Putting Education Reform To The Test

StudentsFirst Organizer Defends Giving Gift Cards To Online Commenters

Joe Raedle / Getty Images News

StudentsFirst founder Michelle Rhee has advised Gov. Rick Scott. StudentsFirst recently sent out an email offering gift cards to Florida supporters who comment on online education stories.


That’s how regional StudentsFirst organizer Catherine Robinson felt when an email she sent to a small group of supporters wound up published on education blogs.

The email announced a contest awarding gift cards for the best comments left on online education stories. (Two StateImpact Florida stories were among included links).

Robinson says the $5 gift cards were a small tribute of thanks to hard-working volunteers. The gift cards were not a pay-off designed to impersonate a groundswell of public support for StudentsFirst ideas, she says.

“I thought it was sad. It broke my heart,” Robinson said of seeing her email posted to a handful of education blogs. “I thought it might be nice to recognize that (volunteer effort)…It’s not much of a reward.”

Led by former Washington, D.C. schools chancellor Michelle Rhee, StudentsFirst is a potent political and policy force in education.  The group is critical of teacher’s unions, and generally favors better teacher training, test-based evaluations and expanded school choice, including charter schools.

The group has been tight-lipped about donors, though some contributors have been revealed in state-required disclosures.

Rhee is also an adviser to Gov. Rick Scott.

Earlier this year, StudentsFirst asked Florida lawmakers to approve a bill which included a parent trigger.

The parent trigger allows the majority of parents at a chronically failing school to choose how to restructure the school. The options include firing some or all of the staff, converting to a charter school or closing the school.

Parents at a California school are trying to use the law for the first time. The bill failed in Florida by one vote on the legislative session’s final day.

The parent trigger bill galvanized a coalition of Florida activist groups, including the PTA.

Many of those same activists were quick to criticize StudentsFirst’s gift card offer. Robinson called it “organized and well-funded hatred.”

“It’s simply dishonest and unethical to bribe people to pose as supporters,” Caroline Grannan wrote in response. “It’s fair and legitimate for those of us who support public education to expose that trickery; it’s not hatred, character assassination, vitriol or nastiness (let alone “well-funded”).

“Bluster and contrived outrage aren’t an effective response.”

StudentsFirst claims 119,000 supporters in Florida, though critics question those figures.

Robinson said the Florida chapter is still working on an agenda. She is travelling the state meeting with supporters and listening to their issues.

The online spat highlights a rift among those on the political left over education.

Rhee and StudentsFirst are aggressively trying to upend the current system, which they say fails too many students and protects bad teachers. Critics argue StudentsFirst denigrates teachers and that research does not show their policies are effective.

Robinson said she has long worked on liberal and Democratic Party causes. Many of the people criticizing StudentsFirst’s efforts are from the same end of the political spectrum, she said.

“This is very, very personal. I’m a PTA mom,” she said. “I find it very hard that we can’t agree.

“Now that I’ve decided to advocate for students,” she said, “they’ve rallied against me.”


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