During her tumultuous three years at the head of the Washington D.C. public schools, Michelle Rhee set off a lot of fireworks. She's still doing it – on a national stage. Rhee has emerged as the leader of an unlikely coalition of politicians, philanthropists, financiers and entrepreneurs who believe the nation's $500 billion-a-year public education system needs a massive overhaul. She has vowed to raise $1 billion for her national advocacy group, StudentsFirst, and forever break the hold of teachers unions on education policy.
StudentsFirst has its own political action committee (PAC), its own SuperPAC, and a staff of 75, including a cadre of seasoned lobbyists Rhee sends from state to state as political battles heat up. She has flooded the airwaves with TV and radio ads in a half dozen states weighing new policies on charter schools, teacher assessment and other hot-button issues.
To her supporters, Rhee is a once-in-a-generation leader who has the smarts and the star power to make a difference on one of the nation's most intractable public policy issues. But critics say Rhee risks destroying the very public schools she aims to save by forging alliances with political conservatives, evangelical groups and business interests that favor turning a large chunk of public education over to the private sector. She won't disclose her donors, but public records indicate that they include billionaire financiers and wealthy foundations.
Rhee says she has one goal: Make sure all children get a great education. "We are about fighting for kids," she said. "And whoever is standing in the way ... we are willing to go up against [them] because we can't maintain the status quo."
Few would argue that the status quo is working. In urban school districts nationwide, on average just one in four 10-year-olds is proficient in reading, and one in four 13-year-olds is at grade level in math. Many big-city districts have dropout rates of 50 percent.
Rhee argues the problem isn't a lack of funding: Average spending per student has more than doubled since the early 1970s, even after accounting for inflation, to about $10,500 a year. Yet test scores have improved only modestly. Schools don't need more money, Rhee says; they need to be held accountable for how they spend it.
Rhee wants all teachers to be evaluated in large measure by how much they can boost their students' scores on standardized tests. Scores are fed into a formula that rates how much "value" a teacher has added to each student over the year. Rhee says teachers who consistently don't add value should be fired; those who do well should be rewarded with six-figure salaries.
She has also successfully pushed legislation in several states, including Florida, Michigan, Nevada and Tennessee, to abolish seniority systems that protect veteran teachers and put rookies first in line for layoffs without regard to job performance. Also high on Rhee's agenda: giving parents more choices. She calls for expanding charter schools, which are publicly funded but often run by private companies. She wants to let parents seize control of failing public schools and push out most of the staff. She also supports tax-funded vouchers, which can be used to pay private and parochial school tuition, for families living in neighborhoods with poor public schools.
Teachers unions have pushed back hard against many of these policies, with clout gained from years of lobbying and writing checks to candidates. Since 2008, the unions have spent more than $150 million on state politics.