In October, Charlie Rose interviewed Rhee at the Forstmann Little conference in Aspen, Colorado. As they discussed the problems with America’s education system, a plan began to crystallize in her mind. Later that day, Rhee flew to Sacramento and went with Johnson and his mother to dinner at Mulvaney’s, one of her favorite restaurants. Johnson could sense something was up. “She just had this clarity and this peace,” he recalls. He gave Rhee his business card, and she started scribbling on the back. By dinner’s end, they had the outline of an organization that would throw huge amounts of money behind the brand of reform that Rhee has long advocated, first as founding CEO of the New Teacher Project and then as D.C. chancellor. It would be set up not as a charity but as a political-advocacy and membership group, along the lines of AARP or the NRA, and it would rely on private donations and Rhee’s star power. “This is it,” Johnson told her with a smile.
On December 6th, Rhee announced on Oprah that she would not work for anyone else. Instead, she was starting an organization called Students First. She planned to raise $1 billion and recruit 1 million supporters in year one. Right after the show, Rhee’s 11-year-old daughter, Starr, texted her, saying, “I plan on signing up to be a supporter.” A base of a million people and a billion dollars would be unprecedented within education reform. Rhee is reluctant to name her potential donors, but IMG chief Theodore Forstmann tells Fast Company that he is “very supportive of everything she stands for — and will continue to be.” Philanthropist Eli Broad says he “expects to be a major contributor.” “People supporting the status quo have spent hundreds of millions of dollars a year to maintain it,” Broad says. “I think she’ll be a game changer.”
In the coming weeks and months, Rhee plans to push her main points. She wants to change the tenure and seniority rules that she says have favored adults and their jobs over kids’ educations. She’ll campaign for parents to have more control over what public schools their children attend. She will lobby for cities to choose mayoral, rather than board, control of schools, because she believes that concentrating authority — as in New York and D.C. — is a prerequisite for real reform. And given the soaring spending but middling performance of American public schools, she’ll advocate stronger fiscal responsibility. A key pillar of Students First’s strategy is to build grassroots support, much as Barack Obama did during the 2008 presidential campaign — with thousands of small donors and on-the-ground campaign workers. Johnson has pushed Rhee hard on this: “They didn’t do as good a job as they should have on community involvement in D.C.,” he says. “Unless you have the grassroots folks who want it even more than the policy makers, it’s never going to happen.”