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Michelle Rhee

StudentsFirst Founder and CEO Michelle Rhee speaks in San Jose, Calif., in April 2012. 

DES MOINES | A controversial education reform group that pressed flesh and spent the most money on Iowa lawmakers in the run up to 2013’s education reform law is building its Iowa presence with an eye toward being a major player in education policy.

StudentsFirst, the organization founded by former Washington, D.C., schools Chancellor Michelle Rhee and known for its embrace of teacher merit pay, school choice and pension reform, expects to have a big say in how Iowa’s landmark legislation is carried out.

Top on its list is shaping a new evaluation system for teachers and administrators across the state.

To do that, StudentsFirst tapped Patty Link, a former Des Moines school board member, who was hired as state director in May and was among the group standing on the stage when Gov. Terry Branstad signed the 2013 education reform package into law at Des Moines’ North High School in June. Her husband, Jeff, runs Link Strategies, a consulting firm with strong Democratic ties up to, and including, the White House.

“I feel like the conversation has just started,” Patty Link said during a recent interview.

“Most people in Iowa don’t know what was in (the education reform bill),” she said. “We want to engage parents and ask them what they want out of it.”

Group has toehold in 19 states

Iowa is one of 19 states where StudentsFirst has active state chapters.

The organization came into Iowa a little behind the education debate that already started when Branstad began his fifth term in January 2011. But it made a big entrance.

In 2012, Michelle Rhee had meetings with the governor, House Speaker Kraig Paulsen, R-Hiawatha, and Senate Majority Leader Mike Gronstal, D-Council Bluffs.

By the end of the year, the group had spent $355,541 on state legislative races for the 2012 cycle. By February 2013, the group had come up with a policy platform it wanted to see included in the education bill.

Some in the administration were skeptical, however, about the group’s pull, according to emails obtained through a public records request.

“Students First (sic) will not be a player. They have not pursued the kind of organizing necessary to make them a relevant organization,” Phil Wise, an Iowa Department of Education lobbyist wrote in an email to Adam Gregg, Branstad’s envoy to Iowa Legislature, after Gregg shared the StudentsFirst proposals.

Wise did not return a message left with his office.

Then, the education debate began to heat up over teacher pay and evaluations, and StudentsFirst began running advertisements in the Des Moines media market in an effort to move along an apparent legislative stalemate.

The moves raised the ire of the Iowa State Education Association, which criticized the group as an outsider trying to affect Iowa policy. It’s an argument ISEA Executive Director Mary Jane Cobb repeated last week.

“What do we know about this group?” she said. “We don’t know who funds them; they keep that a secret. We do know they work out of Sacramento, Calif., and who Michele Rhee is, but that’s about it.”

Emily Yager, spokeswoman for the StudentsFirst Iowa chapter, would not disclose donors but said StudentsFirst “received significant support from Democrats and Republicans, and from individuals from all walks of life. Our average grassroots donation is around $70.”

StudentsFirst did, however, find a friendly lawmaker to introduce parts of its policy agenda into an amendment that was adopted in the House. The proposals included a four-tiered classification system for teachers, a requirement for legislative approval for any changes to teaching standards and giving individual schools letter grades based on their performance.

Wise’s reaction was recorded in an email: “I understand that part of the amendment is giving Students First everything they requested, even if the changes are bad policy.”

Although they were adopted in the House, the items changed as lawmakers worked out a final version of the bill. For example, the education reform bill requires individual school assessments, but they don’t have to be a letter grade. Also, the legislation gives a model districts can use for teacher classifications, but it also allows school districts to come up with their own programs.

Yager said there were other items the group advocated for that didn’t make it into the bill, such as a requirement that teachers be able to advance in their profession only if they are designated as “effective” or “highly effective.”

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Link: 'I’m not anti-union'

Patty Link is in the perfect spot to advocate for such changes. She is one of 19 members of Department of Education’s task force that will recommend a new statewide evaluation system to legislators.

News of her appointment brought a quick rebuke from the ISEA, whose president, Tammy Wawro, also serves on the board. In a statement, Wawaro said she was “terribly disappointed” in Link’s selection.

“I’m not anti-union,” Patty Link said. “I think the unions do a very good job advocating for their membership. We advocate for parents and for common-sense policies for everyone involved.”

D.T. Magee, who was interim director of the Department of Education and appointed Patty Link, said he expected there would be pushback.

“We appreciate the hard work of all education stakeholders who are pushing to take education to the next level in Iowa,” Magee said. “We also understand that different stakeholders have different ideas for improving the education system.”

Also critical of StudentsFirst move into Iowa is Scott McLeod, director of innovation at Prairie Lakes Area Education Agency and author of the education blog Dangerously Irrelevant.

“We have seen the rise of influence of outside advocacy groups that are essentially buying access to the political process,” he said. “There are lots of good ideas out there in the marketplace of ideas, but what worries me is when those ideas come attached to a big donation check, well, we know money talks in politics.”

Link said she doesn’t know if StudentsFirst will contribute to candidates at the same level it did in 2012, or if at all. She did say, however, the group plans to push for teacher evaluations tied to test scores and other policies it thinks will raise student performance scores and eliminate the achievement gap between majority and minority students in Iowa.

“It’s a long-term commitment,” she said.

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