(Corrects paragraph 2 to "growth" instead of "scores";
paragraph 11 to remove "later" as one can opt out at signing,
and to show Change.org did not pull Rhee's online petitions but
has said it will wind down the relationship once their contract
By Stephanie Simon
June 25 The national education reform group
StudentsFirst, which has set out to transform U.S. schools by
introducing more free-market principles to public education,
raised $7.6 million in its first nine months - and spent nearly
a quarter of it on advertising - according to partial tax
records released on Monday.
Michelle Rhee, the former chancellor of the Washington, D.C.
public schools, launched StudentsFirst in the fall of 2010 with
the stated goal of raising $1 billion over five years. Among the
reforms it advocates: abolishing teacher tenure; permitting more
teachers without formal education training to take charge of
classrooms; evaluating teachers in large measure by their
students' growth on standardized tests; and expanding charter
schools, which are publicly funded but typically run by private
corporations, including for-profit management firms.
Rhee has pressed her agenda in states from Connecticut to
Alabama to Michigan, spending millions on TV and radio ads,
public rallies and lobbying as well as campaign donations for
In each state, Rhee has drawn ferocious opposition from
teachers unions, which say her policy prescriptions have not
been shown to improve student learning.
Rhee, a political lightning rod since she closed scores of
schools and laid off hundreds of teachers during her tenure in
Washington, has refused to discuss her funding or her donors.
The IRS forms released by her organization on Monday cover only
the first several months of her work, through July 31, 2011.
Updated filings are not expected until the end of the year,
though Reuters has confirmed that recent donors include New York
Mayor Michael Bloomberg and hedge fund managers David Tepper and
Alan Fournier, who have pledged substantial resources to a
StudentsFirst partner organization in New Jersey.
The Laura and John Arnold Foundation, funded by hedge fund
manager John Arnold, has also pledged $20 million to Rhee's
organization over five years, a donation that does not appear to
be reflected in the IRS forms released on Monday.
The IRS forms do not detail Rhee's spending, except for a
previously undisclosed donation of $100,000 to Partnership for
Ohio's Future, a campaign run by the state's Chamber of Commerce
to push for passage of Republican Governor John Kasich's 2011
budget. That budget, which passed and was implemented, included
deep cuts to public education funding. Separately, Kasich pushed
for restrictions on public-sector unions, including teachers
unions; Rhee did not support that bill.
Rhee's critics, led by teachers unions, have criticized her
for working closely with Republican governors who have slashed
education funding, including Kasich, Michigan's Rick Snyder and
Florida's Rick Scott. Rhee responds that schools don't
necessarily need more resources; they need to spend what they
have more wisely. Among her prescriptions: eliminating the union
contract provisions that protect the most veteran - and often
the highest-paid - teachers from layoffs. Instead, Rhee argues
that pink slips should go first to the least effective teachers
- as determined, in large measure, by students' scores on
WINING AND DINING
The tax forms show that Rhee was paid $62,500 for nine
months of work as the chief executive officer of StudentsFirst,
which is organized as a political advocacy organization, and the
affiliated StudentsFirst Institute, which focuses on public
education. She also travels the country giving lectures, some of
which bring her as much as $35,000 in speaking fees.
Other expenses documented in the IRS forms include $1.7
million in advertising and promotion, more than $100,000 for
public opinion research and $337,000 to develop lists of
potential donors and members.
Rhee has recruited many of her more than 1 million members
through online petitions, which call for widely popular policies
such as putting an excellent teacher in every classroom. People
who sign the petitions become members unless they opt out. Last
week the liberal website Change.org, under pressure from union
backers who consider Rhee's group anti-union, said it would wind
down its relationship with StudentsFirst once their contract
ends in several months.
While Rhee's more recent spending is not documented, Reuters
has tracked about $3 million in advocacy expenditures since last
fall, much of it funneled through StudentsFirst's network of
political action committees. Among the line items: $790,000 on
advertising and lobbying in Connecticut; $6,700 to wine and dine
lawmakers in Missouri; and $120,000 in donations to candidates
and political caucuses in Tennessee.
In Michigan, StudentsFirst spent $955,000 last fall to lobby
state lawmakers for an education package that included
evaluating teachers primarily by student test scores and
restricting union bargaining rights, so issues like the new
evaluation system would not be subject to negotiation. (The
reforms were passed by the legislature.) In California this
spring the organization spent $770,000 to back two Democratic
candidates in primary races for state Assembly seats; one won,
the other fell just short.
Last week, Rhee joined more than a dozen other education and
business advocates with similar agendas in asking the teachers
unions to work with them, rather than fighting them, on school
overhaul bills in several states. Randi Weingarten, president of
the American Federation of Teachers, took to Twitter to
repeatedly dismiss the pitch for cooperation as a
Nancy Zuckerbrod, a spokeswoman for StudentsFirst, said the
organization could not match the resources of the teachers
unions, which have spent $150 million on state politics and
lobbying since 2008. "However, we have raised enough through our
grassroots and fundraising efforts to be competitive and make a
major difference in reforming our nation's education system,"
(Editing by Douglas Royalty)