Michelle Rhee’s StudentsFirst is well known for its deceptive tactics of posting seemingly harmless petitions calling to an end to student bullying, for example, or opposing firing good teachers, and then claiming all the people who unknowing sign them as one of their members. Even well-informed PAA members, completely opposed to the goals of this astroturf group, have been caught in her trap.When Ravitch and Bob Sikes (he's kind of like a Florida version of me) published the email, the author, Catherine Durkin Robinson, did what reformyists do best: she threw a hissy fit for anyone daring to point out what she was really up to. Her response is the second comment on Sikes's post:
Don't you just love how these people think their crusade to gut teacher workplace protections, de-unionize the profession, implement merit pay schemes that they run away from when they don't work, and upend democracy through parent "tricker" nonsense...
... a crusade paid for by corporate education privatizers and oligarchs (keep reading)...
... a crusade run by people like Rhee who got mediocre results by their own standards when they were educators themselves (and those standards are suspect to begin with) ...
... don't you just love how, when criticized, these people immediately shield themselves by lumping in their activities with anti-arparthied activists and GLBT rights advocates? They literally draw comparisons between themselves and Nelson Mandela; as if getting Rupert Murdoch's money to run around the country and
But I digress.
Ravitch herself, one of Rhee's biggest critics, fell for the StudentsFirst trap and is counted as one of their "members." Which brings up a point made by blogger GATORBONBC:
Ms. Robinson,It's a very good question, because Rhee and StudentsFirst have always made a very big deal about how many "members" they have; it's how they give themselves credibility.
You write: “And so now I’m organizing over 119,000 Florida parents, teachers and concerned citizens.” … I politely ask you to verify those numbers.
Why do I not believe that 119,000 people in Florida agree with you? Let me politely explain.
I am also an advocate. I also interact/organize tens of thousands of parents. I have yet to ever meet one that agrees with Students First’s ‘transformative’ reform. So, I am politely interested as to where you get the number “119,000″. [emphasis mine]
When SF reached the one million "member" mark, they made sure to crow about it. In what I am sure is nothing but a happy coincidence, that one-millionth member happened to be an anti-tenure teacher. All she had to do was give her email address and zip code, and she was in. Unlike, say, the NRA, which requires a $35 fee. On that basis alone, would anyone say the number of the NRA's members should be compared to the number of SF's "members"?
But that's not the only way SF recruits it's "members." Change.org said they dropped the group after it's anti-union rhetoric rubbed enough progressives the wrong way; problem is, as of this past month, SF appeared to still be at it:
So signing an on-line petition to raise teacher pay makes you a "member" of SF? To become a member of the NEA, you have to be a current or retired teacher and pay dues. Are these 1.3 million people SF claims as "members' at all like the 3.2 million NEA members?
Rhee First cited an article in Ed Week that asked similar questions:
Written by Stephen Sawchuk for EdWeek. Read the entire article here.
“StudentsFirst… claims to have 1.3 million members, each of whom has donated an average of $40. Individuals can become members through several channels, including by signing up at a live event; through outreach drives at college campuses; signing up on its website; signing the organization’s pledge; or signing one of its petitions hosted on outside websites.In the latter instance, some critics contend that StudentsFirst’s petitions are designed to capture as many members as possible, thus inflating the totals.Ric Brown, a professor in the New York City-based Pratt Institute’s department of social sciences and cultural studies, said that while signing an unrelated petition on the change.org website, the site presented him with a petition supporting higher pay for teachers, which he also signed. Only on closer inspection, he said, did he see that the petition was sponsored by StudentsFirst, whose policy goals he eschews.
“It was very deceptive,” Mr. Brown said. “It would be very easy to collect a lot of members this way.”StudentsFirst officials dispute such accounts, saying that its petitions are clearly marked and that signatories can opt out of membership before signing, or cancel it afterwards.Impressive membership numbers aside, some of the advocacy groups’ grassroots efforts have been disputed. For example, StudentsFirst officials say that its members sent nearly 200,000 messages to the U.S. Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee shortly after committee leaders deleted mandatory teacher evaluations from a draft bill to renew the Elementary and Secondary Education Act. But a committee official said, ‘We did not receive anywhere close to that number of emails.’“ [emphasis mine]
And there's more: SF's partner in New Jersey, B4K, handed out backpacks to students last fall. To get a backpack, however, parents had to leave their names, addresses, and other information. Did those people become "members" as well? No one's saying.
Why does this matter? Well, over and over again, Rhee and her staff use their claims about the number of SF's "members" to demonstrate a groundswell of support for their group. But SF is largely funded by billionaires like hedge-fund trader David Tepper, former Enron exec John Arnold, the very reformy Eli Broad, and, according to Steven Brill, Rupert Murdoch - a man who stands to make a lot of money if reformyness goes his way.
Rhee refuses to talk about how she is funded, but she constantly brings up her membership numbers. She harped on how SF in New York had 110,000 "members" when she was on Brian Lehrer earlier this year to justify popular support for her positions. I wonder how many of these "members" would agree with the obnoxious, condescending, and, to some, homophobic Olympics ad SF is running. I would ask if they liked the idea of their membership dues paying for it... except it appears that many of them may not have paid dues at all.
It's time to call StudentsFirst what it really is: an astroturfing group. It pretends to be grassroots, but all indications are that any large popular support it claims is artificial.
Rather than throwing another hissy fit, SF would do much better to come clean once and for all and open up its books. How many of these "members" thought enough of SF's policies to donate at least $25 to the group?
Rhee has an outsized place in the debate on education, given her own mediocre performance as an educator. People have a right to know who bought her seat at the table, and who's paying for those gift cards: parents and teachers, or billionaires?
Hmm... I've got Appleby's, TGIF, Olive Garden, Red Lobster...