Tag Archives: studentsfirst

Pro-voucher group gives TN an ‘F’ for not having vouchers

StudentsFirst, which supports school vouchers and a state charter authorizer, gives Tennessee an ‘F’ in “school choice” as part of its rating of state school systems because, well, it doesn’t have a voucher system and a state charter authorizer..

So reports The Tennessean:

That’s the main negative in an otherwise fairly positive outlook in StudentsFirst’s 2014 Tennessee report card released today. Tennessee received a “C” score overall — sixth among all states — up from a “C minus” a year ago.

“Our leaders should be encouraged by the rise in Tennessee’s report card grade, and motivated to continue the course for reform,” said Brent Easley, state director of StudentsFirst Tennessee.
His group plans to use the report card’s findings as it pushes policy during the upcoming legislative session, which kicks off today.

The Sacramento-based lobbying organization, founded by former Washington, D.C., Schools Chancellor Michelle Rhee in 2010, rolled out a new state-by-state grading system last year, not to measure academic achievement but to evaluate states by what it calls “student-centered policies.”

In most academic metrics, Tennessee ranks in the bottom half of the United States in performance and in some cases near the bottom.

But it has earned high marks from StudentsFirst, in part because of its utilization of new teacher evaluations and creation of the Achievement School District, a state-led operation that has turned Tennessee’s lowest-performing schools over to outside charter operators.

Note: the Tennessee StudentsFirst report card is HERE.

The news release is below.
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National education reform lobby reloads for 2014 legislative session

After a string of defeats at the Tennessee General Assembly last year, out-of-state education reform groups have reloaded as they look for wins that proved elusive even in a Republican-controlled legislature thought to be receptive to their policies, writes Chas Sisk.

StudentsFirst and Tennessee Federation for Children both spent large amounts on political contributions through their PACs in 2012 and large amounts on lobbying efforts in 2013. Still bills creating a voucher system in Tennessee, a statewide charter school authorizer and a new “parent trigger” for launching charter schools failed.

After big dollars failed to yield victories, both groups used the off-season to regroup and fund new grass-roots efforts. StudentsFirst Tennessee went from virtually a one-person staff to adding new field coordinators — one in Middle Tennessee, the other in Shelby County — while tapping a new state outreach director. StudentsFirst is heading into the next session with a team of eight registered lobbyists, including Rhee herself.

The Tennessee Federation for Children teamed with the conservative Beacon Center of Tennessee in November to launch a campaign dubbed School Choice Now to connect parents and private school leaders who support vouchers to state lawmakers. It has five lobbyists registered in Tennessee.

“I think the prospects are better this year,” Brent Easley, state director of StudentsFirst Tennessee, said of its bill. He also assured the Rhee-led organization would pick up where it left off in raising funds for like-minded state candidates in what will be an election year. “There will be a renewed focus on that.”

…Other education lobbying groups based outside Tennessee that have made this state a focus include Stand for Children and K12 Inc., the for-profit company that operates the Tennessee Virtual Academy, a computer-based virtual school.

The charter school authorizer’s biggest advocate is the Tennessee Charter School Center — the new name for the recently combined Tennessee Charter Schools Association and Tennessee Charter School Incubator.

Backers of vouchers and the charter authorizer change are pitted against a lobbying group called the Coalition of Large School Systems, which the state’s four largest schools districts, including Nashville, pay $37,500 each for representation at the Capitol.

The Knoxville News Sentinel, in a recent news series, calculated that the state’s three government-funded lobbyist groups — Tennessee School Systems for Equity and the Tennessee School Boards Association in addition to CLASS — are outspent by out-of-state groups in lobbying by a $2-to-$1 margin.

StudentsFirst Expands TN Staff

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.”

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Michelle Rhee Focused on Tennessee

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.

StudentsFirst Rescinds Ragan’s ‘Reformer of the Year’ Recognition

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.

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StudentsFirst on End of the Legislative Session

News release from StudentsFirst:
Nashville, Tennessee – On behalf of StudentsFirst’s more than 37,000 members in Tennessee, State Director Brent Easley today issued the following statement after the General Assembly placed on hold SB830/HB702, which would have strengthened the state’s current charter approval process.
“Tennessee missed a grand opportunity to pass common sense legislation to strengthen the state’s current charter approval process. Unfortunately, students will have to wait another year,” said Brent Easley, StudentsFirst Tennessee State Director. “We need this policy in place to help attract high-quality charter schools and we aim to help the sponsors see this through. As we move forward, I urge the leaders in the Tennessee General Assembly to consider and pass charter school authorization early in the next session.”
StudentsFirst has consistently called on states to strengthen charter accountability by creating clear, strong mechanisms for closing low-performing schools and holding authorizers accountable. For more information, please read StudentsFirst’s State Policy Report Card rubric on charter accountability.

Bill Would Make It Easier to Pull ‘Parent Trigger’

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — A Memphis state representative is proposing a change in the so-called parent trigger education law that would give the state final approval.
A statute updated in 2011 allows parents to force education reforms at their children’s public schools, but it requires a 60 percent parent approval and local school boards must sign off on the efforts.
Democratic Rep. John Deberry told WPLN radio his bill is intended to start a conversation about making it easier for parents to force reform. He is proposing that a simple majority of parents’ signatures on a petition should allow that a school be transformed into a charter or closed altogether.
If Deberry’s initiative is adopted, parents whose petition has been turned down by a local school board could appeal that decision to state officials.
The bill was filed Wednesday.
“One thing we can’t do is we can’t continue to support the status quo,” Deberry said.
The Tennessean reported that under Deberry’s plan, a school would have to be in the bottom 20 percent statewide for parents to enact the trigger provision — a remedy Deberry also wants available if 51 percent of a school’s teachers petition.
Deberry’s bill would allow conversion to a charter school or the use of one of four models under the federal “Race to the Top” program. Those include a turnaround model, a restart model, a transformation model and school closure.
Parent trigger laws have been used only a few times around the country.
The trigger concept is pushed by a group called Student First. The organization donated more than $100,000 to Deberry’s election campaign. Deberry said he didn’t solicit the group’s financial support and isn’t beholden to it.
“They want to be close to a legislator who has the guts and the courage to say what has to be said and to accept whatever political fallout that comes to fight the battles that I believe in,” he said.

Note: The bill is deemed a priority of StudentsFirst, which spent around $110,000 to help Rep. DeBerry get reelected. Prior relevant post HERE.

Michelle Rhee on TN Spending, TN Ties and Political Courage

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.”

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Education Reform Group Rates TN 11th Nationally in Education Policies

News release from StudentsFirst:
NASHVILLE- Today, national education reform advocacy organization StudentsFirst published its first-ever State Policy Report Card, a new tool for improving student achievement that does not look at individual or school-wide test scores or teacher effectiveness, but instead gauges how well each state’s education policies are serving students and schools.
The national report raises serious questions about whether states’ education laws and practices are contributing to student success. Nationally, nearly ninety percent of the states received less than a “C” grade on the State Policy Report Card, and no state earned higher than a “B-“.
Tennessee was awarded an overall grade of “C-,” with a grade point average of 1.75, for its performance in three critical areas: elevating teaching, empowering parents and spending public dollars wisely. The state ranked 11th nationally, but was praised in the report for implementing a comprehensive system for meaningfully evaluating teachers and principals that positions the state far ahead of most in the country.
“The StudentsFirst Policy Report Cards serve as a roadmap for leaders and policymakers in Nashville, and an opportunity to continue building on the meaningful reforms that put students first,” said Brent Easley, Tennessee state director for StudentsFirst. “We believe that every child in Tennessee can learn regardless of their background or circumstance, but we must have the right policies in place that offer a supportive and enriching educational environment for reform to thrive. That includes empowering parents, and offering high-quality options for students throughout Tennessee.”

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‘Parent Trigger’ Bill Joins Vouchers, Etc., in Push for Education Legislation

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — Legislation that would allow parents to decide the fate of a struggling school is among several education-related proposals lawmakers are likely to discuss during the 108th Tennessee General Assembly that convenes Tuesday.
Officials have made reforming education a top priority since Tennessee became one of two states to first receive federal Race to the Top funding about three years ago. Lawmakers expect to take up more proposals this year, including so-called parent trigger legislation, creation of school vouchers, reshaping online schools and boosting community colleges.
The parent trigger measure has drawn national attention since parents in California stepped in to turn around a failing school there and the state’s Supreme Court upheld their actions.
Brent Easley, state director for the Tennessee chapter of StudentsFirst, a national grassroots movement to reform school systems across the country, said a sponsor is being sought to introduce Tennessee legislation that’s similar to California’s proposal. (Note: StudentsFirst’s PAC made about $427,000 in donations to Tennessee campaigns last year, by the Commercial Appeal’s count.)
Under the proposal, if 51 percent of parents at a school in the bottom 20 percent of failing schools believe that a drastic change is needed, they can then select from several “turnaround models.” For instance, they may want to convert it to a charter school, change the administrators or just close the school.

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