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Michelle Rhee Reportedly Leaving StudentsFirst

Leading education reform advocate Michelle Rhee may be stepping down as CEO of her nonprofit StudentsFirst by year’s end, the Huffington Post has reported.

StudentsFirst has thus far declined to confirm the development, saying that Rhee currently remains the group’s CEO.

Rhee, who will reportedly remain on the board of directors, has been a lightning rod for controversy since becoming chancellor of Washington D.C.’s public schools in 2007, serving as both a leader and punching bag in the education reform movement.

Aggressive measure, like firing 241 underperforming teachers in a single day, put her on the cover of Time magazine and made her a hero to those who believe greatly increased accountability is essential to improving schools. However, Rhee was an object of hatred for many teachers, who accused her of unfairly blaming them for broader problems. More recently, critics have been able to point to allegations of widespread cheating on standardized tests within D.C.’s public schools.

After resigning as D.C. chancellor in 2010 when the mayor who backed her lost reelection, Rhee started StudentsFirst with high ambitions, declaring on Oprah that she hoped to attract a million members and raise $1 billion to support policies of aggressive education reform. Reality has fallen short of these lofty goals, however.

Staff turnover was high, and far from raising a billion dollars over five years, the group has struggled to raised a tenth of that. In July, the group eliminated its paid staff in five states (though in some cases it claims this was due to sufficient policy success), leaving it active in only thirteen.

An anonymous former staffer with the organization told HuffPo that the combination of personal attacks and underwhelming success wore Rhee down.

“It’s been frustrating. It’s not totally shocking that eventually even she would decide to step away,” the staffer said.

Rhee’s departure would be a crisis point for StudentsFirst. Without a lengthy institutional history or a single super-wealthy backer committed to advancing the group’s goals, Rhee’s personal brand was the organization’s biggest asset. The organization’s website prominently features a page just about her. Whether it can remain a player in education without her remains to be seen.

The move could signal a general disengagement by Rhee from her position at the front of the education reform movement. Rhee has recently become involved with several other side projects. One, as the interim board chairwoman with the St. Hope Public Schools charter group, is education-related but far less visible. Another, a board position with the lawn-and-garden company Scotts Miracle-Gro, isn’t education-related at all. The announcement that Rhee was joining up with Miracle-Gro referred to her as Michelle Johnson, suggesting that at least in some areas she may even be adopting the name of her husband, Sacramento Mayor Kevin Johnson.

If Rhee chooses to step away, the movement she helped drive will almost certainly remain. Frustrated with the entrenched unions and bureaucracies that Rhee grappled with, new champions such as former news anchor Campbell Brown are attempting to improve teacher quality through the courts, launching lawsuits that seek to undermine laws that protect teachers from being fired.

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