Michelle Rhee, Inc. Who is helping Rhee launch her national brand?

At almost the exact moment Michelle Rhee took to a podium at a downtown D.C. hotel ballroom to announce her departure as the District’s schools chancellor in October, people working for her flipped the switch on a fancy new website, Facebook page, and Twitter account.

The well-choreographed roll-out was followed the next day with Rhee making the rounds on the network morning shows, marking the beginning of a media cycle that’s showed no sign of slowing since. Less than two months after her resignation, Rhee was sitting on Oprah’s comfy chairs announcing plans for a new advocacy group, StudentsFirst, that has already become a dominant force at the nexus between education and politics.

Just how was Rhee able to cement her brand as a national player so quickly? After all, there were reports from the Wilson Building that as of the morning after Adrian Fenty’s primary defeat, Rhee was still interested in staying on as chancellor. That, of course, wasn’t meant to be. She had become famous in three years at the D.C. Public Schools; as she shifted into the private sector, it became clear that she also had a ready-made organization standing by to keep her in the spotlight.

Most of the people who helped build and launch Rhee’s group, and the ones running it now, already had impressive national résumés—which shows the power of the political brand she built in D.C. They include: Anita Dunn, the former White House communications director, who helped Rhee get StudentsFirst up and running and who advised Rhee at DCPS through an outside contract; Tali Stein, a fundraiser for Hillary Clinton’s 2008 presidential bid, who is now vice president of development for StudentsFirst; Joe Rospars of Blue States Digital, which built Rhee’s site and did the same for Barack Obama’s campaign in 2008; Hari Sevugan, former Democratic National Committee spokesman, now running StudentsFirst’s communications shop; and Bradley Tusk, who ran New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s 2009 re-election campaign and is now StudentsFirst’s political consultant.

(StudentsFirst has also been a home for a few former staffers of Rhee’s old political patron. Fenty’s spokeswoman Mafara Hobson works for StudentsFirst, as does his failed pick to lead the parks department, Ximena Hartsock, who was rejected by the D.C. Council and later found by the inspector general to have lied on a federal form and improperly hired a friend.)


The narrative Rhee and her advisers are pushing is pretty simple: StudentsFirst’s popularity is due in part to frustration with the sorry state of many of this country’s schools and the chokehold many teachers’ unions have on policy discussions.

“The reality is there are people who care a great deal about education reform in this country, there are people who want to find out how they can do more, there are people who want to know what they can do in their own communities, or who want to seek out someone who can give them advice,” Dunn told me shortly after StudentsFirst debuted.

Being the heroine of the critically acclaimed documentary Waiting for “Superman” didn’t hurt Rhee, either.

But there are two other, more important reasons why Rhee and StudentsFirst have gotten so big so fast: Rhee is a great fundraiser, and really rich people love giving money to education causes. (Think Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg’s $100 million gift to Newark, N.J.’s public schools, just as an unflattering biopic came out.) Getting her new organization off the ground was only a matter of asking the same people she’d been asking for money for years to give it to a different place.

Rhee’s long-time deputy and successor in D.C., Kaya Henderson, has seen Rhee’s fundraising prowess up close many times. Henderson says Rhee’s brash and “ballsy” public persona is exactly the same when she’s behind closed doors with billionaires who can write checks with six or seven zeros at the end.

“She is bold. I think really there are a lot of people who are measured and not willing to go out as far as she is,” says Henderson. “I’ve seen her shake her booty and get some cash over and over again. She’s a very good fundraiser.”

Henderson recalls one instance when Rhee told one wealthy philanthropist (Henderson wouldn’t say who, except “it was not a small person”) that he was wasting his money and “if he really wanted to help education, he’d shut his foundation down.”

Billionaire Eli Broad told New York magazine that StudentsFirst planned to raise $50 million for start-up costs from 20 individuals and eventually spend $200 million a year. Those are jawdropping numbers at first blush, but not much of a stretch for Rhee when you consider her background.

That’s because a fair amount of Rhee’s time in D.C. was spent hitting up big-dollar philanthropists to help raise more than $60 million in private funds to help pay for a new contract that emphasized merit pay and de-emphasized seniority. Rhee’s calendar as chancellor shows she was in regular contact with the bigwigs of the education philanthropy machine, including the charitable arm of the Wal-Mart fortune and Bill Gates’ and Broad’s foundations.

Henderson says Rhee’s ability to get that contract approved is probably one of the biggest reasons why wealthy donors have been willing to open their wallets for Rhee’s new gig.

“It brought a renewed sense of possibility for rich people for what their money could actually leverage,” says Henderson. “For a relatively small investment, they got a very radical teachers’ contract.”

That same equation may be at play with Rhee’s new outfit. After all, even rich people can’t resist a bargain.

Back to main story: Diane Ravitch, the Anti-Rhee

Our Readers Say

1.Then the millionaires with new foundations lose interest, and the party moves elsewhere. The presumed beneficiaries, the urchins used as props -- well weren't they better off for a while?

2. Man that is a lot, a very lot, of expensive overhead from the start. What State are they are paying their income taxes to? California? Or is this another virtual company like Rhee's last, with just a boiler room of accolytes working phones in Sacramento?

3. Henderson says Rheee "shake[s] her booty." Oh, the Palin thing? Donors dream of fucking her?

4. Finally, since her cynicism is boundless: Ex-hub is Sec of Education for perhaps Kentucky. Where are Rhee's children?
Rhee is raising a billion dollars because she and her handlers are all about buying a controlling position over the many billions of dollars that are spent on public education every year.
Case in point... in 2009 she overspent DCPS central office budget by 20 million the same year she cut teachers and staff across all school budgets by 30 million. She did this under the guise of a 'buget shortfall'---sound familiar. Its called a bait and switch, and is a basic scam of all good con artists.

This is really a sad story. If these people have all this money wouldn't it be great if they put it into education programs instead of another non-profit led by someone who really is more hype than substance.

Rhee was a short time Chancellor of a public school system that supported vouchers for private schools. A Chancellor who ignored parents and whose first foray into electoral politics as a supporter of Adrian Fenty didn't end so well.

I will credit Rhee with many things but being a good spokesperson for what she wanted to do in the District of Colubia isn't one of them. She turned off more people that she turned on and if spokesperson for StudentsFirst is the role she will have people may find their money not really well spent.

It will be seen how she goes forward but with the long list of Republicans she is associating herself with it may be hard for her to reach a level where people believe what she is saying is good education rather than more hype for Michelle Rhee.

Time will tell- I do think that Rhee will be soon become the latest thing in education to bite the dust. We have seen so many before her it shouldn't come as a surprise to anyone.

Bradley Tusk does not get a blue circle. He gets a green circle for slime. He's Wal-Mart's political hack in New York. He also has Lehman and Blago on his resume. Plus, being connected to Bloomberg does not a Democrat make. Bloomberg hasn't been a Dem in years and has never cared for the poor or working class even when he claimed to be one.
There's a very simple reason millionaires and billionaires are giving Rhee money and it has nothing to do with their want for educated poor kids. This is about unions, plain and simple. Union busters like like those governors and the Kochs are going after teachers and public sector workers because they know if they turn public opinion on people who serve their community, it will be much easier and palatable to the electorate to usher in strong anti-union legislation that hits all sectors. In the meantime Rhee gets rich, which is probably all she ever really wanted in the first place.
Do people realize that even if charter schools become the prevailing form of education in this country, THEY ARE STILL TAX PAYER FUNDED!!! It just shifts from the public schools to the charter school!!! So now, let's say the tuition of the school is $10,000.00, these billionaires will pocket that, and also, pocket half of the tax payer per pupil expenditure thus making them even more rich!!!!
Very good article. However, I would disagree with your otherwise good graphic: While Michelle Rhee certainly has LOTS of support on the RIGHT, she has relatively little on what most people would characterize as the "left".

Those individuals you've placed on the "left" aren't "left" at all. They aren't progressives; they only look that way when you contrast them with extremist right-wingers like Chris Christie, Rick Scott and Mitch Daniels.

Those "left" individuals are actually "DC Insiders" who have only one REAL belief system: Getting and Retaining Power and Money. They are all about the big house in Georgetown or Chevy Chase; the beachfront home in eastern Deleware or Maryland; the Lexus and the Mercedes in the spacious garage; and being well-connected in the inner center of the Beltway Influence Circle. I know a lot of these folks. They aren't necessarily evil---at least not all of them---but they are obsessed with a materially rich life and everything that goes with being wealthy and powerful.

Most of these "Democrats" or "Liberals" that are part of, or aspire to, the Beltway Elite, actually brag about their "Bipartisan Approach", highlighting the fact that their lobbying or law firm has "well-known Democrats and Republicans". But, of course, both worship at the same "church": The First Church of Money, Power and Influence.

THESE are the "leftists" and "Democrats" supporting the heinous Michelle Rhee and her odious ideas.
Our kids’ education system is under attack of some of teachers and principals; we are living under monarchy of teacher union. We citizens, which bring the value of education back to kids and help our country back to track of high level educations, not the teachers union can run our kids and our country. I would like to be part of the movement of replacing bad teachers and administrative.
Michelle Rhee - The famous former Washington DC School District Chancellor


Michelle Rhee on OPRAH https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iPsqO17f6Lw

Michelle Rhee on abc's ThisWeek https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Nep1mcaFthU

Michelle Rhee on The DailyShow with Jon Stewart

pbs.org FRONTLINE: The Education of Michelle Rhee
http://video.pbs.org/video/2323979463/ http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/pages/frontline/education-of-michelle-rhee/

Time Magazine: Rhee Tackles Classroom Challenge

Michelle Rhee Discusses "Waiting for Superman," Charter Schools And Sch... https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OLih24QdwH8

Why Teach For America works - Michelle Rhee

A Two-Tier Proposal for Teacher Pay - Michelle Rhee

Stanford University: A Conversation on "Waiting for Superman" https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Xzrjo7Fvs1A

"Radical" Fighting to Put Students First should be a must read for all studentsfirst.org members! Michelle Rhee's new book, "RADICAL: Fighting to Put Students First," is now in stores! For more information about where you can find it, to read an excerpt from the book, and to share your story about education in America visit the official site at http://www.edradical.com/ or http://www.facebook.com/edradical.

Michelle Rhee at the ACE 2011 Spring Luncheon https://www.youtube.com/watch?NR=1&feature=endscreen&v=mO9F-amHDuw

Michelle Rhee and Kevin Johnson (4/20/11) https://www.youtube.com/watch?NR=1&v=OCcNzh7C_Tk&feature=endscreen

Michelle A. Rhee 03.17.11 https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KD0g8Jb9l78

Cornell Alumni: Olin Lecture 2012: Michelle Rhee '92https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mwFD-wkAEi8

Harvard Public Health: Michelle Rhee, Former Chancellor of Washington D.C. Public Schoolshttps://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jH0twXcxNUY


Geoffrey Canada - Conversations at KCTS 9
Geoffrey Canada interviewed by Julian Bond: Explorations in Black Leadership ...

"Waiting for Superman" the documentary and Bloomberg documentary "Risk Takers" Michelle Rhee should a required screening for all studentsfirst.org members. I saw them on Netflix and became an instant member of studentsfirst.org and Michelle Rhee follower.

"Won't Back down" the movie is another example to screen to all studentsfirst.org members.

Share the reasons you fight for education reform. Your story will inspire others to get involved. So tell us: Why are you working to put students first? http://www.studentsfirst.org/facebook-story

Check out today's blog by StudentsFirst staffer Charity Hallman, "One size fits all, or so they said," on The Fordham Institute's "Education Gadfly Daily: FLYPAPER" blog.

To view the Fordham study, "When Teachers Choose Pension Plans: The Florida Story," visit http://www.studentsfirst.org/fordham-study-on-fl-teacher-pension-reform

Watch MAKER videos on StudentFirst Founder Michelle Rhee visit www.makers.com/michelle-rhee

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