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StudentsFirst pulls up stakes in Minnesota

  • Article by: Kim McGuire
  • Star Tribune
  • July 11, 2014 - 12:31 PM

StudentsFirst, a controversial nationwide school reform group that has frequently clashed with teachers’ unions, is shutting down its Minnesota office.

Kathy Saltzman, state director of StudentsFirst Minnesota, confirmed Wednesday that the group has decided not to maintain a paid staff in Minnesota, where it has about 29,000 members. She is currently the group’s only Minnesota-based employee.

The national group, headed by former Washington, D.C., schools chancellor Michelle Rhee, has been part of a movement aimed at improving education in ways that many teachers think unfairly target them. It has pushed for greater accountability among teachers, fought to overturn laws that protect teacher tenure and supported standardized testing. It has frequently aligned itself with Republican lawmakers who support charter schools and school vouchers.

“The decision was made based on the continually changing legislative climate,” Saltzman said of the move to close Minnesota’s branch. “We will, however, continue to have a presence here through our members.”

Earlier this week, StudentsFirst confirmed that it is scaling back operations in Florida to focus on political battles elsewhere. In coming days, it is expected to announce that it’s eliminating staff members in other states — a move a national group spokesman said Wednesday he could not confirm.

“Obviously we can’t predict the future, but we will continue to support our reform partners,” said spokesman Ross McMullin.

Denise Specht, president of Education Minnesota, said she’s not surprised StudentsFirst is scaling back.

“National education franchises like StudentsFirst struggle to find an audience in Minnesota because they sell policies developed far away by people who don’t know our schools,” she said. “So they push ideas that appeal to wealthy donors around the country, but don’t quite fit in Minnesota, which has some of the best schools and students in the nation.”

StudentsFirst was founded in 2010 by Rhee after she left her post in Washington. Known for her tough talk and willingness to push back against the education establishment, Rhee oversaw the group as it opened offices in 18 states. In 2011, it began operating in Minnesota; it hired Saltzman a year later.

During StudentsFirst’s relatively brief time in Minnesota, the group has opposed efforts to scrap what is known as the basic-skills exam for teachers, fought back an attempt to delay the implementation of a law requiring statewide teacher evaluations, and lobbied for more funding for state early-learning scholarships.

“StudentsFirst and Kathy Saltzman have really been an effective voice for students and for teachers,” said Jim Bartholomew, education policy director for the Minnesota Business Partnership. “But most of all, I think they’ve worked to truly put students first by ensuring that they have an effective teacher.”

Many of StudentsFirst’s most vocal opponents privately admit to liking Saltzman, a former state senator who once led the Minnesota Reading Corps, a statewide effort aimed at making sure students can read well by third grade.

During her four years in the Senate, Saltzman sponsored legislation to boost literacy, tighten controls on charter schools and ease the way to alternative paths to teacher licensure.

Earlier this year, teachers, school administrators and state Department of Education officials howled when StudentsFirst gave Minnesota a “D” in an education-policy report. In a move that created backlash from teachers, Rhee spoke the next month at an education conference in St. Paul.

Saltzman said she’s liked working with Rhee because of her common-sense approach to education reform.

She’s not sure what she’ll do next, but Saltzman said she wants to keep working to close Minnesota’s stubborn achievement gap between white students and students of color.

“I am very proud of the work we’ve done in Minnesota, because I think it’s raised the visibility of StudentsFirst overall,” Saltzman said.

Kim McGuire • 612-673-4469

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