Capitol Alert

Michelle Rhee-founded StudentsFirst to merge with D.C.-based organization

Michelle Rhee listens as her husband, Sacramento Mayor Kevin Johnson, holds a press conference before a discussion on civil rights with basketball legend Kareem Abdul-Jabbar; former San Francisco Mayor and Assembly speaker Willie Brown; sociologist Dr. Harry Edwards; and former major league baseball managers Dusty Baker and Jerry Manuel, in the Setzer Auditorium at the Crocker Art Museum in Sacramento on Monday, February 2, 2015
Michelle Rhee listens as her husband, Sacramento Mayor Kevin Johnson, holds a press conference before a discussion on civil rights with basketball legend Kareem Abdul-Jabbar; former San Francisco Mayor and Assembly speaker Willie Brown; sociologist Dr. Harry Edwards; and former major league baseball managers Dusty Baker and Jerry Manuel, in the Setzer Auditorium at the Crocker Art Museum in Sacramento on Monday, February 2, 2015 jvillegas@sacbee.com

StudentsFirst, the Sacramento-based national education advocacy organization that endeavors to create more school choice for parents and accountability for educators, is merging with 50Can, a group with a similar mission, officials told The Bee.

Under the agreement, national support will shift to Washington, D.C.-based 50Can while StudentsFirst state groups operating under the banner will retain their names, the officials said Tuesday. The purpose is to streamline operations and maximize efficiency in states where they have had successes, StudentsFirst President Jim Blew said.

“Part of it is natural evolution. We wake up every morning trying to figure out how to do this work better and more effectively and efficiently,” Blew, who plans to stay on as California director, said in a telephone interview. “We have been in conversations with 50CAN for several weeks and months because they have a very strong skill set that we don’t have and we have a skill set that they don’t have.

“So, this was a natural marriage of their tax-deductible advocacy and our lobbying and electoral work.”

So, this was a natural marriage of their tax-deductible advocacy and our lobbying and electoral work.

StudentsFirst President Jim Blew

Blew said StudentsFirst will transition out of its Sacramento space when its lease is up in 2017 and then likely move into a smaller office.

Founded by Michelle Rhee, the former head of public schools in Washington, D.C., and wife of Sacramento Mayor Kevin Johnson, the group’s strong support for charter schools and educational reform over the last half-dozen years has made it a scourge of teachers unions.

Rhee left her job as chief executive to help run Johnson’s 2014 citywide bid to make his office more powerful. With Blew heading day-to-day operations, StudentsFirst won victories in various states. It helped enact dozens of laws ranging from a new charter school measure in Alabama to a teacher-evaluation bill in Michigan. Yet it struggled to gain a foothold in California, where the Democratic-dominated Legislature and state officials overwhelmingly side with unions.

StudentsFirst officials have acknowledged the struggles here. Layoffs and relocations have thinned the staff at its offices in downtown Sacramento from a peak of about 85 down to its current 20.

Blew said several large donors (the group is dependent on contributions) wanted to see the transition happen.

“They have been supportive of trying to bring our two skills sets together at the state level,” he said.

Christopher Cadelago: 916-326-5538, @ccadelago

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