The Fix Is In

Bob Herbert of the New York Times has been doing an admirable job of outlining the human costs of our neglected infrastructure in his weekly columns. On Saturday he highlighted the conditions in schools throughout the country. And while he noted that getting the nation’s schools up to date is a huge undertaking, it represents only a small part of the overall infrastructure challenge we face as a nation. While highlighting a school in Pennsylvania built in 1861, with asbestos encrusted walls and dodgy electrical wiring, he noted the difficulty in getting good data on the physical condition of the country’s schools.

Lawrence Summers, President Obama’s chief economic adviser, has said that 75 percent of the public schools have structural deficiencies and 25 percent have problems with their ventilation systems.

But how to pay for this? Herbert made the point that:

right now there are not enough people at the higher echelons of government trying to figure out the best ways to raise the enormous amounts of money that will be required, and the most responsible ways of spending that money. And there are not enough leaders explaining to the public how heavy this lift will be, and why it is so necessary, and what sacrifices will be required to get the job properly done.

Suggestions have included such institutions as a national infrastructure or regional infrastructure banks that “would allocate public funds and also leverage private capital for the most important projects.” His larger point was that top governmental leaders should be seeking all kinds of solutions that are both solid and creative, while quickly implementing the best of them.

Which brings us to this next item, one with twist and turns not completely understandable at this point, but certainly not held up by people like myself as a model of how to “get the job properly done” — to use Herbert’s words.

Diane Ravitch, an intellectual on education policy, difficult to pigeonhole politically (appointed to public office by both G.H.W. Bush and Clinton), but best described as an independent, co-writes a blog with Deborah Meier that some of our readers may be familiar with called “Bridging Differences.” This past week she highlighted a possibly disturbing development in the Race to the Top  competition program of the Department of Education, that dangles $4.3 billion to the states with a possible $1.3 billion to follow. Ravitch’s critique suggests that this competition is not run by pragmatists, but rather by ideologues who are led by the Bill Gates Foundation.

If this election had been held five years ago, the department would be insisting on small schools, but because Gates has already tried and discarded that approach, the department is promoting the new Gates remedies: charter schools, privatization, and evaluating teachers by student test scores.

Two of the top lieutenants of the Gates Foundation were placed in charge of the competition by Secretary Arne Duncan. Both have backgrounds as leaders in organisations dedicated to creating privately managed schools that operate with public money.

So, why should it be surprising that the Race to the Top reflects the priorities of the NewSchools Venture Fund (charter schools) and of the Gates Foundation (teacher evaluations by test scores)?

But here’s where the weirdness of this story enters.

Marc Dean Millot, a writer on education policy and someone who has not been overly critical of charter schools and their “education entrepreneurs” in the past, was contracted for 6 months to write on the Scholastic blog, “This Week in Education.” Millot had the temerity to pose some questions about those conflicts of interest at the Department of Education and had asked Sec. Duncan to nick this issue in the bud quickly.

I have now heard the same thing from three independent credible sources — the fix is in on the U.S. Department of Education’s competitive grants, in particular Race to the Top (RTTT) and Investing in Innovation (I3). Secretary Duncan needs to head this off now, by admitting that he and his team have potential conflicts of interests with regard to their roles in grant making, recognizing that those conflicts are widely perceived by potential grantees, and explaining how grant decisions will be insulated from interference by the department’s political appointees.

For his troubles, he was immediately sacked and the offending post removed. Fortunately, nothing is completely lost on the internet and you can read a cached version of his “Connect the Dots” piece here.

Even more chilling is Diane Ravitch’s predictions for the future, regardless of whether Secretary Duncan cleans up this apparent conflict of interest.

As hundreds and possibly thousands more charter schools open, we will see many financial and political scandals. We will see corrupt politicians and investors putting their hands into the cashbox. We will see corrupt deals where public school space is handed over to entrepreneurs who have made contributions to the politicians making the decisions. We will see many more charter operators pulling in $400,000-500,000 a year for their role, not as principals, but as “rainmakers” who build warm relationships with politicians and investors.

When someday we trace back how large segments of our public school system were privatized and how so many millions of public dollars ended up in the pockets of high-flying speculators instead of being used to reduce class size, repair buildings, and improve teacher quality, we will look to the origins of the Race to the Top and to the interlocking group of foundations, politicians, and entrepreneurs who created it.

We indeed are entering another chapter in the deepening decline in support for public education. Our looming deficit in Madison is just one example of many across the country. What we shouldn’t have to battle so vigourously is our elected and unelected “advocates.” Sadly, this also includes some of our own friends in the state capital.

Robert Godfrey

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Filed under "education finance", Accountability, AMPS, Arne Duncan, Best Practices, Gimme Some Truth, National News, nclb, We Are Not Alone

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