Thursday, June 11, 2009

The Nation: The Selling Of School Reform

Dana Goldstein

The Nation

June 15, 2009

It sounds like the beginning of a bad joke: Al

Sharpton, Newt Gingrich and Mike Bloomberg--all failed

presidential hopefuls--arrive at the White House for a

joint meeting with President Barack Obama. Upon leaving

the Oval Office, they convene a press conference on the

White House lawn.

But far from tearing one another to bits or sniping at

the man whose job they coveted, these unlikely

comrades--a self-appointed civil rights spokesman, a

former Republican Speaker of the House and a

billionaire New York City mayor--were in total

agreement. The topic of the meeting? Schools.

"You have to hold people accountable, and those that

perform should be the ones that teach our kids, and

those that don't, unfortunately our children are just

too important," Bloomberg said, referring to his

support for teacher merit pay.

Sharpton intoned, "The nation's future is at stake, our

children [are] at stake."

Education Secretary Arne Duncan was there to lend the

administration's support. "There's a real sense of

economic imperative," he said. "We have to educate our

way [to] a better economy."

Though the media portrayed the meeting as one among

"strange bedfellows," in fact Sharpton, Gingrich and

Bloomberg are all on the same side of the education

policy debate roiling the Democratic Party. The three

are spokesmen for the Education Equality Project (EEP),

an advocacy group that has attracted widespread media

attention since its June 2008 launch, in large part

because of its bipartisan call for policies like merit

pay and the expansion of the charter school sector.

With the support of rising star Democrats like Newark,

New Jersey, Mayor Cory Booker and Washington, DC, Mayor

Adrian Fenty, the EEP and such allied groups as the

political action committee Democrats for Education

Reform--have openly pushed back against the influence

of teachers unions, community groups and teachers

colleges over national education policy. Proclaiming

themselves "reformers," they often borrow their

strategies from the private sector, and they believe

urban public schools must be subjected to more free-

market competition.

On the other side of the divide is a group of

progressive policy experts and educators who published

a manifesto during campaign season called A Broader,

Bolder Approach to Education. They believe teachers and

schools will not be able to eradicate the achievement

gap between middle-class white children and everyone

else until a wide array of social services are

available to poor families. They envision schools as

community centers, offering families healthcare, meals

and counseling.

Theoretically, there is no reason all these people

can't work together. Some charter schools, after all,

have had extraordinary success in raising the

achievement of low-income students--even, in some

cases, with the cooperation of teachers unions. Many

younger teachers appear enthusiastic about performance-

based pay, although there is no evidence from the

cities that have tried it, like Denver, that it

improves student achievement. Yet the single-

mindedness--some would say obsessiveness--of the

reformers' focus on these specific policy levers puts

off more traditional Democratic education experts and

unionists. As they see it, with the vast majority of

poor children educated in traditional public schools,

education reform must focus on improving the management

of the public system and the quality of its services--

not just on supporting charter schools. What's more,

social science has long been clear on the fact that

poverty and segregation influence students' academic

outcomes at least as much as do teachers and schools.

Obama's decision to invite representatives of only one

side of this divide to the Oval Office confirmed what

many suspected: the new administration--despite

internal sympathy for the "broader, bolder approach"--

is eager to affiliate itself with the bipartisan flash

and pizazz around the new education reformers. The risk

is that in doing so the administration will alienate

supporters with a more nuanced view of education

policy. What's more, critics contend that free-market

education reform is a top-down movement that is

struggling to build relationships with parents and

community activists, the folks who typically support

local schools and mobilize neighbors on their behalf.

So keenly aware of this deficit are education reformers

that a number of influential players were involved in

the payment of $500,000 to Sharpton's nearly broke

nonprofit, the National Action Network, in order to

procure Sharpton as a national spokesman for the EEP.

And Sharpton's presence has unquestionably benefited

the EEP coalition, ensuring media attention and

grassroots African-American crowds at events like the

one held during Obama's inauguration festivities, at

Cardozo High School in Washington.

"Sharpton was a pretty big draw," says Washington

schools chancellor Michelle Rhee, recalling the

boisterous crowd at Cardozo. Rhee is known for shutting

down schools and aggressively pursuing a private

sector-financed merit pay program. Some of the locals

who came out to hear Sharpton booed Rhee's speech at

the same event, despite the fact that her policies

embody the movement for which Sharpton speaks.

The $500,000 donation to Sharpton's organization was

revealed by New York Daily News columnist Juan

Gonzalez on April 1, as the EEP and National Action

Network were co-hosting a two-day summit in Harlem,

attended by luminaries including Chicago schools CEO

Arne Duncan. The money originated in the coffers of

Plainfield Asset Management, a Connecticut-based hedge

fund whose managing director is former New York City

schools chancellor Harold Levy, an ally of the current

chancellor, Joel Klein. Plainfield has invested in

Playboy, horse racetracks and biofuels. But the company

did not donate the money directly to Sharpton. Rather,

in what appears to have been an attempt to cover

tracks, the $500,000 was given to a nonprofit entity

called Education Reform Now, which has no employees.

(According to IRS filings, Education Reform Now had

never before accepted a donation of more than $92,500.)

That group, in turn, funneled the $500,000 to

Sharpton's nonprofit.

If one person is at the center of this close-knit nexus

of Wall Street and education reform interests, it is

Joe Williams, who serves as president and treasurer of

the EEP's board and is also the executive director of

Education Reform Now. But it is through his day job

that Williams, a former education reporter for the

Daily News, exerts the most influence. He is executive

director of Democrats for Education Reform (DFER), a

four-year-old PAC that has gained considerable

influence, raising $2 million in 2008 and demonstrating

remarkable public relations savvy.

The group's six-person team works out of an East Forty-

fifth Street office donated--rent-free--by the hedge

fund Khronos LLC. In recent months, DFER has had a

number of high-profile successes, chief among them a

highly coordinated media campaign to call into question

the work of Obama education adviser Linda Darling-

Hammond, once considered a top contender for the job of

education secretary. During the same week in early

December, the New York Times, Washington Post, Wall

Street Journal and Boston Globe published editorials or

op-eds based on DFER's anti-Darling-Hammond talking

points, which focused on the Stanford professor's

criticisms of Teach for America and other alternative-

certification programs for teachers. Less than two

weeks later, Obama appointed DFER's choice to the

Education Department post, Chicago schools CEO Duncan.

During campaign season, DFER donated to House majority

whip James Clyburn, Senator Mark Warner and Virginia

swing district winner Representative Tom Periello,

among others. The organization regularly hosts events

introducing education reformers like Rhee and Fenty to

New York City "edupreneurs," finance industry players

for whom education reform is a sideline. DFER is

focused on opening a second office, in Colorado, a

state viewed as being in the forefront of standards-

and testing-based education reform. The group

successfully promoted Denver schools superintendent

Michael Bennett to fill the Senate seat vacated when

Obama named Ken Salazar as interior secretary. Bennett

led the school system with the highest-profile merit

pay system in the nation.

During the Democratic Party's national convention in

Denver this past August, DFER hosted a well-attended

event at the Denver Museum of Art, during which Fenty,

Booker, Klein, Sharpton and other well-known Democrats

openly denigrated teachers unions, whose members

accounted for 10 percent of DNCC delegates. With

Clyburn and other veteran members of Congress in

attendance, many longtime observers of Democratic

politics believed the event represented a sea change in

the party's education platform, the arrival of a new

generation. While progressive groups such as Education

Sector, Education Trust and the Citizens' Commission on

Civil Rights have long attempted to push free-market

education reforms to the Democratic Party, it is only

with the arrival of DFER that the movement has had a

lobbying arm with an explicit focus on influencing the

political process through fundraising and media


"For a lot of groups that are dependent upon both

private money and government money, there's a tendency

not to want to get involved in the nitty-gritty of

politics," Williams said in a March 31 phone interview

from Denver, where he was meeting with Colorado

politicians, setting the stage for DFER's expansion

there. "Our group--what we do is politics. We make it

clear: we're not an education reform group. We're a

political reform group that focuses on education

reform. That distinction matters because all of our

partners are the actual education reform groups. We're

trying to give them a climate where it's easier for

them to do their work."

The education reformers who came to prominence in the

1990s, including the founders of Teach for America and

the Knowledge Is Power Program, the national charter

school network that fought unionization in one of its

Brooklyn schools, often went to great lengths to

portray themselves as explicitly apolitical.

Nevertheless, "a lot of those people are, politically,

Democrats," says Sara Mead, a DFER board member and

director of early childhood programs at the Washington-

based New America Foundation. "One of those things that

DFER does that's really important is to help give those

people a way to assert their identity as Democrats.

It's important for those groups' long-term success, but

also for Democrats, to the extent that some of these

organizations are doing really good things for the kids

whose parents are Democratic constituents. It's

important that those organizations are identified with

us rather than being co-opted by Republicans, as they

were in the past."

The question remains, though, whether DFER and its

allies actually do speak for poor and minority parents

and their kids. Who on the left would disagree that the

staggering achievement gap between middle-class white

kids and poor children of color is a civil rights issue

of national importance? Who wouldn't view the high

dropout rates among black and Latino boys as a

disgrace? And yet there is no clear national

representation for the interests of the urban, mostly

black and Hispanic parents whose children's schools

confront these statistics day in and day out.

"On the local level is a certain distrust and despair

about schools that makes poor families accessible" to

free-market education reformers, says Deborah Meier, an

education professor at New York University and the

founder of several successful experimental public

schools for poor children. "But I think the

intersection between poverty and racism can't just be

tackled in this one area, in schools."

Teachers unions, with their focus on wraparound social

services for poor kids and better working conditions

for teachers, believe they are the natural spokespeople

for poor families. But so do union critics such as Joel

Klein, Michelle Rhee and Joe Williams, who are

sympathetic to No Child Left Behind and standardized

testing, and whose allies support private school

voucher programs.

"The DFERs, when they look at vouchers and charters,

they don't look at the underlying conditions," says

Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation

of Teachers. "Parents want to send their kids to

charters and parochial schools because they like the

smaller class sizes, they like the attention to safety,

they like the attention to conditions that public

school teachers talk about all the time. They make us

the villains instead of the people who have the most

power--the superintendents and mayors."

Weingarten says she likes Williams, who is in fact a

reasonable and calm interlocutor; he even walks the

walk by sending his children to New York City public

schools. Some of DFER's board members, though, such as

investment manager and a Teach for America founder

Whitney Tilson, have been known to grow overheated in

their attacks on unions, calling them corrupt and

claiming that their leaders don't care about children.

Traditional education liberals can be just as harsh on

the subject of DFER. Criticizing the group's lack of

commitment to the racial integration of schools,

veteran education writer Jonathan Kozol said, "DFER is

working in historical oblivion. If they're going to

betray everything that Dr. King and Thurgood Marshall

fought for, at least they ought to have the honesty to

say so."

DFER is focused on reaching out to state legislators

across the country, pressing them to support policies

such as lifting the cap on the number of charter

schools allowed to open in a year. DFER is also

carefully watching how Congress and the Obama

administration dole out the $100 billion for schools

included in the February economic stimulus package.

Much of that money will fill local budget gaps, simply

allowing school districts to continue their work

without resorting to massive layoffs. But a $5 billion

"race to the top" fund is intended specifically to

foster innovation and reform in a small number of

states--perhaps between eight and twelve--that win a

competitive grant process. As White House chief of

staff Rahm Emanuel said in March, "The resources come

with a bow tied around them that says 'reform.' Our

basic premise is that the status quo and political

constituencies can no longer determine how we proceed

on public education reform in this country."

That sounds a lot like a DFER talking point. Indeed, it

has become clear that DFER's idea of education reform

is the one driving the Obama administration as it

distributes these funds. In a major March 10 address on

education delivered to the Hispanic Chamber of

Commerce, Obama spoke glowingly of charter schools and

merit pay plans. "Too many supporters of my party have

resisted the idea of rewarding excellence in teaching

with extra pay, even though we know it can make a

difference in the classroom," he said--though education

research has yet to offer proof that merit pay is a

panacea. Later in the speech, the president called

charter schools the national leaders on education

"innovation" and called on states to allow their


Two weeks later, during a conference call with

reporters, Duncan said thirty-six school districts

across the country are doing "interesting things around

[teacher] compensation" and added he hoped federal

stimulus dollars will increase that number to 150. The

education secretary called "rewarding teacher

excellence" a major priority but would not be more

specific about how such "excellence" should be


Darling-Hammond--back at Stanford but still advising

the Obama administration--is focusing her latest

research on international teacher quality. Nations like

South Korea and Singapore have managed to reduce

education inequality by building stable, high-quality

teacher forces, she says. The key is paying teachers

more, across the board, and providing them with better

professional training and support. Test-score-based

merit pay, according to Darling-Hammond, is a "marginal


On the ground, however, merit pay has become a major

point of contention: in districts like Washington, some

teachers have resisted calls for student test scores to

heavily influence their salaries, and parents have

protested the firings of popular teachers,

professionals they believe were making a difference in

their children's lives.

Unexplained teacher firings "are not a way to run a

school," says Ruth Castel-Branco, an organizer with DC

Jobs With Justice. "That shakes up the very foundation

of stability that schools have to have. There has to be

due process and a meaningful way for parents to


So far, at least, free-market education reformers have

struggled with this piece of the puzzle. Lacking a

membership base, their movement's lobbying arm is

essentially top-down, financed by New York hedge-

funders, supported by research conducted at Beltway

think tanks and represented on the ground by a handful

of state and local politicians scattered across the

country. And while it's true that charter schools and

Teach for America instructors interact with children

and parents every day, the excitement around individual

schools and classrooms does not easily translate into a

national agenda. After all, the vast majority of urban

students remain in traditional public schools, taught

by teachers who came through traditional teachers

college certification routes.

Even the involvement of Al Sharpton can't change those

facts. Joe Williams, who describes himself as chastened

by his involvement in the $500,000 payment to

Sharpton's group, will admit that. "I wouldn't even

consider Sharpton grassroots, actually," Williams says.

"But he holds a lot of power. He brings attention to an

issue like this."

Dana Goldstein is an associate editor at American


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