Michelle Rhee’s High-Priced PR

In just one year{{1}} Michelle Rhee spent about $2 million to buy the public relations services of Anita Dunn {{2}} and SKDKnickerbocker.  It’s a continuing relationship that goes back to early in Rhee’s Chancellorship in Washington, and it’s probably the best money Rhee has ever spent (especially because it was contributed by her supporters).

Just consider the challenge facing the PR team: The former Chancellor of the Washington, DC public schools ignored clear evidence {{3}} of cheating by adults {{4}} on the District’s standardized exams, as Linda Mathews, Jay Mathews, Jack Gillum, Michael Joseloff and I documented in “Michelle Rhee’s Reign of Error.”

But Rhee went beyond covering up the misdeeds. Instead of making a sincere effort to root out the cheaters, Rhee stage-managed four ‘investigations’ so that they cleared her.  All the while, a feckless Mayor and the local newspaper averted their eyes, in sharp contrast to the vigorous investigation of a comparable cheating scandal in Atlanta. 

With her test-based accountability schemes discredited and her reputation as a fearless, tough-minded leader severely damaged, Ms. Rhee might have been expected to disappear from the scene.  However, that has not happened. Instead, she remains in the public eye, writing op-eds {{5}} and offering analysis of educational developments.  This fall she will be a presenter in the annual “Schools of Tomorrow” education symposium sponsored by The New York Times–even though the subject is higher education.

Even more surprising (to this observer anyway) was the omission of the District of Columbia from the list of cities with school cheating scandals in Rachel Aviv’s otherwise solid reporting about Atlanta. {{6}}

This can only be the result of a smooth PR campaign.

Another tribute to Dunn’s prowess is the fact that Michelle Rhee is still considered a Democrat, even though the organization she created after leaving Washington in 2010, StudentsFirst, has been spending hundreds of thousands of dollars, largely in support of conservative candidates and organizations. {{7}}

Politico’s Morning Education newsletter reported on July 3rd that “Rhee, who earns nearly $350,000 a year, also spent heavily on political activism in the year covered by the tax forms. StudentsFirst gave $500,000 to a business-backed committee in Michigan that successfully worked to defeat a union effort to enshrine collective bargaining rights in the state constitution. It also spent $250,000 to support a charter-school campaign in Georgia. StudentsFirst gives to candidates and committees from both parties but many of its biggest political donations went to Republican caucuses and conservative alliances in states including Florida, Maine, Michigan and Pennsylvania.

StudentsFirst gave $10,000 each to Republican Gov. Bill Haslam in Tennessee and Democratic Gov. Jay Nixon in Missouri. The group also donated to scores of state legislative candidates, including some tea party members who have worked against the Common Core – which Rhee supports – but who back other elements of the StudentsFirst agenda, such as vouchers or charter schools.”

However, on its 990 IRS tax form, however, StudentsFirst says it did not engage in political activities and declined to answer a question about lobbying activities. {{8}}

When she created the organization, she said she would raise $1 billion; she has fallen far short of that big number, but she has raised over $60 million, tax records reveal. However, she does not identify donors or list all donations.  Students First is reported to have 110 employees, up from 75 in 2012.

The most important of these has to be Anita Dunn.

On this I have some personal experience. While we were actively investigating Rhee’s response to the erasures for a Frontline documentary, I found myself the victim of a carefully targeted smear campaign. A 10-page letter dated January 24, 2012 and sent to Frontline, the NewsHour, PBS, and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, accuses me:

  • of “demonstrable and material misrepresentations of fact.”
  • of soliciting funds from “a wide swath of leaders in the education community including opponents of education reform and vocal critics of Michelle Rhee.”
  • of actively seeking “dirt” about Rhee and of hanging up on someone who praised Rhee.
  • of making “false allegations” about Rhee’s response to the widespread erasures.

The letter, signed by a StudentsFirst Vice President, urges PBS not to broadcast my reporting and closes by noting that “we are discussing our options with our attorneys.”

According to reliable sources inside StudentsFirst, Anita Dunn organized the carefully targeted smear campaign. Hoping to learn more about her work for Rhee and StudentsFirst, I have called Dunn’s office at least four times but have not been able to interview her. {{9}}

Every one of the accusations in the StudentsFirst letter is false, as I painstakingly demonstrated to Frontline, the NewsHour, PBS and CPB. However, ‘The Big Lie’ technique is effective, as others before Dunn have proven, because I spent three weeks marshalling the evidence to refute the charges, three weeks that I could not spend investigating Rhee’s behavior in regards to the erasures.

It is possible that I lost more than three weeks, because, even with the proof I supplied, I cannot say with certainty that none of the mud stuck. Is it possible that some who received the missive still have lingering doubts about my integrity? I hope not, of course, but I have no way of looking inside the minds of the letter’s recipients.

The smear campaign was hung on a slender thread, a personal email I sent to one possible supporter.  Apparently the recipient shared it, and eventually it made its way to StudentsFirst.  Here’s what I wrote: “We are editing a powerful documentary about Michelle Rhee, the controversial educator who has become a national figure. After she left Washington, strong evidence of widespread cheating on standardized tests in roughly two-thirds of her schools emerged, along with a paper trail that indicates that the Chancellor declined to investigate the situation, despite being urged to do so by the official in charge of testing.  When test security was eventually tightened–after three years–scores declined precipitously. In fact, at half of the schools with the highest erasure rates, where scores had jumped as much as 50%, achievement scores are now below where they were when the Chancellor took office.”

Every word {{10}} of that email is true.

I wrote that paragraph BEFORE I obtained a copy of Dr. Sandy Sanford’s devastating memo, the one that warned Rhee that some of her principals were probably responsible for the erasures.  The memo confirms that Rhee knew the truth, and we know that she looked the other way. In this, she had the support of right-leaning foundations and individuals, as well as opinion leaders who desperately want to believe that ‘getting tough on teachers’ will improve schools.

Rhee’s PR offensive hasn’t always gone smoothly. In the fall of 2013, she launched an effort to cast herself as a ‘healer,’ scheduling a series of “Town Meetings” that, she promised, would bring teachers and teacher union leaders together for a dialogue.  The not-so-subtle subtext of Rhee’s effort was that union leaders were on one side–the wrong one–of issues, regular teachers another. She criticized the polarized atmosphere, with no acknowledgment of her own role in its creation:  “Teachers’ voices are vital to the conversation about how to improve our national education system,” Rhee wrote to supporters. “Unfortunately, the dialogue around public education has become too often polarized, with extreme rhetoric and personal attacks overshadowing what’s important: getting all of our country’s kids into great schools with great teachers.”

The effort drew intense criticism when Rhee attempted to hold her Alabama meeting in the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, just a few days from the 50th anniversary {{11}} of the bombing that killed four little girls who were in the church basement at the time. After strong protests, the meeting was relocated.

One could argue that her “Town Meetings” were a success even though they produced no discernible ‘healing,’ because she garnered headlines and some favorable newspaper columns, including this piece {{12}} in the Financial Times.  And Rhee seems to crave attention.

To some, Rhee is simply a well-compensated mouthpiece for those with an ideological interest in tearing down public education, an analysis suggesting she doesn’t believe what she is saying.  I do not think she can be dismissed as a mere opportunist, although she certainly does know how to seize opportunities. She has–brilliantly–made the issue of “Last Hired, First Fired” her own, and the LIFO issue has legs.  It makes absolutely no sense, in a skill-based profession, to adhere to LIFO blindly and inflexibly. Those who cling to LIFO guarantee that Rhee will find a sympathetic audience.

Interestingly, Rhee may have become a pariah within the right-leaning community of democrats who favor a certain brand of education reform, at least according to a highly-placed source within Democrats for Education Reform (DFER).  She has, my source tells me, consistently bad-mouthed others who are nominal allies, in an effort to muscle them aside and claim grant money for her own organization.  “We’ve learned not to trust her,” my source says.

Michelle Rhee is smart, talented, hard-working, charismatic and ambitious, but, in the public education arena, she is a fraud. That this truth is not widely acknowledged is a tribute to the PR skills of Anita Dunn of SKDKnickerbocker.


[[1]]1. http://www.scribd.com/doc/98216272/StudentsFirst-501c4-Form-990-Final-NO-Sch-B-1-Nz [[1]]

[[2]]2. http://www.skdknick.com/staff/anita-dunn/ Ms Dunn was brought on while Rhee was Chancellor, ostensibly to keep her from inviting other camera crews to film her firing principals, and stuff like that. The money to hire Dunn was provided, sources tell me, by a well-meaning education reformer, Katherine Bradley, who also played a major role in selecting Kaya Henderson to succeed Rhee.  (Ms. Bradley also hosted a screening in Washington of our film about New Orleans, “Rebirth.”)  When Rhee left DC and started StudentsFirst, she retained Dunn’s services.  Careful readers of Dunn’s webpage will note that it does not mention her work for Rhee and StudentsFirst.[[2]]

[[3]]3. Rhee left Washington in November 2010.  USA Today broke the suspicious erasure story in March, 2011. The brilliant exposé was reported by Jack Gillum and Marisol Bello and edited by Linda Mathews. http://usatoday30.usatoday.com/news/education/2011-03-28-1Aschooltesting28_CV_N.htm [[3]]

[[4]]4. Principals changing answers to make test results look better is deplorable. In other places administrators have pushed low-achieving students out of school. Walt Haney documents instances in Texas, Florida, Alabama and New York in “Evidence on Education under NCLB (and How Florida Boosted NAEP Scores and Reduced the Race Gap),” In G.L Sunderman, (Ed.) Holding NCLB Accountable: Achieving Accountability, Equity and School Reform. (Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin Press, 2008, pp. 91-102).[[4]]

[[5]]5. Albeit for the Washington Post, her cheerleader, and the Wall Street Journal, an ideological soulmate.[[5]]

[[6]]6. July 21, 2014 issue. Aviv lists Philadelphia, Toledo, El Paso, Baltimore, Cincinnati, Houston and St. Louis but omits Washington, DC.  As USA Today reported in 2011, the magnitude of unexplained ‘wrong to right’ erasures in most Washington schools boggled the mind and defied the odds.  One has a better chance of winning at Powerball than of these erasures occurring by chance, it reported. [[6]]

[[7]]7. Rhee’s critics have applauded the news that StudentsFirst has ‘retrenched,’ pulling out of Florida, Maine, Minnesota, Indiana and Iowa, but the cheering might be premature because Rhee could be husbanding resources for specific campaigns in support of ending tenure, opening charter schools and creating voucher programs. “As an advocacy organization fighting for better education for kids all across the country, we frequently shift and reallocate resources around where they’ll have the most impact,” Francisco Castillo, the group’s national spokesman, said, explaining the changes.[[7]]

[[8]]8. The specific question is “Did the organization engage in direct or indirect political campaign activities on behalf of or in opposition to candidates for political office?”  Whoever filled it out checked the NO box and did not answer the following question about lobbying (“Did the organization engage in lobbying activities or have a Section 501(h) election in effect during the tax year?”).  Michelle Rhee signed the form. [[8]]

[[9]]9. On July 22nd I spoke with her briefly; she said she was too busy to talk then but would call back at 3 that afternoon.  At exactly 3PM her assistant called to say she was still too busy to talk then but would try at a later time. She has not called. I have continued to call her office, to no avail.[[9]]

[[10]]10. I wish it weren’t, because I wanted Rhee to succeed when she burst on the scene in 2007. My own children went to DC public schools, and so I knew first-hand that many were ineffective, an embarrassment to the Nation’s Capital.[[10]]

[[11]]11. Rhee scheduled her event for September 12th, a Thursday. The bombing occurred on Sunday, September 15th, 50 years earlier.[[11]]

[[12]]12.  To my annoyance, the columnist credits Davis Guggenheim’s film for the footage of Rhee firing that principal.  How much else he got wrong, I don’t know.[[12]]

18 thoughts on “Michelle Rhee’s High-Priced PR

  1. Thanks John … I only wish I had any hope that other media would see this and start doing their job of looking deeper themselves. I’m afraid though that many in the press feel that that is not really their job (a marked change from years ago – i.e. Watergate) but that just reporting what someone says is their mandate, not finding out if its true or not … after all they are “reporters” not journalists apparently. Oh and BTW – It will be interesting to see if this year the NYT includes any actual teachers in their “Schools of Tomorrow.” Last year they included none. The year before when I complained they included me … for a last minute panel where I got to respond to a question for 2 minutes – but had no chance to voice my concerns. Seems like another story should be about what happened to real journalism and why are the major news outlets being so one-sided in their coverage of education? There must be a reason.
    Again, Thanks.


  2. NYTimes removed Michael Winerip from his excellent column exposing the fraud that the “reformers” are perpetrating on public education. Major media is willfully ignoring and even supporting the damage being done.


  3. I have a problem with you calling Rhee an “educator.” TFAers who have had 5 weeks of summer training and spend two or three years in a classroom are tourists of ghetto schools, carpetbaggers and scabs, NOT “educators.” Plus even Rhee admitted that her first year was as an utter failure, when she taped the mouths of 7 year olds to keep them quiet. I read that she had an assistant that year, too. The following two years she team taught with a co-teacher, which is questionable at best, considering how rare team teaching is in primary education in neighborhood public schools. At my school, a teacher was fired for taping kids’ mouths. She taught for one of the early charter management organizations, Edison. It sounds like they responded by reining Rhee in. And, unlike genuine elementary educators, that’s three years of not teaching alone in a classroom.


  4. John,

    What guts you have. I applaud it, and sorry on behalf of humanity that you had to deal with a smear campaign.

    These are the phrases that strike me as most powerful:
    “According to reliable sources inside StudentsFirst,….”

    “…at least according to a highly-placed source within Democrats for Education Reform (DFER)”

    I tend to believe that there a LOT of people involved in education reform who privately think to themselves that there are serious issues with what they’re doing. But it’s hard to speak out publicly. I hope more people reading this blog, including the many education reformers who will come across this post, evaluate the work they’re doing. If you see something wrong, say something. If not within your organization, then to reporters.


  5. John, while I agree with much of this piece, I will take exception to this statement:

    “It makes absolutely no sense, in a skill-based profession, to adhere to LIFO blindly and inflexibly.”

    I don’t know of any LIFO system that is “blind and inflexible.” Layoffs are subject to teacher certifications, which speak directly to district needs. We don’t lay off high school chemistry teachers just because they have less experience than, say, elementary teachers.

    If we do not use LIFO to make high-stakes decisions, what will we use instead? For the vast majority of teachers whose students do not take standardized tests, the only metric used in these decisions will be administrator observations. I think we all can see the problems inherent in that.

    Test-based evaluations have been shown, time and again, to be invalid and unreliable. At least seniority can be quantified fairly. There is also a significant correlation between experience and effectiveness — no one, not even Rhee, would dispute that teacher effectiveness increases within the first 5 years or so of teaching. Even in her puffed up autobiography, she admits she was not a good teacher early on.

    Now, one argument I hear is: “A grossly ineffective teacher shouldn’t keep her job while a great teacher loses hers!” I don’t understand, however, why we would wait until a layoff to fie a terrible teacher. If a teacher is bad and can’t be counseled to improve, fire him — don’t wait for a layoff.

    The real issue in LIFO is this: why are we seeing so many teacher layoffs, particularly in big cities? The answer, of course, is that we have pulled back from giving our schools adequate funds, and we are putting more students into charters, which do not do a better job of educating kids when accounting for differences in student populations. Arguing about LIFO is a distraction from these realities.

    No one has shown LIFO to be a serious drag on student achievement. But it is one of the few tools left available to districts to stem teacher attrition. Remove it at your peril.

    Further reading: http://schoolfinance101.wordpress.com/2013/10/09/notes-on-the-seniority-smokescreen/


    • I am critical of mindless, inflexible LIFO. I believe that seniority and experience have value but that they cannot be the sole determinant. Teachers have to part of creating effective means of evaluation. My own preference is to evaluate schools, make sure that everyone in the school, including teachers, is there by choice, and provide rewards for schools that perform above expectations. Perhaps that would induce those in the school to help everyone succeed, and weed out those who weren’t able or willing to be successful as teachers.
      I welcome your thoughts


      • Mr. Merrow,

        First of all, that was an excellent article. I will, however, echo Mark Weber. The thing about LIFO is that from the outside it looks like a pretty lame way to go about things. From the inside, though, it’s the only way that is perceived by most teachers as fair. You say that it’s mindless, meaning that to be a negative. But, you see, that’s why it is so brilliant. LIFO doesn’t have pet teachers or friends who need a job or want to get rid of that one teacher who is excellent but who is such a pain to deal with. Because it is mindless, it is impartial, and that is important to teachers. I know you think there must be an objective way to evaluate teachers, but there is not. If you use evaluations, layoff decisions will be a practice in popularity. If you use VAM, layoff decisions are a roll of the dice. If you use some combination of both, you get a combination of popularity and chance (I’m not sure what the offspring of such a coupling would be called). Besides, talking about new teachers being laid off due to LIFO seems like a minor issue when 40-50% of teachers leave of their own accord in within 5 years of entering the profession.


      • I suggest you read the link that Mark Weber has provided above. It is one of the best explanations you’ll find for free about seniority rights for teachers.

        “My own preference is to evaluate schools, make sure that everyone in the school, including teachers, is there by choice, and provide rewards for schools that perform above expectations.” – More stack ranking John? Rheely?

        Instead of wasting your time on Rhee, you should be following around a real education reformer – http://pasisahlberg.com/finnish-lessons/about-finnish-lessons/

        The irony is Findland learned from us back in the 70’s how to put an education system together. In the early 80’s we deviated to a path of “accountability”. Sad.


      • I recall you disparaging PAR as well as a valid method of evaluation yet it is the only evaluation system that can dismiss or help a teacher while keeping due process rights in place. It seems like Rhee you have a black and white perspective on what teaching is instead of looking at the realities. These outside evaluations are based on test scores instead of what is truly needed within each school to make it succeed. Odd that the personal attack you are experiencing is experienced by teachers each and every day. We are doing this wrong, and that wrong, and the list goes on. Teachers need to be part of the process yet we are excluded and disparaged at every turn.

        The people that empowered Rhee, including you, fed the beast. Now you wonder why it’s difficult to slay her? Because you fail to look into the motivations of people who back Reforms, and it has more to do with profit and power than actual caring about the students.


      • Then I apologize if you weren’t the writer who did not approve of Montgomery County’s program. However, I do stand by my comment about your introduction to Rhee, and the fact that you had to add the LIFO comment in an era when experienced teachers have the budget ax hanging over their heads makes me feel you are still tied the theory that teachers are the main cause of everything wrong in Education.


  6. John,
    It seems Anita and Michelle are working together to put tape on your mouth. Why? They consider you a threat since you are ethical and smart. You are making a difference for public schools and teachers by exposing reformer fraud.

    I thought the recent Salon piece was interesting – especially the section about her “clout” waning.



  7. Michelle Rhee will appear at the education panel organized by the New York Times. A full page advertisement appeared earlier this week announcing this event. No matter her baggage, they still consider her a worthy representative of the “reform” movement.


    • Those in the reform movement would be wise to try and distance themselves from her if they want to be influential. I guess that’s what the DFER source is alluding to.


  8. You wrote above: “However, on its 990 IRS tax form, however, StudentsFirst says it did not engage in political activities and declined to answer a question about lobbying activities. [8]”

    This is where Students First and many other organizations need to be heavily investigated, I think. These entities ARE engaging in political activities when they should not be, and we all know it.


  9. Just FYI, SKDKnickerbocker has done work for Eva Moskowitz’s Success Academy as well, one of a number of ties between Rhee and Success. (Jenny Sedlis, a co-founder of Success and aide to Eva Moskowitz when she was a City Councilwoman heads StudentsFirstNY.)


  10. I made this observation 4 years ago when Michelle Rhee first hired Ms Dunn.
    The way the money was funneled is interesting:

    $100,000 was donated by Katherine Bradley to D.C. Public Education Fund, the non-profit set up by Mayor Adrian M. Fenty to handle private contributions to school reform.

    If you go to the website of DC Public Education Fund (http://dceducationfund.org/), you can read this:
    “DC Public Education Fund’s mission is to dramatically improve student achievement in the District of Columbia by serving as a strategic partner to businesses, foundations, community leaders, and individual donors in supporting and investing in high impact programs with the District of Cloumbia Public Schools.”

    Exactly how does spending $100,000 on PR to get the message out “dramatically improve student achievement in DC”.
    Is Squier Knapp Dunn hiring DCPS high schoolers to do the work?




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