It is, of course, impossible to foresee exactly how a TV news program will go, but one worries when the sponsors of the supposed “news” about public education include the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and the for-profit University of Phoenix.
NBC, which will present its fourth annual Education Nation Summit early in October, has published a disclaimer: “While all of our sponsor organizations are actively engaged in the education issues in various ways, we choose our programming with the general public in mind – hoping to foster thought-provoking conversations with a wide range of participants.” Despite these words, viewers should remember to think about the impact of the Gates Foundation on the development of the Common Core Standards, the enormous push for evaluation of school teachers by students’ test scores, and the Foundation’s partnership with the Center on Reinventing Public Education at the University of Washington and its District- Charter Collaboration Compact that encourages privatization through the development of new charter schools in big city school districts.
NBC has published a list of confirmed panelists, presenters and interviewees, and some trends seem to emerge. There is a smattering of public school professionals and supporters: a number of school superintendents including Dr. Joshua Starr of the highly respected Montgomery County (Maryland) Public Schools; David Kirp, the Berkeley professor who recently published Improbable Scholars, the story of the extraordinary revitalization of the Union City, New Jersey Public Schools; Freeman A. Hrabowski, III, who has led an innovative program to engage African American college students in the hard sciences as president of the University of Maryland, Baltimore County; and Randi Weingarten, President of the American Federation of Teachers.
But the mass of speakers are associated in one way or another with what has become known as “the corporate school reform model.” Here are New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg (known for closing public schools and expanding school choice, charter schools, and co-location of public and charter schools) and his current Chancellor Dennis Walcott, along with Bloomberg’s former Chancellor, Joel Klein, who is now leading Rupert Murdoch’s school technology and electronic tablet division, Amplify. Indiana’s former governor Mitch Daniels and current governor Mike Pence will both appear; they led Indiana to develop a voucher program. At the same time Glenda Ritz, the public school teacher who got herself elected as the leader of Indiana’s education department on a pro-public education platform is conspicuously absent. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan and Melody Barnes, the former domestic policy chief who had everything to do with developing Race to the Top and other programs to turn the Title I formula into a competition, will both be speaking. Former Florida governor Jeb Bush, whose Foundation for Excellence in Education is pushing hard for privatization, and Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal, supporter of privatization and founder of a large and radical voucher program, are included along with Paul Pastorek, who helped lead the charterization of New Orleans and who is prominent in the far-right Chiefs for Change. Then there is Jonah Edelman, director of Stand for Children, a national astro-turf organization that has made its name opposing teachers unions.
Jeff Bryant, who edits the weekly newsletter for the Education Opportunity Network, affiliated with the Campaign for America’s Future, directs his skepticism this week toward one particular confirmed speaker, however: Lloyd Blankfein, the chairman of Goldman-Sachs. Bryant writes: “While many of Education Nation‘s guest panelists have troubling track records on education—particularly Joel Klein—none of them rises to the level of the direct harm that Blankfein has meted out to the nation’s youngest citizens… In presiding over a culture of corruption that helped fuel the nation’s slide into the Great Recession, Blankfein has had a special role….”
Bryant reminds us that Blankfein has also been a cheerleader for sequestration, the federal deficit reduction program that operates to reduce federal budget allocations by a flat percentage without regard for the importance or merits of the programs being cut back. Sequestration, Bryant notes, has particularly hurt programs for vulnerable populations—students whose Indian Reservation schools depend on federal impact aid, Head Start programs, the Title I formula, and allocations for the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act. Writes Bryant: “As a collaborator in the Wall St.-created campaign called Fix the Debt, Blankfein lectured Americans on ‘lowering their expectations’ and accepting ‘shared sacrifice’ of the across-the-board cuts.”
If you watch Education Nation, you might want to remind yourself about who is missing from the roster of confirmed speakers: any of the over three million public school teachers who lead our nation’s classrooms; Carol Burris, the articulate, prize-winning school principal from New York; elected members of the local school boards that oversee the nation’s roughly 15,000 public school districts; any of the very competent staff at New York’s Children’s Aid Society who could talk about the full-service, wrap-around community schools they help develop; well-known scholars at our nation’s universities who are conducting research about improving the public schools including Kevin Welner and Bill Mathis at the National Education Policy Center at the University of Colorado; Gary Orfield or other researchers at the Civil Rights Project at UCLA; or any of the academics who have recently published respected policy books that support public school improvement including Diane Ravitch, and Mike Rose.
If you are watching NBC’s Education Nation in early October, please do think carefully about what you are hearing and what is missing from the conversation.