Wednesday, August 13, 2014


By Ryan Lillis | City Beat - The Sacramento Bee

Wednesday, Aug. 13, 2014 - 4:12 pm/updated: Wednesday, Aug. 13, 2014 - 4:23 pm  :: Michelle Rhee, the prominent and controversial education figure who is the wife of [Sacramento] Mayor Kevin Johnson, revealed in a statement to The Sacramento Bee on Wednesday that she is stepping down from her post as chief executive of StudentsFirst, the national advocacy organization she founded in 2010.

Her new role appears aimed at focusing on Johnson’s future. Rhee has provided counsel to Johnson on political and policy issues since he first ran for office in 2008, including writing key speeches and vetting appointments to the mayor’s staff. At the same time, Johnson has played an active role with StudentsFirst, helping to launch the organization and open its headquarters in downtown Sacramento.

Manny Crisostomo / Sacramento Bee file | Michelle Rhee is leaving the education advocacy group that she founded in 2010.>>

“Kevin has achieved national recognition and is in a position to drive critical change where it’s needed,” Rhee said in a statement sent exclusively to The Bee. “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.”

Rhee also said she “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.”

No date was given for her departure. She is expected to remain on the organization’s board of governors. Her plan to step down was first reported by The Huffington Post on Tuesday night in a story that quoted anonymous sources.

Rhee, 44, started StudentsFirst following a three-year stint as the chancellor of the Washington, D.C., public school system, a post that brought her both national acclaim and criticism as she closed underperforming schools and took on powerful teachers unions. She left that position after her boss, former Washington Mayor Adrian Fenty, lost in the Democratic primary in 2010.

"While I respect Michelle Rhee's passion and tenacity, I don't agree with her approach to education," American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten told Morning Education upon hearing the news. "For children to succeed, their schools need to be safe, collaborative and welcoming places that foster trust and high expectations, and have a spirit of real teamwork. The approach Michelle Rhee championed — resisting collaboration, fixating on testing, attacking teachers and dividing communities — is antithetical to that, and it undermined our working together to grow the capacity of our workforce, secure the resources our kids need, and build the confidence of parents and our broader communities in public education."

Johnson’s national status has steadily climbed in the past year, and political insiders have increasingly speculated that he will eventually seek higher office. He is seeking to vastly increase his powers through a “strong mayor” measure on the November ballot and has two years left on his second term.

A former NBA star, Johnson received widespread attention in the world of professional sports last year by leading Sacramento’s successful campaign to keep the Kings from moving to Seattle.

Then, earlier this year, Johnson was the face of the national outrage over racist comments made by former Los Angeles Clippers owner Donald Sterling. Johnson represented the NBA players in their public campaign to convince the league to remove Sterling from power and was lauded for his role in that effort after the NBA slapped Sterling with a lifetime ban.

In April, Johnson was installed as the president of the U.S. Conference of Mayors, an influential lobbying and advocacy organization. He is the first Sacramento mayor to hold that post.

With Rhee by his side, Johnson presided over the Conference of Mayors’ annual meeting in Dallas in June. The pair attended private concerts together and mingled with corporate executives and the mayors of the nation’s largest cities.

Johnson has relied heavily upon Rhee since he ran for his first term as mayor in 2008. The pair was often seen at campaign events together, and Rhee handpicked Johnson’s first chief of staff after his election.

Political consultant Adam Mendelsohn, a high-level adviser both Rhee and Johnson, said the pair “has always operated as a team” and described them as “among the most dynamic political couples in the country.”

“They continually look at the opportunities that each have and prioritize based on where they feel they will have the most impact,” Mendelsohn said. “It’s a modern day version of Bill and Hillary Clinton.”

The bi-coastal power couple was seen at many social events after the mayor’s election as well, from night clubs in Washington to events at the White House.

After months of a rumored romance, Johnson and Rhee confirmed in November 2009 that they were engaged. They were married nearly two years later in a small ceremony at a resort in the Great Smoky Mountains of Tennessee.

Rhee changed her legal last name to Johnson last year, but continues to use Rhee in public settings.

In 2010, Rhee announced on the Oprah Winfrey Show that she was forming StudentsFirst. Her goal: raise $1 billion to counter the influence of teachers unions over education policy, especially in state capitals. The cornerstones of the group’s advocacy are attempting to convince states to connect teacher evaluations to student performance and tests, promoting school choice and altering teacher tenure laws.

Johnson announced at his State of the City address in January 2011 that StudentsFirst would open its headquarters in Sacramento. It seemed an odd choice for the organization, given that Sacramento – and California – has been particularly adversarial to the education reform movement that Rhee and Johnson champion.

The organization has fallen well short of Rhee’s initial fundraising goals and has had mixed success with its policy platform.

So far, the organization has raised $62 million. Significant donations in the past to StudentsFirst have included an $8 million gift last year from the Walton Family Foundation, the charitable organization started by the founding family of WalMart and a significant supporter of some of Johnson’s causes.

StudentFirst’s board of directors includes journalist Connie Chung, Bill Cosby and former New York City schools head Joel Klein.

The organization operates out of a second-floor loft-style space in a remodeled historic building on K Street in downtown Sacramento. With dozens of young employees working in an open floor plan, the office resembles a technology start-up firm.

At its peak, StudentsFirst was active in 18 states, including California. It scaled back its efforts in five states this summer, including Florida and Minnesota.

Earlier this month, Rhee took over as board chairwoman for St. Hope Public Schools, the nonprofit organization founded by Johnson that operates charter schools in Oak Park. Rhee had previously served on the St. Hope board in 2006 and 2007.

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