Photo by Commonwealth Club on Flickr.

Last week former DC Public Schools Chancellor Michelle Rhee announced that she is stepping down from her post as head of StudentsFirst, the non-profit advocacy group she founded. Is this the swan song for an education reform leader who rose to prominence through her time at DCPS?

Rhee says she will remain involved in StudentsFirst and is proud of what she’s accomplished there, but the group has struggled recently.  The organization has pulled out of 5 states where it was active, and even some supporters acknowledge that StudentsFirst has not met the ambitious goals Rhee outlined at its launch.

It’s not clear whether Rhee plans to take on another high-profile assignment in the education world, but her recent announcements suggest a move out of the spotlight.


Rhee says she’s stepping down from the StudentsFirst job to focus on her family and support the career of her husband, Sacramento mayor Kevin Johnson.  She also recently took on the role of interim board chair for a small network of Sacramento charter schools, likely a welcome change from the size and prominence of DCPS.  A gig on the board of Scotts Miracle-Gro Co. also won’t hurt her recuperation from years in the trenches.


Love Rhee or hate her, she had a significant impact on education in DC. Her successor as Chancellor, Kaya Henderson, has continued many of Rhee’s key initiatives with a tone that is more community-minded, as GGW anticipated at the time of her appointment.

While much of Rhee’s legacy lives on in the District, many of her signature reforms are taking a step back in that large city to the north. Several years ago, former New York City schools chancellor Joel Klein was implementing many of the same initiatives as Rhee. (I once attended a conference where Klein recalled fielding requests from Rhee antagonists asking for help in modulating her; Klein responded, “I’m not her Daddy!”)

The trajectory has changed, though, with current New York Mayor Bill de Blasio winning election on a platform that opposed Klein/Rhee-style school closures and ratings of schools.  And some politicians, including Rhee’s own husband, are shying away from even using the phrase “education reform.”

At the same time, others are taking up Rhee’s mantle. Former CNN anchor Campbell Brown has formed an organization that is fighting teacher tenure laws, among other goals.

If Rhee does step back from the spotlight, who will be the new face of education reform? And what impact will that new leader have on changes throughout the country and here in DC?

Aaron Lemon-Strauss is the father of two delightful children, husband of a civil rights lawyer, and employee of a non-profit education organization.  As all will eagerly tell you, his views are very much his own and not meant to represent anyone.