In December 2010, Michelle Rhee launched StudentsFirst, a full-spectrum advocacy effort, with 501(c)(3), 501(c)(4), 527, and PAC capabilities. As former Chancellor of Schools for the District of Columbia, Rhee is no stranger to the world of politics, where experience taught her that if education reform were to have any hope of advancing, it would need to match the political strength of its opponents. Rhee spoke with Philanthropy magazine about her work with StudentsFirst and the crucial role of issue advocacy in education reform.
PHILANTHROPY: As the founder of The New Teacher’s Project, you worked extensively in the 501(c)(3) world. And, of course, you’re no stranger to the world of politics, through your service as Chancellor of Schools for the District of Columbia and through your husband’s work as Mayor of Sacramento, so you know about the hard realities of 527 and PAC money. StudentsFirst is an issue advocacy organization that works both sides of that line—both charitable and political. What led you to that decision?
MICHELLE RHEE: That’s right. StudentsFirst is organized as a 501(c)(3), a 501(c)(4), a 527, and a PAC. We have all of those capacities so that we can operate effectively within the education advocacy landscape.
I’ve been in education reform for a long time. I spent the first part of my career focused on the 501(c)(3) side. It is certainly true that the charitable contributions made to (c)(3) organizations have moved the ball forward on education-reform programs like Teach For America, KIPP, Achievement First, and Aspire. Organizations like that—all of which are 501(c)(3) organizations—have led us to the place where we are now. They really cracked open the debate, proving that all students are capable of succeeding when they are given the right support system. That has been absolutely invaluable.
Yet I also know that organizations like TFA and KIPP can never meet their potential if we don’t change the laws, policies, and the environment within which those organizations are operating. If you talk to the people at KIPP, they’ll tell you that every day is a struggle. They’re always fighting—fighting to make sure they can get equitable funding, fighting for access to facilities, plus a thousand other fights. With Teach For America, you have a situation in which some of the best corps members are laid off every year—not because they’re not effective in the classroom, but because they were the last people to be hired—and thus the first people to be fired. It is extraordinarily disheartening to those folks, and it makes them want to leave the teaching profession.
Until we can change the laws and policies that are in place, we’re never going to really see a shift in the trajectory of the reform momentum.
I strongly believe that until we can change the laws and policies that are in place, we’re never going to really see a shift in the trajectory of the reform momentum. Some of that is 501(c)(4) work, the issue advocacy work that we do at state capitals every day, but part of it is also electoral work, to be quite frank. Many politicians will say, behind closed doors, “Yes, I get your issues. And I agree—I have kids—but I can’t do anything about it. The powers that be will not like that. If I go with you, they will run somebody against me, and that would mean I may not be here in the future. And, quite frankly, I think the world is a better place if I’m in office.”
Because of that dynamic, we realized that we need to be in state legislators’ offices, lobbying elected officials. But, in order to change the landscape in a significant way, we also need to be doing the hard work of identifying politicians who are willing to make a courageous stand for kids. And we have to back the leaders who are willing to take a stand—a stand that is difficult and that could lead to them being targeted in the next election cycle.
PHILANTHROPY: Now, you well know that StudentsFirst is not the first advocacy organization to undertake such a mandate. There are plenty of others out there: American Federation for Children, Stand for Children, EdVoice, DFER—the list goes on. What do you see as the distinct competency of StudentsFirst?
MICHELLE RHEE: First of all, let me say that we work closely with all of those organizations. I think that you need multiple organizations all pushing in the same direction in order to tip the scales. I think that we bring some unique qualities to this fight because of several reasons.
One, we operate as a national organization. Some of those organizations have a mission of operating within a particular state. We have a national reach.
Two, we are a membership organization with more than two million members across the country. We have a very active membership, which we’ve found is crucially important. Not only do you need the dollar resources to back a candidate, but you want boots on the ground, too. If you have people who are willing to knock on doors and man the phone banks on behalf of politicians, that is a huge help. So our membership is another differentiating factor.
Three, we have a pretty broad-based agenda—much broader based than, for example, AFC, which is very focused on the voucher issues. But we take a broad-based approach in three different areas of elevating the teaching profession: empowering parents, elevating teaching, and spending taxpayer dollars wisely.
There are 37 specific policies for which we advocate within those three areas. What we hope to do differently is not just to get people engaged around a particular fight. Whether it’s a fight to lift the charter cap in New York or the constitutional amendment in Georgia, we’ve been able to take on singular fights and get a lot of momentum and win those specific fights. The problem for a long time has been that, once it’s won, people—whether it’s philanthropists or politicians or other activists—they say, “Okay, done! Educational reform, check the box. We can move on now.”
What we’re trying to do through our policy agenda is show people that they can move on any one of our 37 policy initiatives, but it’s not really going to move the entire ball forward in a significant way. This is an undertaking that has to be a sustained effort over a 5- to 10-year period to get all 37 of these policies put in place. It’s not just situational fights. It’s a comprehensive strategy, and it’s going to take a long time, and you’ve got to be in for the long haul. By staging a bigger picture, by looking at the long-term goals, we help people understand that this isn’t a one-shot, here-and-there effort.
PHILANTHROPY: Your currently have about two million members. For two years, that is exponential growth. Have things plateaued? Or are you still seeing the sort of impressive rate of growth in membership that you had earlier?
MICHELLE RHEE: So in terms of the membership, our goal for the first year was to have a million members and we met that goal. Our goal for our second year was to have two million members. We just met that mark in December. In terms of membership growth, I’d say our trajectory is exactly where we wanted it to be. For our third year, we are actually changing the focus of our membership. We’re putting much less focus on membership acquisition, because we actually feel like two million members is a very strong base on which to build.
What we are focused on now is growing the number of what we call our core, people who not only are opening and reading our emails and will take an occasional action here or there, but people who are willing to go out there and mobilize their neighbors to lead the charge. We have a goal of having several hundred of what we call transformation team leaders, and active transformation teams all over the country through our third year.
PHILANTHROPY: Given that growth rate, what does your budget look like? What does it take to sustain this enterprise? And, if I may ask, who are some of your leading funders? You’ve alluded to a few of them before—the Walton family, the Broads, John and Laura Arnold, the late Ted Forstmann. Who else is helping drive this effort forward?
MICHELLE RHEE: First of all, on the financial front, we have just about doubled our expenditures each year that we’ve been in existence. And we certainly plan on another large increase in expenditures for Year Three. Our goal is to achieve a steady state of about $200 million a year. A lot of people look at that number and say, “Well, that’s just astronomical. What are you going to do with $200 million every year?” Well, let’s compare that with other advocacy groups that we’re fighting against every day.
Compare our spending with the two national teachers’ unions, the NEA and the AFP. The unions have an annual budget of $2.2 billion per year—that’s with a B, billion—of which they spend about $500 million on political activity, and that’s a relatively conservative estimate. We don’t feel like we have to go dollar-for-dollar with them, because we’ve got right on our side. And though we can be smarter and more strategic, we can’t be a $10 million or $20 million organization and expect to compete effectively with a $500 million operation.
We have been fortunate enough to enjoy strong support from the folks that you mentioned, as well as many others. It’s been interesting because those organizations, those foundations, and those individuals have been in the school-reform fight for so long that they realized a lot earlier that if you invest in direct programming, you may have some very important things happen for individual groups of students. But in order for that to grow to scale, you need to invest in the advocacy and political efforts. Let me give you a quick example.
In order to change the landscape in a significant way, we need to be doing the hard work of identifying politicians who are willing to make a courageous stand for kids.
I was in Texas recently, talking to a philanthropist who was extraordinarily happy. He had put several million dollars into building a new facility for the charter school that he supports. I completely understood that. But I kept trying to tell him, “Look, you just put $8 million into a facility. You built a great, state-of-the-art facility that will be an enormous benefit for this one particular charter school. But if you were to have taken that $8 million and put it into lobbying the state legislature to change the laws regarding access to facilities or charter schools, you could have solved the problem not just for the one charter school that you’re concerned about, but for all the charter schools across the state.”
I think that philanthropists are beginning to see that dynamic more and more, and that’s why they are starting to consider investing in advocacy efforts more than they have before. But it’s difficult because people tend to be a little bit more skeptical of donating to a political process rather than to direct-service organizations. But I think they’re coming around to it.
PHILANTHROPY: Let’s talk about the opposition that you’re encountering. You have a great line about the need to counterbalance the unions’ money with your members. Two thoughts immediately occurred to me. First: the unions have members, not just money. Second, you have money, not just members. Yet in both of those areas, it seems to me that unions have slight advantages. For example, their members tend to be more self-interested. How do you circumvent those obstacles?
MICHELLE RHEE: Well, you’re right in that the unions have a membership that has direct self-interest at heart. Part of what we’re trying to do, quite honestly, is create the exact same dynamic with our membership. We have lots of parents whose kids are being affected every day by the ineffective and inefficient laws and policies that we have in place. I can’t tell you the number of emails that I get from our members who are so frustrated when they see a great teacher in their school being laid off simply because that person was the newest teacher, or when the charter school that is serving their kids so well is getting kicked out of a facility because of co-location fights. We are hoping to build a constituency of people who feel that same sense of self-interest, motivating them every day to be involved in our efforts.
On the dollar side, you’re right. The unions have lots of advantages. They have automatic withdrawal of their union dues from members’ paychecks, and that finances their entire operation. In many cases, their members don’t even have any choice. They have to pay union dues, whether they’re supporting the union or not. Is that an advantage? Absolutely. But, that said, we think that we are setting up the right dynamic with our members. They understand very clearly what we’re up against, the bureaucracy and the absolute fortitude with which the defenders of that bureaucracy are going to fight, and the amount of money that they have to undertake that fight. I think that people understand the need for a counterbalance.
PHILANTHROPY: Stepping back just for a second, you’re only two years into this, but you’ve had an impressive series of wins. What would you consider your biggest victory to date, and what are you looking at as an issue with particular traction? You mentioned that you are advocating 37 policies. What looks particularly promising within that portfolio?
MICHELLE RHEE: A few things. In the 17 states where we’re active, we’ve passed more than 115 policies. If you read our policy agenda, you’ll know these are not soft policies. They have been thought of as extraordinarily controversial for a long time.
In more concrete terms, we’ve helped to push some important ballot initiatives, like the ones in Cleveland and in Georgia, and we’ve also helped to defend places like Michigan where the unions were trying to roll back some very strong reforms. Finally, we supported more than 100 political candidates in the 2012 election—with a win rate of about 75 percent. I’d say all of those things have been big successes.
We’ve shown, more and more, that education reform is a bipartisan issue.
That said, I don’t know that I could necessarily point to one or the other and call it the biggest. But one of the dynamics that’s now shifting is that we’ve shown, more and more, that this is a bipartisan issue. Our opponents like to choose one or two people who support us and say, well, this is a conservative, right-wing agenda. That’s completely disingenuous. For every Chris Christie, John Kasich, or Brian Sandoval that we have supporting our efforts, we also have a Kevin Johnson, Antonio Villaraigosa, and Cory Booker who are absolutely fighting with us. Being able to identify very strong members of the Democratic Party who are willing to take these issues on, who are absolutely willing to take on the bureaucracy and its status-quo defenders, has been a huge step forward in the fight.
PHILANTHROPY: What advice would you give to a donor now who is interested in beginning to engage in advocacy efforts?
MICHELLE RHEE: I have lots of conversations with donors who are concerned about education and who have been giving to direct-service programs for some time. My point for them is that if you want your investments to have power and influence, the answer is to move at least some of your giving into the advocacy realm. Creating great individual charter schools as proof points in cities—while important—is only going to go so far. Until we can change the entire environment in which those individual operators are working every day, we’re not going to be able to crack things open for the vast majority of kids. That’s been my big push in the philanthropic community, moving more of the giving into the (c)(4) and political realm.
PHILANTHROPY: On a concluding note, what does victory look like to Michelle Rhee?
MICHELLE RHEE: For me, it’s been clear since day one. We will succeed when we’re living up to our promise as a nation, which means that every kid—regardless of the color of their skin and the zip code that they live in—can live the American dream because they’re receiving a high-quality education.
Right now, that’s not happening. We know that you can look at a kid’s zip code and you can, with pretty good accuracy, guess what that kid’s academic achievement levels are. To my mind, that is completely unacceptable. We as a country are towards the bottom on social mobility internationally, which means if you’re a kid who was born into poverty in this country, the chances that you’ll ever escape poverty are not good. The only way that we’re going to change those dynamics is if we change the public-education system.
So what victory looks like for me is that, one day, you see a list of high-performing schools across a particular district, or city, or state, and there is no absolutely no correlation between how well that school is performing and the socioeconomic status of the kids who are attending that school. I think that’s what victory looks like.