Michelle Rhee, Education Activists Targeting U.S. Schools, Backed By Big Bucks

Judy Hartnett's picture
Thursday, May 17, 2012

During her tumultuous three years at the head of the Washington D.C. public schools, Michelle Rhee set off a lot of fireworks.

She's still doing it - on a national stage.

Rhee has emerged as the leader of an unlikely coalition of politicians, philanthropists, financiers and entrepreneurs who believe the nation's $500 billion-a-year public education system needs a massive overhaul. She has vowed to raise $1 billion for her national advocacy group, StudentsFirst, and forever break the hold of teachers unions on education policy.

StudentsFirst has its own political action committee (PAC), its own SuperPAC, and a staff of 75, including a cadre of seasoned lobbyists Rhee sends from state to state as political battles heat up. She has flooded the airwaves with TV and radio ads in a half dozen states weighing new policies on charter schools, teacher assessment and other hot-button issues.

To her supporters, Rhee is a once-in-a-generation leader who has the smarts and the star power to make a difference on one of the nation's most intractable public policy issues.

But critics say Rhee risks destroying the very public schools she aims to save by forging alliances with political conservatives, evangelical groups and business interests that favor turning a large chunk of public education over to the private sector. She won't disclose her donors, but public records indicate that they include billionaire financiers and wealthy foundations.

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