DES MOINES — A controversial education reform group that pressed flesh and spent the most money on Iowa lawmakers in the run up to 2013’s education reform law is building its Iowa presence with an eye toward being a major player in education policy.

StudentsFirst, the organization founded by former Washington, D.C., Schools Chancellor Michelle Rhee and known for its embrace of teacher merit pay, school choice and pension reform, expects to have a big say in how Iowa’s landmark legislation is carried out.

Top on its list is shaping a new evaluation system for teachers and administrators across the state.

To do that StudentsFirst tapped Patty Link, a former Des Moines School Board member, who was hired as state director in May and was among the group standing on the stage when Gov. Terry Branstad signed the 2013 education reform package into law at Des Moines’ North High School in June. Her husband, Jeff, runs Link Strategies, a consulting firm with strong Democratic ties up to, and including, the White House.

“I feel like the conversation has just started,” Link said during an interview at a Des Moines coffee shop a few blocks from the Statehouse where she was joined by two of StudentsFirst’s news media aides.

“Most people in Iowa don’t know what was in (the education reform bill),” she said. “We want to engage parents and ask them what they want out of it.”

19 states

Iowa is one of 19 states where StudentsFirst has active state chapters.

The organization came into Iowa a little behind the education debate that already started when Branstad began his fifth term in January 2011. But it made a big entrance.

In 2012, Michelle Rhee had meetings with the governor, House Speaker Kraig Paulsen, R-Hiawatha, and Senate Majority Leader Mike Gronstal, D-Council Bluffs.

By the end of the year, the group had spent $355,541 on state legislative races for the 2012 cycle. By February 2013, the group had come up with a policy platform it wanted to see included in the education bill.

Some in the administration were skeptical, however, about the group’s pull, according to e-mails obtained through a public records request.

“Students First (sic) will not be a player. They have not pursued the kind of organizing necessary to make them a relevant organization,” Phil Wise, an Iowa Department of Education lobbyist wrote in an email to Adam Gregg, Branstad’s envoy to Iowa Legislature, after Gregg shared the StudentsFirst proposals.

Wise did not return a message left with his office.

Then, the education debate began to heat up over teacher pay and evaluations, and StudentsFirst began running advertisements in the Des Moines media market in an effort to move along an apparent legislative stalemate.

The moves raised the ire of the Iowa State Education Association, which criticized the group as an outsider trying to affect Iowa policy. It’s an argument ISEA Executive Director Mary Jane Cobb repeated last week.

“What do we know about this group?” she said. “We don’t know who funds them; they keep that a secret. We do know they work out of Sacramento, Calif., and who Michele Rhee is, but that’s about it.”

Emily Yager, spokeswoman for the StudentsFirst Iowa chapter, would not disclose donors but said StudentsFirst “received significant support from Democrats and Republicans, and from individuals from all walks of life. Our average grassroots donation is around $70.”

StudentsFirst did, however, find a friendly lawmaker to introduce parts of its policy agenda into an amendment that was adopted in the House. The proposals included a four-tiered classification system for teachers, a requirement for legislative approval for any changes to teaching standards and giving individual schools letter grades based on their performance.

Wise’s reaction was recorded in an email: “I understand that part of the amendment is giving Students First (sic) everything they requested, even if the changes are bad policy.”

Although they were adopted in the House, the items changed as lawmakers worked out a final version of the bill. For example, the education reform bill requires individual school assessments, but they don’t have to be a letter grade. Also, the legislation gives a model districts can use for teacher classifications, but it also allows school districts to come up with their own programs.

Yager said there were other items the group advocated for that didn’t make it into the bill, such as a requirement that teachers be able to advance in their profession only if they are designated as “effective” or “highly effective.”

A player

Link is in the perfect spot to advocate for such changes. She is one of 19 members of Department of Education’s task force that will recommend a new statewide evaluation system to legislators.

News of her appointment brought a quick rebuke from the ISEA, whose president, Tammy Wawro, also serves on the board. In a statement, Wawaro said she was “terribly disappointed” in Link’s selection.

“I’m not anti-union,” Link said. “I think the unions do a very good job advocating for their membership. We advocate for parents and for common-sense policies for everyone involved.”

D.T. Magee, who was interim director of the Department of Education and appointed Link, said he expected there would be pushback.

“We appreciate the hard work of all education stakeholders who are pushing to take education to the next level in Iowa,” Magee said. “We also understand that different stakeholders have different ideas for improving the education system.”

Also critical of StudentsFirst move into Iowa is Scott McLeod, director of innovation at Prairie Lakes Area Education Agency and author of the education blog Dangerously Irrelevant.

“We have seen the rise of influence of outside advocacy groups that are essentially buying access to the political process,” he said. “There are lots of good ideas out there in the marketplace of ideas, but what worries me is when those ideas come attached to a big donation check, well, we know money talks in politics.”

Link said she doesn’t know if StudentsFirst will contribute to candidates at the same level it did in 2012, or if at all. She did say, however, the group plans to push for teacher evaluations tied to test scores and other policies it thinks will raise student performance scores and eliminate the achievement gap between majority and minority students in Iowa.

“It’s a long-term commitment,” she said.

(5) comments


"Michelle Rhee is the face of a movement to end public education. She built her career on privatizing our public education system and weakening the rights of teachers. At a time when Alabama public schools are underfunded and under attack from extremists in the state Legislature, Rhee and her organization support policies that will only continue to drain our public schools of critical resources, raise classroom size, send taxpayer money to for-profit corporations and fire some of Alabama’s most dedicated and valuable assets – our teachers."


She is for the students more than she is for the teachers. Isn't this what education is supposed to be about. You two knuckleheads would benefit in watching the non partisan movie, waiting for superman. See what she attempted to do in DC and see how the teachers unions trawled her. She offered the teachers as huge raise, but it was not allowed to come to a vote by the union. When will education become something that is about the students, and not about teachers wrapped in a cloak of about the students? I'm not suggesting we do not pay teachers, but we keep listening to the wrong groups and our students are getting the shaft.

Scott McLeod
Scott McLeod

With due respect, Waiting for Superman was anything but nonpartisan...


It's a union busting organization.

Instead of calling itself StudentsFirst it would be much more honest if it called itself TeachersLast.

Scott McLeod
Scott McLeod

If an outside advocacy organization

- pushes for educational reforms that result in smaller, not larger, student achievement gains;
- admonishes that student achievement is critically important but then issues report cards for each state that reflect ideological preferences rather than actual student learning outcomes;
- argues that we need more quality teachers while simultaneously advocating that we lower the bar for teacher preparation;
- thinks merit pay is a good idea even thought it isn’t working (again) in school systems that are trying it;
- continues to advocate for high-stakes testing despite the National Research Council’s conclusion that such mechanisms have been a complete failure;
- wants teachers to be evaluated by students’ standardized test scores even though such schemes have been proven to be operationally unreliable, statistically invalid, systemically biased, and legally questionable;
- disfavors school boards and desires mayoral control of urban school systems even though research shows that it is ineffective;
- argues for more charter schools despite a growing body of research showing that they don’t perform better than public schools (and often are worse) and that they also result in increased racial, ethnic, disability, and socioeconomic segregation;
- favors school vouchers even though Congressional evaluations found that they didn’t improve student achievement in Rhee’s own district of Washington, D.C. (mirroring results from both Milwaukee and Cleveland);
- wants to reduce the complexity of schools to simple letter grades even though that makes no conceptual sense;
- is led by someone whose purported Washington, D.C. success is compromised by a cheating scandal, whose schools are now worse off than before her arrival, and who routinely lies about her accomplishments;
- is led by someone who believes that communities should not be democratically involved in their schools;
- anoints an anti-gay politician as ‘Reformer of the Year’;
- hides behind local ‘astroturf’ groups to create the appearance of support for its agenda;
- stages artificial ‘town halls’ to create the appearance of support for its ideas;
- pays people to leave fake positive reviews of an anti-public school film for which it’s advocating; and, generally,
- has few policy proposals, if any, that are supported by peer-reviewed data, research, or evidence (and, indeed, are usually contradicted by such research);

but is more than willing to lavish large contributions around so that it floods local school board elections with unprecedented monies and is the biggest contributor to state legislative races, do you think it deserves a seat at the policymaking table?

[references for all of this are at]

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