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Reading, Writing and Rhee. Education reform advocate Michelle Rhee talks about founding political advocacy organization StudentsFirst

An Interview with Kam Williams

Kam Williams | 1/31/2013, 9:39 a.m.

The cynic in me wonders whether your organization really has widespread grassroots support, or if it is basically being backed by some arch-conservative billionaires like the Koch brothers.

This is driven by everyday people. Our average donation is $84. I get why the other side might try to frame it as a right-wing movement, but the bottom line is I am a life-long Democrat. My husband is a Democratic politician. I was appointed by a Democrat. The vast majority of the goals on our policy agenda are similar to what President Obama and his administration are advocating.

I tried teaching in an inner-city public school after I first graduated from Cornell, but was quickly disillusioned by things like social promotion and low expectations. So, I admire how you took a similar path, but stuck in there, perhaps because you came from a family of educators.

One of the reasons I wrote the book Radical was to tell my story and to talk about my journey with educational reform, so people can understand why I have the views I have today. I have an absolutely unshakable faith in kids, grounded in the fact that I worked for three years in one of the worst public schools in Baltimore, with kids most people would write off because of their backgrounds. But, when I set high expectations, at the end of the day, these kids went from scoring at the bottom on standardized tests, to scoring at the top, despite their unfortunate circumstances. I actually saw what could happen with my own two eyes. That experience set a light bulb off in my head that any kids could do it, if you create the right school environment. That’s what drives me every day. Why wouldn’t we as a country want to do that?

What do you think of school vouchers, charter schools, lotteries and heartbreaking documentaries like “Waiting for Superman”?

If you lived in a neighborhood with a failing public school, and you had an opportunity to take advantage of a voucher or other program that would allow you to send your child to a better school, there isn’t a single parent who would say “no.” That’s why movies like “Waiting for Superman” are so helpful. They show things from the perspective of inner-city families who would do anything to ensure a decent education for their kids. That shatters stereotypes in a very powerful way.

What was the biggest lesson you learned from your experience in D.C.?

We were taking the right steps to fix a dysfunctional school system. But I didn’t realize at the time that how you do things is just as important as what you do.

How can we empower educational systems on the local level that have such drastic financial concerns that they’re making very round corners?

We are in tough economic times right now, and the first thing we have to do is look at how we’re spending the dollars that we have, and at what kind of return on investment we’re getting. Because I think it will show that spending more money without fixing the fundamental flaws in the system won’t produce anything different in terms of results. In D.C., we were spending a whole lot of money on things that had no positive impact on students’ achievement levels.

How committed are you to saving art programs in schools?

Even though we closed 15 percent of the schools in D.C. my first year, we were able to put an art teacher, a music teacher, a P.E. teacher, a librarian, a nurse and a guidance counselor or social worker at every school in the district, whereas before, only the wealthy schools had art teachers, because that community could have an auction and hire art teachers on its own. We pooled the resources for all the schools and thereby broadened the resources available to all the students in the district, which I think was critical.

What is your earliest childhood memory?

Being in nursery school, and hearing the teachers saying, “She’s slow.” I remember thinking, “You don’t know anything about me.”