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Trying to put 'students first' in education reform

By Rehema Ellis, NBC News Correspondent

NEW YORK – When Michelle Rhee resigned a few weeks ago as head of Washington, D.C. schools after her boss, Mayor Adrian Fenty lost his re-election bid, she told me she didn't know what she would do next. 

Former Washington D.C. schools chief Michelle Rhee is launching a new organization, Students First, aimed at transforming public education in America.

But, Rhee made it clear, despite all the controversy about her bold changes to overhaul a school district considered one of the worst in the country, she wasn't going to step away from education reform.

Now, she's made it official in a big way.  She's announced the startup of a non-partisan, grass-roots organization called, StudentsFirst.org. Rhee says she's hoping to sign up 1 million members and raise $1 billion to help fix America's failing schools.  

"If we want to regain our position as America being number one in the world, then it's going to start with our education system,” Rhee told me Monday. She’s aware of the big challenges ahead, saying, “It's going to take a  lot of people across the country and a lot of resources to make that happen.”

Rhee explained, StudentsFirst will not be an alternative to teachers' unions but,  a voice for students.

"What we really need is for laws, for policies to be based, not on what is going to be right for adults or what keeps the adults happy, but only based on what is in the best interest of children."

NBC News got a statement from The American Federation of Teachers saying they wish Rhee well, invite her to work with them and say they hope "she learns, as we have, that promoting education reform through conflict and division will not serve the interests of children and their education needs.”

When Rhee shut down 28 Washington D.C. schools, laid off 450 teachers and demanded accountability from those who remained she got some positive results.

Math proficiency scores went up from a dismal 27 percent to 42 percent.  Reading proficiency improved from 29 percent to 43 percent.

But, she also got a lot of resistance from parents, teachers and voters who objected to the way she went about it.

Rhee admits she made some mistakes in Washington and hopes to develop a more inclusive style in the future. But she also says she doesn't regret rattling the status quo because it was failing students.

People in the education reform community are excited about Rhee's new plan. Like her, they say they know, change will not be easy.
It will be worth watching to see how well Rhee can form a new coalition of parents, teachers, and community leaders to get StudentsFirst to do what everyone says they want, which is, radically improve the nation's schools.

Click here to see more of NBC News' reports from Education Nation