Waiting for Superwoman

She barely sleeps, has preternaturally thick skin, wears patent leather boots that put Wonder Woman’s to shame, and is so tough that she’s been known to eat bees (and the occasional elementary school principal). In a few short months, the most controversial public school reformer in the country will move to Sacramento where, in an order known only to her, she plans to launch a national education initiative, raise one billion dollars, forever change the face of schools in America and marry our mayor. Who is Michelle Rhee and why can’t anyone agree if she’s a superhero to our kids or just one very smiley villainess?

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Michelle Rhee visiting PS7 Elementary School in Oak Park (Photographs by Max Whittaker)

MMichelle Rhee is making her happy face.

This is not the look typically identified with “the most aggressive reformer in education today” as anointed by Newsweek. A frown—that’s the expression people know from the cover of Time that showed Rhee, then the chancellor of public schools in Washington, D.C., clutching a broom beside the headline “How To Fix America’s Schools.” Or from the 12-part PBS NewsHour series on her reform efforts in which she invited a camera crew to tag along when she fired a principal. Or from her star turn in Waiting for “Superman,” last fall’s critically lauded documentary about the failings of the nation’s public school system. Describing the bleak state of education in D.C., she brought to mind a surgeon delivering a terminal diagnosis.

But on this February afternoon, as 6-year-old Kylynn Mireles approaches her, Rhee more resembles a grade school teacher, the job she held at the start of her career almost two decades ago. A first grader at PS7 Elementary School in Oak Park, Kylynn is today’s designated “ambassador” for her class, greeting visitors whenever they enter the room. She wears her dark hair in braided ponytails that sway as she hurries over, right arm stretched forward like a jouster’s, offering an introduction that spills out as one long word: “HiwelcometoPS7mynameisKylynn… .” Rhee crouches down to shake hands and returns the ambassador’s smile with her mouth open wide and eyebrows arched high. She stays at eye level for a minute or two, chatting in a quiet voice and mirroring her new friend’s mirth. The frown is nowhere to be found.

Similar exchanges follow with a few more students before Rhee departs for another classroom. She grew familiar with the campus while spending a year on the board of directors of St. HOPE Public Schools, the nonprofit corporation that runs PS7 and Sacramento High School, preceding her appointment as D.C. chancellor in 2007. She considers PS7 an example of public education done right—a judgment reached well before her first date in 2008 with St. HOPE’s founder, Sacramento Mayor Kevin Johnson, who now happens to be her fiancé.

The charter school stands less than a mile from Johnson’s boyhood home. “We’re in the middle of the ’hood,” Rhee says, with the reflexive candor that endears her to reporters and sometimes causes her trouble. Her comment alludes to a stubborn dilemma: Schools in low-income neighborhoods tend to struggle. Yet PS7, which includes a middle school, ranks in the top 10 percent of California’s elementary and middle schools in student achievement. Rhee ascribes its success in part to longer school days and an extended academic year. Neither would be permissible if the school were unionized, owing to standard collective-bargaining pacts that cap the number of hours and days teachers work.

Rhee greets Kylynn Mireles at PS7.

“There’s this misconception that we don’t know what to do to make schools better. We do know,” Rhee says. She’s frowning. “The problem is there are [policies] that don’t allow
us to do what’s needed.”

Watching her unforced rapport with kids in a classroom, it’s possible to briefly forget Rhee’s outsized presence in the larger arena of the education reform movement. Simply
put, no one is more celebrated or controversial, and save for President Obama and his secretary of education, Arne Duncan, no one can claim greater influence in provoking a long overdue national discussion on improving public education. Now, leveraging her high profile, the 41-year-old Rhee, who resigned as chancellor last October, is swapping coasts to establish a new base of operations in Sacramento as she aspires to do nothing less than resuscitate the country’s ailing school system.

Starting in mid-summer, the capital city will serve as headquarters for StudentsFirst, the education reform group whose launch she announced in December on The Oprah Winfrey Show. (The host reacted by hugging and high-fiving Rhee, whom she famously declared “a warrior woman” during a previous appearance to discuss Waiting for “Superman.”) She received added exposure from Newsweek, landing on its cover and publishing an essay that laid out the organization’s plan: recruit 1 million members and raise $1 billion in its first year alone to ignite “a national movement to transform public education” through policy and political advocacy at the local, state and federal levels.

A grassroots group of that scale would be unprecedented in the realm of education reform, and by mid-March, StudentsFirst had signed up approximately 172,500 members and amassed $4.4 million in funding, primarily from online donations. Though the dollar amount remains far below Rhee’s stated target, the gap could close quickly. Los Angeles billionaire Eli Broad has said he expects to be a contributor, and Rhee, while reluctant to name other potential deep-pocket patrons, has strong ties to Bill Gates, who gave $3 million in grants to Johnson when St. HOPE took over Sacramento High in 2003.

“What’s been missing is a [national] organization promoting the interests of kids,” she says. “We want to shift the balance so the focus of public education is on them instead of adults.” Among those who second that emphasis is Duncan. “When a status quo prevails that doesn’t serve the interests of children first,” he says, “it needs to be challenged by everyone, and Michelle does that well.”

Rhee’s team visits Sacramento High, the school that Mayor Kevin Johnson’s St. HOPE Academy took over in 2003.

The group’s proposals for elevating student achievement include eliminating tenure to help schools purge ineffectual teachers; providing families with wider access to schools of their choosing; and lobbying for mayoral control over school districts to better manage spending. Some in her inner circle advised against revealing her entire agenda at the outset. Rhee saw no virtue in waiting. “That’s the mistake too many politicians make,” she says. “They have the mindset of, ‘Let me build some political capital first and then I’ll make the hard decisions.’ But then you never end up actually doing anything because there’s never a perfect time to take on really big issues.”

Her impatience for change matches that of Johnson, who since entering office in 2008 has infused a sense of urgency into city business and who, like Rhee, has drawn criticism on occasion for a perceived lack of caution. He has championed education reform in Sacramento, supporting charter schools and more rigorous teacher evaluations, hosting monthly “state of schools” community meetings and campaigning for a trio of like-minded school board candidates in last fall’s election. (All lost to opponents backed by the Sacramento City Teachers Association, a persistent political foil of Johnson’s.) For the 45-year-old mayor, Rhee’s impending move west from the organization’s temporary base in Washington carries personal and professional meaning, beyond the prospect of being eclipsed as the region’s best-known public figure.

"We’re one of those lucky couples who can sit down at the dinner table and, because of our mutual interest in education, there’s always a natural intersection in terms of what we talk
about,” he says. They also share the rare distinction of appearing on Oprah to promote the start of an education advocacy group: Johnson’s turn occurred in 2006 when he founded Stand Up, a nonprofit that works to improve underperforming public schools in Sacramento.

In a broader sense, with Johnson and the city’s pro-reform crowd pushing for school choice and the end of tenure, Rhee’s arrival figures to aid their cause. “To have StudentsFirst and the nation’s leading reformer in public education based here—that is a huge coup for all of us,” he says. “It’s definitely going to bring more attention to the need for better educational opportunities for children.”

During his State of the State address in January, New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, who invited Rhee to attend, turned to her and said, “No one in America has been more clear that we must change our public education system from one that caters to the feelings of adults to one that prepares our children for the 21st century.”

Rhee’s reign as D.C. chancellor spawned countless appraisals of her reputation: “the most controversial figure in American public education” (The Atlantic); “the closest thing to a superhero in schooling today” (The National Review); “the most revolutionary—and polarizing—force in American education” (Time); “a renegade on a mission to fix the education crisis in America” (Winfrey). She reacts to the appellations with more than a little disbelief. “When I started that job,” Rhee says, “there’s no way in the world I would have guessed how much interest there was going to be in what was going on.”

Seeking to boost dismal student performance in D.C.—media wags dubbed the crusade a “Rheevolution”—she closed 23 underused schools, fired almost 400 teachers deemed ineffective and, most radically, attempted to abolish teacher tenure, the third rail of education reform. Her hard-nosed leadership style made her at once the bête noire of teachers’ unions, whose leaders organized dozens of protests against her, and a lodestar to fellow reformers. Her efforts attracted praise and funding from the likes of Broad, Gates and the Walton family, they of Walmart fame and fortune. First Lady Laura Bush invited Rhee to attend the State of the Union address in 2008; during a presidential debate later that year, Obama referred to her as “a wonderful new superintendent.” News talk shows beckoned: Anderson Cooper 360, The Charlie Rose Show, This Week with Christiane Amanpour, Meet the Press.

The publicity gave her a national platform, and since forming StudentsFirst, she has been in high demand, traveling across the country in her role as an unofficial education adviser to governors in Florida, Georgia, Nevada and other states. During his State of the State address in January, New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, who invited Rhee to attend, turned to her and said, “No one in America has been more clear that we must change our public education system from one that caters to the feelings of adults to one that prepares our children for the 21st century.”

Rhee and her StudentsFirst team scouting office space downtown

Likewise, she has gained endorsements from several prominent mayors, among them Antonio Villaraigosa in Los Angeles, Cory Booker in Newark, N.J., and New York City’s Michael Bloomberg. Joel Klein, appointed chancellor of schools by Bloomberg in 2002, had success in executing an ambitious reform agenda to revitalize New York’s schools before stepping down last November. He views StudentsFirst as a prospective counterweight to the “entrenched interests” of the public education system.

“For change to be sustained, you need to build political will to take on the unions and bureaucrats,” says Klein, who in 2007 recommended Rhee for the D.C. chancellor position to Adrian Fenty, then Washington’s mayor. “Without an organization that can raise funding and mobilize parents, teachers and communities, you’re not going to see real reform, and few people have the sophistication and visibility to do that like Michelle.”

Her status should burnish Sacramento’s image at least as much as a former NBA All-Star serving as the city’s mayor, and StudentsFirst could emerge as an important force in school reform at the state and local level. Last year, California legislators passed a so-called parent-trigger law that enables parents of students at an underperforming school to compel a district to make one of four changes: replace the staff, fire the principal, hire a charter operator or close the school. But the law, heralded by reformers, faces an uncertain future. State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Torlakson—elected last year with backing from teachers’ unions, which oppose the parent-trigger concept—wants lawmakers to revise the statute, a move its supporters fear would neuter it. His request came soon after Governor Jerry Brown, another reliable ally of organized labor, removed several reform-minded members of the state Board of Education and appointed, among others, a teachers’ union lobbyist.

“That was payback to the California Teachers Association—let’s not sugarcoat it,” says former state Senator Gloria Romero, referring to Brown’s board changes. Author of the parent-trigger law, she fell to Torlakson in last year’s Democratic primary for superintendent and now heads the California chapter of Democrats For Education Reform, a political action committee. Romero, who met Rhee through Johnson, suggests StudentsFirst may prove crucial in preserving the parent-trigger law while bolstering the mayor’s citywide campaign to expand school choice and turn over floundering schools to charter operators. “The fact that Michelle and her group will be in the capital of the state with the eighth-largest economy in the world gives her a big stage,” Romero says. “She’s going to make people pay attention to education here.”

But first she needs an office.