and becoming education's lobbying equivalent to the National Rifle Association. Its policy goals focused on teacher quality, teacher evaluations, school accountability and the expansion of charter schools. But the group has failed to achieve some of its major goals. After revising its fundraising goal to $1 billion over five years, the group only netted $62.8 million in total: $7.6 million in its first year, $28.5 million in its second year and $26.7 million between August 2012 and July 2013. The group also has seen much staff turnover, cycling through at least five prominent spokespeople since 2010.
After the group began, it saw some legislative and electoral successes. It claims credit for changing more than 130 education laws in many states. It has released report cards ranking states on their education policies, supported candidates through political action committees, and lobbied state legislatures and governors on reform issues.
But like many startups, StudentsFirst had several missteps as a nascent nonprofit. Shortly after the group got off the ground, Rhee faced criticism for not disclosing her donors (though a Pennsylvania lobbying disclosure law helped reveal who they were). Additionally, political disagreements over issues such as a Michigan right-to-work law led to the departure of several high-profile Democrats, making it harder for Rhee credibly to position herself as bipartisan.
Some of StudentsFirst's perceived missteps can perhaps be tied to the organization defining itself narrowly within the broader world of education -- though some say that focus was necessary for its message to be effective. For example, the group was criticized for initially refusing to take a position on a Michigan law -- proposed a few months after the shooting in Newtown, Connecticut -- that would have allowed concealed firearms in school.
During her time at StudentsFirst, Rhee was the frequent target of attacks from teachers' unions. She was also the focus of several investigations into cheating on standardized tests that allegedly happened in D.C. public schools under her tenure. Official federal investigations concluded there was no widespread cheating, though critics and some press investigations alleged these probes did not go far enough.
Rhee's full statement:
I created StudentsFirst to shake up the education establishment, which is exactly what we did. I'm incredibly proud of the work we've accomplished for kids. We've got a terrific team in place at StudentsFirst and the timing is right.
Through his work as Mayor, helping the NBA players union, and head of US Conference of Mayors, Kevin has achieved national recognition and is in a position to drive critical change where it’s needed. Kevin and I view our goals in life and public service as a team. He was right there with me when we created this organization and has worked alongside me throughout these past four years. I am excited to continue working side by side on these new opportunities we have.
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