(The Washington Post)

For years now, private foundations run by the very, very wealthy have been pouring money into their pet school reform efforts, many of them taking the view that traditional public education is broken and that it should be privatized. Education activists have called out these foundations, but now, in Idaho, it’s the school superintendents who are are speaking out.

They are taking on the J.A. and Kathryn Albertson Family Foundation, which consistently portrays traditional public schools in a negative light and pushes for alternatives, and their public statements underscore growing opposition around the country to school reform efforts that support the the privatization of  public education.

Don Coberly, superintendent of the Boise School District, led the public opposition to the foundation’s “Don’t Fail Idaho” campaign with a February update to district staff that says in part (you can read the full statement below):

Over the last few weeks you may have heard or seen the latest advertisements from the J.A and Kathryn Albertson Foundation’s “Don’t Fail Idaho” campaign. Perhaps the most controversial claim is that four out of five Idaho students are not prepared for life after high school. There are four facts we want you to understand about this campaign:
  1. It promotes an agenda that is designed to undermine public schools.
  2. It is highly inaccurate.
  3. It offers no real solutions to increasing post-secondary readiness.
  4. It is a disservice to the work you do every day for the youth of this district.
Undermining public schools
 
Why would someone want to undermine public education in Idaho? The motive is quite clear. At a recent Downtown Rotary Club meeting, the executive director of the Albertson Foundation stated that the goal of the Foundation is to increase charter school seats by 20,000 in the next few years. That will only happen if Idahoans lose faith in their public schools.
In addition, Coberly and all seven members of the Boise School District trustees board signed a joint statement that said in part:
Let’s be clear; this campaign promotes an agenda designed to undermine public schools. It is highly inaccurate. It offers no real solutions to increasing post-secondary readiness. It is a disservice to the work public school teachers, parents, and students do every day.
Then 13 Idaho superintendents signed a joint statement saying in part:

In recent weeks, many of your readers may have seen an advertisement presented by the “Don’t Fail Idaho” campaign which dramatically drops four Idaho students in the middle of the desert and leaves them there with one student left on the bus, forlornly waving to those that were “left behind.” The claim of this advertisement is that four out of five students are not prepared for life after high school.

As superintendents of many schools in this area, we feel it is important to defend our districts against a blatant attempt to undermine support for the public school system that serves this area. The “Don’t Fail Idaho” campaign and its parent organization, the J.A. and Kathryn Albertson Family Foundation, have based their claims on SAT data which is a predictor of a student’s performance in the first semester of their first year in a four-year institution. This data is tremendously narrow and does not reflect what is happening in our schools and with our students.

And Superintendent Wendy Johnson of the Kuna School District wrote a personal message to her district that said in part:

Like many of you, my blood boils every time I hear the Don’t Fail Idaho rhetoric. Yet I have not acted. Would speaking out mean that I might damage future grant possibilities for students and teachers under my care? Would not speaking out continue to demoralize our hardworking educators and erode our community’s trust in us? On one hand, I knew the devastating effects that the negative messaging was having on all of you–the team I have vowed to lead and protect from negative outside forces. On the other hand, I was worried about the negative effect that speaking out might have on our district–on the many hopes and dreams we have for our students; many of which we cannot afford to accomplish alone.

When wrestling with these questions, I was reminded of an instructional unit that I used to teach called the Power of One. The foundational theme of the study for my students was based on the quote from anti-slavery activist Rev. Edward Everett Hale who wrote, “I am only one, but I am one. I cannot do everything, but I can do something. And I will not let what I cannot do interfere with what I can do.” And with this reminder, I decided that I would tell our district’s story. Students are succeeding in Kuna and in Idaho.

False. Four out of five graduates aren’t prepared for life after high school.
True. 70% of graduates have a plan for further education after high school. The college freshman retention rate for KHS graduates is 77%.

Here’s the full missive from the Boise superintendent:




Superintendent’s Update
February 2016
Dear Boise School District staff member:
It’s been a while since we have communicated directly with you in an update. We wanted to take this opportunity to address an important issue.
Over the last few weeks you may have heard or seen the latest advertisements from the J.A and Kathryn Albertson Foundation’s “Don’t Fail Idaho” campaign. Perhaps the most controversial claim is that four out of five Idaho students are not prepared for life after high school. There are four facts we want you to understand about this campaign:
  1. It promotes an agenda that is designed to undermine public schools.
  2. It is highly inaccurate.
  3. It offers no real solutions to increasing post-secondary readiness.
  4. It is a disservice to the work you do every day for the youth of this district.
Undermining public schools
 
Why would someone want to undermine public education in Idaho? The motive is quite clear. At a recent Downtown Rotary Club meeting, the executive director of the Albertson Foundation stated that the goal of the Foundation is to increase charter school seats by 20,000 in the next few years. That will only happen if Idahoans lose faith in their public schools.
Predicting college success
 
Now let’s set the record straight. The data in question have been spun to create the illusion that 80% of Idaho’s high school graduates are not prepared for college. The source of the data is the 2015 SAT test, administered to juniors in Idaho’s high schools last April. The criteria used by the Foundation? A score of 500 on each of the 3 sections of the test, and an overall score of 1550, adopted by the Idaho Board of Education as an indicator of college success.
The creator of the SAT indicated that achieving this score provides a 66% chance that a freshman will achieve a grade average of B- in the first semester at a four-year college. While this may be one predictor of success in college, it clearly does not reflect other factors that often are more important. High school grades are more predictive than SAT scores. Experience in Dual Credit and Advanced Placement courses are more important. Enrollment and success in Professional Technical coursework, such as Welding or Auto Body, is more important.
Among members of the Boise District high school graduating class of 2009 who have graduated from college, nearly 40% did not achieve the benchmark when they took the SAT or its competitor, the ACT. According to the Foundation, it must be a miracle they graduated from college.
Additionally, we know that only 1 in 10 Boise District students entering Boise State University require remediation in math and reading. This is direct evidence that at least 90% of District students are prepared for college – and that’s due to the tremendous work you do with our students.
Our commitment to post-secondary readiness
 
The ad is just one more indication that the Foundation is out of touch with where Idaho is going. For the first time in nearly a decade, The Governor, State Board of Education, State Superintendent of Public Instruction, State Legislature, ISBA, IASA, and the IEA are working together to build up our public education system, funding schools more properly and making teacher salaries more competitive in order to improve the economy and develop a more educated citizenry. The Albertsons Foundation is trying to tear it down.
Your efforts are appreciated
 
In spite of the disheartening rhetoric that the Albertson Foundation is promoting, we know that the community supports and recognizes the work that all of you do daily to prepare our students. We will continue to oppose any effort to undermine your dedication, our students’ successes and the role public schools play in creating a vibrant, healthy city and state.
Please feel free to share the information contained herein with parents and community members who might have questions for you about the negative campaign being waged across the state by the Albertson Foundation. We value your service to the community and to our students, and we know that parents and community members do, as well.
Our District’s mission is to “graduate each student prepared for college, career, and citizenship”. Thanks so much for all you do to help us achieve this mission.
Sincerely,
Dr. Don Coberly
Superintendent
Boise School District