Michelle Rhee is back. Rhee’s grassroots organization, StudentsFirst, metaphorically descended on the state capitol in Alabama last month, ready to persuade state legislators to reform K12 education. With more than one million members, including parents, grandparents, teachers, principals and policy makers, StudentsFirst advocates for education reforms, via state or federal legislation and policies, that will improve student achievement.
“The wind seems to be at our backs now,” says Tim Melton, StudentsFirst’s vice president of legislative affairs and a former Michigan state representative. “We’re starting to see a majority of the states moving in that direction. Over the last two or three weeks, several governors have taken this head-on. Connecticut Gov. Dannel Malloy, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, and Washington Gov. Chris Gregoire are realizing this is the right thing to do. We feel it’s certainly sweeping the nation and public opinion is behind it. It’s almost at the tipping point that this is the norm, not the reform anymore.”
50 Policies in Seven States
The focus of the nonprofit, which was created by Rhee in December 2010, is to empower parents, create meaningful teacher evaluations tied to student growth and achievement, and provide quality public school choices. Rhee, chancellor of the District of Columbia Public Schools from 2007 to 2010 and founder of The New Teacher Project, stated in a member conference call last December that in one year of operation, the group helped create 50 legislative policies in seven states that “empower parents, ensure accountability, and elevate good teachers.”
The group now is working on policy or legislative changes in 10 states, including Alabama, California, Florida, Michigan, Minnesota and Iowa. For example, StudentsFirst pushed for teacher-tenure reform legislation in Michigan. Last July, Mich. Gov. Rick Snyder signed a law that ends the “last in, first out” practice through which districts make staffing decisions based solely on seniority, in favor of a new system that requires administrators to consider demonstrated effectiveness in the classroom. Melton describes StudentsFirst members as “real, everyday people, who are highly motivated and highly active.”
StudentsFirst started focusing on Alabama in part because the state is one of 10 in the nation that doesn’t allow public charter schools. “We believe highly successful charter schools are great,” says Nancy Zuckerbrod, StudentsFirst spokesperson, adding that this is especially the case for parents who don’t have many choices for sending their children to school. Aside from allowing charters, Melton says that Alabama should establish “consistent and easy-to-read school report cards so parents have accurate information about their child’s school and how it compares to other school options.”
Rhee wants StudentsFirst members to help grow the movement by involving more people; organizing and driving reform in communities, in part by raising awareness at school meetings or contacting legislators; and voting in local school elections.