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Michelle Rhee says StudentsFirst organization has 170,000 members in California


Michelle Rhee ~ Photo courtesy of Neighborhood Centers

Michelle Rhee ~ Photo courtesy of Neighborhood Centers

StudentsFirst, a new entrant on the California school reform landscape, has 170,000 members in California, according to its founder Michelle Rhee, the former Washington D.C. schools chief and wife of Sacramento Mayor Kevin Johnson.

“Week in and week out the largest number of membership gains we saw were from California,” she said in an interview last week.  “When we first hit 100,000 we finally said, ‘something is happening in California.’”  The numbers, she said, are growing “every single day.”

Rhee founded the organization over a year ago after her controversial stewardship of DC public schools came to an end in 2010 when then-Mayor Adrian Fenty, who had appointed her, lost his reelection bid. As she unabashedly explained at a StudentsFirst gathering in San Jose last Thursday attended by about 300 people, she became the DC public schools chief at the age of 37 despite never having been a principal of a school, let alone run a district.

Rhee said that 1.3 million people have signed up as members nationwide. What is still unclear is how active these members are, and the extent to which Rhee will be able to mobilize them. Currently, anyone can sign up to join StudentsFirst, and no membership fee is required.

The gathering in San Jose was the fifth and final event in Rhee’s “listening tour” of California. Each was conducted with Mayor Johnson as the master of ceremonies and with her daughters in the audience.

It was an unusual sight, to say the least: an Asian American former chancellor of the DC public schools and national media celebrity who appeared on the cover of Newsweek (in less than favorable terms) alongside a former basketball star who is also the first African American mayor of the capital of California, holding forth on the need for reform in California’s public schools.

Initially, there was speculation as to whether she would even be involved in California because of a widely-held view that the state is hostile to her agenda. . At the time she announced that her goal was to raise $1 billion for her reform efforts.

Rhee and her organization are promoting reforms such as changing the “first hired, first fired” system of teacher layoffs, linking teacher evaluations to student performance, and eliminating teacher tenure altogether. She is also pressing for more charter schools, and promoting parent “empowerment” laws such as California’s “parent trigger,” and taxpayer-funded vouchers for low income students to use at private or parochial schools. All of these, for a range of reasons, face a tough political climate at a local and state level in California, including opposition from the California Teachers Association, representing some 300,000 teachers.

“She seems to be all about privatizing public schools and scapegoating public employee unions, which is a very divisive agenda,” CTA president Dean E. Vogel said in a report this month on his organization’s website.

California has nonetheless emerged as a major focus of Rhee’s efforts. She indicated last week that she is ” bullish” on the chances for reform education in California.

Not reforming California, she said, is not an option. “We have to change California,” she said, pointing out that California educates 1 in 8 public school children in the United States. “We want to put America on a different trajectory, we can’t do that unless we fix the system in California.”

Equally importantly, she said, “We are not seeing the level of engagement from everyday constituents and members anywhere else in the country like we are in California.”

At the same time, she conceded, the environment in California for some of the reforms she is advocating is still unfavorable. Despite California now having almost 1,000 charter schools, she said the climate for charter school expansion in California was still “very difficult.”

She compared the situation here to the one she left in Washington D.C. where charter schools were given the same per pupil allotment as regular public school students, not slightly less as charter school advocates argue is the case in California. Every school received a “facilities allotment” of $3,000 per student. Charter schools were given the first right of refusal to occupy vacant government buildings.

“Pretty much the opposite is going on in California,” she said.

The same situation applies to her call for “robust and very high quality teacher evaluation systems” for California. “We have no way of knowing who the top 10 percent and bottom 10 percent of teachers are in California,” she said.

At the same time, she seemed to be trying to soften her “anti-teacher” image based on her years of battles with teachers and the wholesale firing of hundreds of teachers who had done poorly on the evaluation systems she had established.

Rather than doing evaluations to fire teachers, she said yesterday, they are needed to help focus the appropriate “professional development” depending on their skills and where they are professionally.

Accountability is important, and teachers should want to know how effective they are in getting gains in student performance. That information is important to have and to use. If we frame how it is going to be used punitively, it distracts us from the conversation that we really need to be having, that it is very valuable information for people to have to become better professionals.

During her presentation at San Jose City Hall last week, she described how in Washington D.C. she would be stopped by people in the street who would commiserate with her for having “the toughest job in the world.”  She would correct them to say that teachers have the toughest job in the world.

At the same time, she declined to state what items on her reform agenda she thinks have the best prospects for happening in California, or what issues her organization will take on first.

Now that her “listening tour” is over, she said, “”we’ll be gathering all our information and data, and say, OK, these are our priorities, these are what we are going to focus on first.”

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20 Responses to “Michelle Rhee says StudentsFirst organization has 170,000 members in California”

  1. CarolineSF said

    on March 24, 2012 at 11:22 am

    I vehemently challenge the veracity of Rhee’s claim about membership numbers. It’s dismaying that the press takes the claim at face value.

    Here’s a way Students First wins what it calls “supporters.” Students First posts petitions on change.org and Care2 with deceptive titles that make them appear to be pro-teacher and pro-public education, when they’re actually calling for eliminating seniority and job security.

    It’s free to post petitions on change.org and Care2, but if the petition-poster pays, the petitions can be presented to people who sign related (or related-seeming) petitions. That’s how change.org generates its income. I and many other advocates who strongly oppose the policies Rhee espouses (along with ALEC and other forces hostile to public education) have been caught off-guard and tricked into signing Rhee’s petitions — so now we’re listed among those “supporters.”

    Parents Across America has repeatedly complained to change.org about this deceit (from which change.org profits). The response has varied from “sorry, we take no responsibility” to “gosh, we’ll check into this!” (I’m paraphrasing in both cases), but nothing has changed. I’ve also tried working with a fellow local community advocate who’s on the advisory board of change.org and says he’s shocked to find out about this practice, but still, the practice continues.

    By the way, I now get Rhee petitions (again, with deceptive titles) sent to my e-mail inbox. I’m not clear if change.org also sells the e-mail contact information of signers of related petitions or if I get them because Rhee’s organization lists me as a supporter.

    • Caroline Grannan replied

      on March 27, 2012 at 3:36 pm

      By the way, I’ve noticed I’ve lately been receiving far-right political spam in personal gmail inbox. I just minutes ago got one from National Review calling for overturning Roe v. Wade. This does not reflect my political viewpoint, to put it mildly, so it’s hard to know how these organizations would have gotten my name. I’m wondering if this coincides with my getting spam from Rhee’s operation, and if Students First is sharing names with its fellow far-right organizations.

  2. Charley Cowens said

    on March 25, 2012 at 6:30 pm

    CarolineSF raises a great point. Would it have really killed you to ask her how she defined membership? “170,000 members in California” out of nowhere is a pretty audacious claim. Her website has a membership page that defines various levels of membership including a free membership that just collects an e-mail address: http://www.studentsfirst.org/pages/general-membership . It would be interesting to see an independent audit of the paid and non-paid “members” for Rhee’s non-profit organization.

    There is this other far more obscure national organization that claims — strangely enough — to also advocate for children, the PTA. They define membership as paid membership, not just giving up your e-mail address. (And, the members actually vote for officers and representatives all the way from the school level to, indirectly, the national level.)

  3. Bea said

    on March 26, 2012 at 7:31 am

    I have to echo these questions about EdSource simply repeating Rhee’s membership number claims. I happen to use a number of different email addresses for different purposes. I am 5 StudentsFirst members:
    Sign up to receive their emails? You’re a member.
    RSVP for a “listening” tour date? You’re a member (every event, another membership).
    Enter the 6 word essay contest to will an iPad? Member.
    Sign a Change.org petition for another cause? You’re a member.
    Respond to a survey about education? Congratulations! You’re a StudentsFirst member.

    As for that “listening” tour, all questions for Rhee had to be submitted in advance for screening. At dates all over the state, audience members heard questions aligned to the pre-determined ed reform platform. Not once did she address any issues of substance questioning her organization’s stance. I hope you stay with this story and shed some light on her true membership in California and her ed reform agenda. I strongly suspect she has little support here outside the CCSA and Senators Dutton and Huff.

  4. Wendy said

    on March 26, 2012 at 11:06 am

    My guess is that many of those “supporters” are people who’ve signed up to be sent information to keep an eye on what she is doing because they are against her agenda. Hopefully her one-note song will get old after a while.

    • Mary Rose replied

      on March 26, 2012 at 8:42 pm

      You’re right, Wendy. I’m one such “supporter.”

  5. Bob Harper said

    on March 26, 2012 at 7:12 pm

    220,000 signatures were gathered to support adult education in Los Angeles is just a few weeks in January and February. That goes unreported. 170,000 “supporters” are announced for Madame Rhee’s agenda to dismantle public education and that’s reported as an amazing accomplishment. In the public sphere the steering mechanisms of power which reward “approved” narratives continue to construct false logics of scarcity, failure and “accountability.” An unknown 170,000 get front page of EdSource. 220,000 real people with strong opinions are invisible. Which is the amazing fact?

  6. Lori Walton said

    on March 30, 2012 at 10:41 am

    I am very disappointed in this EdSource “report”. I have worked with a few EdSource folks and they have all been saavy education advocates. How they could simply post Rhee’s self serving self aggrandizing proclamations as any sort of unchecked facts undermines EdSource’s ability to be seen as relevant and honest in their education endeavors. Very unfortunate mishandling of a virulent personality whose only aim is to be famous, clearly, because she brings absolutely nothing to the table of increasing opportunity outcomes for our nation’s youth.

  7. TFT said

    on March 30, 2012 at 4:20 pm

    Michelle Rhee, as a teacher (for a total of 3 years) taped closed the mouths of her 1st graders. She tells the story now and laughs about it. Other teachers have been fired for that kind of thing.

    Kevin Johnson paid to settle a sexual harassment suit filed by a young woman/girl. Rhee has 2 young daughters.

    Michelle Rhee does not raise her own daughters–they live with their father in Tennessee (lucky for them it seems).

    Rhee is embroiled in an erasure scandal in DC and there are questions about the scores of her students when she was a teacher for 3 short years, one of them as a co-teacher.

    It’s nice to see a thread full of informed people, though! Good job citizens!

  8. Ben S. said

    on March 30, 2012 at 5:19 pm

    With Michelle Rhee’s clarion call for accountability in schools, I find it devastating that she herself won’t accept accountability and transparency for the school system she headed in DC. If you haven’t, read this article from The New York Times:

    http://www.nytimes.com/2011/08/22/education/22winerip.html?scp=2&sq=michelle%20rhee&st=cse

    Unfortunately, there’s a pattern. I think that media has to be very careful with the information that they are taking unquestioningly from Rhee. As the DC cheating scandal shows, the numbers can be easily and systematically distorted.

  9. Dave Russell said

    on March 31, 2012 at 5:34 pm

    Ms. Rhee, champions the American teacher. Her rallying cry is that the biggest factor contributing to the success of the failing student is having an excellent teacher in front of them for three years in a row. Ms. Rhee has swayed and effected laws in many states in the effort of insuring that only the best teachers are in front of kids. I think it is high time that we really crank this effort into high gear and make the schools the best they can be for all kids. The best way to do this is to set an example of how it should be done and use proven scientific methods to gather tangible data to prove the model’s integrity and truth. So, let’s all rally together and petition every state governor, every newspaper, every show host, every congressman, the President, Secretary Arne Duncan, our local school boards and every local and national union to let Ms. Rhee put her paradigm into action. And because of the huge legal and educational gains StudentsFirst and Ms. Rhee made in Florida, it only stands to reason that Florida should continue to be the model for the rest of the country. If you are tired of the excuses and want the best teachers in front of those poor and cheated kids, then please stand up for what is right and copy and paste this proposal to really put students first into a letter writing campaign. Don’t stop with only one letter, send hundreds to every organization and media person who can effect and forward the cause of StudentsFirst. It is time we mobilize against the ineffective teacher and truly put StudentsFirst.

    We, the supports of StudentsFirst, challenge you, the Governor of Florida, the Florida State Board of Education, and all your corporate supporters to the following challenge based on the premise that great teachers are the singularly most influential factor in determining a student’s success.

    1) Find a pool of the best elementary teachers in Miami based on whatever criteria you want to use to judge their effectiveness.

    2) Find the absolute worst performing school in the district.

    3) Two days before the start of the 2012 – 2013 school year, The State Board of Education mandates that the Miami School Board enact involuntary transfers such that every teacher in the low performing school be transferred out and replaced by a teacher from this high performing pool. None of the teachers affected will be notified prior to the transfer.

    4) Outside of the teacher staff change, nothing else changes. The funding, allocation of money & resources, administration, lunch programs, Title 1 allocations, transportation, technology, libraries, classroom materials, policies, professional development schedule, collaboration schedule, EVERYTHING stay’s EXACTLY the same as the day of the transfer. In essence, one teacher is plucked out of the existing system and another plopped right in the exact same slot of the same system.

    5) These operating parameters of the test school remain unchanged for 3 years.

    6) The measure goal is to within 3 years match Ms. Rhee’s stated success in Baltimore which is 90% of the students score in the 90th percentile or higher. (According to her resume, over a two-year period she moved students scoring on average at the 13th percentile on national standardized tests to 90 percent of students scoring at the 90th percentile or higher. Source: Wikipedia; Michelle Rhee)

    7) All high stakes State assessments will be proctored by an independent and impartial testing team selected by a panel of representatives from the Florida State Legislature, the NEA, and Student’s First. All materials will be under the constant control and supervision of the proctors. Teachers will not be present while students take the exams.

    8) Mr. Gates or other reform minded benefactors, puts into escrow sufficient funds equivalent to making up the difference between the current salaries of the teaching staff and $125,000.00 per year per teacher year over the 3 year experiment period.

    9) If the goals laid out in 6 are met, the staff gets the cash and the program continues. If the goals laid out in 6 are not met, the teachers are deemed low performing and are summarily fired as non-re-elect.

    Thank you,

    A concerned citizen

    I believe this scenario sums up all the salient talking points of SF’s school reform agenda which is primarily that the ONLY influence on student success is the teacher in the front of the room – everything else can be countered by that teacher. This challenge offers the opportunity to create a case study to prove or disprove your claim. Easy!

    • Phill replied

      on April 8, 2012 at 10:41 pm

      It has already been done, and it failed.

    • CarolineSF replied

      on April 11, 2012 at 10:58 pm

      It has already been thoroughly established that Rhee made up that claim on her resume.

  10. sphone said

    on March 31, 2012 at 5:45 pm

    Whether or not SF actually has 170,000 members in Califonia, Rhee’s priority is clear – breaking the CTA and CFT and instituting parent trigger and charter school legislation all over the state of California.

    While we certainly need school reform from preschool all the way up to the UC, Rhee’s association Scott Walker suggest she’s perfectly willing to shill for union-busting qua union-busting while screaming “won’t someone PLEASE, THINK OF THE CHILDREN?!”

    http://www.dailykos.com/story/2011/03/07/953100/-Michelle-Rhee-supports-many-of-Scott-Walker-s-anti-teacher-measures

    Add to that the criticism CFT is getting for ignoring its student activist allies and membership and caving on the Millionaires’ Tax to Gov. Brown and the Democrats, and we have a serious problem.

    If (God forbid) StudentsFirst does take off in California, CFT and CTA and unionized public service workers in general will be on the defensive just like when Schwarzenegger was governor.

    Labor will spend money on beating propositions rather than putting progressive policies and officeholders where they need to be, and the understandable criticism of CCPOA and CFT will be used like an albatross to sink working families in this state.

    We’ve got to stick together, and admit where we’ve fucked up – and then be aggressive about protecting the political power and policy wins we have. Otherwise, Rhee, empowered by people like Gloria Romero and duping groups like Parent Revolution, will cripple our teachers and hurt our schools.

    • Cindy replied

      on May 30, 2012 at 4:13 pm

      If this is the goal count me in. Unions needs should not be a priority when our children are being failed. The failed students escorted into the juvenile system via expulsion and suspensions. This is to insure the powerful prison union has a steady stream of new customers.

      • Marilyn replied

        on April 3, 2013 at 10:03 pm

        “Children are being failed”? If anyone is promoting failure, it’s the parents who expect teachers to bring up their children. Let’s put the blame where it belongs.

  11. Ryan said

    on March 31, 2012 at 6:06 pm

    Somehow I ended up on her email list for this organization. I think there are a significant amount of us who are a part of the 170,000 and do not support the organization. As a veteran educator I find some of Ms. Rhee’s goals to be in fact anti-student. I do not support the Students First organization, so please don’t count me as a supporter. I believe that experience in a highly professional field such as teaching is extremely valuable. I liken it to the fact that most people would choose an experienced surgeon over a first year surgeon before undergoing an operation. Teaching is a very important skill that takes years to develop and perfect. If you don’t respect teachers, how can you respect students? If you don’t respect parents, how can you respect children?

  12. Phill said

    on April 8, 2012 at 10:43 pm

    Michelle Rhee only needs two members to keep her organization running, and she has them–Eli Broad and Bill Gates.

  13. Navigio said

    on July 3, 2012 at 3:54 pm

    I am a ‘member’ of students first and I could not disagree more with rhee’s policies. In fact I was probably one of the first to ‘sign up’…even before their website had any information on what their policies would actually be. I know people who not only signed up but even donated money only later to find out what she really stands for. Even had I known I would have signed up a la the motto, ‘know thine enemy.’ I probably also have multiple email addresses registered with them. So I know better than to put much credence into numbers she cites (let alone anything else she says). 

    Regardless, I cannot discount her ability to do something, even in this state. She is still a Democrat (at least on paper),  her husband is mayor of our Capitol, and if there is one thing she is good at it’s public speaking. But most importantly, one side effect of her policies will be to de-professionalize the teaching profession thereby reducing the financial ‘burden’ of public education on taxpayers (at the expense of kids of course). That will be extremely enticing for our legislators given the severe budget crunch we are in and the fact they’ve already proven they are willing to throw kids under the bus in the name of balancing the budget. 

    Oh, and charter schools probably even get more funding if you take special Ed encroachment into account. 

  14. Jean McKay in San Jose said

    on January 29, 2013 at 4:01 pm

    GET HER OUT OF HERE. She is dangerous, misguided, harmful to our Students, et. al.
    She scared me when she was 3000 mi. away and now she’s here? This is terrible news.

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