The Truth about StudentsFirst and Why It Matters

Living as I do in Cleveland, Ohio, I remember not long ago when the names of companies told you just what they made: Republic Steel, Youngstown Sheet and Tube, Cleveland Twist Drill, and Timken Roller Bearing.  I suspect we are the town whose public utility has the most delightful and perfectly accurate name: Cleveland Electric Illuminating.  When trees fall on the power lines here in Cleveland, the Illuminating Company comes to get the lights back on.

Nowadays however, company names no longer tell you very much: Halliburton, Archer Daniels Midland, Enron. What does the firm do? Does it make something?  If so, who does the work?  Does it happen in the U.S. or someplace else?  Does the company pay the workers enough? Does it protect them from injuries and toxins? Does it protect the environment?  Does it pay enough taxes?  Any taxes?  Names no longer tell us much, and we aren’t encouraged to ask questions.

Just last week at two social events I found myself in the uncomfortable situation of having to explain how an organization’s name may not really be designed to tell the truth about what the organization does. This time the issue of the name related to a not-for-profit advocacy organization instead of a company.  In both instances well-meaning people brought me the same flyer advertising the local screening of a movie. The flyer which depicted cheerful young children was designed in appealing primary colors.  At the bottom appeared the logo of the sponsoring organization, StudentsFirst.  The flyer provided no information about StudentsFirst, and those who had picked up the flyer—one at a bus stop and the other in a coffee shop— thought it must be a local group, maybe some kind of PTA.  These people wondered if I planned to attend the screening?  They asked if I know anything about StudentsFirst.  Is it new?  Where does it meet?  Which schools does it relate to?

In an article titled, How Michelle Rhee Misled Education Reform, published last May in the New Republic magazine, here is what Nicholas Lemann, the recently retired dean of the Columbia University School of Journalism, wrote about Michelle Rhee’s organization, StudentsFirst:  “StudentsFirst, Rhee’s post-Washington organization, lobbies state legislatures around the country to pass education-reform measures.  Although it began in a series of meetings in Washington among the influential friends Rhee had made as chancellor—the names she drops in telling of its founding include Rahm Emanuel, Eli Broad, the Aspen Institute, the Hoover Institution, and McKinsey, and her initial requests for philanthropic funding are at the $100 million level—she insists that it is a grassroots organization, ‘a movement of everyday people.’  What this really means is that StudentsFirst has used the latest top-of-the-line Internet-marketing technology to generate a notional membership of more than a million.  They do not pay dues and they are not organized into local chapters that hold regular meetings, but when there is an important vote in a state capitol, StudentsFirst can generate turnout to demonstrate that it is engaged in a grand battle between powerless parents and rich unions.”

Writing for Reuters in May of 2012, Stephanie Simon reported, “Rhee has set up StudentsFirst as a network of interlocking lobbying groups, advocacy organizations and political action committees.  By law, she does not have to disclose her donors, and she refuses to discuss her fundraising.  But an adviser to New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg confirms that he provided financial backing for Rhee’s recent push into Connecticut politics. The Laura and John Arnold Foundation, funded by John Arnold, a hedge-fund manager and major Democratic donor, has pledged $20 million over five years.  Other backers: the Charles and Helen Schwab Foundation, the Broad Foundation, and the Walton Family Foundation, funded by heirs to the Wal-Mart fortune, which gave $1 million, according to foundation records.”

In her new book, Reign of Error, education historian Diane Ravitch describes the role of philanthropists to fund the think tanks that develop research and then the role of philanthropists and politicians to fund organizations like StudentsFirst who then promote the policies favored by the same research.  Ravitch concludes: “The issue for the future is whether a small number of very wealthy entrepreneurs, corporations, and individuals will be able to purchase educational policy in this nation, either by funding candidates for local and state school boards, for state legislatures, for governor, and for Congress or by using foundation ‘gifts’ to advance the privatization of public education.” (p. 310)

Even prior to Rhee’s launching of StudentsFirst, it turns out that we all ought to have been asking more questions about Michelle Rhee.  Although she has managed to prevent a major investigation of her tenure as Chancellor of the Washington, D.C. public schools, John Merrow, the reporter for the News Hour on PBS has gone to great lengths to investigate what USA Today exposed as a likely major test-answer-erasure cheating scandal during the period when she led the school district.

In the cover story of the October 10, 2013 New York Review of Books, Andrew Delbanco, the chair of the Department of American Studies at Columbia University, reviews together Michelle Rhee’s recent book, Radical and Diane Ravitch’s new book, Reign of Error. The review, The Two Faces of American Education, inaccurately presents the authors as though they represent two ends of a simple continuum of opinion.  Instead Rhee and Ravitch are as unlike as they can be; Rhee is a shrewd, self-promoting operator and media darling, while the 75-year-old Ravitch, an academic and long published historian of education, has turned herself into a muckraker.  Delbanco would seem to conclude that challenges for our poorest children and their schools can be worked out if the debate can be made less polarized and less shrill: “You would think it possible to take ideas from both sides and put them to work together… One thing that certainly won’t help our children is any ideology convinced of its exclusive possession of the truth.” While Delbanco is correct that the conversation about public education has become angrily ideological, he is wrong to conclude that Rhee’s story and Ravitch’s well documented analysis can be read as any any sort of counterpoint.  And he is naive to assume there is a mere polite middle ground.

All of us need to start paying closer attention, and we must insist that the media help us by more persistently cutting through the rhetoric designed to cloud our understanding. Who is Michelle Rhee?  What is StudentsFirst?  Does this organization have anything to do, as its name implies, with the needs of students?  In what way is this organization’s name a slap at the teachers whom Rhee has made a career of blaming for putting their own interests ahead of the interests of students?  Are not, in most cases, the needs of students and their teachers closely related?  Where is StudentsFirst raising its money?  What kind of ideology is being pushed by those investing in StudentsFirst as a mouthpiece?  What kind of candidates has it been bankrolling as a national organization investing in local school board and state legislative elections?  How have we lost our capacity to discern the difference between a PTA—a real parents’ organization—and an astroturf (fake grassroots) organization like StudentsFirst?

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3 thoughts on “The Truth about StudentsFirst and Why It Matters

  1. I challenge Nicholas Lemann’s accuracy on this point: “…when there is an important vote in a state capitol, StudentsFirst can generate turnout to demonstrate that it is engaged in a grand battle between powerless parents and rich unions.” I have never heard of this happening, as Rhee’s operation has no actual membership. What it generates is big checks. Lemann (New Yorker writer and former Columbia Journalism School dean or no) got hoodwinked on that issue, though he saw through the rest of the StudentsFirst con job.

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