This afternoon, former D.C. schools chancellor Michelle Rhee appeared on "Oprah" to announce the launch of her new non-profit, Students First. "I'm going to do something different," Rhee told Oprah. "I'm going to start a revolution…a movement in this country on behalf of the nation's children."
Perhaps in recognition of the PR fiascoes that have greeted school reform efforts under Mayor Mike Bloomberg in New York (Cathie Black) and Mayor Adrian Fenty in D.C. (his reelection loss), education reform power players have been paying extra attention in recent months to attracting grassroots support to their causes.
Rhee's Students First will be harvesting email addresses and launching "chapters" across the country of educators, students, and parents who support taking on the teachers' unions over issues such as tenure and seniority-based firings. It's an online/real world advocacy model, not dissimilar from how President Obama used Organizing for America during the 2008 election. Meanwhile, in Newark, New Jersey, Mayor Cory Booker has launched PENewark using the first $2 million of the matching grants to Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg's $100 million gift. The group's goal is to raise public awareness of the Zuckerberg donation and survey Newark residents on how they'd like to spend the money–all while building public trust in Booker's own bid to assume control of the Newark schools.
A New York City PR firm working on the Newark project, SKDKnickerbocker, also represents Rhee. And the Newark team–Booker, Zuckerberg, and Gov. Chris Christie–also rolled out their big announcement on "Oprah."
In June 2009 I reported "The Selling of School Reform" for The Nation, which recounted how a number of anti-union ed reform players had wooed Al Sharpton with donations, in an attempt to attract more community-level African American support to causes such as expanding the charter school sector and instituting teacher merit pay. So in part, all of this is nothing new–though the efforts are certainly growing more sophisticated.