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Is It Really Students First?

Education Matters
By Larry Lee

Once upon a time a young girl in Ohio graduated from a private high school, then got degrees from Cornell and Harvard, neither of them in the field of education. She then joined Teach for America which means she had a five week crash course before becoming a teacher at a Baltimore elementary school for three years.

Her name was Michelle Rhee.

In 1997 she became CEO of The New Teacher Project, a non-profit set up to supply urban school systems with teachers. She was selected by Washington D.C. mayor Adrian Fenty in 2007 to run his 50,000 student school system, even though her only real experience in education was three years in that Baltimore classroom.

To say the least, her style was “slash and burn.” How else do you explain someone who invites John Merrow of PBS to film you as you fire a principal? She was so controversial that the mayor lost his re-election in 2010 She resigned shortly afterwards.

Today the D.C. school system remains one of the worst in the country with scores far below those of Alabama schools–even though they have had charter schools since 1996 which we are told are the salvation for struggling systems.

What does Michelle Rhee have to do with Alabama? A good bit actually.

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After she left the nation’s capital, she started an organization named StudentsFirst, announcing on the Oprah Winfrey Show that she would get one million members and raise one billion dollars to change education across the nation.

While no one knows how much money this non-profit has raised since they do not reveal their donors and file no paperwork with the Alabama Secretary of State, we do know that some has been spent in Alabama. At least $200,000 was spent on political campaigns in 2014.

Senator Del March, the author of the Alabama Accountability Act, the charter school bill and the RAISE bill got $20,000. Rep. Terri Collins, who chairs the Education Policy Committee in the House, got $8,000. Charlotte Meadows of Montgomery, who now works for StudentsFirst and ran for the State House in 2013, got $20,000.

But the contribution that catches the eye is the $60,000 given to the Foundation for Accountability in Education. It is listed on the IRS 990 form filed by StudentsFirst for 2013-14.

This is a group set up by Senator Marsh to promote the benefits of the Alabama Accountability Act. They spent $18,000 on ads supporting AAA.

StudentsFirst has six lobbyists registered with the Alabama Ethics Commission. Three are registered out of Sacremento, CA and three are “contract” lobbyists. One of them is Josh Blades, former staffer for governor Bob Riley and former chief of staff for Speaker Mike Hubbard. Blades also lobbies for BCA.

Supposedly Rhee is no longer involved with StudentsFirst and runs a group of charter schools started by her husband in Sacramento, CA. However, the organization is still active.)

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From all indications StudentsFirst has been a major player in the development of the RAISE/Prep Act. I was watching APTV’s Capitol Journal when Senator Marsh said that he had been consulting with them.

All of which leaves us to ask: WHY?

Why is a group based in California with no recognizable ties to Alabama education even in the picture when it comes to setting policy for our children and our schools? Where is their dog in this fight?

What is their goal? Has anyone associated with the organization ever darkened the door of a school in Bayou La Batre or Bridgeport or anywhere in between?

Or did they just buy a seat at the table with campaign contributions?

Larry Lee led the study Lessons Learned from Rural Schools and is a longtime advocate for public education. [email protected]. Read his blog:

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