Netflix’s Reed Hastings has a big idea: Kill elected school boards (update)

Reed Hastings ( By Richard Brian/ Reuters)
Reed Hastings ( By Richard Brian/Reuters)

(adding reaction from California School Board Association)

There seems to be no end to the expertise that America’s billionaires possess and are happy to share with the rest of us about public education. Apparently making a fortune in the business world makes them experts on how to educate children.

Bill Gates, Eli Broad, Mark Zuckerberg, various Waltons — these are just some of the prodigiously wealthy who have decided that they know how public education can be “fixed” and have plowed big money into it. And after billions of their dollars have been spent for their pet projects, the real problems facing public schools remain.

The newest bit of “wisdom” for public education comes to us from Netflix Chief Executive Officer Reed Hastings, who is a big charter school supporter and an investor in the Rocketship Education charter school network. At a meeting of the California Charter Schools Association on March 4, he said in a keynote speech that the problem with public schools is that they are governed by elected local school boards. Charter schools have boards that are not elected and, according to his logic, have “a stable governance” and that’s why “they constantly get better every year.”

Here’s a transcript of part of the Hastings speech, published on stoprocketship.com (and you can watch the video below):

And so the fundamental problem with school districts is not their fault, the fundamental problem is that they don’t get to control their boards and the importance of the charter school movement is to evolve America from a system where governance is constantly changing and you can’t do long term planning to a system of large non-profits…The most important thing is that they constantly get better every year they’re getting better because they have stable governance — they don’t have an elected school board. And that’s a real tough issue. Now if we go to the general public and we say, “Here’s an argument why you should get rid of school boards” of course no one’s going to go for that. School boards have been an iconic part of America for 200 years. So what we have to do is to work with school districts to grow steadily, and the work ahead is really hard because we’re at 8% of students in California, whereas in New Orleans they’re at 90%, so we have a lot of catchup to do…So what we have to do is continue to grow and grow… It’s going to take 20-30 years to get to 90% of charter kids….And if we succeed over the next 20 or 30 years, that will be one of the fastest rates of change ever seen around the world for a large system, it’s hard. [applause]

Actually, all charter schools don’t have stable governance and all of them aren’t getting better every year (plenty close because of their lousy governance) and even charter advocates have called for changes to improve governance structures. What Hastings is suggesting is that democratic elections themselves create unacceptable instability in governance of public education.

Hastings is right, of course, to say that elections can cause a change in policy when people with different ideas are elected.  That’s what elections are for in a democracy. And certainly there have been — and still are — locally elected school boards that are miserable at their jobs.  On the other hand, charter schools, financed primarily with public funds, have appointed boards not accountable to the public.

He appears to be presenting a vision of education in the United States where nearly all students are educated in collections of charter schools: “So what we have to do is to work with school districts to grow steadily, and the work ahead is really hard because we’re at 8% of students in California, whereas in New Orleans they’re at 90%, so we have a lot of catchup to do.”  Really? Even many charter advocates recognize that the charter model will not work for a majority of America’s school children. Besides, if he is using the charter-heavy New Orleans Recovery School District as a model, we should run for the hills.

After Hurricane Katrina, most of the schools in the recovery discovery were turned in to charters, which reformers like Hastings see as a silver bullet to all that ails public education. But many of the district’s charters do worse than the traditional public schools, and many of those that do at all better have selective admissions. And there’s this, from a story last September from the Times-Picayune: “The Recovery School District reprimanded nine New Orleans charter schools in the first four months of a accountability system that aims to tighten oversight of 59 largely independent campuses, according to public records.” Imagine that. The charter governance wasn’t good enough.

Hastings suggests that the “stable governance” of charter schools leads to stable schools, but, alas, big changes occur  in charter schools. Let’s look at Rocketship, on whose unofficial board of advisers Hastings sits.  Rocketship became known — and won $2 million from the Obama administration to help it grow — with a “blended learning” model that is designed to incorporate traditional classroom settings with a computer “Learning Lab” for students. The idea behind the lab was that students could learn basic lessons in math and reading while teachers could work with students on more complicated material. Part of the attraction, too, was that the computers would cost less than hiring more teachers. But get this: Last year Rocketship realized it had to revamp its fabulous “Learning Lab” because it wasn’t working very well. The charter network’s Web site says it is still piloting “flexible learning spaces at some of our schools — spaces that will allow our teachers be even more effective and students to learn even more.”

 

Here’s a reaction from Josephine Lucey,  president of the California School Board Association and a member of the Cupertino Union School District Board:

Recently, Netflix CEO Reed Hastings spoke at the California Charter Schools Association conference to advocate for the end of locally elected school boards. Mr. Hastings said that the “fundamental problem” with school districts is that they “don’t get to control their boards.” He suggested that democratically elected school boards are the problem with public education and they should be replaced by privately held corporations.

The California School Boards Association (CSBA) would like to take the opportunity to provide Mr. Hastings with another perspective and set the record straight about the role and impact of local school boards.

Public oversight of local government is the foundation of American democracy. Nowhere is this more evident than in our public schools, where voters entrust boards of education with the education of our youth.

If Mr. Hastings thinks local school boards should be replaced, does he also believe that we should get rid of all other locally elected bodies, including city councils and county boards of supervisors? Does he not think that voters are capable of deciding who is best to represent and serve their best interests? We would beg to differ.

For more than 150 years, local school boards have been an integral feature of the California’s public education system and are widely regarded as the principal democratic body to represent citizens in local education decisions.

Local school boards have been described as the historic linchpin of American educational governance and their role is seen as crucial to sustaining participatory and representative government. In today’s pluralistic society, it’s important that individuals representing diverse viewpoints and experiences are elected to serve on school governing boards.

As Matt Haney, a board member of the San Francisco Unified School District, wrote in his recent op-ed in the San Jose Mercury News, “school boards exist because public schools belong to and are directly accountable to the communities they serve.”

To suggest that appointed boards, such as corporate boards and non-public boards that operate charter schools, are the answer would be a gross disservice to the communities local school board members are elected to represent and serve. It also goes against the democratic principles that our country was founded on.

To put this into a perspective that Mr. Hastings might appreciate, voters in a school district are a lot like shareholders in a corporation. Would Mr. Hastings suggest that publicly owned corporations have no responsibility to listen to shareholders? That is ludicrous, but that is what he is suggesting with public schools. And the secrecy in which privately appointed charter school directors are appointed really isn’t a good model. Some $61 billion in public money is spent on public schools in California annually; to suggest that voters shouldn’t have a say in who runs their local schools doesn’t sound like America at all.

California Governor Jerry Brown has recently introduced the principle of “subsidiarity,” acknowledging that decisions are best made by locally elected leaders closest to the classroom.

No one can protect and represent the diverse interests of the children in their communities better than local leaders — and nothing keeps the “public” in public schools better than publicly elected local leadership.

People hold their public servants accountable. Turnover on a school board — or any elected body for that matter — is how we let our representatives know whether we are satisfied with their service. As a former member of the California State Board of Education, Mr. Hastings should know that local school board member tenure is pretty high, as CSBA members average more than 8.5 years of service.

It’s unfortunate that instead of choosing to focus the conversation and awareness on the dire underfunding of public schools, which is truly the biggest challenge our state faces, Mr. Hastings is choosing to pit charter schools against local school boards.

We hope he understands that elected school boards are committed to advocating for and providing a high-quality education for all of our students and that we should be working together, not against one another, to achieve success. Our students deserve it.

Josephine Lucey, CSBA President and Cupertino Union School District Board Member

Valerie Strauss covers education and runs The Answer Sheet blog.
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Valerie Strauss · March 14