Archives for category: StudentsFirst

Stephanie Simon of politico.com reports on the story behind Michelle Rhee-Johnson’s decision to step down as leader of StudentsFirst, the organization she founded in 2010.

Although she managed to raise some millions from big donors like the Eli and Edythe BroadFoundation, the Walton Family Foundation, and the Michael Bloomberg Foundation for her efforts to curb collective bargaining, eliminate tenure and promote vouchers and charters, she fell far short of her announced goal of $1 billion.

But even more important, Rhee-Johnson alienated some of her allies in the movement.

“As she prepares to step down as CEO, she leaves a trail of disappointment and disillusionment. Reform activists who shared her vision say she never built an effective national organization and never found a way to use her celebrity status to drive real change.

“StudentsFirst was hobbled by a high staff turnover rate, embarrassing PR blunders and a lack of focus. But several leading education reformers say Rhee’s biggest weakness was her failure to build coalitions; instead, she alienated activists who should have been her natural allies with tactics they perceived as imperious, inflexible and often illogical. Several said her biggest contribution to the cause was drawing fire away from them as she positioned herself as the face of the national education reform movement.

““There was a growing consensus in the education reform community that she didn’t play well in the sandbox,” one reform leader said.

Rhee-Johnson says she intends to devote more time to her family, which some assume means that her husband Kevin Johnson may run for governor or senator of California. Whether Rhee-Johnson will spend more time with her two daughters who live in Tennessee is unclear.

She recently announced her decision to become chairman of her husband’s charter schools. In some states, that would be considered nepotism, but apparently not in California.

The growing recognition of the failure of her style of high-stakes testing and test-based teacher evaluation did not seem to have played a role in her decision to step aside. Probably, living in the corporate reform echo chamber, she was unaware that her prize policies are on the ropes, as parents and teachers join to fight the reign of standardized testing.

Joy Resmovits of Huffington Post reports that Michelle Rhee is stepping down as leader of StudentsFirst, a group she founded in 2010. She is likely to remain a board member. She recently changed her name to Michelle Johnson.

“StudentsFirst was launched on Oprah’s TV talk show in late 2010 and immediately set ambitious goals, such as amassing $1 billion in its first year and becoming education’s lobbying equivalent to the National Rifle Association. Its policy goals focused on teacher quality, teacher evaluations, school accountability and the expansion of charter schools. But the group has failed to achieve some of its major goals. After revising its fundraising goal to $1 billion over five years, the group only netted $62.8 million in total: $7.6 million in its first year, $28.5 million in its second year and $26.7 million between August 2012 and July 2013. The group also has seen much staff turnover, cycling through at least five prominent spokespeople since 2010.

“After the group began, it saw some legislative and electoral successes. It claims credit for changing more than 130 education laws in many states. It has released report cards ranking states on their education policies, supported candidates through political action committees, and lobbied state legislatures and governors on reform issues.”

Although Rhee always claimed to be a Democrat, most of her group’s campaign contributions went to conservative Republicans. Last year, StudentsFirst honored Tennessee State Representative John Ragan as “education reformer of the year,” despite the fact that he was co-sponsor of the infamous “don’t say gay” bill). She opposed unions, tenure, and seniority, and she supported vouchers and charters. She was a leader of the privatization movement as well as the movement to evaluate teachers by test scores. Ironically, her successor in the District of Columbia announced yesterday the suspension of test-based evaluation of teachers, a move supported by the Gates Foundation.

Resmovits speculates that former CNN news anchor Campbell Brown will become the face of the movement to strip due process rights from teachers. StudentsFirst, however, is unlikely to have the national visibility that it had under Rhee’s controversial leadership.

REVISION: This election was held on August 7. Mary Pierce, the candidate endorsed by Michelle Rhee’s StudentsFirst won. My error. Wish I had known about it sooner.

There will be a crucial school board race on Tuesday in Nashville.

Becky Sharpe, who has been endorsed by the Metro Nashville Education Association, is running against Mary Pierce, who has been endorsed by Michelle Rhee’s StudentsFirst.

Support for or opposition to charter schools is the defining issue in the race.

A mailer from StudentsFirst on behalf of Mary Pierce describes Becky Sharpe three times as a “liberal” who is opposed to charters. The mailer says:

“Becky Sharpe is supported by liberal unions who oppose giving parents and students better choices for education,” it reads. “That’s because Becky Sharpe refuses to support charter schools — even for those who need them the most.”

The Metro Nashville Education Association, which endorsed Sharpe, said in its mailer: “Charter zealots are backing Becky’s opponent and this seat could determine future privatization of education in Nashville.”

The choice for Nashville voters is clear: if you want to support public schools, vote for Becky Sharpe.

If you want to support more privately managed charter schools, vote for Mary Pierce.

Funny, isn’t it, that Michelle Rhee insists she is a Democrat, yet her organization denounces a school board candidate as a liberal? Since when do organizations that claim to be allies of the Democratic Party attack candidates as “liberals.”

Jeff Bryant wonders whether Campbell Brown will replace Michelle Rhee as the public face of “reform”? Bryant describes the movement as “Blame Teachers First.”

Bryant suspects that Rhee’s star is fading fast. Bryant describes her as “education’s Ann Coulter.” The lingering doubts about the Washington, D.C. cheating scandal never dissipate, and John Merrow’s latest blog about the millions that Rhee has paid to protect her image have not been enough to stop the slide. He notes that she never collected the $1 billion she predicted and that her organization is retreating from several states. Her biography bombed. She was unable to draw a crowd in many of the states where she claimed to have thousands of supporters. Bryant says she is yesterday’s news.

Campbell Brown is thus next in line to inherit the role as leader of the “Blame Teachers First” movement.

Bryant writes:

“With Rhee and StudentsFirst sinking under the weight of over-promises, under-performance, and unproven practices, the Blame Teachers First crowd is now eagerly promoting Campbell Brown.

“According to a report in The Wall Street Journal, Brown launched the group Partnership for Educational Justice, with a Veraga-inspired lawsuit in New York State to once again dilute teachers’ job protections, commonly called “tenure.” The suit clams students suffer from laws “making it too expensive, time-consuming and burdensome to fire bad teachers.”

“An article in The Washington Post noted, “Brown has raised the issue of tenure in op-eds and on TV programs such as ‘Morning Joe.’ But she may be just getting warmed up.”

“Actually, Brown has already been warmed up and is plenty ready to take the mound and pitch. As the very same article noted, Brown started her campaign against teachers some time ago, claiming that the New York City teachers’ union was obstructing efforts to fire teachers for sexual misconduct. Unfortunately for Brown, the ad campaign conducted by her organization Parents Transparency Project failed to note that, as The Post article recalled, at least 33 teachers had indeed been fired. “The balance were either fined, suspended or transferred for minor, non-criminal complaints.” Oops.

“Further, as my colleague Dave Johnson recalled at the time, Brown penned an op-ed in The Wall Street Journal accusing the teachers’ union of “trying to block a bill to keep sexual predators out of schools.” It turned out, the union wanted to strengthen the bill, not stop it. Double oops.

“Nevertheless – or as The Post reporter put it, “undaunted” – Brown has now decided to take on teacher personnel policies on behalf of, she claims, “millions of schoolchildren being denied a decent education.”

Who is funding the new anti-teacher drive? Bryant describes the familiar organizations that promoted Rhee, such as TNTP, which Rhee founded, as well as Republican operatives.

He writes:

“What emerges from these interwoven relationships, then, is a big-money effort led by a small number of people who are intent on the singular goal of reducing the ability of teachers to have control of their work environments. But to what end?

“Regardless of how you feel about the machinations behind the Rhee-Brown campaign, what’s clear is that it is hell-bent on imposing new policies that have little to no prospect of addressing the problem they are purported to resolve, which is to ensure students who need the best teachers are more apt to get them.

“Research generally has found that experienced teachers – the targets for these new lawsuits – make a positive difference in students’ academic trajectory. A review of that research on the website for the grassroots group Parents Across America concluded, “Every single study shows teaching experience matters. In fact, the only two observable factors that have been found consistently to lead to higher student achievement are class size and teacher experience.”

The new campaign looks very much like the old campaign, with only this difference. Brown does not pretend to be a Democrat.

Last week, I reported that StudentsFirst had departed from Minnesota and Florida. I assumed the pickings were slim in the former, and the “reform” camp had saturated the state of Florida. Well, there is more to the story, as I learned when I discovered a week-old politico.com in my spam box.

StudentsFirst has also pulled out of Maine, Indiana, and Iowa. It has laid off six staff members. As politico.com reports:

“It’s still active in 10 states, including Pennsylvania, Georgia, Michigan and New York. The organization hasn’t brought in anywhere near the $1 billion that Rhee confidently predicted she would raise when she founded the group in 2010. But she has collected more than $60 million in donations in the past few years. That’s been enough to make sizable contributions to candidates and political committees around the country, to run TV, radio and web ads promoting her education reform agenda and hire top lobbyists to work state capitols from coast to coast. StudentsFirst also maintains a staff of 110 people — up from 75 in 2012.”

If you judge it by its actions, not its rhetoric, Rhee’s organization exists to elect advocates of charters and vouchers, as well as avowed enemies of teachers’ unions, tenure, and seniority. It would be nice if its ads and literature made clear that it raises money for privatization and opposition to any contracts rights for teachers.

Which reminds me: I received an email from a virtual friend in Mississippi today, pointing out that the state had no teachers’ unions and no tenure. He thought that was a good thing. He also mentioned that Mississippi was last in the nation in academic performance. I asked him which part of the state’s agenda should be a national model. I don’t think that unions or tenure necessarily lead to high performance, but there’s no evidence that getting rid of them is a recipe for success.

Michelle Rhee is determined to see that every legislature is taken over by hard-right Republicans who support her campaign against teachers and public schools.

One of her current targets is Alabama.

Here is where she is sending money. All but one of those listed below are Republicans, except Patrick Sellers, who challenged a Democratic incumbent and lost. Governor Bentley returned the $5,000 contribution.

As of current reporting, StudentsFirst has contributed a total of $100,000 to nine candidates in Alabama this year. The recipients, as pulled from AlabamaVotes.gov, are here:

Contributor Amount ContributionDate RecipientName

STUDENTSFIRST $15,000.00 05/23/2014 BARRY RAMON SADLER SR. (Sadler outspent incumbent state school board member Betty Peters10-1, and he lost.)

STUDENTS FIRST $20,000.00 11/15/2013 CHARLOTTE BORDEN MEADOWS (Meadows ran for a house seat. She lost.)

STUDENTS FIRST $15,000.00 05/21/2014 CYNTHIA MCCARTY (McCarty ran for open seat on state school board. She won.)

STUDENTSFIRST $10,000.00 06/02/2014 GERALD DIAL (Dial is incumbent state senator. He won primary, faces opposition in November.)

STUDENTSFIRST $10,000.00 05/09/2014 JIM H MCCLENDON (incumbent house member who challenged incumbent Republican state senator and won.)

STUDENTS FIRST $15,000.00 06/01/2014 MARY SCOTT HUNTER (Incumbent state school board member. She won.)

STUDENTSFIRST $5,000.00 04/24/2014 MICHAEL G. HUBBARD (Speaker of the House. He spent more than $1 million on his re-election in june and beat a Republican primary challenger. Faces Democratic opponent in November. Not a friend of public schools or teachers.)

STUDENTSFIRST $5,000.00 05/22/2014 PATRICK SELLERS (aDemocrat who challenged aDemocratic incumbent in Birmingham and lost.)

STUDENTS FIRST $5,000.00 10/11/2013 ROBERT BENTLEY (Incumbent Governor running for re-election. Returned the money.)

STUDENTSFIRST $10,000.00 05/21/2014 STEVE DEAN (Republican challenger to Republican incumbent. Dean lost.)

STUDENTS FIRST $2,500.00 02/21/2013 STORMING THE STATE HOUSE POLITICAL ACTION COMMITTEE (this PAC is operated by Mike hubbard, speaker of the house. Studentsfirst gave him money on feb. 21 of 2013, and the House passed the Alabama Accountability Act (Alabama’s voucher bill) on Feb. 28, 2013.)

STUDENTS FIRST $15,000.00 05/30/2014 WILLIAM E HENRY (an incumbent Republican who won his race.)

Georgia has an important run-off for State Superintendent of Education in the Democratic Party on July 22. If you care about the future of public education in Georgia, please vote.

Valarie Wilson came in first in the primary, with 32% of the vote. The runner-up, Alisha Thomas Morgan, received 26%.

The Network for Public Education has endorsed Valarie Wilson, a strong supporter of public education. In reviewing her list of contributors, it appears that almost all of them live in Georgia. Wilson’s total contributions, after taking out loans, was $178,147. Of those, $174,572 came from supporters who live in Georgia; $3,575–or 2%-came from outside Georgia.

Valarie was elected to the local school board in Decatur in 2002 and served as its president from 2005-2011. She was elected president of the Georgia School Boards Association in 2012-13.

Her opponent, Alisha Thomas Morgan, has been endorsed by the corporate reformers, the hedge fund managers and billionaires, who support privatization, charters and vouchers.

On Morgan’s website, she boasts that she has been endorsed by the Wall Street hedge fund managers group, Democrats for Education Reform; by the voucher-loving American Federation for Children (Betsy DeVos of the Amway fortune, sister of Erik Prince of the infamous Blackwater security company); by Michelle Rhee’s StudentsFirst; by billionaire Michael Bloomberg’s daughter Emma Bloomberg; by billionaire Eli Broad; and by Frank Biden, brother of Joe Biden, who manages a for-profit charter corporation in Florida called Mavericks.

Most of Morgan’s funding comes from out-of-state donors. Morgan has collected $21,203 from citizens of Georgia. She has collected $70,675 from out-of-state donors.

Here is the list of outside donors to Morgan.

LastName FirstName Cash_Amount
Aluise Joseph 500
American Federation for Children Action Fund-Georgia PAC 3700
Arnold John 1500
Bender Benefits & Insurance 3000
Bing Jonathan 250
Blew James 500
Bloomberg Emma 500
Bloomberg Emma 500
Bloomberg Michael 3700
Bloomberg Michael 6300
Bradley Katherine 1000
Bradley Sean 200
Broad Eli 3700
Broad Eli 6300
Conforme Veronica 250
Cunningham Peter 200
Deane-Williams Barbara 150
DeLaski Kathleen 500
DeVos Jr. Richard & Elisabeth 6300
Dostart Steve 250
Dostart Steve 250
Duncan Damon 250
Elisa Louis 100
Elisa Louis 100
Ferguson Wilkie 250
Fields Jarett 75
Fisher John 1000
Francis Gregory 200
Fuller Howard 250
Fuller Howard 250
Gaal Michael 250
Gordon Scott 250
Groff Peter 250
Groff Peter 250
Hilton Adriel 100
Hilton Adriel 100
Holifield Johnathan 250
Huizenga J.C. 2500
Jackson-King Carolyn 150
Johnson Alex 250
K12 Management Inc. 2000
Kihn Paul 250
Kihn Paul 100
Kirtley John 3700
Ledre Jr. Reo 200
Leslie Kent 200
Lomax Michael 250
Martin Rayne 100
McGriff Deborah 250
Nellons-Paige Stephanie 500
payton jr tony 150
Peabody Malcolm 500
Powell Jobs Laurene 6300
Rees Nina 500
Revenaugh Martha 500
Ritchie Daniel 3000
Rudall David 250
Russell Jerome 500
Schilling John 150
The Alex’s Group LLC 150
Thiry Kent 4300
Thompson Elizabeth 100
Thompson Elizabeth 100
Tilson Whitney 250
Total 70675

In this era of duplicity and double-talk, we may never learn the real reason, but one thing is sure: Michelle Rhee’s StudentsFirst is closing down in Minnesota. It is laying off its single employee. It claims 29,000 members in the state, but it is impossible to verify that number since people often sign deceptive petitions on websites that ask if they support great teachers.

“Earlier this week, StudentsFirst confirmed that it is scaling back operations in Florida to focus on political battles elsewhere. In coming days, it is expected to announce that it’s eliminating staff members in other states — a move a national group spokesman said Wednesday he could not confirm.

“Obviously we can’t predict the future, but we will continue to support our reform partners,” said spokesman Ross McMullin.

“Denise Specht, president of Education Minnesota, said she’s not surprised StudentsFirst is scaling back.

“National education franchises like StudentsFirst struggle to find an audience in Minnesota because they sell policies developed far away by people who don’t know our schools,” she said. “So they push ideas that appeal to wealthy donors around the country, but don’t quite fit in Minnesota, which has some of the best schools and students in the nation.”

Florida is owned lock, stock, and barrel by the privatizers, so perhaps StudentsFirst is superfluous there. If they are cutting staff elsewhere, that’s good news. Maybe Rhee is yesterday’s news.

Politico.com reports on some of the finances of Michelle Rhee’s StudentsFirst and StudentsFirst Institute, based on the 990 tax form that her group is required to file. During the fiscal year from August 2012 to July 2013, her organizations raised $28.6 million, down slightly from the previous year. She does not disclose the names of her donors (we can all guess: the Koch brothers? Rupert Murdoch? Michael Bloomberg? Eli Broad? Members of the Walton family? Art Pope? Hedge fund managers? Who else disdains public education?).

She spent $2 million for the consulting services of SKDKnickerbocker, which is run by Anita Dunn, who worked closely with President Obama in his first term. She also paid $1.7 million to Change.org, which hosted many of her petitions (“do you want great teachers, sign here”). The article says Change.org cut ties with that lucrative client because of protests by organized labor but that is an overstatement. Many supporters of public education and teachers objected to Change.org presenting itself as “progressive” while promoting a group tat funds rightwing candidates and attacks umbilical education. I am embarrassed to say that I was tricked into signing one of those petitions. When I blogged about it, I got an email from a real person at Change.org informing me that I was a member of StudentsFirst after signing that misleading petition.

She gave hundreds of thousands of dollars to conservative supporters of charters and vouchers.

Her salary is nearly $350,000 a year, not including speaking fees (last reported to be $50,000 per speech but negotiable). A good gig. Sure beats being a teacher.

In addition, Rhee “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.”

When she started StudentsFirst, Rhee said she would raise $1 billion for her agenda to destroy teachers unions, de-professionalize teaching, and turn public education over to private entities. So far, she has raised $62 million. Guess the rightwing billionaires are not as generous as she anticipated. Or maybe the lingering questions about the D.C. Cheating scandal tarnished her image, even among the true believers.

Gary Rubinstein wondered how the “reform” sector reacted to the two big events of the past two weeks: the Vergara decision and the Gates Foundation’s advice to suspend test-based evaluations for teachers for two years. Reformers like Arne Duncan, StudentsFirst, and The New Teacher Project were delighted by the Vergara decision, which strikes at job protections for veteran teachers (more openings for newbies). Teach for America was unusually silent.

But what about the Gates moratorium? He found some confusion among the usual cheerleaders for high-stakes testing. Again, Teach for America stayed out of the fray. Reformers split into two camps.

Gary writes:

“You’ve got Bill Gates, who is essentially the Secretary of Education in this country, saying to slow down on this. And you have StudentsFirstNY, though not yet StudentsFirst, saying that slowing down is a mistake. And maybe this is all for show, some good cops and some bad cops — as long as things continue to move in the ‘reform’ direction.

“But I do think that the fact that any ‘reformers’ support a slow down is a big deal. You see, if I were a ‘reformer’ and I had confidence in the golden calf known as value-added, I would be against the slow down. Since the concept of value-added is that if it was already accurate enough to be 35% or 50% (in Denver) for teacher evaluations, then the harder (more ‘rigorous’) Common Core exams would not make it any less accurate. This is the whole point of value-added. It shouldn’t matter, to a value-added believer, if the new tests are more difficult. Everyone is working under the same handicap so the value-added formulas should, in theory, account for that.”

Two years is about all the time left to Duncan. What happens next? Maybe by then even the politicians will realize that VAM is a failed idea.

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