Press Releases

StudentsFirst Expands in Tennessee

Press release from StudentsFirst; July 10, 2013:

Nashville, TN – StudentsFirst, a bipartisan grassroots education reform movement, announced three new hires today as the organization expands grassroots momentum in Tennessee. The new additions include Carter Maxwell, who will serve as the State Outreach Director and Mario King, the Shelby County Field Coordinator. They join Paige Donaldson, who was brought on in February to serve as Field Coordinator for Middle Tennessee.

“We’re lucky to have three passionate individuals who know and love the state leading our grassroots efforts in Tennessee,” said Kellen Arno, VP of Membership at StudentsFirst. “As we continue to grow our movement and build momentum in the Volunteer state, we’re bringing together an incredibly strong team to help elevate the stories of parents and teachers on the local level.”

Tennessee State Director Brent Easley added, “Recent progress proves that meaningful education reforms resonate with Tennesseans. We surveyed Tennesseans this year and 93% said that our education system needs change. Parents and teachers recognize the work that needs to be done, and we must keep the pedal to the floor. Our new team members are well positioned to continue advancing education policies that are in the best interests of kids and ensuring the voices of parents and teachers are heard.”

Carter Maxwell joins StudentsFirst as State Outreach Director, responsible for coordinating membership events and building momentum for education reform across the state. Prior to joining StudentsFirst, Carter served as Legislative Liaison and Public Information Officer for the Tennessee Department of Tourist Development. In this capacity, she served as legislative spokesperson for the department and liaison between Governor Haslam’s legislative team and the General Assembly. Carter has Tennessee campaign experience as well, successfully managing the 2010 campaign of State Representative Terri Lyn Weaver. A resident of Nashville, Carter is a graduate of East Tennessee State University.

Mario King joins StudentsFirst as a Field Coordinator for Shelby County. Mario has an extensive background in Human Resource management, but his passion lies within education. During his undergraduate studies at the University of Southern Mississippi, Mario founded the Golden Eagle Consultant Group, which created an apprenticeship pipeline between college students and local small business owners in Hattiesburg, Mississippi. A member of Kappa Alpha Psi Fraternity, Inc., Mario lives in Memphis.

Paige Donaldson joined StudentsFirst in February, filling in the role of Field Coordinator in Middle Tennessee. Prior to StudentsFirst, Paige was a Sales Representative for Service Source, Inc., where she produced and increased recurring revenue for industry-leading companies. Paige also spent time in her hometown for the City of Johnson City, gaining practical experience with city operations, planning and code enforcement. Paige received her B.A. at the University of Tennessee at Knoxville, and a M.P.A. from East Tennessee State University.

About StudentsFirst:
StudentsFirst is a bipartisan grassroots movement in Tennessee working to ensure educators are valued for the critical role they play in kids’ lives, families have high-quality school choices and a real say in their children’s education, and our tax dollars are spent wisely on what works for kids. Led by former Washington D.C. Public Schools Chancellor Michelle Rhee, StudentsFirst is active in 18 states and has successfully helped pass more than 110 student-centered policies across the country. For more information visit

Education Featured

Vote of Confidence for Huffman from Haslam

Gov. Bill Haslam expressed his continued confidence in Tennessee Education Commissioner Kevin Huffman Monday, telling reporters, “If I was going to hire an education commissioner again today, I would hire Kevin Huffman.”

“If you look at the state’s who are making the most progress in education, Tennessee is at the top of that list and Kevin gets a lot of credit for that,” Haslam continued.

Huffman has faced recent criticism, primarily from teachers’ groups and state Democrats, after his department successfully pushed an overhaul of the state’s public school teacher pay system through a Board of Education vote last month. As The Tennessean reported recently, the policy change has prompted opponents to call for Huffman’s ouster via Facebook and online petitioning.

While Haslam’s education agenda has received positive feedback from federal officials in the past — both in the form of funding from the Obama administration’s Race to the Top program as well as praise from Education Secretary Arne Duncan — push-back has come from various quarters on the state level, especially around the increasing presence of charter schools and the coming implementation of national Common Core standards in state classrooms.

But Monday, Haslam mostly shrugged off criticism. “The work we’re doing is hard. We’re saying we’re not satisfied being in the 40’s [in state rankings] when it comes to education,” said the governor. “We’re making those changes that I think will move us forward.”

And according to a related report today from The New Republic, Haslam’s and Huffman’s work has found a strong supporter in Huffman’s ex-wife, firebrand education reform activist and former D.C. school superintendent Michelle Rhee whose lobbying group, the magazine writes, has been giving Tennessee special attention and sizable cash injections in local elections.

Unionized teachers and minority-party Democrats in the Legislature have been complaining bitterly of late about a new teacher-salary plan approved by the state Board of Education last month. The plan, which goes into effect for new hires beginning in the upcoming school year, gives local school districts latitude to determine payment scales for teachers.

Some teachers and Democrats fear the move will will ultimately over time make teaching a less attractive field to young college grads. Huffman and the plan’s supporters, however, argue that it will in fact encourage higher-caliber prospects to apply.

Press Releases

Rhee Urges Lawmakers to ‘Come Together’ on School Choice Legislation

Statement from Michelle Rhee, Founder and CEO of Students First; April 3, 2013:

“StudentsFirst and our 37,000 members across the state are extremely supportive of providing low-income kids trapped in failing schools access to the quality education they deserve. Unfortunately today, adults could not agree on how to move forward to serve Tennessee’s most vulnerable communities,” stated Michelle Rhee, Founder and CEO of StudentsFirst. “I encourage our legislators to come together, and put the interests of students first.”

About StudentsFirst:

StudentsFirst is a bipartisan grassroots movement of more than 2 million members nationwide, working to focus our education system on what’s best for students. Today, too many of America’s children are not getting the quality education they need and deserve. StudentsFirst is helping to change that with common sense reforms that help make sure all students have great schools and great teachers. We are working to ensure educators are valued for the critical role they play in kids’ lives, families have high-quality school choices and a real say in their child’s education, and our tax dollars are spent wisely on what works for kids. Launched by former Washington D.C. Public Schools Chancellor Michelle Rhee in December 2010, StudentsFirst has successfully helped pass more than 110 student-centered policies in 18 states, and our movement continues to grow. For more information visit

Education Featured

Harwell Cautious on Vouchers, Ramsey Assertive

While Gov. Bill Haslam calls school vouchers potentially one of the most contentious legislative issues on the horizon, Speaker of the House Beth Harwell said Thursday she doesn’t see passage of a voucher bill without a “great deal of discussion.”

Harwell said she would want a plan designed specifically for Tennessee, not just taking what other states have done.

“My personal thought on vouchers is if we’re going to proceed we need to be very careful. There are a lot of questions,” Harwell said. “We’ve put a lot of additional work on our public school teachers for this evaluation process. To allow children to come out and go into a private system where those teachers don’t have to have the same system, I think it’s sending a mixed message to our teachers.

“I would say we have a lot to do in public education yet, and I’d like to stay focused on what we’re doing in our public schools. We have an excellent public charter school bill in this state that I’d like to see continue. Because I think they’re more of the answers to our public school needs.”

The Senate passed a school voucher bill in the last legislative session. But the House balked, putting off its bill for 2012. The concept in HB388 is to provide children from low-income families in the state’s four largest counties the opportunity to receive a scholarship, commonly called a voucher, to attend a school of their choice, including another public school in the district, a public charter school or a private school.

The debate has been intense, as many advocates for public schools say vouchers would only subsidize private schools that want the money. Proponents of vouchers say they are a way to give families choice among options they otherwise would not have.

“I think there are House members that have very legitimate concerns,” Harwell said. “I haven’t polled it. I don’t know whether the support is there (to pass it) or not.”

Harwell said the bill presents broad possibilities.

“The way the bill is drafted, I think many of our sponsors think, ‘Well, this will allow them to attend perhaps a Catholic school or perhaps a Baptist school.’ And that’s fine. But it would also allow them to attend a Muslim school, and I could go on and on.

“I think there are some questions that haven’t been fully vetted yet on vouchers, and I’d like to continue to study it.”

Should the voucher issue be hotly debated, it would follow a legislative session in 2011 in which education dominated discussion, with the Legislature making changes to teacher tenure and teachers’ collective bargaining status. Heading into the last session, many people expected the focus to be on the jobs picture and how the economy would impact the state budget. But education measures captured most of the attention, sometimes in combative ways.

Meanwhile, Harwell said it’s important to “stay the course” on the new teacher evaluation process the state has adopted.

“It’s a necessary component to the Race to the Top funding we received,” Harwell said. “We can’t back away from the importance of evaluations. We need to know who our good teachers are and who aren’t.”

The evaluation process has created considerable backlash over time constraints and fairness issues. Harwell endorsed adjustments to the process that Commissioner of Education Kevin Huffman initiated that will streamline the process, mostly for principals.

Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey said Thursday that after the first year of the evaluation process there may be adjustments but that once the state gets through the current year that most teachers will say the system is helping them.

“I don’t see us backing down,” Ramsey said. “We’re getting national attention right now in the state of Tennessee for some of the education reforms we’re doing.”

Ramsey said he talked Thursday to Michelle Rhee, a nationally recognized education reform advocate who heads the reform-minded StudentsFirst organization.

“Something I am big on is starting at least a pilot project for school choice here in the state of Tennessee, some education scholarships,” Ramsey said.

“If you have children trapped in failing schools and their parents don’t have the means to allow them to go to an alternative then we need to start with a small, pilot project, much along the lines of what Sen. Brian Kelsey is bringing forward, and be able to allow those students to have some choice. It’s just unfair that they’re trapped in these schools.”

He said Rhee’s organization is willing to help with public relations where he says Republicans have been mischaracterized as “beating up on teachers.”

Education News

School Choice a Hot Topic at Legislators’ Conference

Tennessee lawmakers, who approved a slew of sweeping education reforms this spring, hinted this week at the Southern Legislative Conference that they’re not done yet.

The next battle appears to be over school choice.

“It is blatantly unfair that just because a parent doesn’t have the means that another parent might have, that they’re stuck in a failing school,” Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey told TNReport while attending the conference in Memphis, which has drawn lawmakers from 15 states. “I hope we’ll be able to pass that next year.”

The Senate passed a plan in April to offer low-income students in the state’s largest cities — Memphis, Nashville, Knoxville and Chattanooga — vouchers to put toward their education at another public school in the district, a charter school or private school.

But leadership in the House refused to advance the bill last session and instead parked the measure in a study committee over the summer. Legislators have yet to tackle that issue, also known as “equal opportunity scholarships.”

The reason for the holdup on the legislation was that House lawmakers weren’t entirely familiar or comfortable with the voucher concept, said Rep. Richard Montgomery, the chairman of the Education Committee. “We didn’t know the impact of what that type of legislation would be, and we need to know that before we start moving forward,” the Sevierville Republican said.

Sen. Brian Kelsey, who is leading the charge for school vouchers, contends that Republicans still have the political will to pass another wave of education reforms despite this year’s contentious debates over removing teachers unions’ collective bargaining leverage, lifting restrictions on charter schools and making teacher tenure harder to earn.

“This is not the time to sit on our laurels,” said Kelsey, R-Germantown. “I think once the House takes a look at equal opportunity scholarships in particular, they’re going to see how successful it’s been and how popular it is in other states.”

Kelsey’s been teaming up with Michelle Rhee, a controversial and vocal education reformer who won her claim to fame by putting in place a tougher evaluation system and firing dozens of teachers who didn’t meet standards while chancellor of the D.C. public schools. She’s the founder of Students First, a nonprofit seeking to mobilize a national movement to improve education by focusing on good teachers, school choice, smart spending and family involvement.

Rhee, a major proponent of school choice, recently moved to Nashville so her two children can be closer to their father, Tennessee Education Commissioner Kevin Huffman.

“I think the most important thing with any kind of choice, whether it be vouchers, whether it be charter schools, home schools, it has to be around accountability. We have to make sure that the kids are meeting a minimum threshold in terms of their learning gains,” she advised a room full of lawmakers at the legislative conference Sunday.

Vouchers are the most contentious aspects of the school choice debate, said Margaret Raymond, director of the Center for Research on Educational Outcomes at Stanford University.

A lot of the disagreement is over whether taxpayer dollars should be used to support private schools, 80 percent of which nationally are religiously based, according to Raymond.

Another point of contention is giving families free reign to leave traditional public schools in favor of charter schools which will shift government funding from one part of the district to another.

After examining charter schools in 15 states and the District of Columbia, Raymond’s office found that 17 percent of them performed better than public schools. Another 46 percent reported the same academic achievement as their public school counterparts, while 37 percent were worse.

States that kept failing charter schools open longer were worse off than those that closed schools faster, according to the study.

“You have to think about the fact that in states where the results are really bad, it’s because there are schools that are open for years and years and years that do not have high performance and are not being addressed,” Raymond said.

Raymond is running numbers on Tennessee schools, but that data won’t be available for another six months, she said.

Memphis Rep. Lois DeBerry, formerly the Tennessee House speaker pro tem before Republicans swept Democrats to the sidelines, says she’s in favor of school choice and charter schools, but she’s not ready for the state to pass out vouchers — especially once charter school enrollment is opened to all students under the bill the legislature passed.

“I don’t think we need to pass any more reform right now. I think we’ve over-reformed, so I think we just need to see if it’s working,” she said.

Education Featured

Prominent National Education Reformer Making a Home in Nashville

One of Tennesssee’s newest residents, who happens to be a rock star of education reform, told an attentive group of southern legislators in Memphis Sunday it’s time to bring back a culture of competitiveness to the nation’s education system.

Michelle Rhee, former chancellor of Washington D.C. schools and founder of StudentsFirst, a reform-minded education organization, said it would be best to get away from the everybody-gets-a-trophy attitude with children nowadays and put some accountability into education, top to bottom.

Rhee, noted for her appearance in the documentary film “Waiting for ‘Superman’,” has moved to Nashville so her two daughters can be close to their father, Tennessee’s new education commissioner, Kevin Huffman.The girls will go to school in Nashville. But Rhee will spend only half of her time in Nashville, with plans to spend the other half in Sacramento, where her fiance lives.

Rhee is most noted for her time as head of the D.C. school system, although a published report early this year by USA Today raised questions about the authenticity of some academic gains on her watch. The lobbyist for the state’s largest teachers union, Jerry Winters of the Tennessee Education Association, was reported in the Nashville Scene to have called Rhee a “lightning rod on a lot of education issues, not a lot being positive.” Winters also said he was “disappointed” in Bill Frist for penning a Tennessean op-ed with Rhee this past spring.

The two daughters were with Rhee as she spoke to the Southern Legislators Conference, a meeting of legislators from several states, with an audience of about 150 people.

She even used the two girls to make her point about competitiveness. She said her girls have trophies and ribbons galore to show for their participation in soccer. But how do they actually perform on the field of competition?

“They suck,” Rhee said, getting no visible objection to that assessment from the girls, who sat halfway back in the room. She said kids have lost the spirit of competition and that the nation has to regain that in education.

Rhee used the example to get the point across that the idea that everyone performs well is not a healthy way to approach education. Rhee was highly complimentary of the education reforms the Tennessee General Assembly enacted this year, which included tenure reform, charter school expansion and a new way of negotiating with teachers that dramatically reduces the power of the big teachers union.

“I think they made tremendous progress this last year,” Rhee said of the Legislature after her speech. “We had very close partnerships.”

“We feel heartened by the progress that was made in the Legislature in this last session. We also know a lot of those legislators are really interested in continuing to push aggressive reforms next session, so we’re very much looking forward to continuing working with them.”

Rhee dived right into partisan politics and explained she was a Democrat and once held all views one might expect in order to fall into the party line, including opposition to school vouchers. She changed her mind on that.

“Because of partisan politics I really believed that vouchers were not a good thing and that we shouldn’t even ever discuss them,” she said. “That all changed when I became the chancellor of a school district in D.C. and we had a publicly funded voucher program in the city.”

After hearing family after family tell their stories, she had her change of heart.

Rhee said she began to assess issues, like whether to change teacher tenure law, with her two daughters in mind. She said public schools in theory are supposed to be “the great equalizer” but that that “is not the reality.”

“Give me the ZIP code and race of a particular child, and I can with very good accuracy already tell you what that child’s achievement levels are,” she said.

“It is the biggest social injustice imaginable, because it means we are still in this day and age allowing the color of a child’s skin and the ZIP code they live in to dictate their educational attainment levels.”

Several Tennessee lawmakers were in the audience for Rhee’s speech. Several asked questions, including Rep. Ryan Williams, R-Cookeville, who asked about merit pay. Rhee said the vast majority of teachers don’t have a problem with being held accountable, that teachers should be involved in the process and that they just want it to be fair.

Rep. Lois DeBerry, D-Memphis, called Rhee’s speech “interesting.”

“Sometimes you have to look at other choices. One size does not fit all. I agree with that,” DeBerry said. “I’m just not sure whether I agree with her on the whole issue of how you get to creating a fair system for merit pay. There are a lot of pieces.”

Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey said he thinks Tennessee legislators will be working more with Rhee.

“I look forward to working with her through this next session and advance even more reforms for education,” Ramsey said.

Ramsey pointed to a bill sponsored by Sen. Brian Kelsey, R-Germantown, that would allow parents to take state money and choose any school they want their child to attend.

“I think we will see that advance next year, because it is blatantly unfair just because a parent doesn’t have the means another parent might have, that they’re stuck in a failing school,” Ramsey said. “I adamantly believe in that. Hopefully we’ll be able to pass that next year.”

Ramsey said much of the work next year would be on implementing reforms put in place this year.