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 stands outside the MARRS building in midtown waiting for her fiancé, the 3-carat diamond on her engagement ring glimmering in the morning sun. Clustered around her is a coterie of StudentsFirst staffers, most in their 20s or 30s, most tapping at smartphones, heads bent like wilting tulips. Many of them worked for Rhee during her time as chancellor, and as the organization’s earliest hires, they have traveled to Sacramento to help their boss scout office space. The group will move west this summer, and Rhee expects to add as many as 300 employees by 2014, with the majority based here.

Johnson arrives a short time later. He slips his arm around her and leans down for a quick kiss. They make a stylish couple. Over her thigh-length grayish brown sweater hangs a long black scarf that matches her leggings and knee-high patent leather boots. He brightens his navy blue pinstripe suit with a mauve handkerchief that peeks from his front pocket. As the StudentsFirst gaggle trails them, Rhee and Johnson climb the stairs to the building’s second floor, holding hands for a few steps, her fingers disappearing into his large palm. Strolling through an office still occupied by an architecture firm, they confer in low voices, arms rubbing against one another. They look at once calm and alert, as if soothed by mutual ambition.

The two first met, aptly enough, at an education conference in 2006 in Washington, D.C. At the time, Rhee headed The New Teacher Project, a well-regarded, New York-based nonprofit she founded in 1997 that recruits, trains and places teachers in school districts nationwide, including Chicago, Dallas, New York and Phoenix. Johnson ran St. HOPE, the nonprofit development corporation he launched in 1989 that made its entry into education with the opening of PS7 in 2003.

Before long, Johnson invited Rhee to join St. HOPE’s board of directors, and she later was a consultant to him on business and personnel matters. (She also worked behind the scenes on his behalf during a federal investigation into the nonprofit’s finances; prosecutors ultimately did not file charges.) He testified before the D.C. City Council in 2007 during her confirmation hearing for the chancellor’s job; after his election in November 2008, she joined his transition team. By then, the fellow Democrats were a couple, their first date occurring three months earlier while attending the Democratic National Convention. “What bound us together was education,” she says. “Even when we disagreed on board issues, there was that passion for trying to make schools better and help kids.”

Johnson and Rhee are hunting for both office space and a home.

They managed to hide their relationship from the media until January 2009, when a news photographer snapped a shot of them holding hands at a party in Washington before Obama’s inauguration. The couple sat next to each other on stage during his address in front of the U.S. Capitol. Ten months later, on Oct. 30, after taking Rhee out to dinner and a performance of A Streetcar Named Desire at the Kennedy Center, Johnson brought her back to the site of Obama’s swearing-in because, he says, “It was where we had witnessed one of the greatest moments in American history.” A light rain was falling as they stood beside a large fountain near the capitol steps. He dropped to one knee and pulled out the ring he had carried with him for six months, waiting for the right time. “You know, everyone thinks she’s so tough,” Johnson says, “but she started boo-hooing. It was a perfect moment.” One year later to the day, they returned to the spot and he reprised his proposal. Neither had changed their mind; they wanted to reaffirm their devotion.

The couple, who originally planned to wed last September, decided to postpone their nuptials as media curiosity and the guest list grew. They have yet to disclose a new date or where they will live in Sacramento, though they have gone house-hunting. Rhee has two daughters, 13-year-old Starr and Olivia, 9, from her marriage to Kevin Huffman, an executive vice president with Teach For America, a nationwide teacher placement program based in New York. The two met in 1995—both were grade-school teachers trained by TFA—and married the next year; they divorced in 2007. After their kids finish the school year in D.C., Rhee and Huffman will decide whether to have them stay there or join her in Sacramento.

Rhee has come to know California’s capital through her relationship with Johnson, and they frequent a number of local restaurants, with Biba, Ella, Cafeteria 15L and Luigi’s Slice in their regular rotation. An enthusiastic cook and Food Network devotee, she likes to drop by the downtown farmers’ market on Sunday with Johnson to pick up fresh produce, and he has turned her on to the American River trail, inspiring her to hop on a bike for the first time in years. Other than that, she says, “We’re kind of boring, actually.”

An enthusiastic cook and Food Network devotee, she likes to drop by the downtown farmers’ market on Sunday with Johnson to pick up fresh produce, and he has turned her on to the American River trail, inspiring her to hop on a bike for the first time in years. Other than that, she says, “We’re kind of boring, actually.”

Journalists seldom write about Rhee’s lighter side in depicting her blunt-spoken approach to education reform. But while unamused about the state of public schools, she is not without a sense of humor. As she checks out office space in midtown and downtown, thumbs either hooked around the shoulder straps of her black backpack purse or dancing on her BlackBerry, she shares the relaxed manner of her staffers. Their chatter suggests high school students on a field trip more so than the core of a fledgling national organization striving to reshape the entire public education system. During an elevator ride in a building at J and 9th streets to visit an office, Rhee quips, “OK, I want everyone to tell me what you think, and then I’m going to tell you why you’re wrong.” Everyone laughs, with a few mock groans mixed in, a collective reaction that defies assumptions, fed by her public image, of Rhee as the browbeating boss type.

Sitting in a car en route to another office, Rhee checks her BlackBerry and, seeing an e-mail from “the clock lady,” recounts the story behind the nickname. After Rhee’s confirmation hearing in 2007, a woman, perhaps 70 years old, walked up to her. Rhee affects a scratchy voice. “If you really want to do something to make things better,” the woman told the new chancellor, “can you just make sure the clocks work? Every school I’ve been in, the clocks don’t work.” Rhee vowed to try and gave the woman her cell phone number. Some weeks had passed when she left a voicemail. “It’s the clock lady,” she began. “Wow, this number really does work.” Since then, the two have kept in touch, and the clock lady continues to offer opinions on the D.C. school district to the ex-chancellor. “She stays on top of it,” Rhee says.

On other short trips between offices she tends to business, reading the early draft of a script for a video clip that will be posted on the StudentsFirst Web site and discussing a potential hire. “I feel like we should just bring him in now,” she tells Dana Peterson, one of her assistants. “He’s really, really green—like, really green. He’s going to be in over his head initially, but he’s so smart, he’ll figure things out. He’s one of those people who, in 10 years, is going to be a complete superstar.”

California, here Rhee comes. StudentsFirst will need room for as many as 300 by 2014.

The car later rolls along Capitol Avenue in midtown past The Waterboy. “We love it there,” she says, referring to her and Johnson, who broke away from the group after the brief MARRS tour to return to work. Neither would presume to say as much, but they form a power couple unparalleled in Sacramento history. In addition to serving as co-chair of a mayoral advisory council on federal education policy that reports to Duncan, the education secretary, Johnson heads a task force on public education for the U.S. Conference of Mayors. When the latter organization convened in Washington in February, Rhee joined him to unveil her group’s first national campaign, Save Great Teachers, which calls for an end to the common practice of school districts determining teacher layoffs by seniority rather than performance.

A similar plan that Rhee advanced as head of D.C. schools attracted fierce union opposition. Her decision to pursue the policy nationwide reaffirms that the chancellor who once remarked that “cooperation, collaboration and consensus-building are way over-rated” remains unafraid to fight. “I do not believe that you can have sea change in a dysfunctional system and keep everybody happy,” she says. “I just don’t think that’s possible, so that’s not my goal.”

Klein, the former schools chancellor in New York, observed her tenacity—or pugnacity, as some see it—when she helped him win an arbitration ruling against that city’s teachers’ union in 2005. The New Teacher Project, under Rhee’s direction, had recently published a pair of reports that revealed how collective-bargaining deals across the country made firing ineffective teachers almost impossible. One report also showed that union contracts often prevent district officials from determining where to place teachers; the policy unduly hinders urban schools from luring good teachers.

Both issues bedeviled Klein’s predecessors. His proposal to reform the policies in New York met with union resistance, and unable to reach an agreement during contract negotiations, the two sides wound up before an arbitration panel. Klein knew about the reports that Rhee’s organization had produced and asked her to help present the district’s case.

As recounted in the recently released The Bee Eater: Michelle Rhee Takes On The Nation’s Worst School District, an account of her D.C. reign written by veteran journalist Richard Whitmire, she “insisted on a strategy of brutal truth-telling” in New York. It worked: Rhee’s damning data on union contracts persuaded the panel to rule in the district’s favor. On the losing team that day was Randi Weingarten, then head of the New York teachers union. Now president of the American Federation of Teachers, the country’s second-largest teachers’ union, she tangled with Rhee in D.C. over teacher contracts. Waiting For “Superman” chronicled their battle and quoted Weingarten decrying the “scorched-earth” agenda of reformers. She didn’t name Rhee, but given their contentious past, it was hardly necessary. (Weingarten declined Sactown’s interview requests.)

If the unions started to demonize Rhee in the wake of the New York negotiations, Klein, for one, believes the reform movement would benefit from more of her kind. “Far too many people who call themselves reformers are ‘go along to get along’ people. She is not,” he says. “She will rightfully identify policies that are not good for kids. She speaks truth to power.”

In affairs of the heart, Rhee fancies herself a matchmaker and relationship counselor. “She’s a little nosy about your love life,” says [current D.C. schools chancellor] Kaya Henderson. “She wants everybody to be happy in their lives, so she wants to know who you’re dating and how’s it going and give you ways to think about how to make it better.”

In 2007, two years after the arbitration hearing, Klein talked with Adrian Fenty, the newly elected mayor of Washington, D.C. Fenty admired the changes wrought in New York by the chancellor, whose reforms are credited with driving a 20 percent gain in graduation rates during his eight-year tenure. He was appointed by Mayor Michael Bloomberg, who had sought and won the power to bypass the city school board to name a chancellor. Fenty scored a similar victory in D.C. soon after assuming office and wanted a schools chief in the Klein mold. After learning Rhee was on Fenty’s short list, Klein called the D.C. mayor and told him she would deliver major reform, albeit in a way that could incite political blowback. Fenty replied, “How soon can I meet her?”

Rhee had no interest in the job. “I’d never been a principal or a school district superintendent,” she says. “It was just something I’d never given much thought to.” She had worked as a teacher in Baltimore for three years after graduating from Cornell in 1992, and after earning a graduate degree in public policy from Harvard, she founded The New Teacher Project in 1997.

When Fenty called her a decade later, she owned a reputation in education circles as an outspoken critic of teacher tenure. Rhee asserts that unions protect ineffective veteran teachers at the expense of dedicated young teachers under “last hired, first fired” policies that dictate the order of district layoffs. A Stanford study last year calculated that replacing the lowest-rated teachers—those in the bottom 5 to 8 percent of public school evaluations—with even average teachers would vault the U.S. to the top of international math and science student rankings. In 2010, the country ranked 31st and 23rd in those categories, respectively, among 65 developed nations.

Fenty remembers Rhee warning him, “You don’t want to hire me—I’m going to make a lot of decisions that politicians don’t like.” But the mayor had campaigned on a pledge to improve schools. In 2007, only 12 percent of eighth graders in D.C. could read at their grade level; in math, the proficiency rate was 8 percent. Fenty had inherited the lowest-performing school district in the U.S. He wanted a chancellor allergic to compromise, and he felt that experience as a district administrator was overrated; Klein, after all, had none, having worked as a corporate lawyer and federal prosecutor before taking the chancellor job in New York. “The system needed to be shaken up,” Fenty says. “It was the worst in the country—and we’re in the nation’s capital. Making nice with everybody? That’s what got us into the problem in the first place.”

His choice of Rhee baffled the city’s education establishment because of the ostensible holes in her résumé. Everyone else was baffled because of what she calls “the stark and weird visual.” “I was a 37-year-old Korean woman in a mostly African-American community,” she says. “It just looked totally bizarre to people.” She believed the initial onslaught of coverage greeting her confirmation in June 2007 would wane soon enough. Eighteen months later she appeared on the cover of Time.