City Beat

Michelle Rhee stepping down as CEO of Sacramento-based StudentsFirst

Michelle Rhee, the prominent and controversial education figure who is the wife of Mayor Kevin Johnson, announced on Wednesday that she is stepping down from her post as chief executive of StudentsFirst, the national advocacy organization she founded in 2010.

As Johnson’s national stature increases, Rhee’s new role will be to focus on the mayor’s future. She has already provided counsel to Johnson on political and policy issues since he first ran for office in 2008, including writing key speeches and vetting appointments to the mayor’s staff. At the same time, Johnson has played an active role with StudentsFirst, helping to launch the organization and open its headquarters in downtown Sacramento.

“Kevin has achieved national recognition and is in a position to drive critical change where it’s needed,” Rhee said in a statement sent exclusively to The Bee. “Kevin and I view our goals in life and public service as a team. He was right there with me when we created this organization and has worked alongside me throughout these past four years. I am excited to continue working side by side on these new opportunities we have.”

Rhee also said she “created StudentsFirst to shake up the education establishment, which is exactly what we did. I’m incredibly proud of the work we’ve accomplished for kids. We’ve got a terrific team in place at StudentsFirst, and the timing is right.”

Ben Sosenko, the mayor’s spokesman, said Rhee “has always been at the center of all the mayor’s priorities, and he’s excited to be able to work even more closely with her so that they can continue their important work.”

Rhee had become more visible in Sacramento before Wednesday’s announcement. She took over last month as board chairwoman for St. Hope Public Schools, the nonprofit organization founded by Johnson that operates charter schools in Oak Park. Rhee had previously served on the St. Hope board in 2006 and 2007.

No date was given for Rhee’s departure from StudentsFirst. She is expected to remain on the organization’s board of governors. At this point, Rhee is not taking on a formal title or paid job with the mayor’s office.

Rhee, 44, started StudentsFirst following a three-year stint as the chancellor of the Washington, D.C., public school system, a post that brought her both national acclaim and criticism as she closed underperforming schools and took on powerful teachers unions. She left that position after her boss, former Washington Mayor Adrian Fenty, lost in the Democratic primary in 2010.

Now her attention shifts to Johnson. The mayor’s national status has steadily climbed in the past year, and political insiders have increasingly speculated that he will eventually seek higher office. He is seeking to vastly increase his powers through a “strong-mayor” measure on the November ballot and has two years left on his second term.

A former NBA star, Johnson received widespread attention in the world of professional sports last year by leading Sacramento’s successful campaign to keep the Kings from moving to Seattle.

Then, earlier this year, he was the face of the national outrage over racist comments made by former Los Angeles Clippers owner Donald Sterling. Johnson represented the NBA players in their public campaign to persuade the league to remove Sterling from power and was lauded for his role in that effort after the NBA slapped Sterling with a lifetime ban.

In April, Johnson was installed as the president of the U.S. Conference of Mayors, an influential lobbying and advocacy organization. He is the first Sacramento mayor to hold that post.

With Rhee by his side, Johnson presided over the Conference of Mayors’ annual meeting in Dallas in June. The pair attended private concerts together and mingled with corporate executives and the mayors of the nation’s largest cities.

Johnson has relied heavily upon Rhee since he ran for his first term as mayor in 2008. The pair were often seen at campaign events together, and Rhee handpicked Johnson’s first chief of staff after his election. She has been known to make the final edits on key speeches made by the mayor, including State of the City addresses.

Political consultant Adam Mendelsohn, a high-level adviser to both Rhee and Johnson, said the pair have “always operated as a team” and described them as “among the most dynamic political couples in the country.”

“They continually look at the opportunities that each have and prioritize based on where they feel they will have the most impact,” Mendelsohn said. “It’s a modern-day version of Bill and Hillary Clinton.”

The bi-coastal power couple were seen at many social events after the mayor’s election in 2008, from nightclubs in Washington to events at the White House. After months of a rumored romance, Johnson and Rhee confirmed in November 2009 that they were engaged. They were married nearly two years later in a small ceremony at a resort in the Great Smoky Mountains of Tennessee.

Rhee changed her legal last name to Johnson last year but continues to use Rhee in public settings.

In 2010, Rhee announced on “The Oprah Winfrey Show” that she was forming StudentsFirst. Her goal: raise $1 billion to counter the influence of teachers unions over education policy, especially in state capitals. The cornerstones of the group’s advocacy are attempting to persuade states to connect teacher evaluations to student performance and tests, promoting school choice and altering teacher tenure laws.

Johnson announced at his State of the City address in January 2011 that StudentsFirst would open its headquarters in Sacramento. It seemed an odd choice for the organization, given that Sacramento – and California – has been particularly adversarial to the education reform movement that Rhee and Johnson champion.

The organization has fallen well short of Rhee’s initial fundraising goals and has had varied success with its policy platform.

StudentsFirst has raised more than $62 million so far. Significant donations have included $8 million last year from the Walton Family Foundation, the charitable organization started by the founding family of WalMart and a significant supporter of some of Johnson’s causes.

StudentsFirst played a role in incorporating student achievement into teacher evaluations in Connecticut, helped expand charters in Tennessee and Ohio, and successfully advocated in other states for the end of “last in, first out,” policies that require teacher layoffs to be based on seniority. But it has fallen short of its policy goals in California and scaled back its operations this summer in five states, including Florida and Minnesota.

The group’s political track record also has been mixed. The organization says it has helped elect 135 “pro-reform” legislators at all levels of office. But it has also lost its share of races, including a school board contest last year in West Sacramento and a school board race just this week in Los Angeles.

Frederick Hess of the American Enterprise Institute, a public policy think tank, said it’s difficult to judge the success of StudentsFirst the past three years given that the organization’s platform is shared by other groups lobbying nationally. However, Hess said Rhee “brought a phenomenal name brand to StudentsFirst” and brought a level of media attention to the education reform debate that other organizations did not.

“If success is getting more visibility for teacher evaluations, for re-thinking teacher tenure, for promoting tough accountability systems, I think it’s clear that those ideas have had a really good run the last few years and it seems reasonable to think StudentsFirst has played in a role in that,” he said.

The organization operates out of a second-floor loft-style space in a remodeled historic building on K Street in downtown Sacramento. With dozens of young employees working in an open floor plan, the office resembles a technology startup firm. Its board of directors includes journalist Connie Chung, comedian Bill Cosby and former New York City schools head Joel Klein.

At its peak, StudentsFirst was active in 18 states, including California.

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