Michelle Rhee

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Michelle Rhee is an education reform activist, former Chancellor of the District of Columbia public schools, and spouse of Kevin Johnson, the former Mayor of Sacramento, California. She is the founder of Students First, an education advocacy group, and served as its executive director until the organization merged with 50CAN in 2016. Rhee previously served as Chancellor of District of Columbia public schools from 2007 to 2010. In 1997, she founded and led the New Teacher Project (TNTP).

Early Life and Career

Rhee was born in Ann Arbor, Michigan to Korean immigrants. Her father was a doctor and her mother owned a clothing store. Raised in Toldeo, Ohio, she graduated from the exclusive Maumee Valley Country Day School. She earned a bachelor’s degree in government from Cornell and Master of Public Policy from Harvard University. 1

While at Cornell, Rhee saw a PBS documentary about Teach for America and decided to enroll in the program. Assigned to a school in Baltimore, Rhee later recalled that she felt unprepared for the experience of teaching. In one incident, she said that she was so frustrated with rowdy students that she taped their mouths shut causing one student to bleed when the tape was removed. 2

Later, during her confirmation hearing, it was discovered that Rhee exaggerated the successes of her students’ performances on her resume and in previous public speeches. Rhee told New York Times reporters that 90% of her students performed in the 90th percentile when most of her students were at grade level, with a few performing at the 90th percentile. Rhee blamed the discrepancy on recordkeeping inconsistencies between the school’s principal and the state of Maryland. 34

Advocacy and Government Positions

The New Teacher Project

In 1995, at the recommendation of Teach for America founder Wendy Kopp, Rhee established The New Teacher Project to support quality education for predominantly low-income and minority children. The program focused on recruiting and training college graduates and those interested in education to serve at-risk youth. 5 6

Her efforts in the position were praised by many on the right and left, including former First Lady Laura Bush. Teachers’ union activists argued that the New Teacher Project supported school choice efforts opposed by government worker unions. 7

District of Columbia Public Schools

In 2007, the position of Chancellor of District of Columbia public schools was created after decision making powers were stripped from the Board of Education. Then-Mayor Adrian Fenty (D) appointed Rhee Chancellor on the recommendation of Joel Klein, at the time chancellor of New York City public schools. 8

Critics of her tenure claimed that she was too young and inexperienced. Others argued that she closed schools without hearings, withheld complete budget figures from the D.C. Council, and failed to involve parents in much of her decision-making process. Many critics argue that she was too eager to fire teachers and administrators. 9 10 11 12

In 2008, Rhee attempted to negotiate again offering salaries of $140,000 per year with an end to tenure rights or pay cuts with tenure rights. The Washington Teachers Union rejected the proposal. In 2010, Rhee and the union reached an agreement, with 20 percent pay raises and bonuses of nearly $30,000 in exchange for reforms to teacher tenure and seniority protections. Under Rhee’s rules, 241 teachers were let go and 737 were put on notice of low performance and potential termination. 13 14

In October 10, 2010, Michelle Rhee resigned from her position, left Washington, and launched the education advocacy group Students First. 15

Students First

Michelle Rhee launched Students First shortly after resigning as chancellor of the District of Columbia Public Schools. Rhee went on the Oprah Winfrey Program with a goal of raising one billion dollars and enrolling one million members in Students First. She later explained that her goal would be one billion dollars over a five-year period. 16

In 2011, while leading Students First, she came out in favor of school choice vouchers in a Wall Street Journal editorial and appeared at an event supporting school choice reforms with then-Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker (R). 17 18

Personal Life

Michelle Rhee lives in Sacramento, California with her husband, Kevin Johnson, who served from 2008 until 2016 as Mayor. Johnson is also a former professional basketball player. The two met when she was on the board of St. Hope’s, an AmeriCorps school that Johnson led for a period of a few years. 19

In 2009, the New York Times reported that Rhee attempted to defend Johnson (then her fiancé) from a federal investigation to the alleged misuse of nearly $800,000 as head of St. Hope’s School, a school run by the AmeriCorps program which Rhee served on the board, along with sexual assault allegations. The report later found no wrongdoing, but critics argued that Rhee played a role similar to a “fixer” in the investigation. 20

Previously, she was married to and had three children with Kevin Huffman whom she met through Teach for America. Huffman is Nashville-based education policy activist. 21


  1. Ripley, Amanda. “Rhee Tackles Classroom Challenge”. Time. November 26, 2008. Accessed September 5, 2019.,9171,1862444-2,00.html
  2. Turque, Bill. ”Rhee talks about her early misadventures in teaching.” Washington Post. August 13, 2010. Accessed September 6, 2019.
  3. Warner, Judith. “Is Michelle Rhee’s Revolution Over?” New York Times. October 1, 2010. Accessed September 6, 2019.
  4. Jaffe, Henry.  ”Can Michelle Rhee Save DC Schools?”. Washingtonian. September 1, 2007. Accessed September 6, 2019.
  5. The New School Project. ”What We Do”.
  6. Lemann, Nicholas. ”How Michelle Rhee Misled Education Reform.” The New Republic. May 20, 2013. Accessed September 9, 2019
  7. Schneider, Howard. ”Michelle Rhee Among First Lady’s Guests.” Washington Post. January 28, 2008. Accessed September 9, 2019
  8. Rice, Andrew. “Miss Grundy Was Fired Today”. New York magazine. March 18, 2011. Accessed September 6, 2019.
  9. Lemann, Nicholas. ”How Michelle Rhee Misled Education Reform.” The New Republic. May 20, 2013. Accessed September 6, 2019.
  10. Mead, Sara. ”The Capital of Education Reform”. US News and World Report. April 20, 2017. Accessed September 6, 2019.
  11. Turque, Bill. ”Rhee Faces Irate Council At Meeting on Budget”. Washington Post. October 21, 2008. Accessed September 9, 2019.
  12. Haynes, Dion V. ”Federal Officials Praise Progress, Urges More Long Term Planning.” Washington Post. March 15, 2008. Accessed September 7, 2019.
  13. Dillon, Sam. ”School Chief Takes on Tenure, Stirring a Fight”. New York Times. November 12, 2008. Accessed September 6, 2019.

  14. Levin, Tamar. ”School Chief Dismisses 241 Teachers in Washington.” New York Times. July 23, 2010. Accessed September 6, 2019.
  15. Craig, Tim. Turque, Bill. “Michelle Rhee resigns; Gray huddles with her successor”. Washington Post. October 10, 2013. Accessed September 6, 2019.
  16. Resmovits, Joy. “Michelle Rhee’s StudentsFirst will merge with education advocacy group 50CAN.” Los Angeles Times. March 29, 2016. Accessed September 7, 2019.
  17. Rhee, Michelle. ”In Budget Crises, an Opening for School Reform”. Wall Street Journal. January 11, 2011. Accessed September 7, 2019.

  18. Kain, Erin. ”Adrian Fenty and Michelle Rhee Support Governor Scott Walker’s Union Busting”. Forbes. March 8, 2011. Accessed September 7, 2019.
  19. Associated Press. ”Kevin Johnson marries Michelle Rhee”. ESPN. September 7, 2011. Accessed September 6, 2019.
  20. Urbina, Ian. ”G.O.P. Report Connects Official to Fiance’s Case.” New York Times. November 20, 2009. Accessed September 6, 2009.
  21. Strauss, Valerie. ”Michelle Rhee, a private school parent?”. Washington Post. September 11, 2013. Accessed September 6, 2019.
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