Public Education Advocacy and Donor Secrecy

By Seth Sandronsky

Michelle Rhee helms Students First, a nonprofit tax-exempt public education reform group begun in 2010, that operates in 34 states now. She is a former teacher with Teach for America and chancellor of the Washington, D.C., public schools.

Heading up Students First from Sacramento, Calif., Rhee’s group advocates a slate of reforms. They range from expanding the use of student tests with high-stakes scores, upending teacher tenure laws, establishing teacher merit pay to increasing publicly-funded charter and online schools.

The annual math and reading test scores of public school students as the measure of their classroom achievement looms large in the education reform agenda of Students First. The group aims to split public school teachers from the young people they instruct and their families.

Rhee’s organization blames public school teachers and their labor unions for a lack of accountability to parents and students. While the nation’s public schools try to educate all youth, from those officially poor to scores of others whose families barely make ends meet in a weak economic recovery, the teacher accountability narrative of Students First sidesteps concrete facts of inequality and poverty that could shed much light on what ails public education.

At the same time, Students First raises funds in secrecy, the opposite of transparency. For its political work, Students First raised $4.6 million in 2010-2011 via its 501(c)(4) nonprofit activities, according to the Form 990 the group filed with the Internal Revenue Service for the tax year ending July 31, 2011. Further, the group raised $2.98 million for its tax-exempt 501(c)(3) for the same tax-year.

A main difference between the two types of tax-exempt nonprofits is this. The IRS allows 501(c)(4) groups to engage in political activity such as lobbying: “Seeking legislation germane to the organization’s programs (as) a permissible means of attaining social welfare purposes.”

Donor names of both nonprofits for Students First are secret, as the group’s goal is to raise $1 billion in five years (a thousand million dollars) that will not come from the 99%. Times have never been better for the super-rich, thanks to the growing trend of national income flowing from wages to profits under Democratic and Republican presidents and congresspersons, due in no small part to the decline of private-sector unions and taxpayer bailout of Wall Street after the 2008 financial meltdown.

Rhee’s Students First 501(c)(4) resembles that of GOP strategist and political operative Karl Rove. His Crossroads Grassroots Policy Strategies is also a 501(c)(4) nonprofit “social welfare” outfit.

IRS policy permits donor secrecy for Rhee’s, Rove’s and President Obama’s 501(c)(4), Priorities USA. Thus such groups exist in the shadows.

In the Sunshine State, Rhee and Students First have worked with former GOP Gov. Jeb Bush to enact the “Parent Empowerment in Education” that would if it had passed the state Legislature have facilitated the growth of charter schools, where labor unions and collective bargaining is scant, with replacements of at-will employees. Also backing this bill with Students First was the Florida Chamber of Commerce, Associated Industries of Florida, Hispanic Council for Reform and Educational Options.

But parents and other Floridians organized to defeat this bill. Fund Education Now!, the Florida Parent Teachers Association and League of Women Voters battled against the “Parent Empowerment in Education” bill, successfully.

In a commentary for the Palm Beach Post, Kathleen Oropeza of Fund Education Now! wrote: “Not one legitimate parent group has asked for “parent-trigger” legislation. We do not support this corporate empowerment bill that uses parents’ love to “pull the trigger” and pass all that they hold dear into the hands of a for-profit corporation eager to peel off a chunk of every child’s per-pupil funding money for itself.”

In California, Students First gave $400,000 to Brian Johnson, a Democrat, who formerly ran Larchmont Charter Schools, in his failed campaign bid for a seat in the state Assembly district to represent San Fernando Valley. (Kevin Johnson, Rhee’s husband and mayor of Sacramento, is not related to Brian Johnson.)

More recently, Students First lobbied California lawmakers for “real, high quality teacher evaluations,” Rhee’s vice president of legislative affairs, Tim Melton, wrote in a message to the group’s e-list. Rhee’s group wants pupils’ test scores to be the main measure of the teacher evaluation process versus other metrics such as parent and community evaluations to gauge the effectiveness of classroom learning and teaching.

Opposing Rhee’s group is the California Teachers Association, 325,000-members strong, that sought a teacher evaluation process subject to collective bargaining involving many interests, including local school boards. At the end of its two-year session on Aug. 31, state politicos tabled this teacher evaluation bill until the next session.

Seeing the private donors to Students First may get a bit easier. In mid-July, the IRS announced that it would review its tax policy for tax-exempt nonprofits.

Donor transparency would go a long way towards moving Students First out of the shadows and onto the public’s radar screen. Sunlight boosts political democracy.

Seth Sandronsky lives and writes in Sacramento, Calif. Email sethsandronsky@

From The Progressive Populist, October 1, 2012

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