Hurricane Rhee Blows Through Town

Michelle Rhee speaks her mind bluntly and forcefully, not pausing to worry about whether she might be offending anyone in her audience. That's part of what endears her to people who agree with her positions on school reform. Conversely, it's what makes her a villain among people opposed to the present-day wave of reform, for which Rhee is the poster child.

Rhee came to Denver Monday at the invitation of the Donnell-Kay Foundation (a funder of Education News Colorado), drumming up support for her new advocacy group, Students First. She launched the group a week ago on the Oprah Winfrey Show, promising to raise $1 billion (yes, that's billion with a B) and enlist one million people in the organization's inaugural year.

Thanks in part to Oprah's legion of followers ("She looked in the camera and said 'this is great! Everyone should join!' And they crashed our website," Rhee said), Students First in its first 48 hours netted 100,000 members and raised $500,000. And the big donors have yet to step up. This money came from the Oprah viewers, the average contribution $63.

For the uninitiated, Rhee spent three-and-a-half years as chancellor of the Washington D.C. Public Schools. She was a polarizing figure with her undiplomatic talk and her aggressive reforms. When her mentor and boss, Mayor Adrian Fenty lost the Democratic primary earlier this fall, the die was cast and Rhee resigned.

She spoke at a lunch Monday at the Hotel Monaco, attended by about 20 political, educational and philanthropic heavyweights, and later to a much larger audience at the Denver Athletic Club. See this story, with embedded video, for highlights of the DAC talk.

In the more intimate setting of the luncheon, Rhee touched on a few notable themes about Students First and education reform in general. Here were her major points:

1. A national education reform organization can act as an effective counterweight to the National Education Association and American Federation of Teachers, which "over the last three decades have very effectively been driving the educational agenda in this country." Unions have been so effective, Rhee said, because they have marshaled "millions of dollars and millions of people and they use those dollars and those people to get the politicians they want elected, the laws that they want passed, and the laws that they don't want blocked."

Rather than demonizing the unions, Rhee said, it makes sense to view them as organizations that know how to accomplish their mission. "Their purpose is to protect their members, to maximize their pay and privileges, and they are doing a wonderful job of that," she said.

"So if we want to change this we've got to come with the money, we've got to come with the people and that's what Students First is all about. Realizing that we have to get engaged in the political game, that we have to provide some not only cover for courageous politicians...but we have to provide them with the same kind of financing for their campaigns and boots on the ground that the union does for the candidates they are backing."

2. Students First will organize the many teachers who don't buy into the dominant union narrative.

"I talk to teachers all the time who think that tenure and seniority are terrible, who see people in their building who are not doing the right thing by kids, and it impacts them, because they get those kids the next year," Rhee said. "They don't want those teachers in the building any more than anyone else does. They are tired of the union protecting them and they want to do something about it."

Rhee predicted that what she called "this insurgency amongst the ranks" will be a powerful force, because it will show the public that teachers do not speak with the unions' "monolithic voice" alone.

"Every American knows a teacher who is hard-working, who spends their own money on the kids, and so it's hard when something gets framed as attacking teachers, because they think about those people that they know and it's hard for them to swallow," she said.

"When we actually have people from within the teaching ranks saying this is not good for our profession, then you change the dynamic and it's not teachers versus other people who want the reform. Now of course you've got some teachers who want to keep these (protections) but you've got other teachers who are more reform-minded. And getting that activated is one of the best things we will be able to do."

Rhee said the time is right to organize reform-minded teachers. "I have been in this game for about 20 years now and I have never seen as much momentum among the teacher ranks as I do right now in being willing to speak out on these issues," she said. If they don't feel isolated in their buildings, they will quickly become a force to be reckoned with, she predicted.

3. In cities with strong political leadership and troubled school districts, mayoral control is the way to go. (She said this in the presence of three Denver mayoral candidates: Michael Hancock, James Mejia and Chris Romer.)

Rhee worked under the protection of Fenty, who essentially sacrificed his political career by endorsing her bold reforms. When a mayor understands education reform, she said, then mayoral control streamlines the reform effort.

"When you've got seven, nine, 11 different (board members) with different agendas and they may have to kowtow to various interest groups, it's just an impossible dynamic. A lot of my (superintendent) colleagues who work within school board structures tell me they spend 60, 70 percent of their time managing their school boards. Doing the work is hard enough without that."

Sound familiar, Denver?

4. Ending the "government-run monopoly" over public education is essential to fixing the system. Yes, she means vouchers, at least in dysfunctional urban districts. Here is how the self-professed Democrat explains her view:

"A lot of people will say that the argument against vouchers is 'well, you're sucking money away from the system that actually needs those resources to improve.' But that's when you're looking at things from a system perspective. When you're looking at things from a student perspective, it's different."

More than once, she said, she was "faced with a parent who lives in Anacostia whose zoned neighborhood school is a place where I would never send my child, and then they do all the research and apply to the lottery for an out-of-boundary position in one of the few great schools and they don't get a position there. And they come to me and they say 'now what?'

"I don't have a space for them at a school where I'd feel comfortable sending my own kid. Who am I to deny that parent a $7,500 voucher to get a decent education at a Catholic school? I can't look someone in the face and make that decision because I need that $7,500 to make my system better. That's not an argument that's gonna fly with that particular parent."

Rhee described herself as unusually thick-skinned. She will tell you what she thinks, like it or not. Some people find her an inspiration. Others find her a callous bully lacking in the social graces.

Love her or loathe her, you'd better get used to her. She's not going away any time soon.