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StudentsFirst is a 501(c)4 organization based in Sacramento, CA that advocates for education reform. According to its website, StudentsFirst works at both the national and local level to promote school choice, through policies like "parent trigger" and the adoption of charter schools, as well as school accountability programs involving school report cards and educator evaluations based on student achievement.[1]

Founding and Mission

StudentsFirst was founded by Michelle Rhee, former chancellor of Washington, D.C. public schools, to "lay out a legislative agenda with the kinds of laws that states and local jurisdictions should adopt so that real reform can take place."[2] After three years as the head of D.C. schools, Rhee built a national reputation as a hardline reformer, willing to make any change she saw necessary, regardless of concerns from parents and teachers unions.[2]

StudentsFirst states as its mission "to build a national movement to defend the interests of children in public education and pursue transformative reform."[3]

Policy Agenda

The StudentsFirst Policy Agenda is composed of "three critical areas: (1) elevate the teaching profession by valuing teachers’ impact on students, (2) empower parents with real choices and real information and (3) shift spending taxpayers’ money to get better results for students."[4]

School Choice and Parent Trigger Laws

As part of point (2) in its policy agenda, StudentsFirst seeks to create "more high quality, publicly funded school choices" that is, publicly funded charter schools and school vouchers ("publicly funded scholarships that allow students to attend private schools").[4][5]

StudentsFirst also champions so-called parent trigger laws, "empowering parents to trigger the turnaround of a failing school."[4] "If a majority of parents in a school attendance zone sign a petition, they gain the legal authority to transform their school...including bringing in a new school leader or putting the school under the management of a high-performing charter school operator."[6]

Pushing the ALEC Agenda

StudentsFirst supports "rights of parents to organize and demand the transformation of chronically failing schools"[6], defined by student performance on standardized testing.[7] This so-called "Parent Trigger" law allows parents at any failing school to sign a petition to radically transform the school by: 1) firing the principal, 2) firing half of the teachers, 3) closing the school and letting parents find another option, or 4) converting the school into a charter school.[8]

While the Parent Trigger law first came to be in California, the idea has been propagated by two controversial right-wing organizations: the American Legislative Exchange Council and the Heartland Institute [8] As CMD has reported, Parent Trigger laws have been backed by groups pushing the privatization of public schools. The pro-privatization Heartland Institute took up the idea in 2010, with their version of the bill going much further in giving parents the authority to trigger a school's restructuring regardless of whether it is "failing" or not, and calling for the inclusion of a "school voucher" option. The ALEC Education Task Force approved ALEC's model "Parent Trigger Act" also in 2010 after Heartland brought them the idea.[8] ALEC's education task force at the time was chaired by for-proift education firm, Connections Academy. Other members on the task force include tech companies, testing companies and for-profit higher-education "diploma mills" like Bridgepoint Education and Corinthian Education[8]

According to professors of education and policy at the University of Illinois and the University of Wisconsin, there is very little empirical evidence to suggest that any of the restructuring models supported by Parent Trigger laws actually work.[8][7] Some, like Diane Ravitch, an education historian and former U.S. Assistant Secretary of Education in the first Bush Administration, have claimed that Parent Trigger laws are a "clever way to trick parents into seizing control of their schools and handing it over to private corporations."[7]

Eliminating Teacher Tenure

In efforts to elevate teaching quality, StudentsFirst has made eliminating teacher tenure the cornerstone of its operations.[9] The organization argues that "tenure must be eliminated so that teachers feel best protected by the quality of their work and the role they play on the teaching team."[10]

Reforming Teacher Pensions and Benefits

StudentsFirst calls for wiser spending of taxpayer money by "creating pension and benefit programs responsibly."[4] The organization lobbies against defined benefit plans (plans that promise a specified monthly benefit on retirement that is predetermined) for teachers, advocating for a shift towards defined contribution plans (in which future benefits fluctuate on the basis of investment earnings).[11]

Lobbying against defined benefit plans

StudentsFirst pushes "for states to abandon defined benefit plans – packages which guarantee certain retirement benefits for public workers like teachers – in favor of defined contribution plans, where the benefits are not guaranteed."[12] Dan Loeb, a hedge fund manager and member of the board of the StudentsFirst New York chapter, has recently come under scrutiny for his work as head of Third Point, LLC. He manages money for several public school funds, including the Ohio Public Employees' Retirement System, the New Jersey State Investment Council, the Sacramento County Employees' Retirement System, and the City of Danbury Retirement System, while simultaneously working for StudentsFirst, which lobbies specifically against these kinds of plans.[12]


StudentsFirst is set to receive 8 million dollars from the Walton Family Foundation in 2013.[13]

In its second year, between August 2011 and July 2012, StudentsFirst raised $28.5 million, more than tripling the $7.6 million the group raised during its first year.[14] StudentsFirst spent more than $3.6 million on political activities during the same time period.[14]



As of May 2013:[15]

  • Michelle Rhee, Founder and CEO
  • Kahlil Byrd, President
  • Angelia Dickens, General Counsel
  • Eric Lerum, Vice President of National Policy
  • Tim Melton, Vice President of Legislative Affairs
  • George Parker, Senior Fellow
  • Rebecca Sibilia, Chief Financial Officer
  • Enoch Woodhouse, Vice President of Operations

Board of Directors

As of May 2013:[16]

  • Connie Chung, journalist
  • Bill Cosby, actor and comedian
  • Jennifer M. Johnson, COO and Executive VP, Franklin Resources, Inc
  • Joel I. Klein, CEO of the Education Division and Executive VP, Office of the Chairman, News Corporation
  • Roland S. Martin, journalist
  • Michelle Rhee, former chancellor of Washington DC Public Schools
  • Jalen Rose, former NBA start and announcer/analyst for ESPN/ABC
  • Blair Taylor, Chief Community Officer, Starbucks Coffee Company

Contact details

825 K St, 2nd Floor
Sacramento, CA 95814
admin AT

Resources and articles


  1. StudentsFirst, "Policy", organizational website, accessed May 2013.
  2. 2.0 2.1 Jennifer Epstein, "Michelle Rhee not heading to any state, district", Politico, December 7, 2010.
  3. StudentsFirst, "Our Mission", organizational website, accessed May 2013
  4. 4.0 4.1 4.2 4.3 StudentsFirst, "StudentsFirst Policy Agenda: Executive Summary", organizational website, accessed May 2013.
  5. StudentsFirst, "Empowering Parents with Quality Options: School Choice Today", organizational publication.
  6. 6.0 6.1 StudentsFirst, "Empower Parents to Turnaround Failing Schools", organizational website, accessed May 2013
  7. 7.0 7.1 7.2 Will Dooling and Brendan Fischer, "What Really Happens When Parents Pull the 'Parent Trigger'?", PRWatch, July 5, 2012
  8. 8.0 8.1 8.2 8.3 8.4 Mary Bottari and Sara Jerving, "'Won't Back Down' Film Pushes ALEC Parent Trigger Proposal", PRWatch, September 19, 2012
  9. Trip Gabriel and Sam Dillon, "G.O.P. Governors Take Aim at Teacher Tenure", The New York Times, January 31, 2011
  10. StudentsFirst, "Eliminate Teacher Tenure", organizational website, accessed May 2013
  11. Matt Taibbi, "Billionaire Dan Loeb Turtles, Flees Investor Conference, After Political Affiliations Exposed", RollingStone Politics, April 22, 2013
  12. 12.0 12.1 Matt Taibbi, "Dan Loeb Simultaneously Solicits, Betrays Pension Funds", Washington Post, April 11, 2013.
  13. Valerie Strauss, "Walton Foundation giving $8 million to Rhee’s StudentsFirst — plus 2012 donations", Washington Post, May 1, 2013.
  14. 14.0 14.1 Byron Tau,"Michelle Rhee’s group tripled its budget", Politico, July 2, 2013.
  15. StudentsFirst, "Staff", organizational website, accessed May 2013
  16. StudentsFirst, "Board of Directors", organizational website, accessed May 2, 2013