Former D.C. Schools Chancellor Michelle Rhee Aims To Put 'StudentsFirst' Michelle Rhee became one of the most controversial figures in education reform when she tied pay increases to merit and fired hundreds of teachers who she said were underperforming. Now, she's heading up a group to advocate on behalf of children — not special interests groups like teachers unions.
NPR logo

Former D.C. Schools Chief Aims To Put 'StudentsFirst'

  • Download
  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript
Former D.C. Schools Chief Aims To Put 'StudentsFirst'

Former D.C. Schools Chief Aims To Put 'StudentsFirst'

  • Download
  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript

GUY RAZ, host:

Now it's not only Republicans, like Scott Walker and Chris Christie, who are challenging unions. When it comes to teachers' unions, it's increasingly Democrats, people like Michelle Rhee. She was the head of the Washington, D.C., School District for about three years. And during that time, she fired hundreds of teachers who she said were underperforming. And she also tied pay increases to merit, not to tenure.

Now, she's heading up an education advocacy group based out of Sacramento. It's called StudentsFirst. And with it, she hopes to create a powerful lobby to push for education reform.

Ms. MICHELLE RHEE (StudentsFirst, Former Chancellor, Washington, D.C. Public Schools): Over the last 30 years, the education policy has been driven in this country by lots of special-interest groups, including the teachers' union. And I think that one of the missing pieces is that there is no organized national interest group that has the heft that the unions and the other groups do, who are advocating on behalf of children.

So we're going to be doing a few things. One: We're going to be working in a few anchor states where the governor and legislature are interested in adapting all, or a significant percentage, of our policy agenda. We're also going to be working across the country on certain agenda items as well.

So for example, the first one that we're going to be launching is to try to get rid of LIFO provisions - that's last in, first out. When layoffs are conducted in this country of teachers, they are conducted by seniority, which means that the most junior teachers are let go first...

RAZ: Even if they're the best.

Ms. RHEE: Even if they're the best. And these - what we call LIFO provisions make absolutely no sense for children because the research shows that number one, you end up firing some of your best teachers; number two, you have to fire more teachers because the junior teachers get paid the least, so you have to fire more of them to cover the budget deficit; and then three, that it disproportionately negatively impacts the lowest-performing schools, the highest-needs schools, because they have the largest number of new teachers.

So the policies are absolutely not good for children. We understand that they may serve some adult interests, but that is a policy that nationwide, we're going to have a heavy campaign to try to change.

RAZ: Michelle Rhee, I understand that StudentsFirst will support the idea of vouchers for students who choose to attend private schools. You have long been an advocate for strong public education. Obviously, that's what you're known for. I wonder if that position is a form of resignation, in a way; that in your view, elements of public education will not be salvageable.

Ms. RHEE: No, not at all. When I was the chancellor of the Washington, D.C., public school system, my purview, and my day-to-day, was focused on building a great public school system, traditional public school system. And you know, I'm a Democrat, a lifelong Democrat, so when I was not running the school district, I was not in favor of vouchers. I thought this is, you know, public money going to private institutions - not a good thing.

I changed my mind when I actually came to D.C. because I was faced with the situation where mothers who lived in Anacostia, which was the poorest part of town, would come to me, and they had done everything that you would want a mother to do. So they researched their neighborhood school, and they find out that it's failing. Then they apply through the lottery process for one of the, you know, few schools that we had in the District that was performing well, and they didn't win a seat in the lottery. And then those mothers would come to me and say, what am I supposed to do now?

And if I did not have a place for their children at one of my public schools that I would feel comfortable sending my own children to, then who am I to deny that parent a $7,500 voucher - which, by the way, is $1,500 less than we were spending per child in the public schools - so that they could attend a good, for example, parochial school, Catholic school?

My job is to make sure that kids are getting a great education. And if I can't provide that for them today but they can get it somewhere else, then that's got to be our goal; not preserving the system, but making sure that kids are getting a great education.

RAZ: Mayor Kevin Johnson, in Sacramento, boasted that out of all the mayors in the country, he was the one that managed to get you to base your organization in his city. He had a little bit of an advantage.

Ms. RHEE: He had a little bit of an advantage because we are going to get married. But also, he gave me a really good sell. And Sacramento, under his leadership, is really an up-and-coming city. My staff and I just took a visit out to Sacramento last weekend. I got them excited about moving out there. So we're looking forward to it.

RAZ: That's Michelle Rhee. She's the former chancellor of the District of Columbia school system, and now heads StudentsFirst. It's an education advocacy group based out of Sacramento, California. Michelle Rhee, thank you.

Ms. RHEE: Thank you.

Copyright © 2011 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.