Tim Kaine, Dems’ VP Nominee, Is Strong Supporter of Public Schools (Unlike Cory Booker)

Donald Trump, the Republican nominee for President, seemed confused last Wednesday when he spoke at a news conference about the Democratic Vice Presidential nominee, Tim Kaine.  Trump was reported by Politico to have mixed up Tim Kaine with former New Jersey governor Thomas Kean: “Her running mate Tim Kaine, who by the way did a terrible job in New Jersey….” declared Trump. I hope that by now most of us are less confused about Tim Kaine than Trump was last week, but perhaps there is still room to learn more about Kaine’s record.

So who is Tim Kaine, Hillary Clinton’s choice as her running mate?  A U.S. News & World Report piece last week explained Tim Kaine’s Hefty Education Resume: “When Hillary Clinton formally introduced her vice presidential pick, Sen. Tim Kaine of Virginia, it quickly became clear that she chose someone with big education policy chops….”

Kaine’s wife, Anne Holton, has a long history of work on behalf of children and families as a judge in juvenile and domestic relations court. During Kaine’s term as governor of Virginia, she became an advocate for adolescents in foster care. Kaine and his wife educated their three now-adult children in the public schools of Richmond, Virginia.  Holton served until last week as Virginia’s Secretary of Education (She just resigned to join the presidential campaign.), a position she used, according to the Washington Post, to bring attention to the needs of the state’s public schools: “‘Teachers are teaching to the tests. Students’ and teachers’ love of learning and teaching are sapped,’ she wrote in 2015. ‘Most troublesome, Virginia’s persistent achievement gaps for low-income students have barely budged,’ she continued arguing that ‘our high stakes-approach’ with testing has made it more difficult to persuade the best teachers who work in the most difficult, impoverished schools… Like most of her fellow Democrats in the state, she has opposed the expansion of charter schools and other school-choice measures, and she has pushed for greater investments in public education, including teacher pay raises.”

A 2013 column Kaine himself wrote for the Richmond Times-Dispatch describes his commitment to public education as mayor of Richmond, governor of Virginia, and U.S. senator: “Anne and I are now empty-nesters. Combined, our three kids spent 40 school years in the Richmond Public Schools. While we both interact with the school system in our professional lives, we’ve learned even more from back-to-school nights, parent-teacher conferences, attending school events and pulling crumpled notes to parents out of our kids’ backpacks. The lessons learned as parents have made me think about what works and what doesn’t work in Pre-K-12 education.”

What are Kaine’s education priorities as described in his 2013 column?  First is support for the kind of individualized education planning mandated for students with special needs in the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act: “Most policy debate these days seems to be about charter schools or high-stakes testing. But I’m convinced that the most important reform has been under our noses since 1975, when legislation was passed to guarantee (that) children with diagnosed disabilities receive individualized learning plans tailored to meet their specific needs. Each child brings a mix of strengths and challenges to the classroom. Let’s use the insight gained through advances in educating kids with disabilities to leverage new technologies and teaching methods that can individualize learning for each child.”

Kaine continues by endorsing the expansion of high-quality pre-Kindergarten; reduction of number state-mandated, high-stakes tests; more emphasis on science and social studies at the elementary level; more exposure to exploring careers for students in middle school; a variety of paths to a high school diploma; more opportunities for exploration of the arts and computer science as requirements, not mere electives; and strong efforts to attract and hold on to excellent teachers: “As I listen to public debate, it often sounds like our main issue is how to get rid of bad teachers. But this problem pales beside the larger issue of how to keep good teachers. Too many great prospective teachers never enter the profession and too many great teachers leave too early over low salaries, high-stakes testing pressure, discipline challenges and an overall belief that society doesn’t value the profession.”

Louis Freedberg, executive director of California’s EdSource examines the Kaines’ strong record on education: “It seems clear that both Kaine and his wife favor strategies very different from the top-down, test-heavy, high-stakes reforms of the No Child Left Behind era.”  And writing for the Education Opportunity Network, Jeff Bryant explains: “But in reviewing Kaine’s education policy chops, what’s in his record may not be as important as what isn’t: the current education establishment’s policy checklist of standardization, high-stakes testing, allowing charter schools to sort students by income and ability, and keeping teachers under the authoritative thumb of test-based evaluations—there’s none of that.”

Of course nobody can predict whether a Vice President will leave a mark on an administration’s record in any particular policy area.  But Hillary Clinton’s choice of Tim Kaine over another contender for the vice presidential slot, Cory Booker, sends what many hope is an important message.  Booker has a long history of supporting private school vouchers and was described in Dale Russakoff’s The Prize in league with New Jersey’s governor Chris Christie in hatching the plan to charterize Newark, New Jersey’s public schools and in luring Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg to donate $100 million to underwrite the experiment.

Tim Kaine has a strong local, state, and federal record of support for democratically governed public schools —as Richmond Mayor, and Virginia Governor and U.S Senator.

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Is DFER Fading or Poised for an Ongoing Political Role?

Shavar Jeffries, President of Democrats for Education Reform (DFER), certainly made a strong attempt a couple of weeks ago to present DFER as a powerful and relevant advocacy organization when he commented on changes to the Democratic Platform that were less favorable to charter schools: “What happened in Orlando is little more than a bait and switch, one we are eager to fix, and which we hope is unreflective of Hillary Clinton’s priorities, as she has repeatedly supported standards and accountability and high-performing charter schools.  President Obama has made clear that the best way to strengthen our system is not just with more resources, but reforms that ensure our children are progressing.” “This unfortunate departure from President Obama’s historic education legacy threatens to roll back progress we’ve made in advancing better outcomes for all kids, particularly those from disadvantaged backgrounds.”  DFER has been one of the strongest and most consistent proponents of the education policies of President Barack Obama and his first Secretary of Education, Arne Duncan.

In a new, short history and profile of Democrats for Education Reform, Alexander Russo evaluates DFER’s role in the education politics of recent years and wonders about its future as the next President perhaps moves away from the policies of the Obama administration.  Michelle Rhee’s StudentsFirst shut down earlier this spring and merged its existing work into 50CAN, another school “reform” advocacy organization.  What will be the fate of DFER?

On its website, DFER defines itself as opposed to traditional public schooling where, “(M)illions of American children today – particularly low-income and children of color – are trapped in persistently failing schools that are part of deeply dysfunctional school systems. These systems, once viewed romantically as avenues of opportunity for all, have become captive to powerful, entrenched interests that too often put the demands of adults before the educational needs of children.” As a PAC, DFER has sought to reposition the Democratic Party’s education policies to support test-and-punish accountability, more charters, and the connection of teacher evaluations to students’ test scores.

What exactly is DFER?  Russo explains: “First conceived around 2005, DFER didn’t really launch until June 2007, when it held a public event and established an online presence. While generally referred to by a single name, DFER grew to become several related organizations including a traditional nonprofit 501(c)(3) called Education Reform Now (ERN), a 501(c)(4) known as ERN Action, and the eponymous political action committee (DFER).  In addition to campaign fundraising and explicitly political efforts, DFER’s activities included policy development, state-level advocacy, and congressional lobbying such as during the recent renewal of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act. DFER’s efforts generated roughly S65 million over eight years…. The Broad and Walton Foundations were among its largest national funders.  By far the majority of its revenues was for policy and advocacy work through ERN and ERN Advocacy, rather than the explicit campaign work of the DFER PAC. Political giving made up only about $1.5 million of DFER’s annual budget.”  DFER was the brain child of New York hedge fund managers, including Whitney Tilson, one of the co-founders.

Joe Williams, an amiable former newspaper reporter, led DFER for most of the past eight years until he stepped down at the the end of last year, to be replaced by Jeffries.  Charles Barone has served as the policy director.  DFER has defined itself as an organization that has successfully promoted a particular brand of education policy among Democrats—what Russo quotes one analyst describing: “There’s no doubt that the Democratic Party has moved significantly more towards the reform side…”  Here is Russo’s own assessment: “What seems clear is that DFER emerged in the right place at the right time—and backed the right horses, including Barack Obama and Cory Booker. In remarkably short order, DFER and its allies became among the only folks that Obama could turn to for advice on how to fulfill his promise as a reform-minded Democratic president. Then, when Race to the Top (RTTT) turned into a competition among the states for scarce new federal education dollars, DFER basically went from not existing to helping shape federal policy in two years flat.”

In addition to supporting Obama and Cory Booker (and Booker’s One Newark plan), DFER is reported by Russo to have supported Andrew Cuomo in New York: “Cuomo would end up being a key ally on school reform when NYC Mayor Michael Bloomberg was succeeded by reform critic Bill de Blasio.”  Other politicians favored with support from DFER are Dannel Malloy as governor of Connecticut, Senator Michael Bennet of Colorado, Congressional Rep. George Miller of California, Rahm Emmanuel as Chicago mayor, and less successfully Adrian Fenty as D.C. mayor, and Shavar Jeffries in his failed bid to become a “school reform” mayor of Newark.

Russo reports that DFER takes some of the credit for displacing Stanford University professor Linda Darling-Hammond as the prime candidate for Obama’s Secretary of Education: “DFER and its allies badmouthed Darling-Hammond as much as they could get away with, raising questions about her research and accomplishments. Then, in what would become one of DFER’s most frequently retold early accomplishments, Williams ‘leaked’ a memo addressed to the Obama transition team outlining both policy ideas and potential appointees for various White House and cabinet department positions. In it, DFER put forth the notion that NYC Chancellor Joel Klein might be too controversial for education secretary but Chicago’s Arne Duncan might be a good choice.  Whether or not DFER deserved all the credit for the Duncan nomination was debatable. He and Obama had overlapped in Chicago, visited schools together, and played pickup basketball together.”

Eight years later Russo wonders if DFER’s influence may be waning: “As the Obama era ended and a new era loomed, there was the sense that school reform ideas—and DFER’s influence over Democratic candidates—were already on the decline.”  DFER has, according to Russo, reliably refused to oppose the unionization of school teachers even while it has been in conflict with many of the policy positions of the teachers unions and with Democrats who are raising concerns about charter schools. Russo wonders whether DFER’s policy agenda lacks fresh ideas today: “To critics, DFER seemed isolated, hollowed-out, and narrowed down to little more than a pro-charter PAC.  What had started out as a three-dimensional effort was now more two-dimensional, getting into the press and funding pro-charter campaigns but lacking any real membership base.

The organization was strong enough, however, to remain actively involved in the Congressional debate about the reauthorization of the federal education law: “During the consideration of the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), a longtime DFER friend Senator Chris Murphy (D-CT) emerged as one of DFER’s champions.” Russo describes DFER’s dilemma in the opinion of then DFER president Joe Williams, “DFER and its allies couldn’t move their own agenda and were in retreat in terms of the public narrative, but they could block things when they needed to. ‘We still have votes,’ said Williams. The unions were in much the same place, according to Williams. ‘Neither side can advance.'”

Careful not to offend its backers, DFER has been cautious about broadening its agenda, explains Russo: “So far in 2016, DFER has not endorsed any Democratic presidential candidate, released any fundraising information about its efforts on behalf of the DNC, or announced any change in its focus on charters and accountability… Jeffries has been attempting to keep the Democratic candidates’ feet to the fire on school choice and accountability efforts. Just this week, Jeffries railed against changes in the Democratic Party platform limiting support to certain kinds of charters…”

Russakoff’s “The Prize” Exposes Arrogance and Pride of Chris Christie and Cory Booker

The Prize is Dale Russakoff’s new book about the plan cooked up by then-Newark-mayor Cory Booker and New Jersey governor Cris Christie to transform the schools in Newark, New Jersey as a national model.  Booker’s view was that it was the perfect district for such an experiment because it is small enough that most of the variables could be controlled. Booker traveled to an elite conference in Sun Valley, Idaho to present the idea to Mark Zuckerberg, the CEO of Facebook, who would be asked to donate $100 million.  Booker and Christie’s plan was designed to be top-down, to be announced on the Oprah Winfrey show before the people of Newark knew about it:

“It called for imposing reform from the top down, warning that a more open political process could be taken captive by unions and machine politicians. ‘Real change has casualties and those who prospered under the pre-existing order will fight loudly and viciously,’ the proposal said.  Seeking consensus would undercut real reform. One of the goals was to ‘make Newark the charter school capital of the nation.’  The plan called for an ‘infusion of philanthropic support’ to recruit teachers and principals through national school-reform organizations, build sophisticated data and accountability systems, and weaken tenure and seniority protections.  Philanthropy, unlike government funding, required no public review of priorities or spending.  Christie approved the plan, and Booker began pitching it to major donors.  In those pitches, Booker portrayed the Newark schools as a prize of a very different sort: a laboratory where the education reform movement could apply its strategies to one of the nation’s most troubled school districts.  He predicted that Newark would be transformed into a ‘hemisphere of hope’ catalyzing the spread of reform throughout urban America.” (pp. 20-21)

Russakoff’s book is less about school reform really than about the hubris of Cory Booker and cruel arrogance of Chris Christie, despite that its focus is the imposition of corporatized school reform upon Newark.  Russakoff is at pains to take us into classrooms and to make us see the work of school teachers.  Her approach to portraying the schools through stories of excellent teachers leads to what I see as the book’s flaw—an adoption of “the school teacher as savior” myth.  Russakoff is won over by energetic young principals and teachers in KIPP charters who go to all lengths to save children—including even the creation of a carpool of teachers who pick children in one family up and deliver them home each day to a shelter—to help the children avoid the label “homeless.”  Such efforts, while laudable, cannot possibly be the building blocks of sustainable systems to educate the children of our nation’s poorest families.

Once Zuckerberg had bought in, Booker and Christie set about selling the preconceived plan to the community, and immediately things backfired. An early hire was Bradley Tusk, a New York consultant brought in to create a process to get the community to agree to the need for the plan that had already been adopted by city leaders.  “A senior aide to Booker privately deemed Tusk’s work ‘a boondoggle.’ According to a board member of the Foundation for Newark’s Future , which paid the bill (This agency was created to administer Zuckerberg’s gift and other grants that Zuckerberg specified must be raised to match his original $100 million), ‘It wasn’t real community engagement. It was public relations.'”  (p. 63)

Though she eventually promoted the expansion of charter schools as central to the plan that was later dubbed One Newark, Cami Anderson, the superintendent  hired to oversee the plan, is portrayed in The Prize as having understood the biggest danger of school reform based on rapid expansion of charters. “She pointed out that charters in Newark served a smaller proportion than the district schools of children who lived in extreme poverty, had learning disabilities, or struggled to speak English… In cities like Newark, where the overall student population was static, growth for charters meant shrinkage for the district. Newark charters now were growing at a pace to enroll forty percent of children in five years, leaving the district with sixty percent—the neediest sixty percent… Anderson called this ‘the lifeboat theory of education reform,’ arguing that it could leave a majority of children to sink on the big ship.” (p. 118)  By contrast, when teachers at a charter school co-located in the same building as a neighborhood school ask Mayor Booker how he plans to help and support the neighborhood school also operating in their building, he replies, “I’ll be very frank…. I want you to expand as fast as you can.  But when schools are failing, I don’t think pouring new wine into old skins is the way.  We need to close them and start new ones.'” (p. 132)

Despite what may have been her reservations, Anderson played the corporate game imposed by Christie and Booker.  She was supported by a succession of expensive consultants from New York.  “The going rate for consultants in Newark and elsewhere on the East Coast was $1,000 a day, and their pay comprised more than $20 million of the $200 million in philanthropy spent or committed in Newark.” (p. 71)  “Two of the highest-paid consultants were friends and former colleagues of Anderson, Alison Avera and Tracy Breslin, both senior officials in New York under Klein and Cerf and both fellows at the Broad Academy.  Both had worked for the Global Education Advisers consulting firm originally founded by Cerf, and Anderson asked them to stay on for about a year in two of her most strategic positions—Avera as interim chief of staff and Breslin, who had extensive experience in human resources, as interim director of a new Office of Talent… Avera and Breslin were married to each other; had they been public employees, nepotism rules would have prohibited one from supervising the other… Avera and Breslin had joined Global Education Advisers at $1,200 and $1,000 a day respectively, and they continued at those rates for Anderson; Breslin charged over-time on days when she worked more than eight hours, even though her contract specified that she be paid by the day, not the hour… In less than eighteen months working for Anderson… their combined pay exceeded $740,000.” (pp 126-127)

We keep on reading even when we know in advance how the story works out. One Newark crashed when Anderson couldn’t raise test scores despite replacing a large number of school principals and despite moving many experienced (and thought by Anderson to be ineffective) teachers into a pool who continued to be paid because they could not, by New Jersey law, be summarily laid off.  Booker, Christie and Anderson had sought and failed to break due-process protections, and the money ran short before Zuckerberg could establish the merit bonuses for teachers he believed were the key to transforming the district.  Anderson quickly alienated the community as well as the school staff, and she quit attending meetings of Newark’s largely toothless elected school board (Remember, Newark had been under state control for 20 years.) in January of 2014, over a year before Christie finally decided to terminate her.

Russakoff concludes: “For four years, the reformers never really tried to have a conversation with the people of Newark. Their target audience was always somewhere else, beyond the people whose children and grandchildren desperately needed to learn and compete for a future. Booker, Christie, and Zuckerberg set out to create a national ‘proof point’ in Newark.  There was less focus on Newark as its own complex ecosystem that reformers needed to understand before trying to save it.  Two hundred million dollars and almost five years later, there was at least as much rancor as reform.  Newark illustrates that improving education for the nation’s poorest children is as much a political as a pedagogical challenge.” (pp. 209-210)

If not a national model, One Newark and the Booker-Christie-Zuckerberg-Anderson style of school “reform” is a symbol of what’s been happening in cities like Bloomberg’s New York and Rahm’s Chicago and experiments like Bill and Melinda Gates’ failed national small schools initiative and their effort to get teachers rated by students’ test scores.  Philanthropists and tech-savvy entrepreneurs leap to the conclusion that their business acumen gives them an edge to solve social problems way beyond the ability of mere school teachers. For the philanthropists who are underwriting these projects, money and celebrity also provide the political connections that make it possible for them to experiment on communities and schools and children far from home.  There are few consequences for the philanthropists if they fail, apart from losing money; and they have so much money that the loss of a hundred million dollars doesn’t really matter very much.

The failure of the Newark experiment doesn’t seem to have taught today’s big money experimenters a lesson.  Just last week Laurene Powell Jobs, the widow of Apple’s founder Steve Jobs, bought a full page ad in the NY Times to announce XQ: The Super School Project,  her new $50 million endeavor described by reporter Jennifer Medina as “the highest-profile project yet of the Emerson Collective, the group that Ms. Powell Jobs uses to finance her philanthropic projects.” “(T)he campaign is meant to inspire teams of educators and students, as well as leaders from other sectors to come up with new plans for high schools… By fall next year, Ms. Powell Jobs said, a team of judges will pick five to 10 of the best ideas to finance.”

And in the Washington Post last Thursday, Valerie Strauss described an exclusive “Philanthropy Innovation Summit” being held later this month, “to give philanthropists space ‘to convene and discuss their giving in an intimate, non-solicitation environment.'”  Participants are invited to, “Come be inspired by information and insights that can only be learned at this event.  You will leave with new and actionable ideas and skills to help you as you think about your philanthropy moving forward in topic areas including: Seeding Innovation in Philanthropy, Nexus of Design Thinking and Strategic Philanthropy, Philanthropreneurship, (and) Philanthropic Investment for Scientific Advancement.”  Strauss comments: “If you are wondering what ‘philanthropreneurship’ is, it is a term that came into use about a year ago and refers to… ‘the idea that the skills which enabled people to make their fortunes are often the ones required to solve apparently intractable problems.’  In other words, billionaires who created computers, software, Internet browsers, retail stores, etc., are the people the country needs to solve societal inequity and other ‘intractable problems.'”

In Newark, the most encouraging development was the emergence of a skeptical community and strong leadership by Ras Baraka, the respected high school principal and city councilman who made opposition to the Booker-Christie-Zuckerberg-Anderson plan the centerpiece of his campaign for mayor. As Russakoff demonstrates again and again, the citizens of Newark understood from the beginning that Mayor Booker had brought in outsiders to impose a dangerous experiment on their children and their neighborhood schools. In a place where the schools have been under state takeover for twenty years and where the citizens have little power over the district, the citizens of Newark rallied together to throw out One Newark and Cami Anderson, and to elect Ras Baraka.  It will take considerable time, however, for the damage to be repaired.