Michelle Rhee to step down as CEO of StudentsFirst

"StudentsFirst has not been as effective as she wanted," a former staffer says

Topics: studentsfirst, Michelle Rhee, Education Reform, The Huffington Post, Oprah, Charter schools, Kevin Johnson, ,

Michelle Rhee to step down as CEO of StudentsFirstMichelle Rhee (Credit: AP/Pablo Martinez Monsivais)

After founding the group to great fanfare in 2010 — on “Oprah,” in fact — controversial education reform activist Michelle Rhee is planning to step down as StudentsFirst CEO, reports the Huffington Post. The former Washington, D.C., school chancellor will remain on the nonprofit’s board, and the organization is already close to picking a replacement.

StudentsFirst has had some success, partnering with and endorsing GOP candidates across the country. Over time, however, the steady attacks on Rhee — and the group’s strategy and tactics — have taken their toll, and the group has recently pulled back its efforts in a handful of states. StudentsFirst spokespersons say this is due to their success or, in one instance, the state’s “continually changing legislative climate.”)

It was recently announced that Rhee would become the board chair of her husband and Sacramento Mayor Kevin Johnson’s charter school chain, which may have contributed to Rhee’s decision to step down. But one anonymous former staffer told HuffPo that Rhee was also exhausted by the barrage of criticism. “She’s been really brutally attacked personally, and StudentsFirst has not been as effective as she wanted,” the source said. “It’s been frustrating. It’s not totally shocking that eventually even she would decide to step away.”

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The change comes as the education reform movement that Rhee spearheaded has a new face: Former CNN news anchor Campbell Brown. Recently, Brown’s organization, Partnership for Educational Justice, filed a lawsuit in New York state that organized local families as plaintiffs in an effort to have tenure deemed unconstitutional. Throughout, Brown has used talking points similar to the ones Rhee has used when discussing teacher effectiveness, and Brown’s board members and the consultants she has used overlap with StudentsFirst’s.

But aside from the wave of publicity that education reform has received from court cases such as Brown’s, and from a similar case in California, the country has in some ways moved on from the movement’s agenda, or at least its hard-charging rhetoric. This shift has been evident in the election of candidates such as New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio (D), who staked his campaign on fighting against the Rhee-like education policies of his predecessor, Michael Bloomberg. Even one of the movement’s greatest proponents has noted the political sensitivity around it, saying he sought to avoid the word “reform.” But Rhee’s rhetoric has pervaded the messaging of several education reform groups, politicians and pundits, who still make the case for reforming tenure and judging teachers in accordance with their students’ standardized test scores.

Elias Isquith

Elias Isquith is staff writer at Salon, focusing on politics. Follow him on Twitter at @eliasisquith, and email him at eisquith@salon.com.

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