August 15, 2014

Michelle Rhee Announced She’s Leaving StudentsFirst…You’ll Never Believe What Happened Next!

By Bellwether

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OK, sorry, actually you will believe it. And that headline is absolute click bait. But, here are five things to consider about Rhee’s impending departure from StudentsFirst, announced this week:

1) The most interesting implication here isn’t about Rhee’s future, it’s about what this means for her husband, Sacramento Mayor Kevin Johnson’s, future.  The former NBA All-Star is considered a political star on the rise. Lots of speculation about what office he might pursue next and in the zero sum world of politics this move benefits him – not least because StudentsFirst was giving money to a lot of Republicans and the intramural fight over ed policy among Dems is heating up again.

2) All the blind quote dart throwing at Rhee in the articles about this move didn’t reflect all that well on the sector. Under certain conditions blind quotes are defensible, but just not wanting to offend or protecting funding prospects hardly seems to meet the bar. Especially for critical quotes. Was this Page Six or news? If you want to criticize her (see below, it’s certainly fair game) then put your name on it. It’s also a bummer that a lot of Students First staffers found out for sure that their founder is leaving via news reports courtesy of leakers in and around StudentsFirst. At a human level that sucks.

3) Rhee’s biggest failure at StudentsFirst was to not broaden the organization’s profile beyond her. There is a half-life to the personality-driven organization and StudentsFirst will face a big test now as a result in terms of where it goes from here (interesting question is where some of the talent there, and there is a lot, goes).  Because it was about Rhee every dust-up about her (and her critics cross the line into obsessive-compulsive about her to be sure) became about the organization by default. To some extent that’s unavoidable but some of the errors here were unforced. And I’m not sure I buy the argument that she drew fire away from other groups. Rather, it seemed like everything got lumped together in the public debate.

4) But she did accomplish a lot there, nonetheless. For starters, even if she didn’t draw fire she certainly expanded the field, as they say in sports. All the critics now saying she didn’t accomplish much were not saying that prior to this announcement. Hell, they couldn’t shut up about her. Back then (last week) she was the Princess of Darkness doing all sorts of allegedly terrible things via StudentsFirst. The American Federation of Teachers, a large labor union with a long history was concerned enough to literally go to social media and political war with one person, Rhee – something they don’t do a lot. And some of what Rhee accomplished isn’t visible because of the nature of politics. In some cases even the threat that she might come into a state with StudentsFirst was enough to start or stop some policy action. Not a lot of people or organizations had that kind of leverage. Oh, and by the way, you may have noticed that while hardly high-performing the District of Columbia Public Schools are far from the basket case they were before Rhee arrived on the scene and are making improvements. Not all Rhee, but she had a big hand in it.

5) If after hearing the news that she was joining the board of directors for Miracle-Gro you did one of the following things – researched the company, planned a boycott, told your friends to stop using it etc… – please consider getting a hobby or donating some time to a charity or reading to kids. Seriously.

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