Developments at StudentsFirst and Teach for America

There is some shifting and changing of the guard in the world of corporatized education reform.

StudentsFirst and 50CAN

I thought about Michelle Rhee and her organization StudentsFirst earlier this week as I sat for three hours at a huge meeting in my own school district, where our dedicated teachers demonstrated over and over again that they understand the needs of our community’s young people and where parents and a long list of students spoke about an art teacher, an English teacher, a drama teacher, a Chinese teacher or a coach who had made them feel welcome and engaged. Rhee—the woman featured on Time Magazine‘s cover with the broom to sweep out “bad” teachers—said she founded StudentsFirst to promote the interests of children and to protect us all from what she said was the practice in public schools of putting the needs of adults before the needs of students.

Michelle Rhee launched StudentsFirst in 2010, after she was ousted from the D.C. public schools. Rhee promised she would raise $1 billion to support the organization’s in its first year, though in reality she was able to raise only $7.6 million that year.  Rhee resigned as the organization’s director in 2014.  Now StudentsFirst is being subsumed into another far-right organization, 50CAN.

Here is Caitlin Emma from Politico Morning Education: “What will remain of Students First? Sources tell Morning Education that the 50CAN and StudentsFirst marriage announced last week is not so much a merger as it is an acquisition—and it’s unclear how many StudentsFirst staffers will be left when all the wedding cake is eaten… 50CAN CEO Marc Porter Magee said there will be some layoffs as a result of the merger.”

So what is 50CAN?  Diane Ravitch provides some background: “The latter organization is funded by hedge fund managers and the Sackler family of Connecticut, whose fortune was made from pharmaceuticals, specifically the opioid 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… and that charter schools are sort of like the private school she attended in Greenwich.”

50CAN began as ConnCAN in the state of Connecticut and Sackler and his partners have expanded it to other states and created a national organization.  Here is Jon Lender for the Hartford Courant: “Jonathan Sackler is a leading proponent of charter schools in Connecticut, the region and the nation.  He is… operator of about 20 charter schools in New York and Connecticut with thousands of students.  He was the founding chairman and still a director of ConnCAN, the Connecticut Coalition for Achievement Now, and serves as director of other education groups such as 50CAN….”

While 50CAN clearly intends to operate across the 50 states, according to the organization’s website, today it has seven state affiliates in addition to ConnCAN: RI-CAN, MinnCAN, NYCAN, MarylandCAN, CarolinaCAN, JerseyCAN, and PennCAN.  Although 50CAN’s website proclaims a commitment to developing local leadership for excellence in education (“We believe that the most successful local education advocacy efforts follow a bottom-up approach by finding, connecting and supporting a diverse group of entrepreneurial leaders.”), 50CAN is an Astroturf organization—a national organization that merely pretends to be locally supported at the grassroots.  Here is a description of its work in Minnesota: “While the name “Minneapolis Progressive Education Fund” lends the group an air of boots-on-the-ground campaigning — chairman Daniel Sellers describes himself as a ‘Minneapolis resident and parent’ — there is nothing grassroots about it. In fact, the Progressive Education Fund, as reported by MinnPost, is an offshoot of 50CAN, the right-wing education group founded by Connecticut hedge fund managers and heavily bankrolled by school privatization interests, such as the Walton Family Foundation. Sellers is the chair of the Minneapolis Progressive Education Fund and also the executive director of MinnCAN.”

Caitlin Emma for Politico describes the merger of StudentsFirst with 50CAN in a bit more detail: “50CAN, unlike StudentsFirst, has a growing budget and a growing number of funders.  50CAN’s current operating budget is about $8 million, up from $2 million in 2010 when the organization was started.”  50CAN’s Porter Magee says “the merger combines the two best aspects of both organizations.  StudentFirst’s ability to influence the passage of legislation—like parent trigger laws that allow parents to intervene in low performing public schools and turn them into charter schools—and 50CAN’s broader advocacy work.”  One must correct the assumptions here: although parent trigger laws have been passed by several states with support from StudentsFirst and ALEC, there have been virtually no successful, sustained parent takeovers of public schools.

Teach for America

New college graduates are no longer flocking to become alternatively certified over the summer and sign up for a two year stint at Teach for America.  Diane Ravitch announced on her blog: “Despite the flashy celebration at TFA’s 25th Anniversary Summit held in Washington, D.C. last month, TFA did not meet its recruiting target for the second year in a row.  2015 was the first time in its history that TFA laid off employees, and now it’s happening again.”  “CEO Elisa Villaneuva Beard announced on February 29 that 250 TFA staff positions will be eliminated….  She said 100 new positions will also be created, leaving the net job loss at 150.”

Emma Brown, reporting for the Washington Post, explains: “The downsizing comes after a previous round of reductions in which TFA’s national staff shrank by more than 200 positions.  The two shake-ups will leave Teach for America with approximately 930 national staff members in fiscal year 2017, 410 fewer than it employed in fiscal year 2015, according to the organization.”

TFA’s model is controversial.  Instead of sending well-trained and credentialed college graduates, who have experienced extensive student teaching and mentoring, into the nation’s poorest schools, TFA has run a 5-week alternative certification program over the summer and sent graduates from elite colleges into our nation’s poorest cities for two year assignments, a practice that has created rapid turnover of staff in schools that need stability.

Last month Science Newsline reported on a study from the University of Illinois confirming that, “Teach for America has reaped millions of dollars in nonrefundable finder’s fees from school systems in the U.S. through lucrative contracts that require schools to hire designated numbers of the organization’s corps members—whether or not its teachers meet districts’ specific content or grade-level needs….  Five major U.S. school systems—in Atlanta, Chicago, eastern North Carolina, New Orleans and New York—paid finder’s fees that ranged from $2,000 to $5,000 per TFA corps member per contract year…. The financially troubled Chicago Public Schools paid TFA nearly $7.5 million in finder’s fees between 2000 and 2014—a time period when the school system also underwent significant budget cuts, closed numerous schools and laid off thousands of teachers….”

States have continued to pay fees to bring TFA into their school districts, most recently Arkansas, where in January Governor Asa Hutchinson announced he will invest $3 million of state discretionary funds to bring in TFA over three years.  And at the federal level, according to Diane Ravitch, “The U.S. Department of Education has given TFA hundreds of millions of dollars in federal grants since 2008.  Government funding (at all levels) comprised 38% of TFA’s budget in 2015, totaling $69.7 million that year alone, according to TFA’s 2015 annual report.”


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