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Education Privatization Group Tries to Justify Silence on Michigan Gun Law

National group, too busy busting teachers unions and pushing charter schools, misses opportunity to put 'students first'

- Jon Queally, staff writer

When it comes to sensible gun laws and "putting students first," sometimes it takes a national tragedy of shocking scale to induce those in the corporate-driven "education reform movement" to weigh in.

Michelle Rhee, leader of the group StudentsFirst and ally of pro-gun legislature in Michigan, comes out against conceal and carry law in Michigan only after media spotlight turned on group's silence and close relationships with bill's supporters. In fact, sometimes it takes something even slightly more: like a national news story pointing out that no public position has been taken on such a clearly important issue.

Such seems the case with one of the nation's leading education advocacy groups, StudentsFirst, headed by the controversial former Washington, DC superintendent Michelle Rhee.

Above all, the case illustrates how the kind of candidates who back the efforts of the corporate-driven reform effort for education epitomized by Rhee's group, are the same politicians who push the kind of regressive and dangerous gun laws that put children in schools—and society in general—at heightened risk. In turn, groups like StudentsFirst, by helping elect such candidates, fuel the rise of a host of rightwing agenda items that are potentially anathema to their purported mission.

The back story: On Tuesday, a reporter for the Huffington Post, Dave Jamieson, explored the interesting fact that three full days after the violent massacre at the Sandy Hook Elementary School in Connecticut, StudentsFirst—though deeply involved in recent education policy fights in the state of Michigan—had made no comment (either for or against) about a pending piece of legislation heading speedily towards Governor Rick Snyder's desk that would permit the carrying of concealed weapons inside the state's public schools.

As Jamieson's reporting explained Tuesday:

Although the group [has taken] no public position on [SB 59], StudentsFirst's allies in Michigan politics have no problem with concealed carry in schools. Indeed, the vast majority of the Michigan legislators whom StudentsFirst recently endorsed voted in favor of the legislation. Of 22 legislators who received election endorsements from StudentsFirst, 14 supported the bill (all of them Republican), one voted against it (a Democrat), and seven others aren't in office.

Rhee's group has been working closely with Republicans in the past year to advance its reform agenda. The GOP legislators whom StudentsFirst back tend to support the group's priorities such as tenure reform and removing caps on charter schools. But, obviously, many of those legislators also support policies that a self-described left-leaning Democrat like Rhee might find disagreeable, such as looser gun laws.

However, following the Huffington Post report, StudentsFirst released an internal memo—written by Rhee herself on Tuesday—that said the group was taking a public position aginst SB 59 and that "it goes without saying that guns have no place in schools."

Despite that, prior to Tuesday, the group's position did "go without saying"—precisely the point of Jamieson's article.

Ahead of Rhee's statement and when asked by Jamieson for the group's position on the law, spokeswoman Ileana Wachtel's first response was: "StudentsFirst believes that schools have to be a safe haven for kids. It is incumbent upon our elected officials to ensure that every single child is protected, particularly those under the care and direction of our public schools."

When pressed to clarify if that meant the group opposed or supported the ability of people to carry concealed weapons in Michigan schools—the clear policy of the law and supported by StudentsFirst's legislative allies in Lansing—she was clearly unable, or unwilling, to be decisive about what Rhee later said "goes without saying."

"We're focused on education reform policies," Wachtel told Jamieson. "That's what we do."

However, it challenges logic to see how a group that calls itself 'StudentsFirst' wouldn't have a position on a piece of legislation that so clearly puts the question of child safety at the center of its impact.

Under the gaze of a national spotlight aimed at the gun control debate, Governor Snyder ultimately decided to veto SB 59 on Tuesday. 

That decision was greeted with applause by those who have long said loudly and clearly that allowing people to carry concealed guns on school grounds was a terrible and dangerous idea that would put more children, not less, in harms way.

Despite later statements trying to make up for earlier failures, StudentsFirst—a group closely allied with the bill's most ardent and vocal supporters in the state—cannot be considered part of that noble chorus.

Perhaps a more fitting name for the group would be: SchoolPrivatizationFirst, PoliticsSecond, StudentsNext.