Michelle Rhee’s high profile StudentsFirst, a Sacramento-based education group, has announced it will be merging with education advocacy group 50Can. Jim Blew, the current president of StudentsFirst, confirmed the merger today.
StudentsFirst has had a variety of objectives since Rhee launched it on Oprah Winfrey’s talk show in 2010. The most well-known—and contentious—of these goals has been to be a counterweight to teachers’ unions. In addition, StudentsFirst has promoted education reforms like evaluating teachers by their students’ standardized test scores, charter schools, and mayoral control of schools.
A former Washington, D.C. school chancellor, Rhee’s own reputation both helped and hindered the organization. Rhee garnered a lot of attention for her work as chief of schools—including some negative press over the firing of a principal on camera. Rhee’s financial goals with the organization have been challenging, too: She originally set a goal of raising $1 billion in the first year—a goal that was later revised to $1 billion over five years (StudentsFirst only raised $7.6 million in its first year).
StudentsFirst also hit some turbulence over its continuing internal struggle with the definition of education reform. Some criticize the organization for being too narrow-minded in its interpretation of reform, and there have been a variety of internal tiffs over whether or not to support unions and right-to-work laws, leading many Democrat staff members to leave the organization.
Still, StudentsFirst has changed more than 100 education laws, including backing candidates at different levels through political action committees.
Now, says Blew, the combined organization offers the best chance for both to make a difference. With the passage of the Every Student Succeeds Act, which replaces the No Child Left Behind Act, state legislatures have become even more crucial in determining education practices. The combined organization, which will act under the name 50Can and will be run by 50Can Chief Executive Marc Porter Magee, will combine the strengths of StudentsFirst (lobbying) and 50Can (advocacy).
“We should be thinking every day about how to get better and stronger,” Blew said. “We need to always assure our donors that we’re using their money as effectively as possible. We’re completely dependent on these donors.”