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Education reformer Rhee to leave advocacy group she founded

By Sharon Bernstein

SACRAMENTO Calif. (Reuters) - Education reform advocate Michelle Rhee is stepping down from the nonprofit advocacy group she founded, saying she will focus on her family and the political career of her husband, former NBA star and current Sacramento Mayor Kevin Johnson.

Rhee's move from StudentsFirst, founded after she spent three years as chancellor of the Washington, D.C., schools, comes amid retrenchment at the organization and rising political success for Johnson, who won national attention for recent efforts to keep the Kings basketball team in Sacramento and serves as president of the United States Conference of Mayors.

"Kevin and I view our goals in life and public service as a team," Rhee said in a statement sent to Reuters Thursday. "He was right there with me when we created this organization and has worked alongside me throughout these past four years. I am excited to continue working side by side on these new opportunities we have."

Rhee, who took Johnson's name last year but still uses her own name professionally, did not elaborate on the new opportunities, and Johnson still has more than two years to go on his second term as mayor of Sacramento, California's capital. His spokesman was not immediately available for comment.

Rhee started StudentsFirst in 2010, using it to push ideas that had led to considerable controversy during her time with the Washington schools, including tying teacher evaluations to student test scores and making it easier to fire teachers deemed incompetent.

Many of the ideas have gained some measure of acceptance. Earlier this year, a Los Angeles Superior Court judge ruled that five laws granting tenure and other job protections to public school teachers hurt students and were unconstitutional. The case was not filed by Rhee's group, but it highlighted policy issues that she was critical in raising.

Even so, teachers unions and many Democrats continue to view Rhee's group as anti-union. Despite the embrace of some reform agenda ideas in school districts across the nation, the organization failed to reach Rhee's ambitious goal of raising $1 billion in its first five years.

StudentsFirst, which has raised $62 million since 2011, has shuttered paid operations in Minnesota, Indiana, Iowa, Florida and Maine, said spokesman Francisco Castillo.

But he said the group would continue to press for reform. Even before Rhee's decision to step down, StudentsFirst has been seeking a new president to handle day-to-day operations, he said. A previous president left, Castillo said.

Rhee, whose transition will extend over the next few months, will remain on the organization's board.

"Even when she transitions away from her day-to-day management role, there is no question that her leadership and vision will continue to guide Students First," Castillo said.

(This story corrects amount of money raised, $62 million instead of $662 in paragraph 8, clarifies previous president leaving in paragraph 9)

(Editing by Daniel Wallis and Jeffrey Benkoe)

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