Archives for category: StudentsFirst

Dave McKenna of Deadspin writes here about the release under court order of emails written by outgoing Sacramento Mayor Kevin Johnson about his efforts to take control of the National Conference of Black Mayors, bankrupt it, and open a new organization that would promote charter schools. Johnson is married to controversial Michelle Rhee, who has been a beneficiary and advocate for charters and vouchers.

This is a must-read.


The emails come mainly from the early days of Johnson’s hostile takeover of the National Conference of Black Mayors—the mayor and his minions described their mission against the historic Atlanta-based non-profit as a “coup” when they launched it in 2013—and reveal lots of no-goodnik behavior from Johnson and his coup team, a clique of civil servants on the Sacramento payroll, staffers from Johnson’s huge web of nonprofit groups, at least three public relations outfits, volunteer hangers-on, and lots of lawyers from the firm of Ballard Spahr. (At least a dozen Ballard Spahr lawyers have worked pro bono for Johnson on NCBM litigation.) The records indicate that at some point Johnson changed his goal from running the NCBM to ruining it. Johnson’s team, for example, is found dispatching secret agents to spy on NCBM board members at hotels and restaurants while conspiring to sabotage a potential $2 million windfall for the NCBM scheduled to come just a few months before he filed to have the organization dissolved through the bankruptcy courts. The documents also appear to support detractors’ long-leveled allegations that Johnson mingled the NCBM’s mission with that of Michelle Rhee, his wife and fellow school-privatization demagogue.

The city clerk’s release of the documents completes a request made under the California Public Records Act in the spring of 2015 by Cosmo Garvin, a reporter for the Sacramento News & Review. Unlike the rest of the media in the state capital, Garvin covered Johnson tenaciously and aggressively. He knew Johnson was conducting business using Gmail accounts rather than his assigned government address, so he requested any records on the city’s public servers from those personal email accounts. On July 1, 2015, Johnson sued his own city and Garvin’s weekly newspaper to prevent hundreds of emails from being made public, claiming attorney/client privilege….

The bulk of the unsealed documents deal with Johnson’s takeover of the NCBM, a clandestine and ultimately disastrous effort that peaked in May 2013 when he succeeded in being named president of the group, only to be deposed by the group’s board of directors two weeks into his term. It’s been a non-stop legal battle ever since between Johnson and NCBM elders, with suits filed by and against the group’s executive director, Vanessa Williams, and a controversial bankruptcy petition all still pending. After civil litigation in Georgia courts, Johnson was restored as the NCBM’s president in early 2014, but was still clearly at war with his constituents.

Johnson’s only meaningful act after regaining the presidency was a request, filed in the U.S. Bankruptcy Court for the Northern District of Georgia on April 30, 2014 to have the NCBM dissolved under Chapter 7 of the federal code. Then on May 1, 2014, just one day after the bankruptcy filing and before he’d even resigned as NCBM president, Johnson founded a clone non-profit group, which he dubbed the African American Mayors Association (AAMA). He named himself president of the new group, and brought many NCBM sponsors with him. He installed AAMA’s headquarters on Pennsylvania Ave. NW in Washington, D.C.—just three blocks from the White House. (The just-released documents indicate that AAMA’s prime real estate was originally offered by former NCBM board member Clarence Anthony for use by the NCBM.)…


As expected, the latest batch of documents—totaling several hundred pages—shows that Johnson’s misuse of attorney/client privilege staved off potential political embarrassments, many of them NCBM-related. He was, to give one telling example, preventing the release of his schedule for Sept. 9, 2013, which included preparation for a trip to Birmingham, Ala. The listed rehearsals included a “Students First Session” followed by “NCBM Prep.”

StudentsFirst is the charter school advocacy group founded by Michelle Rhee. (Johnson is also a major player in the school privatization movement.) The email that Johnson tried so hard to hide provides a reminder that he and Rhee went to Birmingham together to exploit the attention being given the 50th anniversary of bombing of the 16th Street Church. Amid the solemn commemorations of that seminal moment in the American civil rights movement, they co-hosted a town hall meeting promoting charter schools.

One of the reasons Johnson would presumably want this played down is that the NCBM has historically opposed charter schools, and didn’t like Johnson using their group to further an education agenda that both membership and leadership vehemently opposed. Former NCBM president Robert Bowser told me in 2014 that the group had made their stance clear to Johnson after he proposed a resolution to get the NCBM to endorse charter schools. “We took a vote and said, ‘Hell no!’ to his resolution,” Bowser said. “The black mayors are not buying the charter schools, period.” Rhee, meanwhile, was overwhelmingly despised by Washington, D.C.’s black residents when she ran its public school system from 2007 to 2010; any hint that the NCBM was being used to serve her ends would likely be toxic to the group’s core constituency.

The Birmingham meeting, as it turned, didn’t provide any obvious payoff for Rhee. StudentsFirst, which was a cash cow—the Walton Foundation, one of many deep-pocketed benefactors, gave Rhee’s group $8 million just a few months before the Alabama getaway—quietly folded earlier this year, without donating billions of dollars to education projects or meeting any of the other megalomaniacal goals Rhee loudly predicted for her non-profit on Oprah Winfrey’s show at its founding. It’s rather fitting that while StudentsFirst’s website is now largely defunct, its fundraising page is still running and ready to accept donations.

Larry Lee reports here about the departure of StudentsFirst and the Black Alliance for Educational Options from Alabama.

They set up camp in Alabama to advocate for charters and vouchers. Not to advocate for children, but to advocate for alternatives to public schools.

They met with some success. The appeal of charters and vouchers in the Deep South is a restoration of segregation, while claiming it is “all about the children.”

They left. They packed their bags and went away. They had no roots in Alabama. They didn’t stay to advocate for the children.

The world of rightwing corporate reform is ever-changing. It seems like only yesterday that Michelle Rhee announced her intention to challenge teachers’ unions, destroy tenure, and take away due process from teachers across the nation. She said she would raise $1 billion in a year and gather 1 million members for her new organization, which she called StudentsFirst, because (she said) teachers don’t care about students, only billionaires really care. She did raise some money–only $7 million or so, far from $1 billion–and she spent it trying to elect Tea Party Republicans and others who support charters and vouchers. Her organization turned into the public voice of anti-teacher, anti-public school activism. But in 2014, she stepped back from the national stage to help her husband Kevin Johnson, the Mayor of Sacramento (whom she married in 2011), and joined the board of Scott’s Miracle-Gro. She also assumed the chairmanship of her husband’s charter chain, St. Hope.

 

And now we learn that Michelle Rhee is folding the tents of StudentsFirst and merging it with 50CAN. The latter organization is funded by hedge fund managers and the Sackler family of Connecticut, whose fortune was made from pharmaceuticals, specifically the opiod drug Oxycontin, that is now causing so much addiction and death across the nation. Forbes says they are the 16th richest family in America. Jonathan Sackler’s daughter Madeleine made a documentary about Eva Moskowitz’s Success Academy charter chain called “The Lottery.” It gave viewers the impression that these were the world’s most magical schools, and any child lucky enough to win the lottery would have a blessed life. Never having attended a public school, she bought into the myth that they are horrid places that one must escape from, and that charter schools are sort of like the private school she attended in Greenwich.

 

The leader of StudentsFirst is Jim Blew, who most recently worked for the Walton Family Foundation (e.g., Walmart money), which funds StudentsFirst, Teach for America, KIPP, and every organization that promotes the privatization of public education. Now Blew will head the California branch of StudentsFirst, whatever is left of it after the merger.

 

What a close and tight knit world the corporate reformers live in!

 

 

 

Michelle Rhee was a failure in D.C.: despite nearly nine years of Rhee-Henderson policy, it remains one of the nation’s lowest-scoring districts. Rhee created StudentsFirst, funneled money to hard-right a Republicans, then supposedly retired from the organization.

 

Like a robot programmed to demolish public education and teachers, StudentsFirst keeps moving along, doing what it was created to do. Now it is active in Alabama, spreading campaign cash to rightwing politicians. Read Larry Lee’s account of their Alabama activities.

 

Behind StudentsFirst lies a foundational lie. That lie is the claim that they know what should be done to improve education. Their example: Washington, DC.

 

Why does anyone listen to them?

 

 

The New York Times has a fascinating article today about how a handful of very wealthy people invested in Andrew Cuomo and the Republican majority in the State Senate to gain control of public schools in Néw York City and state. The article says they want to continue former Mayor Bloomberg’s policies of closing public schools and replacing them with charter schools and tying teacher evaluations to test scores.

The leader of this effort, the story says, is former chancellor Joel Klein, who now works for rightwing media mogul Rupert Murdoch.

Unmentioned is the undemocratic nature of this purchase of public policy. There was a mayoral election. Bill de Blasio won handily, after making clear his opposition to Bloomberg’s education policies. So, the reformers lost at the polls but used their money to nullify the voters’ choice.

This teacher blogger says that the worst line invented by the reformers‘ PR team is “It’s all about the kids,” which seems to imply that teachers don’t care about their students. Right up there among toxic and accusatory lines are “Students First” and “Students Matter.” I would add “Children First” as another insulting trope. Also “Stand for Children,” which critics call “Stand on Children.” All imply that teachers have been putting their own interests first, or they don’t think children matter.

 

 

Who really, truly cares about the kids? Not their teachers, not their parents, but billionaires, hedge-fund managers, entrepreneurs, politicians.

 

 

This insulting rhetoric trips lightly off the tongues of reformers, along with assertions of wanting “to save poor kids from failing schools” by closing their school and handing the kids over to privatizers.

 

 

“Raging Horse” saw this teacher-bashing reach the height of absurdity or the depths of slime in a statement made by Carmen Arroyo, a member of the New York State Assembly, defending Cuomo’s test-based teacher evaluation plan.

 

 

She said:

 

 

“Those teachers that [sic] are responsible and are doing their job, those teachers that [sic] sacrifice their families and themselves for the children they serve are going to be protected. Those that are not good, better get a job at McDonalds…..”

 

 

Raging Horse blogger writes:

 

 

“Any system that demands the sacrifice of a person’s family is deranged and any public official who demands such is unfit for public office. Any people who stand for such deserve what they get.”

AlterNet reports that StudentsFirst has found a new project. It is seeking people willing to flood social media with anti-union, anti-public school, “reform” views.

 

The new group is called “The Truth Campaign for Teachers.” The email that landed on AlterNet’s doorstep is targeted on New Mexico, but the writer assumes that other states may have the same campaign.

 

Here’s a copy of the email we received from a source who says it appeared over the summer:

 

The Truth Campaign for Teachers (TCT) is looking for:

 

·3-5 New Mexicans who are willing to blog at least twice/week on a variety of pro-reform issues

 

·3-5 New Mexicans who are willing to comment on/promote content on social media

 

Bloggers

 

Ideal candidate is passionate about education reform and is willing to be vocal about issues like the ones StudentsFirst supports.

 

·TCT would supply them with:

 

-Daily emails with suggested content and they would choose which topics to write on

 

-Before posts are final, a TCT write will provide feedback on post to form a compelling blog post

 

-(Help set up blog if person does not have one yet)

 

·Prefer that individual is willing to be named but we can work with anonymous bloggers as well

 

·Trying to get as many volunteers as possible

 

Politico had more on this new astroturf group, which is off to a slow start:

 

SEEDING THE FIELD: Eager to amplify voices in support of education reform, StudentsFirst has backed an initiative to nurture – and compensate – a new crop of online activists. The organization, founded by former D.C. Chancellor Michelle Rhee, has been providing staff support and fundraising help to the Truth Campaign [http://bit.ly/19xK15c ], which publishes a blog highly critical of teachers unions. The Truth Campaign, in turn, urges supporters to get active promoting ed reform on social media. When they do, they can earn money from the campaign, though Recruitment Manager Drew Hazouri won’t say how much. He won’t say, either, where the group gets its funding – only that StudentsFirst has been supportive. “Our mission is to create voices,” Hazouri said. “We’re creating a community.”

 

– So far, Hazouri said he’s launched at least 10 online activists. None appears to have caught fire on social media – at least, not yet. Jonathan Piliser, a former Teach for America corps member, has posted thousands of tweets but has just 78 followers. Maggie Paynich, an Atlanta real estate agent, launched her blog [http://bit.ly/1CIgLUI] with a flurry of posts but only had time for one so far in April. Still, the activists say they believe they’re making a difference. Piliser said he’s getting “several thousand hits a week” on his blog [ http://bit.ly/1afbWI0%5D, which in recent weeks has advocated for merit pay and in favor of the PARCC exams. No one tells him what to write, he said: “It’s my voice.” As for the stipend, neither Piliser or Paynich would discuss it, except to say that it’s not a full-time salary. “When I become important enough to have my salary posted publicly,” Paynich said, “then I guess you’ll know how much I make.”

Luke Brinker writes in Salon about “Michelle Rhee’s favorite wing nuts.” He says that StudentsFirst, flush with hedge fund cash, is spending freely on hard-right GOP candidates.

He writes:

“Michelle Rhee, the former Washington, D.C. schools chancellor and the longtime public face of the education “reform” movement, makes no secret of the fact that her nonprofit organization StudentsFirst backs Republican politicians. In 2012, the self-described Democrat’s group threw its support behind conservative candidates in state legislative races around the country, overlooking many GOPers’ extreme stances on issues like abortion and LGBT rights in its quest to elect candidates who subscribed to the group’s agenda of increasing the number of charter schools, weakening teachers’ unions and tenure protections, and reinforcing an approach to education that emphasizes high-stakes standardized testing. This year, Rhee is once again lending her organization’s financial might to a set of Republicans with hard-right views, as StudentsFirst aims to keep a Republican-led coalition in control of the New York state Senate.

“In its fight to keep the chamber in the GOP’s hands, StudentsFirst launched New Yorkers for a Balanced Albany, a political action committee that quickly became the biggest spender on behalf of Republican Senate candidates. Among its most generous benefactors have been some of the hedge fund world’s boldface names; Daniel Loeb of Third Point LLC and Julian Robertson, formerly of Tiger Management, each ponied up $1 million, Elliot Management’s Paul Singer donated $500,000, and Louis Bacon of Moore Capital Management has also contributed to the group.

“Flush with Wall Street cash, New Yorkers for a Balanced Albany has lavished more than $1 million on ads for four right-wing state Senate candidates; the ads denounce higher taxes and public campaign financing and all but one cast New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio, a foe of the “reform” movement, in the role of left-wing bogeyman….”

Politico.com reported that StudentsFirst chose a staunch advocate of charters, vouchers, and privatization to replace Michelle Rhee. (As usual, the word “reformer” is a synonym for privatization and hostility to teachers’ rights):

“STUDENTSFIRST PICKS NEW PRESIDENT: Longtime education reformer Jim Blew has been selected by the StudentsFirst Board of Directors to serve as the group’s new president, replacing former D.C. schools Chancellor Michelle Rhee. Blew has served as an adviser to the Walton Family Foundation on a host of K-12 education reform issues and he has directed campaigns for the Alliance for School Choice and its predecessor, the American Education Reform Council. He steps in at an integral time for StudentsFirst – when news broke in mid-August that Rhee was stepping down, reform activists said [ http://politico.pro/1rt7Uh8%5D she was leaving a trail of disappointment and disillusionment in her wake. Four years ago, Rhee pledged to raise $1 billion to transform education worldwide. But StudentsFirst has been hobbled by a high turnover rate. And activists said Rhee failed to build critical coalitions, instead alienating activists who should have been her allies with strategies they found imperious, uncompromising and even illogical.”

When will the media acknowledge that Michelle Rhee’s StudentsFirst is a rightwing group, not “liberal” or “Democratic”? When election time comes round, it reliably supports Republicans, who can be counted on to endorse school privatization and to undercut teachers and their unions (if they have one). Occasionally, StudentsFirst finds a Democrat who supports vouchers, but the overwhelming bulk of their money goes to Republicans, as in the current election in New York.

In 2012, while Rhee was still running the organization, 90 of the 105 candidates it endorsed were Republicans. This number included far-right conservatives in the Deep South. In 2013, StudentsFirst selected its “reformer of the year,” who was Tennessee Representative John Ragan, who was notorious for his “don’t say gay” legislation.

Liberal? No. Far-right, anti-union, anti-teacher, anti-public school. Willing to honor a stridently homophobic legislator. Sad.

 

PS: The New York Daily News reported that the $1.75 million was raised in one week from only 5 people. Two were named; they are hedge fund billionaire/millionaires.

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 176,741 other followers