Why the secret donors?

Seth Sandronsky is a freelance journalist in Sacramento

Michelle Rhee’s StudentsFirst, a nonprofit and tax-exempt education-reform group that operates in 34 states with a national headquarters in Sacramento, raises money in secrecy to do political advocacy. The group raised $4.6 million in 2010-2011 for its 501(c)(4) nonprofit activities, according to the Internal Revenue Service.

StudentsFirst does not have to share donors’ names and none are on the IRS’s Form 990 that the group filed for the tax year ending July 31, 2011. IRS policy gives StudentsFirst a legal shield for donor secrecy. In this respect, Rhee’s group resembles GOP strategist Karl Rove’s Crossroads Grassroots Policy Strategies, a 501(c)(4) nonprofit. Rove aims, of course, to boost the ranks of Republican officeholders this November.

Rhee is a Democrat, at least nominally. Her education-reform agenda includes upending teacher tenure, establishing teacher merit pay, increasing publicly funded charter and online schools, and expanding standardized testing. The annual math and reading test scores of public-school students as the lead measure of their classroom achievement looms large in the education reform agenda of StudentsFirst. Rhee’s group aims to split public-school teachers from pupils and their families.

StudentsFirst is busy at the California state Capitol and at state houses nationwide, calling for new rules for public schools. Why? Rhee’s group blames public-school teachers and their labor unions for a lack of accountability to parents and students.

While U.S. public schools try to educate all youth—both the officially poor and scores of others whose families barely make ends meet—the teacher-accountability narrative of StudentsFirst sidesteps the concrete fact of economic inequality. This trend weakens public funding of education. It’s part of an anti-union agenda sweeping the land.

The goal of StudentsFirst is to raise $1 billion in five years, which will not come from the 99 percent, but from the wealthy.

In mid-July, the IRS announced that it would review its tax policy for 501(c)(4) nonprofits. Donor transparency can move StudentsFirst out of the shadows and onto the public’s radar screen. The main secret donors to Rhee’s group are likely the 1 percent who also rent our politicians.

Sunlight boosts democracy. Let it shine.