Teaching Profession

The Transparency Wars: AFT and StudentsFirst

By Stephen Sawchuk — August 29, 2011 1 min read
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And now an item for the “something to offend everybody” category!

Just when you think we’re all ready to move on from the AFT’s Randi Weingarten vs. (former) D.C. Chancellor Michelle Rhee narrative, Politico‘s Emily Schultheis reports that an anti-Rhee website was allegedly created on computers registered at the American Federation of Teachers headquarters.

Rhee’s fundraising group, StudentsFirst, which generally favors strong teacher evaluation and changes to pay and tenure, issued an affronted-sounding press release:

Unfortunately, this is just the latest report of an ostensibly organic, grassroots voice attacking reform proponents that has in fact turned out to be secretly backed by the teachers' unions. There are a number of disagreements between teacher-union advocates and student advocates about the future of our schools that deserve serious consideration, but there's no room for these kinds of personal and duplicitous attacks," spokeswoman Mafara Hobson said.

AFT’s counter-response isn’t a denial or conformation as much as it is a thrown gauntlet:

What's the big deal? RheeFirst.com has been up since March, tracking what Michelle Rhee has said, what she has done and how the media have covered her. All the studies and articles on RheeFirst.com are well sourced and documented. ... Much of this information can't be found on Michelle Rhee's official website, such as her work with Republican governors to promote vouchers and to dismantle public education, her failure to acknowledge the seriousness of the cheating that occurred on her watch in Washington, D.C., or countless other examples."

What should we make of these latest shots in the Transparency Wars? On the one hand, it is more than a little jarring to see AFT affiliate folks out there calling for more civility in the nation’s education debates, while endorsing these kinds of websites. The union has also been accused of trying to kill “parent-trigger” legislation while supporting parent involvement.

But, to be frank, Rhee’s advocacy group StudentsFirst isn’t exactly a paragon in the transparency department either. The group, which has set a fundraising goal of $1 billion in its first year, won’t release specifics on how much it’s raised toward that goal so far, or which groups have paid up. The group now counts 500,000 members, and a spokesperson told me that donations to the group average about $60 per donor. But not all members are donors, and so these figures end up telling us very little. Calling all Form 990s!

In her report, Schultheis points out that these exchanges illuminate the very personal disagreements between Rhee and Weingarten. Interesting, then, that both women have left their organizations vulnerable to a similar brand of criticism.

Correction: An earlier version of this blog incorrectly attributed the discovery of RheeFirst to Ben Smith. In fact, Politico reporter Emily Schultheis broke the news on Ben Smith’s blog.

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A version of this news article first appeared in the Teacher Beat blog.