The Chicago teachers strike has made school reform national news, and here’s a piece that helps explain some of the controvery. This is a follow-up to a post I published last month about plans by the California-based foundation of billionaire Eli Broad to expand its influence in school reform initiatives that include charter schools, merit pay and other market-based reforms. The original piece and the following one were written by Ken Libby, a doctoral student at the University of Colorado at Boulder, and Stan Karp, director of the Secondary Reform Project for New Jersey’s Education Law Center and an editor of Rethinking Schools magazine.

By Ken Libby and Stan Karp

Billionaire Eli Broad (BLOOMBERG)

The Broad Center objected. (One of its current goals is a “reduction in negative TBC press coverage.”) TBC Executive Director Becca Bracy Knight posted a comment on The Answer Sheet blog, saying “I think we can all agree that when trying to determine other people’s intentions, particularly over something as important as our public schools, that it is useful to hear directly from the source.” We agree, which is why we published Broad’s memo along with our description of it.

Knight also posted a commentary on the TBC website in response to our post. The commentary refers to “conspiracy theories” that were actually never raised in our article, which deals almost entirely with the Broad Center’s plans as described in its own documents and emails. Knight’s commentary also purports to correct things we “get wrong,” claiming, for example, that most of TBC’s graduates “are intimately familiar with classroom realities because they are lifelong educators.” TBC posted a similar response on Facebook contending “most of the people going through our programs are lifelong educators.”

This is an odd and unsubstantiated claim for a program that boasts, “We have filled more superintendent positions than any other national training program, and remain the only organization recruiting management talent from outside of education.” According to a press release TBC’s 2012 class included “three high-ranking military officers, a telecom executive and four experienced educators.

Moreover, the plans we described explicitly call for reducing the “experience level required” for entering Broad’s training programs, recruiting more “entrepreneurial” non-educators, and spending less time on school operations and more on political advocacy aligned with Broad’s reform priorities.

Knight’s commentary also complains: “What the Aug. 21 Answer Sheet blog post doesn’t tell you is that nowhere in the memo referred to are the words ‘privatize public schools,’ ‘run schools like businesses,’ ‘corporate school reform’ or ‘influence schools.’ That is because these are not our goals. We don’t believe in these things, which is why you won’t see that language in any correspondence we produce.”

This is PR spin. Despite the quotes, none of the phrases Knight objects to appear in our post — except “corporate school reform,” which is clearly our characterization of the side Broad has been supporting in the polarized national debate over education policy.

More to the point is that the charter schools Broad supports are, in fact, “privatized public schools.” The “entrepreneurial” leaders Broad recruits to “transform K-12 urban public education through better governance, management, labor relations and competition” draw their models of “systems management” from the private sector And the “go to group” of the most “transformational” leaders Broad seeks to create (citing Joel Klein, Michelle Rhee and Wendy Koop as exemplars) is designed to “help shape policy agendas, influence public opinion, coalesce political forces, and advance bold reforms on the ground.”

The claim that Broad does not seek to “influence schools” is bizarre. According to emails from TBC’s managing director, the whole point of the plans outlined in the Broad memo are to advance “high level strategies for the Broad center in 2012-2013 that reflect a significant shift away from a focus on individual leadership development and career paths to an approach that seeks to have greater impact through a stronger focus on transformational leaders, driving people to reform-ready locations, and accelerating reforms across our network.”

The central purpose of “The Broad Center for the Management of School Systems” is to influence schools and the policies that shape their work.

Eli Broad once wrote that his “goal is to help turn a tired government monopoly into a high-performing public enterprise.” The problem, of course, is that a real public enterprise is one where policymakers are accountable to the public in transparent and democratic ways. Instead billionaires like Eli Broad have used their fabulous wealth to privatize the making of education policy and to create powerful political advocacy networks to implement it. That this is completely legal and that both Democrats and Republicans have aided and abetted this effort makes it more alarming, but no less private in its origins and goals.

Finally, we are more interested in the actual impact of TBC’s plans and activities than its “intentions.” For instance, the documents we published were released to New Jersey’s Education Law Center under the state’s Open Public Records Act. ELC was seeking information on a series of Broad Foundation grants made to support efforts by Governor Chris Christie and his education Commissioner Chris Cerf (former President of Edison Schools, Inc, once the nation’s largest for-profit education management company) to aggressively intervene in over 250 schools serving high needs communities of color.

The plans include creating a “recovery district,” modeled in part on post-Katrina New Orleans. If student standardized test scores don’t improve in two years, these schools may be subject to closure, transformation into charters or other private management. These plans are advancing alongside efforts to undercut one of the nation’s most successful state public education systems and are providing a “money doesn’t matter” reform cover for eroding hard-won gains in funding equity for New Jersey’s poorest urban districts.

The Broad Foundation, which never made any investments to support implementation of NJ’s historic equity funding mandates such as full-day pre-K for all 3- and 4-year olds, has provided millions in grants to reorganize the state education Department, staff it with subsidized Broad fellows, support charter expansion, and fund disruptive “school turnaround” plans that include closing schools, firing staff and reducing local control. Whatever Broad’s “intentions,” its activities have promoted the polarizing agenda of the most anti-public school administration that New Jersey has ever had.

Nor is New Jersey an isolated case. As Broad boasts, “We have over 30 sitting superintendents in large urban systems, as well as state superintendents in four of the most reform-oriented states (Delaware, Rhode Island, Louisiana, and New Jersey). Broad graduates are in the number one or number two seats in the three largest districts in the country (New York City, Los Angeles, and Chicago), and lead the newest turnaround systems in Michigan and Tennessee.” TBC is now targeting state education agencies and “revolutionary CMOs” in its effort to “increase our impact,” “accelerate the pace” and “amplify the impact of breakthrough reforms.”

Broad does not contest the authenticity of the documents or the substance of our summary of the proposals in them. Instead it asks the public to substitute faith in the foundation’s “good intentions” for a critical assessment of the impact of the “disruptive” reform strategies it has championed across the country. It also attempts to divert attention from those policies by hyping a list of “75 Examples of How Bureaucracy Stands in the Way of America’s Students and Teachers.”

This odd list is a random catalog of bureaucratic horrors in urban school systems, including items that are indisputable, others that are contradictory and some that have been made worse by the reforms Broad supports. The list omits obstacles “in the way of America’s students and teachers” that are not on TBC’s list of priorities, such as appalling child poverty rates, inadequate and unequal school funding and the overuse and misuse of standardized tests. In any event, the list is largely irrelevant to the issues raised by Broad’s plans to increase its influence.

The Broad Center’s efforts to “accelerate” disruptive reform do not improve school districts. Instead they destabilize them, promote the privatization of public policy and undermine the common ground public education needs to survive and improve. Broad’s support for charter expansion, school closings, test-based teacher evaluation, merit pay, Teach for America, hostility to teachers unions and top-down business management of school districts is wreaking havoc in urban districts across the country. Our “interest” in the Broad Center’s programs is in stopping them from doing further damage to our schools, students and communities.


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