Yet Rhee’s failings were not simply matters of communication. Her dedication to assessing quality was undermined by a difficult fact: No one has adequately defined good teaching. Value-added formulas, like the one behind IMPACT, are only as accurate as their inputs. Critics argue that standardized tests are flawed and inconsistent and don’t measure what kids should really be learning anyway. And Rhee carried out hundreds of firings before IMPACT was even in place. Rhee acknowledges that for all her talk of stringent standards, there was “no perfect option” when it came to making many of her firing decisions. “In anything that we chose, there was a possibility of someone getting screwed,” she said at an appearance in December. “But we thought, ‘Better the adults getting screwed than the kids.’ ”
In the end, it was this perhaps unavoidable unfairness that angered many Washington voters. Suppose the new formula was weighted incorrectly? “Should we then not act upon any of those ineffective teachers because there might be some mistakes?” Rhee asks in reply. “Well, that’s a matter of priority. Who bears the burden of the risk?” A teacher who was unjustly fired could always find another job, but the harm done to a wronged child would be impossible to correct, she says. “You only have one shot at first grade.”
In hard times, how do you pick winners and losers? That’s the subject up for discussion in an elementary-school classroom on Astor Place, as Rhee sits facing a room full of worried public-school teachers. It’s a welcoming audience: They’re members of a New York group called Educators 4 Excellence, founded by two recent Teach for America alums. The median age of the crowd looks to be about 28, and with Mayor Bloomberg predicting thousands of layoffs, these young teachers are particularly vulnerable under existing regulations that protect seniority.
Lobbying to abolish such rules is Rhee’s initial focus, because she sees it as both a vital priority and an easy win. It’s hard to defend a system that arbitrarily inflicts pain on the newest teachers, who are often concentrated in the most troubled schools, and that maximizes the number of layoffs, because their jobs are usually the lowest-paid. For an hour, Rhee listens as the teachers debate metrics, such as New York’s own value-added assessment system. But when it’s her turn to speak, she tries to cut through the philosophical clutter. “Let me tell you that what you all are talking about today, it is not the fight,” Rhee says. “You can argue up and down about the other stuff forever, but the real fight is the political fight.” The union presents itself as “a monolithic teacher voice,” she continues. “There is no organized group that says, ‘We have to stop this.’ So, the only way that you are going to feel empowered is if you mobilize.”
If the pitch sounds like a union organizer’s, the resemblance is intentional. After the American Federation of Teachers spent heavily to defeat Fenty—about $1 million, according to Politico—Rhee decided that to win the next round she would take on labor in the areas in which it excels: fund-raising and political mobilization. Rhee unveiled her plans in December, declaring on Oprah that she was “going to start a revolution,” and StudentsFirst has since signed up 180,000 members. By the end of the year, Rhee hopes to have a million followers and chapters all over the country. StudentsFirst is being launched by seasoned political operatives like Anita Dunn and Bradley Tusk, as well as the Obama campaign’s web guru, Joe Rospars. They are modeling the organization on two grassroots movements: Obama 2008 and the tea party.
This kind of populism, however, is not how Rhee intends to raise a billion dollars. Eli Broad says Rhee is planning to secure $50 million commitments from twenty individuals or foundations to get started, and going forward, she plans to spend about $200 million annually. These are stunning figures—the Democratic National Committee spent about $200 million during the 2010 election cycle—but Rhee’s admirers believe they are reachable. “She’s talking big,” says Joe Williams, executive director of Democrats for Education Reform. “She’s talking about running the tables and changing public education forever, and I think that’s going to appeal to a lot of movers and shakers nationwide. She’s not asking for money to build a gym.” In addition to Broad, financiers like Ted Forstmann and Julian Robertson are expected to be major backers, though Rhee isn’t revealing any names. And she may never have to. Under Citizens United, the Supreme Court’s recent campaign-finance decision, a nonprofit like StudentsFirst can spend unlimited sums on lobbying and campaign ads without having to disclose its donors.