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New player jumps into state elections to push education overhaul

A dozen states are poised to pass significant education reforms this year, depending on the outcome of next week’s election. State-level candidates in many of them want to abolish teacher tenure and tie teacher evaluations to student tests. On the ground trying to make sure they win is a new organization, StudentsFirst, founded by former Washington D.C. Schools Chancellor Michelle Rhee.

The group has infused cash and organizing into races in states such as California, Iowa and Michigan, where teachers unions have historically dominated politics and enshrined such policies as tenure and pay based on seniority in state law. StudentsFirst  hopes to undercut unions’ power and remove many of the labor protections that unions support.  

The 2012 election is the group’s first real test. In Missouri, another state on the brink of wide-scale changes in education, StudentsFirst has poured more than $100,000 into campaigns since the primaries and recruited more than 40,000 members to push for the election of 21 candidates it has endorsed. Nationwide, the group has spent hundreds of thousands of dollars in primary and general elections.

Due to the reputation of its founder as a tough and unapologetic enemy of unions, StudentsFirst has the highest profile among a small number of similar groups, including Stand for Children and Democrats for Education Reform, that have emerged in the last few years to fight policies typically supported by unions. Most recently, New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg announced he had formed a super PAC to back candidates that support, among other things, the education reforms he has pushed in New York, including expansion of school choice.

“Typically if you voted for school reform, you came under the wrath of the protectors of the status quo,” said Tim Melton, the StudentsFirst legislative director, referring to the unions. “[We’re a] new group that lets people know if they want to take some of those tough votes, someone’s going to stand with them.”

For years, the unions have dominated the political landscape on education. They are often  major campaign donors and organizers for candidates that they endorse. The rise of outside groups eager to influence education policy corresponds with a growing number of candidates who are paying attention to the issue. In recent years, nearly every state in the country has passed some sort of significant education reform bill. They have changed curriculum standards, expanded charter schools or revamped teacher evaluations.

“When you look at education, it hasn’t been something that has been a political dynamo issue for candidates to run on,” Melton said. “You just now see in the last three years a major shift.”

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StudentsFirst came to Missouri in January after being approached by both Democratic and Republican members of the state Legislature. It worked to get a charter school bill passed, but fell short on a bill that would reform Missouri’s teacher tenure law. The legislation would have extended the time before a teacher can receive tenure from five years to 10. It passed narrowly in the House, but failed in the Senate. Union officials say five years is more than enough time to weed out low-performing teachers.

StudentsFirst plans on returning to the issue after the election is over, and Melton is hopeful the numbers will be on his side this time. “It could be one or two members in a chamber that could make a significant difference,” Melton said.

The Missouri National Education Association (MNEA) and StudentsFirst have endorsed opposing candidates in eight races, including the race for lieutenant governor, and the same candidate in five. Chris Guinther, MNEA president, stressed that the union did not pay attention to the StudentsFirst endorsements. Her organization does its own independent selection process, she said.

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But she is unhappy about the presence of StudentsFirst in state politics. “I would hope the Missouri legislators are willing to listen to those who work in our public schools every day rather than someone who flies in from California,” she said. “Who in public education, who in service to our children doesn’t put students first?”

The Missouri Association of Teachers has found even less common ground with StudentsFirst. The union supports only one candidate that StudentsFirst also endorsed. In an open letter on its website, the association said the campaign of any candidate that takes StudentFirst money will be considered “anti-public education.”

Melton said he was unaware of the letter. “They represent their members, we represent the interest of students. I would hope that we can find [joint interest],” he said. “You can give them my phone number if they actually want to have a real conversation about that.”

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Whether StudentsFirst will have the impact it’s hoping for, however, remains to be seen. Only 10 of 17 candidates the group endorsed in Missouri’s primary elections last spring won.

StudentsFirst could gain as much power as the unions, eventually, said Mike Antonucci, director of the Education Intelligence Agency, a group that monitors teachers unions. That won’t happen any time soon though, he said. The unions have a built-in organizational structure that others have yet to match.

Teachers' unions push to get educators elected

“It looks to me like StudentsFirst has money; they don’t have the organization,” said Antonucci. “If you’re going to compete with [the unions], you have to have both.”

Nov. 6 will provide the first clues as to whether StudentsFirst is likely to be a true player in state elections.

“Part of what we perceive to be their influence will actually be determined next Tuesday,” Guinther said, noting that her group was braced to have a tenure debate again. “I’m sure they’ll be back.”

This story,"New player in education jumps into state races," was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, nonpartisan education-news outlet based at Teachers College, Columbia University.

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