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Advocacy Group StudentsFirst Downsizes in California, Merges with Group in Nation’s Capital

April 4, 2016

The Los Angeles Times, the Sacramento Bee and other news organizations report last week that Sacramento-based StudentsFirst – an advocacy group launched by former Washington DC schools chief Michelle Rhee in 2010 – is downsizing its staff in Sacramento and merging with the Washington DC advocacy group 50Can.

On March 29, the Los Angeles Times reported that:

Some of StudentsFirst’s remaining chapters will be absorbed into 50Can, which has similar goals. The most well-known objective of Rhee’s group was to become a counterweight to teachers unions. StudentsFirst expects to cut its staff significantly but will maintain a small presence in its national office. Jim Blew, the group’s president, confirmed the news.

Blew will step aside from the national organization, and the merged group will be called 50Can, though each group’s local offices will retain their own names. Blew will lead StudentsFirst California, the merged group’s state presence, and will focus on litigation and issues such as school accountability. The combined group will be led by 50Can Chief Executive Marc Porter Magee.

Blew said the move makes sense because with the passage of the Every Student Succeeds Act, the replacement of the No Child Left Behind Act, state legislatures are crucial in determining the future of education in America. StudentsFirst, Blew said, is stronger on the lobbying side, and 50Can is stronger in advocacy.

Rhee’s group launched on Oprah Winfrey’s talk show in 2010, with the goal of raising $1 billion dollars in its first year. The goal was then revised to $1 billion over five years; in its first year, it brought in only $7.6 million. It set up shop in Sacramento, where Rhee’s husband, Kevin Johnson, is mayor.

After StudentsFirst’s launch, it stepped into the fray in many state legislatures that were rewriting their laws around teaching. It took credit for changing more than 100 education laws, and backed candidates at different levels through political action committees.

In summer 2014, Rhee announced she was stepping down as chief executive officer and moved into a position on the board. She also became the board chair of St. Hope Public Schools, Johnson’s charter school chain, and joined the board of Scotts Miracle-Gro. The group then downsized, and shut down its chapters in several states.

Most recently, StudentsFirst has kept a low profile. Blew, who had worked for the Walton Family Foundation, took over as its president in the fall of 2014. Between December 2014 and now, Blew downsized the Sacramento office staff from 60 to 20. For now, Blew said, the group will keep its current Sacramento office, at least until the end of its lease, but, he said, "we won’t need a big office in Sacramento moving forward, but we will need a small office."

Source:  Los Angeles Times

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