Just several years after its glitzy launch, StudentsFirst, the Sacramento-based education group started by former Washington, D.C., schools chancellor Michelle Rhee, is merging with another education advocacy organization, 50Can.
Some of StudentsFirst's remaining chapters will be absorbed into 50Can, which has similar goals. The most well-known objective of Rhee's group was to become a counterweight to teachers unions. StudentsFirst expects to cut its staff significantly but will maintain a small presence in its national office. Jim Blew, the group's president, confirmed the news Tuesday morning.
“The cause goes on, we are moving ahead and we have a lot to do in the next several years,” Blew said.
Blew will step aside from the national organization, and the merged group will be called 50Can, though each group's local offices will retain their own names. Blew will lead StudentsFirst California, the merged group's state presence, and will focus on litigation and issues such as school accountability. The combined group will be led by 50Can Chief Executive Marc Porter Magee.
Blew said the move makes sense because with the passage of the Every Student Succeeds Act, the replacement of the No Child Left Behind Act, state legislatures are crucial in determining the future of education in America. StudentsFirst, Blew said, is stronger on the lobbying side, and 50Can is stronger in advocacy.
Rhee's group launched on Oprah Winfrey’s talk show in 2010, with the goal of raising $1 billion dollars in its first year. The goal was then revised to $1 billion over five years; in its first year, it brought in only $7.6 million. It set up shop in Sacramento, where Rhee’s husband, Kevin Johnson, is mayor.
The organization promoted a menu of issues that came to be known as the education reform movement: evaluating teachers partially by their students’ standardized test scores; charter schools; and mayoral control of schools. The organization took off as Rhee absorbed the national spotlight for her tenure as D.C.’s schools chief, where she made enemies for moves including firing a principal on camera.
After StudentsFirst's launch, it stepped into the fray in many state legislatures that were rewriting their laws around teaching. It took credit for changing more than 100 education laws, and backed candidates at different levels through political action committees.
Early on, Rhee faced criticism for not disclosing her donors. StudentsFirst was often criticized for interpreting the idea of education reform too narrowly. Internal tiffs over whether to support unions in a fight over right-to-work laws led to the departure of a few high-profile Democrats. In 2012, the group hired Kahlil Byrd as its first president; he left the job in 2013, as did many other staffers.
In summer 2014, Rhee announced she was stepping down as chief executive officer and moved into a position on the board. She also became the board chair of St. Hope Public Schools, Johnson’s charter school chain, and joined the board of Scotts Miracle-Gro. The group then downsized, and shut down its chapters in several states.
Most recently, StudentsFirst has kept a low profile. Blew, who had worked for the Walton Family Foundation, took over as its president in the fall of 2014. Between December 2014 and now, Blew downsized the Sacramento office staff from 60 to 20. For now, Blew said, the group will keep its current Sacramento office, at least until the end of its lease, but, he said, "we won't need a big office in Sacramento moving forward, but we will need a small office."
In California, a staffer recently gave public comment on school accountability at a State Board of Education meeting. The group has remained somewhat active in several states. In Tennessee, for example, the group lauded the passage of a bill that would assign schools A-F grades.
"We should be thinking every day about how to get better and stronger," Blew said. "We need to always assure our donors that we’re using their money as effectively as possible. We’re completely dependent on these donors." He said Rhee expects to stay involved in whatever capacity the merged group wants.
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