Michelle Rhee, the fiery former Washington, D.C.,school chancellor, has danced a tricky tango since starting her national advocacy and lobbying group, StudentsFirst, in December 2010.
Rhee purported to be the face of a bipartisan movement to “transform education,” while simultaneously battling Democratic teachers unions and appearing chummy in photo ops with conservative Republican governors like Rick Scott (Fla.) or John Kasich (Ohio).
All the while, a small cadre of influential Democrats stood behind her, helping her craft messages on things like her positions on unions (that they are entitled to collective bargaining on salary issues), and trying to fend off attacks from the progressive community (one in particular thwacked her explicitly for her right-wing contacts). But in the last few months, these Democrats — including the group’s vice president of communications, Hari Sevugan, as first reported by education blogger Alexander Russo — have left the group, ceding control to a group of new hires, including president Kahlil Byrd.
Dmitri Mehlhorn, the group’s former COO, has left to lead Bloomberg Law. Mike Phillips, who served as Rhee’s chief of staff for communications, took a leave of absence this fall to work on Sen. Chris Murphy’s (D-Conn.) campaign, but ultimately never rejoined. Tali Stein, a former Hillary Clinton fundraiser who led StudentsFirst’s development, left two months ago to focus on other projects. Ximena Hartsock, a Democratic lobbyist, also left.
“There were known to be some significant differences on political strategy and policy matters, especially in StudentsFirst’s approach toward unions and partisanship,” said a source close to the education reform community who declined to be named in order to preserve working relationships.
Byrd, a self-described Republican, once directed communications for Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick’s (D) gubernatorial campaign. More recently, Byrd ran Americans Elect, a bipartisan group that sought to find new pathways and people for the American presidency. He brought with him several other new staffers, press secretary Ileana Wachtel and donor relations manager Kellen Arno.
In an interview Friday, Byrd told The Huffington Post that he sees his job as shepherding the 120-person organization into maturity beyond its start-up phase. “People like Hari are now moving into positions where they are able to give us strategic direction,” he said.
Sevugan declined to comment on the record, but two sources with knowledge of the situation said Sevugan left because he thought new management seemed less concerned with maintaining StudentsFirst’s bipartisan credentials.
This difference in opinion, some say, came to the forefront when the organization decided in the fall to spend money to fight Proposal 2, an initiative that would have enshrined collective bargaining as constitutional in Michigan.
The decision seemed out of sync with stories that emerged during the Democratic National Convention a few months earlier that painted Rhee as having broad Democratic support. The organization handled a similar situation in Tennessee in 2011 quite differently, with Rhee blasting the airwaves with messages of support for collective bargaining.
“It seems to me that the direction taken in the past five months is a direction … to say we’re going to focus a lot more on changing laws — developing resources with a focus on changing laws, shaping election with a focus on changing laws — as opposed to changing the environment, building a long-term movement,” said a source close to the organization who declined to be named to avoid severing relationships.
The shake-up is significant because if SF is less concerned about its positioning among progressives, that could decrease its credibility among Democrats, imperiling the bipartisan appeal of the group. The drive to increase educational standards, increase scrutiny on teachers, and to open up public schools to non-government managers in the form of charter schools, has thrived as both Republicans and Democrats agree on elements of it.
“If you want to change laws in the next two years, the place to go is to Republicans,” the source said. “If you want to build a movement to endure over five years, you will have a higher level of interest building support for education reform within the Democratic Party.”
The departures from SF were followed by a series of confused public messaging. When blogger Russo asked about the group’s position on Michigan’s right-to-work legislation, a representative first responded by saying “the debate over collective bargaining is demonstrative of what’s wrong with education policy generally — it’s focused on the needs and rights of adults instead of what’s best for students.” The group later sent Russo two updates, with one noting the former position.
Similarly, after the Newtown shooting, the group first told HuffPost reporter Dave Jamieson it declined to take a position on a Michigan bill that would allow concealed firearms in schools. The group then followed up with a letter from Rhee opposing the legislation.
“They were able to talk the talk that it is bipartisan,” said Kombiz Lavasany, who directs strategic campaigns for the American Federation of Teachers, a union Rhee has sparred with. “But [after things like the guns episode] … I can see how it would be harder and harder for the Democrats to work there.”
When asked about a potential switch in focus and messaging, Byrd said, “Our focus is to pass good laws and policy around the country.”
But others were more blunt about the shift. “It gets tiresome to have to defend who we are,” said a senior SF officer, who declined to speak on the record.