Follow the money: Winerip takes out after education philanthropists

The other day Michael Winerip raised what has come to be an increasingly contentious question in the public education reform debate ? the use of private money for public purposes. Though he unfortunately veers off into a spat between long-time contenders for control of New York State's public school system (and doesn't touch the deeper questions), Winerip's story is nonetheless a good one: a state education department whose budget has been slashed 35 percent in the last two years, solicits ?private donations to set up a panel of 13 ?research fellows,? paid as much as $189,000 each, to advise the state's education commissioner on matters of education policy. ?As Regents chancellor Merryl Tisch, herself one of New York's richest, told Winerip:

People in the department were burning out?. This was a great way to enhance our capacity.

Sounds reasonable. These are tough times and deep-pocketed individuals are stepping up to the plate to help out. Is that a good idea?? Aside from Jay Greene's recent advice (which is old advice), that ?Philanthropists with billions of dollars to devote to education reform should build new institutions and stop trying to fix old ones,? the question posed, by innuendo, by Winerip, is whether this sort of private? salting of the bureaucracy is kosher.? The Board of Regents had no say in the selection of the research fellows, who went on to make a number of recommendations, the most contentious of which was to increase the importance of student test scores to teacher and principal evaluations ? from 20 percent to 40 percent of the total score. The ensuing fight, as Winerip describes it, was one that is all too familiar to governance watchers -- ?the losers cried foul ? and so dilutes the case that Winerip seems to be trying to build. (In fact, unstated here is that Democratic Governor Andrew Cuomo also weighed in on behalf of the 40 percent bar and the Regents voted overwhelmingly, 14 to 3, to adopt it.)

John Bierwirth, a Long Island school superintendent and part of a task force of 63 educators that had met many times and recommended a 20 percent evaluation ceiling, said he ?felt used,? ?irrelevant.?

Welcome to New York!

Winerip does a decent job of airing complaints from the dissenters, whom he calls ?The Bottoms? (those who call the Obama administration's singular education law a Race to the Bottom), but also gives space to ?The Tops? (proponents of Race to the Top). But he doesn't say much about what the researchers actually did, nor does he get to the fundamental question of how exactly private money can and should be used by public officials. (Perhaps because The Bottoms have their own deep pockets; see below.) ?There doesn't appear to be any suggestion of laws being broken. Commissioner John King, according to Winerip, ?said that picking the fellows was the commissioner's decision and that there was no legal requirement to consult the Regents.?

Still, shouldn't there be limits on ?gifts? to public education? More strings, perhaps?? More hoops to jump through rather than fewer?? The question seems to have become more pointed now that more wealthy individuals care about reform and more reformers are showing up in leadership roles.? (I'm waiting for one of them to show up in my district; there's no more pleasant phrase to a school board's ears than, ?at no cost to the district.? Is snake oil good for you?? Is it ?free??)

Winerip implies that Bill Gates contributed $892,000 to the research fellows effort (though it's unclear if that was a personal donation and whether it went to the fellows program).? But the reporter also mentions the National Association of Charter School Administrators, the Robbins Foundation and the Tortora Sillcox Family Foundation as private organizations that fund education causes they believe in.? Is that bad?

Gates and Mayor Michael Bloomberg ?are expert at using philanthropy in a way that pressures government to follow their public policy agendas,? writes Winerip. But he doesn't define ?pressure? and doesn't say that the efforts are bad for education.

There is, indeed a long list of philanthropic flops, and such mainstays of the charitable giving world as Ford and Rockefeller and Carnegie ?and Annenberg have been trying to influence public education for many years. Lately, the money has come from names like Gates and Walton and Broad, not to mention Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg, who gave a cool $100 million to Newark last year (coincidentally, at about the same time as an unflattering movie about him was released). Yes, the money seems increasingly aimed at leveraging change (?impact investing? is in Wikipedia), despite Jay Greene's longstanding contention that it's all ?Buckets into the Sea,? the title of his chapter in Rick Hess's 2005 book With the Best of Intentions.

But there is no doubt that the education reform movement has been jolted to life by the interest of major money. (See my story in Ed Next about the creation of Albany charter powerhouse Brighter Choice, thanks in large part to Wall Street mogul George Gilder and his wife Virginia.) ? And no matter what your politics, you must appreciate the huge impact of the billionaire education Mayor himself, Michael Bloomberg, who made no secret of his desire to break some education furniture in New York City and who recently kicked in $250,000 to help save New York State's Regents tests -- and then gave $30 million for a publicly run program to help the city's black and latino men.

Good or bad?

In a recent interview with Jason Riley in the Wall Street Journal, Gates admits to some missteps in his ?record-breaking philanthropic push for school reform,? as Riley writes.? And so Gates ? his foundation ? is now turning to ?higher leverage? charity, notably, doing what state and the federal governments aren't doing: research and development.? None of the 50 states do R&D, Gates says. Why can't he help? His foundation is now spending $335 million to figure out what makes an effective teacher, an initiative that includes videotaping 3,000 elementary teachers in classrooms across the country. ?Indeed, teachers and teaching are a hot topic on the philanthropic circuit. The Walton Foundation just announced that it was donating $49 million to Teach for America and the Carnegie Corporation last year launched its ?Elusive Teacher Strategy? initiative.

I could go on.? (See Richard Lee Colvin's The New Philanthropists in the 2005 Education Next. Colvin concludes that, ?Despite the sometimes gloomy assessments of philanthropy's impact, there is reason for hope.?)

My question is not Jay Greene's question about whether the best bang for the buck is in the tributaries of the education system.? My question is whether a mogul's million is any different than the million gathered from thousands of taxpayers ? and do we need more regulation and policing over it?? It's sure easier to raise a million from a few people -- especially if you're a billionaire chancellor or mayor --? than raise the taxes of a million people.? But can't the former be construed as unfair influence over the public's purse, broadly defined.? What happened to one person, one vote?

The Daily News, for instance, was not comfortable with ?six deep-pocketed individuals? buying New York students their Regents exams:

New York doles out more than $19 billion in education aid annually, pushing school spending above $18,000 per pupil versus the national average of $10,500. Yet Gov. Cuomo, the Legislature and the department could not find the $1.5 million for the January Regents, or $6.5 million more for further testing. Even at a time of severe budgetary stress, these numbers do not add up?. ?Albany's priorities are out of whack. At a time when desperately needed school reforms demand more and better exams, cutting funding for testing is a bad policy choice. And that's something no rich benefactor can fix.

This starts to get to the point that Diane Ravitch consistently makes in her warnings about ?the ?privatization? of public schools and her criticisms of ?Astroturf? philanthropists: their excessive influence over public institutions that, by right and law, are owned by voters, each of whom has, in theory, an equivalent share of stock in the ?company.?

?Reform groups such as Stand for Children, and Teach for America, Ravitch said,? according to a recent story on Ravitch by Politico's Abby Phillip,

take money and policy directions from corporate foundations like Gates, Walton and the Broad Foundation whose interests don't line up with what is best for schools and teachers. The real goal of these groups is to erode teachers' collective bargaining rights, improve education for a select minority of students rather than all children, and tie teachers' evaluations to flawed standardized tests.

Or so the theory goes.

The blind spot ? it's actually a big black hole -- in this analysis is that it leaves out the billions of private dollars already coursing through the system's veins.? As Rishawn Biddle pointed out about the recent recall effort in Wisconsin,

more money [was] spent on the recall elections than on the entire state legislative campaign last year, most of it coming from public-sector unions? ?And when the National Education Association and the American Federation of Teachers weigh in ? including spending $400,000 on radio ads supporting Democratic opponents alone ? the elections are also a referendum on the influence of teachers unions in education policy.

In the end, it may very well be that our philanthropist reformers ? including hedge-funders ? are simply responding to what has been the outsized influence over the system exercised by private teacher unions, textbook and testing companies, and a web of high-powered lobbyists representing all manner of industry associations. Shouldn't that be part of the Astroturf critique? Isn't all that dough more private sector money? ?(The term ?public sector union? is often misunderstood; teacher unions are no more public than the Gates Foundation.)

It was thus a shock last year to New York State United Teachers when a couple of veteran politicos mounted a multi-million-dollar lobbying campaign ? yes, financed by Wall Street -- to get key reform bills through the state legislature, a legislature once owned by the powerhouse teacher union.

When I talked to NYSUT chief Richard Ianuzzi about it (see my Ed Next piece on New York's winning Race to the Top strategy), he was blunt:? the union lost key battles because of ?hedge fund operators?who could write out a check for a million dollars a shot.?? He should know.

All's fair?

Well, no, but the new governance muscle being exercised by men and women of means ? and their foundations ? is a welcome corrective to the room-clearing elbows thrust by the unions and their allies.? The bottom line is that the process needs to be transparent, and the debate kept public.? But it is time, at least, to recognize the fact that the richest people in the education room are not Gates or Bloomberg or Tisch, but AFT, NEA, and NYSUT. That's the privatization that has done the damage to our nation's school system.

--Peter Meyer, Bernard Lee Schwartz Policy Fellow

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