Michelle Rhee and Kevin Johnson discuss education reform

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Mayor Kevin Johnson and his fiancée, renown education reformer Michelle Rhee, took the stage Thursday night for their first speaking event in Sacramento at the Tsakopoulos Library Galleria to talk about the changing landscape in the world of education.

They held hands, finished each other’s sentences, and answered questions from moderator Steven C. Currall, dean of the UC Davis management school as well as some from the crowd of a few hundred attendees. Their appearance came on the heels of the announcement that Rhee’s nonprofit educational advocacy organization, StudentsFirst, is now officially headquartered in Sacramento.

The two come from very different backgrounds – Rhee was born into a wealthy family that provided her with a private education while Johnson is a product of the public school system. But their message was the same: Every student should have a good education, no matter where he or she grows up.

Rhee has been in the spotlight for what many deem controversial past practices, and she did not shy away from discussing her political legacy in Washington, D.C., where she most recently worked as public schools chancellor. As she said on Thursday, in the 20 years of her career thus far, she’s probably hired and fired more people than anyone else.

In her first year as the chancellor of Washington, D.C., schools, Rhee closed 24 schools, laid off hundreds of teachers – dozens without notice – and her office was ground zero for teacher union protests.

She has said repeatedly, and again on Thursday, that the country’s states’ and school districts’ policies of “last in, first out” is outdated and needs to be changed. The policy, she said, is simple – the last teachers hired are the first teachers fired, regardless of how good they are.

To Rhee and her supporters, teachers’ impact on students play no role in those decisions. Quoting research from The Economist, she stated that if districts took the bottom-performing 6 percent of teachers and replaced them with average-performing teachers, scores would soar to the top percentile.

Along with Rhee and Johnson, Newark, N.J. Mayor Cory Booker announced earlier this week the launch of a campaign called “Save Great Teachers,” a national campaign that would permanently eliminate the “last in, first out” policy, which they said rids the nation’s school systems of effective teachers.

But while Rhee supporters boast improved student achievement, The Washington Post has reported that significant achievement gaps remain between students in high-performing and low-performing school districts, and between white and Black students in the D.C. district.

If Rhee plans on making the same impact in Sacramento that she did in D.C., California Teachers Association President David Sanchez, said in an interview on Friday, “Good luck.”

The CTA is not too afraid at this point, since Rhee can’t be involved in any California school district’s layoffs unless she is part of a school district, which she is not.

“She is someone who made it on Time (Magazine), on Oprah. She’s the darling of what we call unproven reform, but she’s not a state superintendent, not a legislator, she’s just someone who is using her celebrity status to make an impact…. I would imagine she is trying to do the same thing (in Sacramento),” Sanchez said.

But in D.C., Sanchez noted, Rhee forgot to tell teachers one thing: why they were being fired.

Rhee said she is a “huge believer” in mayoral control of low-performing schools, as opposed to a school board type of governance.

Speaking to the audience, she said, “You’re in a position right now, where you have management, the school board, who are usually elected through union-supported dollars. So, you have unions on both sides of the bargaining table.”

“That’s never going to get you a contract.… If we want to change the policy (to benefit) children, you have to change that dynamic.”

Asked whether it was the composition of school boards or the way they get elected, Rhee said that, in a school board-run district, the superintendents will say they spend 50 to 70 percent of their time trying to implement policy just to get five votes and therefore spends his/her time ineffectively.

Shortly after Rhee and he first met, Johnson said they gathered with other “top reformers” such as the then superintendent of schools in Chicago, Arne Duncan, in addition to the founders of Teach for America for a three-day summit in Aspen.

“We were outside of the public sector … and we talked about how we were going to change the world,” Johnson said. “It became very clear that we were going to go back to our respective communities, do what we were doing, but not really change the world.”

To truly make a change, he remembers thinking at the time, the reformers should do two things: One should become superintendent of schools, and another should become mayor.

StudentsFirst staff said Friday that they are currently scouting properties in Sacramento for their headquarters, and since they are looking to expand, there will be job opportunities in town.

Monica Stark can be reached at monica.stark@sacramentopress.com



  • Susie Shields

    “To truly make a change, he remembers thinking at the time, the reformers should do two things: One should become superintendent of schools, and another should become mayor.”

    I’ve been saying this for years: Kevin Johnson became mayor to increase his national profile in the education reform world. He never cared about making Sacramento a better place to live as mayor. He never was involved in city business before so I thought, why is he doing this? Then it hit me…it’s about HIM and HIS agenda. He’s been climbing the ladder of national education reform notoriety and he’s been using Sacramentans and St. HOPE students as his rungs. I also think he may be using Michelle as a rung as well…that’s how he operates.

  • Terre Johnson

    I want to continue to hear the facts about the existing schools and the existing success or lack thereof and I want to hold it up in the face of every tax payer. I want MY monies worth and I don’t currently feel that is the case. So with that OUT perhaps we can shake out of the old tired methods a new approach to creating 100% successful schools. MY future depends on the schools being successful. So for the record it’s all about ME, My neighborhood schools, My future employees, the future of our state, our country. I can see past the notable Mayor and reformer from DC toward the GOAL. The students education. Look. You might see it as well.

  • Susie Shields

    I agree with the first part of your statement. It’s the last few sentences that I don’t agree with. The problem is, I have looked, I have researched, I have attended board meetings, I have volunteered for years in inner-city classrooms. Kevin Johnson and Michelle Rhee are not about “the kids” – they are about privatizing education so their billionaire pals can get their hands on public education money without much regulation. Follow the money, you might see it as well.

    • Rich E.

      i would love to follow the money, however it is sucked by before it hits the classroom. unfortunately susie, the public education system has problems as well. albeit a different set of problems, but problems none-the-less. for instance, looking at this website:


      you will see that SCUSD has budgeted for the 10/11 school year $20,510,000 in retiree benefits. that’s right, retirees receive lifetime benefits. so the secretary who answers the phones for the school district gets lifetime benefits if she meets the criteria for retirement. someone please tell me how her job does anything for the education of today’s youth? someone please tell me how that position of answering phones is a huge sacrifice that it warrants lifetime benefits? that is almost 5% of the entire expenditures budget and is almost $3million more than the second largest expenditure which is child development. so with all of the arguing, the bickering back and forth done here and on other sites about the perils of KJ, Michelle Rhee, Charter Schools, in black and white it appears the paying of lifetime benefits to the retirees of SCUSD is more important and requires more money than child development. someone tell me again how much better public education is from charter schools?

      until someone can prove to me that closing down charter schools and having ALL of the public funds redirected to the public educational system for EDUCATING the students, then i say let charter schools, KJ, Michelle Rhee, Santa Claus, Peter Pan, whomever have an alternative form to educating that gives the parents a choice on how and where their children are educated. at the end of the day, that is what i am about on this subject. not which form is better. but giving the parents choices. both systems have their pros and both have their cons, but only providing one form of education opens up a whole other world of problems. we expect parents to be responsible for the actions and their children, then give them the choices that best suits their children whom they know best.

  • Susie Shields

    Rich- I’m certainly not against parental choice. I think education is a highly personal choice that should be available to parents. I think charter schools can be a good option. The problem is, many charter schools are run independently from school districts. There is minimal oversight for these entities and there is virtually zero regulation. Charter school fraud is an increasing problem and districts have a really hard time cracking down on them because state law is very favorable to charters. I think charter schools should be dependent on the school district in that they are overseen by the district’s trustees and are held accountable because of it. Charter schools should be an option, not a replacement. Michelle Rhee and Kevin Johnson want to privitize all schools and that is a dangerous thought considering the overwhelming fraud in charter schools today – KJ’s own school is guilty of it to the tune of $800,000..

    I have seen many of your comments about the SCUSD district budget and you’re right, they spend a lot of money on benefits. I think the tide is changing here but I urge you to look into the overwhelming fraud that goes on in charter schools- especially independent ones that don’t have records available for the public to view. They do whatever they want – the taxpayer be damned. Here’s some links for you to peruse:



    Even the faux documentary “Waiting For Superman” admits that only 1 in 5 charter schools is effective. There absolutely needs to be more regulation on these out of control schools if we are to actually take them seriously as an alternative.

    • Rich E.

      i don’t doubt there is fraud happening in charter schools. and if oversight is needed, then it should be provided. but to lump all charter schools in with a few bad apples is like saying all tenured public school teachers don’t care about their students. of course there are a few that seem to get all of the publicity. but i doubt KJ and Michelle got up one morning and said “i have a way we can make a ton of money, let’s go into education”. i don’t think they are as bad as you make them out to be (my opinion) and i don’t think they are as clean as i make them out to be. like most things, they are probably in the middle. i am sure they want to provide a good education for their students, but at the same time there are investors who want to make money off of their investments so they have that to look at as well.

      i agree there should be more regulation, but that is a governmental issue. i am sure if regulations were put in place, then KJ, Michelle and other charter schools would fall in line otherwise they would risk shutting down. but i have to be honest with you susie, i don’t think they should be singled-out or blasted as much as you do. i don’t think they are the devils when it comes to education. just my opinion. there are just as many “devils” who take advantage of the public educational system. where is that regulation?

    • Susie I agree, those clowns are somebodys puppets.

  • I definatly smell a rat, someone has an agenda and its about money and ego! Oh by the way how did those two ever hook up? It all seems too calculated. Him and her together, NO WAY!!

  • Susie Shields

    Rich- we’ll just have to agree to disagree. I know A LOT about both Kevin and Michelle and I can tell you with the utmost sincerity and honesty, they are not who you think they are. They are all about fake success and getting their hands on public money -period.

  • She covered up the groping allegations at Sac Charter. He recommended her for Chancellor of DC Schools. They have a mutual admiration society. You need to look beyond the words to their actions. Few people liked the job she did as Chancellor. That’s why Fenty was voted out. Johnson lost in the Central City precincts and his candidates lost in the school board races because parents don’t want his type of reform.


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