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Advocacy Group Begun by Michelle Rhee to Merge With 50CAN

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In a major shift in the education advocacy world, the controversial nonprofit StudentsFirst, which was launched by former D.C. Chancellor Michelle Rhee, will soon join forces with the 50 State Campaign for Achievement Now, or 50CAN, a separate advocacy network.

The news appears to have been first reported by The Los Angeles Times' Joy Resmovits. The shift raises new questions about how the two organizations will coordinate their advocacy and political activities moving forward—and adjust to what seem to be a rapidly changing policy landscape in the wake of the Every Student Succeeds Act.

StudentsFirst dates from 2010, when Rhee announced on Oprah that the new group would raise $1 billion to improve education for students, largely by serving as a counterweight to teachers' unions. The organization never came close to that fundraising goal, although it did have a strong presence in a number of states, like Alabama and Tennessee. But it struggled to gain traction in California, ultimately reducing staff there. In 2015, it dissolved its independent Connecticut organization.

Currently, StudentsFirst's website lists it as active in Alabama, California, Georgia, Michigan, Missouri, Nevada, Ohio, Pennsylvania, South Carolina, and Tennessee.

The 50CAN group advocates for a variety of policies, including equitable funding for students, teacher evaluation reform, and interventions for low-performing schools. It's active in seven states: Maryland, New Jersey, New York, North Carolina, Minnesota, Pennsylvania, and Rhode Island.

As Education Week reported extensively in 2012, StudentsFirst was one of several groups that established tiered organizational structures to give themselves maximum flexibility in the advocacy world, most notably by establishing separate education/advocacy and lobbying/political wings. (Wondering what's permissible under these different structures? It's mind-blowingly complicated, but fortunately, you can check out our interactive game to learn the rundown.) 

So why the merge?

"The spirit is that we want to make available to local advocates on the ground the biggest possible toolbox of advocacy tactics," said Marc Porter Magee, the CEO and founder of 50CAN. "It's not a one-size-fits-all model; there may be some states that never work in the political world."

Records confirm that StudentsFirst and 50CAN have focused on different kinds of work. Under the group's most recent publicly available nonprofit filings, from 2013, StudentsFirst's lobbying/political arm spent some $1.2 million on campaign work and independent expenditures, while 50CAN spent only a bit more than $11,500 on those activities. That year, StudentsFirst also raised $16 million for its lobbying/political wing and $7 million for its educational/advocacy wing. 50CAN, meanwhile, in 2013, raised just over $200,000 for its political wing and $5.5 million for its educational wing. (These tallies don't include StudentsFirst's autonomous New York chapter or 50CAN's independent Connecticut chapter.)

Jim Blew, the president of StudentsFirst since 2014, said the merger also makes sense because ESSA returned significant leverage to the states, and customized state-policy work will be more important than ever.

"We are in our DNA a much more political organization; 50CAN is much more of a policy shop," he said. "That is even reflective of how we've approached talent. We've hired political people and taught them education policy; they've hired education policy people and taught them politics."   

It will be interesting to see how those cultural differences play out. The 50CAN network has prided itself on being "bottom up," while StudentsFirst, with its embrace of A to F grading systems and teacher evaluation based in part on student scores, has a reputation of being more top down. It has certainly been more polarizing, thanks in part to Rhee's role in launching it. 

The combined group will have about 80 people in all, and there will be some consolidation, Magee and Blew said. Most of those details have to be worked out over the next 60 days; for now, the merger agreement exists mostly on paper. 

Photo: Education consultant Michelle Rhee at a 2011 event in New York. —Evan Agostini/AP-File


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