Michelle Rhee Starts Parent, Pupil Advocacy Group

Michelle Rhee, the former District of Columbia schools chancellor, is starting a nonprofit advocacy group of parents, pupils and teachers to work with politicians to improve education in districts across the U.S.

The organization, Students First, will advocate teacher support, ensure “excellent” schools are available to all students, encourage parental engagement and call for “smart spending” on instructional programs and teacher-performance evaluation, according to the group’s website, studentsfirst.org. Rhee, 40, is the founder and chief executive officer.

The goal is to have “governors, mayors and school districts adopt our legislative agenda, or pieces of it, because what we think that will do is create the right environment for school reform,” Rhee said today in a telephone interview from Sacramento, California. “There is no organized interest group that advocates for children and children alone. That’s been the missing part of the equation.”

In the organization’s first year, Rhee aims to sign up 1 million members and raise $1 billion from corporate and philanthropic donors and from membership dues, she said.

The group, whose headquarters location hasn’t been determined, will express opinions on legislation and endorse candidates. It will have an annual budget of $200 million to $300 million, Rhee said.

Former New York City Schools Chancellor Joel Klein and Rhee’s fiancé, Sacramento Mayor Kevin Johnson, helped get the group off the ground, she said.

‘Totally Aligned’

Rhee agreed earlier this month to join Florida Governor- elect Rick Scott’s education transition team. Any work she’ll do for Scott, a Republican, will be “totally aligned” with Students First, she said.

In October, Rhee announced her resignation as the District of Columbia chancellor, a post she’d held since 2007. She stepped down after her boss, Mayor Adrian Fenty, lost his bid for re-election Sept. 14 in a primary in which Rhee’s educational policies became an issue.

Rhee favored measuring teacher quality by students’ test scores, firing underperforming instructors and pushing merit pay, the same changes advocated by President Barack Obama’s administration in its $4.35 billion Race to the Top program. In July, Rhee dismissed 241 teachers and put 737 on notice to improve within a year or leave. The city of Washington has ranked for years near the bottom of national ratings in student proficiency in reading and math.

A broad base of members and leaders will be integral to the organization’s success in pushing through change, Rhee said.

“I don’t want this to be business as usual, because that’s what we’re trying to disrupt,” she said.

To contact the reporter on this story: Esmé E. Deprez in New York at edeprez@bloomberg.net.

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Jonathan Kaufman at jkaufman17@bloomberg.net.

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