Michelle Rhee’s StudentsFirst Powers Down Five State Affiliates, Including Fla.

By Andrew Ujifusa — July 14, 2014 3 min read
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StudentsFirst, the advocacy group founded by former District of Columbia schools Chancellor Michelle Rhee, has expanded at a steady pace into many states over the last few years, but the group has confirmed over the last week that it’s ending the work of paid staff in five states: Florida, Iowa, Indiana, Maine, and Minnesota.

In Florida, as reported by Travis Pillow at RedefinED on July 7, StudentsFirst will maintain only a “nominal presence,” while pulling the plug on its core policy work. Then on July 9, the Minneapolis Star-Tribune reported a similar situation in Minnesota—StudentsFirst’s state affiliate will no longer maintain a paid staff there.

The reasons for these decisions can vary from state to state, however.

Indeed, Florida seems to have done well enough in meeting StudentsFirst’s policy priorities that the group no longer considers the state in dire need of its attention, according to Pillow’s report. As I wrote at the start of 2014, while no state has received an A grade from the group in the two years that StudentsFirst has issued its state policy report card, Florida (along with Louisiana) received a B last year, the highest overall grade given out.

In Minnesota, meanwhile, the director of the group’s state affiliate, Kathy Saltzman, indicated that the “continually changing legislative climate” in the state led the group to end its core operations there. (Saltzman said the group would continue to be active in the state through its members, despite the lack of paid staff.)

In an interview, a spokesman for StudentsFirst, Francisco Castillo, said scaling back the group in five states will allow for the organization to focus on other states, and that the number of staff affected was small compared to the overall size of the organization. He said that the group didn’t see any more state affiliates closing or scaling back in the near future, and that the group is planning to expand the number of staff working in Alabama and Georgia.

‘We have to look at opportunities to make a positive impact in other states,” Castillo said, even though, he added, the group will continue to try to help activists in the five aforementioned states.

Overall, the organization has about 110 employees. And if you exclude the five states I’ve just discussed, StudentsFirst is officially active in 13 states, according to the group’s website.

I’ve written before about the organization’s campaign contributions in state elections. Thanks to the excellent National Institute on Money in State Politics, we can now look at a broader history of StudentsFirst’s political contributions that include the 2014 election cycle.

Just to clarify, the institute actually lists StudentsFirst as a contributor three different times—once as a group in California, where StudentsFirst is headquartered, once as a group in New York, and once as a group in Tennessee (the group has affiliates in the latter two states). Between those three listings, the institute says StudentsFirst distributed about $5.3 million since the group was founded in 2011.

Since donations under that StudentsFirst listing for California went to multiple states for a total of $4.7 million, let’s look at the breakdown:

You can see that just under $4.3 million of the group’s donations don’t have a partisan label. That’s because those contributions have gone to political action committees, ballot measure committees, and party committees, not candidates. Of those contributions, by far the largest, $2 million, have gone to StudentsFirst’s own “super PAC” called Parents and Teachers for Putting StudentsFirst.

In the 2014 cycle, meanwhile, the four largest contributions to individual candidates have gone to Moises Denis and Justin Jones, two Democrats who received $10,000 each; Ben Kieckhefer, a Republican ($10,000); and Michael Roberson, a Republican ($9,000). What do all four of those candidates have in common? All four are Nevada state legislators, and all four are incumbents.

Castillo said Nevada represents a good opportunity for StudentsFirst because of the willingness for the Democratic legislature and GOP Gov. Brian Sandoval to cooperate on education issues. Georgia is also a state where StudentsFirst has made a large volume of contributions to candidates, according to the institute. (The group also has a list of its endorsed candidates for the 2014 cycle.)

Michelle Rhee has discussed her self-identification as a Democrat as well as her differences with the party on education issues. But as the Star-Tribune highlights, GOP state legislators can be StudentsFirst’s more natural allies.

A version of this news article first appeared in the State EdWatch blog.