Michelle Rhee's StudentsFirst Influence Targeted In Report By New York Group

Since Michelle Rhee's first days as Washington, D.C., schools chancellor, she has evoked intense reactions. Both presidential candidates in 2008 gave her glowing praise in a debate. In the last few months, her loudest critics have called her everything from an "Asian b**ch" to a "dickhead."

Which is to say that much criticism of Rhee, the most visible member of the so-called education reform movement, has been based on ideology. In Washington, Rhee fired teachers and administrators, upsetting the city. Union heads attack her motives, saying that she's out to bust them, or that she's part of a "corporate reform" movement to funnel public school money into private entities.

Now, Rhee's critics are trying a new tactic. They're questioning her effectiveness. They're holding Rhee, a staunch believer in teacher ratings based in part on student test scores, accountable to what they describe as her own metrics.

A group called New Yorkers for Great Public Schools, a union-backed parent coalition, released a report Friday called "Rhee-ality Check" that calls into question Rhee's success. It mostly relies on news clippings to assert that Rhee's StudentsFirst reform advocacy group is ineffective in fundraising and legislative efforts.

"This is the first report of its kind to examine whether this education advocacy group founded by Michelle Rhee has made progress toward its key goals," the report said. "A national education advocacy group with such a track record of ineffectiveness is not what Rhee’s investors signed up for."

In recent days, as the report's release neared, a few allies of Rhee and her associates -- some contacted by HuffPost, some not -- have sprung to her defense, offering accounts of her success. "National unions and other union front groups like NYGPS sure spend a lot of time, money, and attention on an organization they say is ineffective. The union bosses funding these groups are underestimating the public's intelligence," Erin Shaw, a StudentsFirst spokesperson, said in an email. "In the meantime, we are focused on passing laws and policies state by state … that put kids’ interests above all else." Recently, Shaw noted, Georgia Gov. Nathan Deal (R) signed a teacher evaluation bill.

The report, and the back-and-forth in advance of its publication, touches on a squishy question at a time when philanthropies wield significant power over public policy: How can advocacy efforts be measured? What information can philanthropic groups use to guide their investments?

"It's not just what they could point to in terms of legislative wins or publications, but it's partly about the energy or visibility they give to a point of view," said Rick Hess, a scholar at the conservative American Enterprise Institute often brought in to help education foundations make spending decisions. While big foundations have their own metrics, Hess said, true impact -- like the legacy expressed in, say, Margaret Thatcher's obituaries or the impact of the gay rights movement -- can't really be known in the short term.

That that's not stopping New Yorkers for Great Public Schools from trying. "This report shows their education agenda's a failure," said Billy Easton, the campaign's director. "As an organization, they are not successful."

Rhee often talks about boosting America's performance on international exams. According to a former staffer, a broader, long-term goal was to move the U.S. from the bottom third to the top third of student performance by 2021. Shaw said StudentsFirst's mission includes advocating for teacher-related policies, access to better schools and to encourage "effective use of public dollars."

"Has it moved the needle enough to be on that trajectory?" asked the former staffer, who declined to be named in order to preserve relationships. "The answer is no."

Hess was more favorable. "They've built a large apparatus around" Rhee, he said. "The fact that they've got that name and that face gives a visibility to the stuff that they push that most advocacy groups simply can't count on."

The New Yorkers for Great Public Schools report calls StudentsFirst a bad investment, saying it has failed to live up to its own fundraising goals. When Rhee first launched StudentsFirst on Oprah in 2010, she aimed to raise $1 billion within the first year. She soon changed that to $1 billion within five years. According to the report, StudentsFirst's leaders have been quoted as saying they have $100 million to $150 million in commitments. "Whatever the real figures are, it appears that StudentsFirst has not been able to raise the funds they anticipated raising at their launch," the report said.

StudentsFirst rejected the criticism. The group's tax return for fiscal 2012, to be made public next month, "will demonstrate that StudentsFirst in its second year has sustained its fundraising momentum -- tripling its operating budget to nearly $30 million," Shaw said. (The budget of 50CAN, another education advocacy organization, was $4,045,097 according to its 2011 filings).

The report also questions StudentsFirst's grassroots organizing. "They claim they're a grassroots organization, but can't get anyone to show up," Easton said. (StudentsFirst said members have sent more than 450,000 letters to 5,000 legislators across the country.) The report also asserts that StudentsFirst's electoral wins record "is largely a result of the organization's backing of safe Republican incumbents."

Easton said New Yorkers for Great Public Schools is a group of parents "focused on changing the direction of education reform under the next mayor of New York City." The group issued a previous report criticizing Rhee for her ties to Republicans and recently, tried to organize a protest against her book tour.

A group Easton leads, the Alliance for Quality Education, is a partner of New Yorkers for Great Public Schools and has accepted significant donations from the teachers' union. In response to StudentsFirst's allegation that his group is a "union front," Easton said the union is one of New Yorkers for Great Public Schools's partners. He called the assertion "disrespectful to real parents."

UPDATE: 1:46 p.m. -- In response to the report, StudentsFirst representatives released a graded markup of the NYGPS report. Rhee's group gives it an F. Note: The markup was done to an earlier, uncorrected draft of the report that was later revised by NYGPS; StudentsFirst's markup catches errors that didn't make it into the final draft.

See below for the original report, followed by StudentsFirst's markup:

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