Apparently, StudentsFirst is continuing its focus on Tennessee. (Note prior post HERE.)
The following is a news release from the organization distributed Tuesday:
Nashville, TN – StudentsFirst, a bipartisan grassroots education reform movement, announced three new hires today as the organization expands grassroots momentum in Tennessee. The new additions include Carter Maxwell, who will serve as the State Outreach Director and Mario King, the Shelby County Field Coordinator. They join Paige Donaldson, who was brought on in February to serve as Field Coordinator for Middle Tennessee.
“We’re lucky to have three passionate individuals who know and love the state leading our grassroots efforts in Tennessee,” said Kellen Arno, VP of Membership at StudentsFirst. “As we continue to grow our movement and build momentum in the Volunteer state, we’re bringing together an incredibly strong team to help elevate the stories of parents and teachers on the local level.”
New Republic has an interesting, Tennessee-focused article on Michelle Rhee and StudentsFrist’s efforts in the state where her ex-husband is commissioner of education. Lots of attention to Rep. John DeBerry, D-Memphis, who got a big chunk of StudentsFirst money in his re-election campaign.
An excerpt: Nowhere has her influence been felt more acutely than in Tennessee, where campaigns are a bargain and where legislators eager to amend the state’s dismal record on education have made it a mecca for reformers. To Rhee the mission also has a personal angle: Her ex-husband, Kevin Huffman, is commissioner of the state Department of Education and her two daughters attend school in Nashville.
In 2011-2012, her group spent $533,000 on over 60 local politicians, outspending the main teachers’ union by a third and becoming Tennessee’s biggest source of campaign money outside of the party PACs, according to election filings. Added to the $200,000-$300,000 that allied groups like Stand for Children and the Tennessee Federation for Children paid out, the result has been a gush of education-reform money taking over the state’s politics.
“They’ve become like the gun lobby in Tennessee,” a former aide to a top Nashville politician told me. “Everybody is scared of the NRA. It’s the same way with these education reform people.”
…Though the group does not disclose its donors, public filings reveal that much of its money comes from hedge fund titans. On April 30, the Walton Family Foundation announced it would give Rhee $8 million over the next two years. Rhee hinted in her book that leveraged-buyout king Ted Forstmann had pledged tens of millions as well.
In Tennessee, StudentsFirst gave money to more candidates–55 legislative and nine school board candidates–than it did in any other state this past election cycle. Of those 55 candidates, though, only seven were Democrats. StudentsFirst spokesperson Hari Sevugan (who has since quit the organization) told me last year that this was simply a fact of politics in Tennessee, where the GOP controls two-thirds of both houses in the General Assembly. But nationwide, Rhee has had trouble finding Democrats to stand with her. Of the 105 candidates across 12 states that she supported in general elections in 2012, 92 were Republican.
These lopsided numbers bolster the left’s loudest complaint about Rhee of late: Though she claims Democratic values and the bipartisan mantle, Republicans dominate the ranks of StudentsFirst’s donors and of those it donates to. Rhee blames the imbalance on a lack of courage among Democrats, telling newspapers that many had pledged their support privately but refused to go public for fear of reprisals from the teachers’ unions. But those Democrats willing to align themselvse with her cause often find themselves lavishly rewarded.
Responding to an online petition drive launched by an 11-year-old Oak Ridge boy, StudentsFirst has rescinded its designation of state Rep. John Ragan as a ‘reformer of the year” because he sponsored the so-called “the don’t say gay bill.”
“Regardless of when Representative Ragan was named a “Reformer of the Year” by our organization, his introduction of ill-conceived and harmful legislation including HB 1332 — which would have cultivated a culture of bullying — does not represent the type of leadership we look for in our legislative champions. We have made that clear to Rep. Ragan and rescinded the recognition,” wrote Michelle Rhee, founder and president of StudentsFirst in a post on the education reform organization’s website.
“Simply put, we must hold our “Reformers of the Year” to a higher standard. So let me be very clear — policies that are intended to single out any student based on their sexual orientation and treat them differently are wrong,” Rhee said.
The rescission of Ragan’s recognition by the group Wednesday came five days after Marcel Neergaard, 11, and his parents started a petition at MoveOn.org urging StudentsFirst to do so. On Thursday afternoon, it had collected 55,034 supporters.
Michelle Rhee says Tennessee would be a priority in her $1 billion nationwide effort to transform education policy at the state level, even if she and the state’s education commissioner did not have two daughters in public schools here.
StudentsFirst, which Rhee founded and heads, has the goal of raising and spending the $1 billion over a five-year period. In Tennessee, the group is well on its way with about $900,000 in spending on political contributions and lobbying during just over a year of operating within the state.
“I pay attention to Tennessee because I live here, No. 1, and because I have children in school here,” Rhee said in an interview last week. “But I would be paying attention even if I didn’t simply because of the courage the governor and the legislators have shown to date (in education reform efforts).”
Actually, Tennessee ranked 11th among states in a StudentsFirst “report card” issued last week that rated states on their education policy as the organizations thinks it should be. Rhee said that, if the 2013 legislative session goes as she would like, Tennessee could “catapult to a much higher rating.”
Michelle Rhee, the former Washington, D.C., school superintendent who founded the education reform organization StudentsFirst, has urged Gov. Bill Haslam to veto HB3540. which calls for limits on the number of foreigners who can be employed by Tennessee charter schools.
“It is quality blind and will close the door on driven and talented educators who might otherwise help kids learn to read or become passionate about math and science,” writes Rhee, who now lives in Tennessee.
A previous article is HERE; Rhee’s letter to the governor is below.
Shelby County Commissioner Mike Carpenter announced Tuesday that he will resign from the commission and move to Nashville to become Tennessee director of StudentsFirst, a national organization launched in December by former Washington schools leader Michelle Rhee, an outspoken critic of teachers’ unions.
More from the Commercial Appeal story: Carpenter, 40, said in an e-mailed statement that the new job would be an extension of his work on the commission, to “transform the lives of children throughout Tennessee for generations to come.”
…Carpenter, a Republican, is one of three commissioners representing mostly urban District 1. Some Republicans on the commission have criticized his votes with Democrats on some issues. In 2009, for instance, he voted against a Republican proposal to reduce the property tax rate.
He has also sparred with government employee unions when he pushed unsuccessfully for reductions in paid time off.
The commission is a part-time job, and Carpenter currently works as head of the West Tennessee Chapter of Associated Builders and Contractors, a group that’s critical of organized labor.
In 2009, Carpenter spoke against a union-backed effort to create a prevailing wage commission that would boost workers’ wages on big public contracts, though he recused himself from voting on the matter.
He is known for posting comments on Twitter during commission meetings.
Andrea Zelinski has collected commentary from Tennessee legislators attending the Southern Legislative Council meeting in Memphis on school vouchers, strongly endorsed earlier in a speech to the SLC from Michelle Rhee.
The TNReport article says Sen. Brian Kelsey, R-Germantown, sponsor of a voucher bill that passed the Senate earlier this year but stalled in the House, is “teaming up” with Rhee, “a controversial and vocal education reformer who won her claim to fame by putting in place a tougher evaluation system and firing dozens of teachers who didn’t meet standards while chancellor of the D.C. public schools.”
The conference also heard about some voucher research. Vouchers are the most contentious aspects of the school choice debate, said Margaret Raymond, director of the Center for Research on Educational Outcomes at Stanford University.
A lot of the disagreement is over whether taxpayer dollars should be used to support private schools, 80 percent of which nationally are religiously based, according to Raymond.
Another point of contention is giving families free reign to leave traditional public schools in favor of charter schools which will shift government funding from one part of the district to another.
After examining charter schools in 15 states and the District of Columbia, Raymond’s office found that 17 percent of them performed better than public schools. Another 46 percent reported the same academic achievement as their public school counterparts, while 37 percent were worse.
States that kept failing charter schools open longer were worse off than those that closed schools faster, according to the study.
“You have to think about the fact that in states where the results are really bad, it’s because there are schools that are open for years and years and years that do not have high performance and are not being addressed,” Raymond said.
Raymond is running numbers on Tennessee schools, but that data won’t be available for another six months, she said.
Michelle Rhee, described as “a rock star of education reform,” has moved to Nashville and on Sunday made a speech in Memphis with Mike Morrow on hand to report that, among other things, she praised the state Legislature and endorsed school voucher programs == such as one that would be created in Tennessee under a bill that passed the state Senate last legislative session but failed in the House. Rhee, former chancellor of Washington D.C. schools and founder of StudentsFirst, a reform-minded education organization…. has moved to Nashville so her two daughters can be close to their father, Tennessee’s new education commissioner, Kevin Huffman. The girls will go to school in Nashville.
But Rhee will spend only half of her time in Nashville, with plans to spend the other half in Sacramento, where her fiance lives. Rhee is most noted for her time as head of the D.C. school system, although a published report early this year by USA Today raised questions about the authenticity of some academic gains on her watch.
The two daughters were with Rhee as she spoke to the Southern Legislators Conference, a meeting of legislators from several states, with an audience of about 150 people.
She even used the two girls to make her point about competitiveness. She said her girls have trophies and ribbons galore to show for their participation in soccer. But how do they actually perform on the field of competition?
“They suck,” Rhee said, getting no visible objection to that assessment from the girls, who sat halfway back in the room. She said kids have lost the spirit of competition and that the nation has to regain that in education.
Rhee used the example to get the point across that the idea that everyone performs well is not a healthy way to approach education. Rhee was highly complimentary of the education reforms the Tennessee General Assembly enacted this year, which included tenure reform, charter school expansion and a new way of negotiating with teachers that dramatically reduces the power of the big teachers union.
“I think they made tremendous progress this last year,” Rhee said of the Legislature after her speech. “We had very close partnerships.”
“We feel heartened by the progress that was made in the Legislature in this last session. We also know a lot of those legislators are really interested in continuing to push aggressive reforms next session, so we’re very much looking forward to continuing working with them.”
Rhee dived right into partisan politics and explained she was a Democrat and once held all views one might expect in order to fall into the party line, including opposition to school vouchers. She changed her mind on that.
“Because of partisan politics I really believed that vouchers were not a good thing and that we shouldn’t even ever discuss them,” she said. “That all changed when I became the chancellor of a school district in D.C. and we had a publicly funded voucher program in the city.”
Note: Morrow;s TNReport article is accompanied by videos from Rhee’s speech and Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey’s commentary.