The Washington Post

‘Rhee Effect:’ Why depending on private cash for reform is a bad idea

Michelle Rhee was a great fundraiser during the 3 1/2 years she was the chancellor of D.C.’s public schools.

During her tenure, from 2007 until 2010, when she resigned, she persuaded a handful of private foundations to pony up a total of more than $80 million to help cover a three-year labor contract she negotiated with teachers that included a performance-based pay assessment system.

But take a look at what my colleague Bill Turque reported on his D.C. Schools Insider blog:

“With Rhee gone and the three-year foundation commitment up, private largess is considerably more scarce. Grant funds are projected at just $3.8 million for FY 2013, an 82 percent drop. Officials have announced that the cost of the IMPACT bonuses has been passed on to the individual schools.”

Now Rhee has gone on to bigger things, becoming a national school reform advocate with her StudentsFirst organization and a goal to raise $1 billion to push for her agenda.

And back in D.C., the entities that had donated before — the Broad, Arnold, Walton and Robertson foundations — don’t seem to be opening their wallets quite as wide now that she’s gone. As Turque noted, the bonuses that teachers could earn under her IMPACT evaluation system now have to be borne by individual schools.

It is certainly true that public education funds ebb and flow with the health of state and federal budgets, and that programs funded with public dollars can be affected in a downward budget cycle. But that is far different from having private individuals pick and choose pet projects, with the effect, often, of redirecting public money and efforts toward them.

But the problem goes beyond pet projects. Last summer, New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg announced that money was so tight in the city budget that he was turning to private philanthropists — including himself — to donate $250,000 each to pay for state standardized testing that had been eliminated. The dangers of depending on rich private citizens to cover such core functions are apparent. “The Death and Life of the Great American School System”:

As education historian Diane Ravitch wrote in her book “The Death and Life of the Great American School System”:

“There is something fundamentally antidemocratic about relinquishing control of the public education policy agenda to private foundations run by society’s wealthiest people. . . . These foundations, no matter how worthy and high-minded, are after all, not public agencies. They are not subject to public oversight or review, as a public agency would be. . . . The foundations demand that public schools and teachers be held accountable for performance, but they themselves are accountable to no one. If their plans fail, no sanctions are levied against them. They are bastions of unaccountable power.”


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Valerie Strauss covers education and runs The Answer Sheet blog.


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