School Privatizers and Education Disrupters Keep Reinventing Themselves

For over a year, I have listened to parents and school board members from Indianapolis complaining about a group called The City Fund, which is somehow connected to something called The Mind Trust, and which has been investing in the expansion of charter schools. But the organization has managed to emerge relatively quietly in the past couple of years without a lot of coverage in the press.

The California research blogger, Tom Ultican, fills in the history of an organization that has only recently publicly emerged: “Until February of 2020, the secretive City Fund did not even have a web site.  On July 31, 2018, City Fund Managing Partner, Neerav Kingsland, took to his blog and made public The City Fund—a new nonprofit—and named its founding staff.”

According to that new website, the organization’s partners include Kingsland himself, the former CEO of New Schools for New Orleans. Others include Chris Barbic, who founded Yes Prep Charter Schools and was the the founding superintendent of the Tennessee School Achievement District, which was supposed to turnaround so-called failing schools but which now plans to return all 30 schools currently under its jurisdiction to their local school boards by 2022.  Also from Tennessee is Kevin Huffman, Tennessee’s former state education commissioner, now fired. Partners also include three former leaders of Indianapolis’s The Mind Trust—David Harris, Kameelah Shaheed-Dalio, and Ken Bubp; and two leaders from Education Cities—Ethan Gray, and Jessica Pena.  Finally two partners are from New Jersey—Gabrielle Wyatt formerly of Civic Builders and Kevin Shafer, the chief innovation officer for the Camden Public Schools.

Diane Ravitch traces the connections among some of these organization in her new book, Slaying Goliath: “Organizations funded by billionaires to promote disruption and privatization pop up like mushrooms, with a similar cast of players migrating from one group to another.  The money available to sustain them is seemingly endless. Education Cities, Inc. is a billionaire-funded organization promoting charters in thirty cities. It grew out of the Mind Trust, which began as a charter advocacy group in Indianapolis. The Mind Trust has been so effective in Indianapolis that the survival of public schools hangs in the balance as charter schools expand and public schools close.  Education Cities has morphed into The City Fund, whose purpose is to spread the idea of ‘portfolio districts’ to targeted cities; it injects money into local elections to help charter proponents gain control by outspending supporters of public schools.”  (Slaying Goliath, p. 44)

The City Fund’s staff are mostly relatively young social entrepreneurs, people who support public school disruption and privatization as a replacement for government. Chalkbeat‘s Matt Barnum explains: “The newest major player in school reform has already issued more than $110 million in grants to support the growth of charter and charter-like schools across the U.S. The City Fund’s spending, detailed on a new website, means the organization has quickly become one of the country’s largest K-12 education grantmakers.  The money has gone to organizations in more than a dozen cities, including Atlanta, Baton Rouge, Denver, Memphis, and Oakland… The City Fund’s strategy is to grow the number of schools, including charters, run by nonprofits rather than traditional school boards… Overall, The City Fund says it has raised $225 million, largely from Netflix founder Reed Hastings and Texas philanthropist John Arnold… The organization has also created a political arm, Public School Allies, which has raised $15 million from Hastings and Arnold to support officials vying for state and local office.”  Hastings and Arnold are not only the City Fund’s primary funders, but they also make up two of the organization’s three board members.

Barnum quotes Reed Hastings, describing The City Fund’s mission: “Let’s, year by year, expand the nonprofit school sector… We know the school district is probably not going to like it, but we’re not against them. We’re for good schools, period.  If there’s a very high-performing school district school, let’s keep it.  But the low-performing school district public school—let’s have a nonprofit public school take it over.”

Hastings is describing what’s known as “portfolio school reform” and sure enough, according to Barnum, one of the national organizations, which has received an $875,000 grant from The City Fund, is the Center on Reinventing Public Education at the University of Washington Bothell, the primarily Gates-funded think tank that originated the theory that school districts should manage their schools—traditional district and charter schools alike—like a stock portfolio by investing in successful schools and shedding the weaker schools.  Renaissance 2010, the Arne Duncan led-effort in Chicago, was the prototype, where so-called failing schools were shut down as new charter schools were established. The result, after a nearly decade-long experiment, was the catastrophic closure of 50 traditional schools at the end of the 2013 school year, a move that undermined neighborhoods and resulted in widespread community grieving (see here and here.)

Barnum describes The City Fund’s investment in the portfolio model of school reform: “New Orleans, Denver, and Indianapolis’ central school district have adopted many elements of that structure, and The City Fund has given to groups in each.  The Denver nonprofit RootEd netted a $21 million grant…  The Mind Trust in Indianapolis, previously run by City Fund partner David Harris, got $18 million.  New Schools for New Orleans, previously run by City Fund partner Neerav Kingsland, won $7 million… In Oakland, The City Fund has given to a local parent group (Oakland Reach), a charter network (Education for Change), and an education focused nonprofit (Educate 78).  In Nashville, it’s backed charter schools and networks, including KIPP Nashville, Nashville Classical Charter, RePublic Schools, and Valor Collegiate. The City Fund has also made large grants to nonprofits in Atlanta ($2.75 million to redefinEd); Baton Rouge ($13.49 million to New Schools for Baton Rouge); Memphis ($5 million to the Memphis Education Fund); Newark ($5.33 million to the New Jersey Children’s Foundation); St. Louis ($5.5 million to The Opportunity Trust); and San Antonio ($4.98 million to City Education Partners.”)

One of the The City Fund’s founding staff partners, Gary Borden no longer appears on the organization’s staff list. Tom Ultican explains, however, that Borden remains closely connected: “Borden is now Managing Director of Public School Allies, the 501c4 organization established by The City Fund to administer their political influence campaign… For last November’s elections in Louisiana, Borden sent $1,500,000 to Louisiana Federation of Children, which also received large contributions from California billionaire William Oberndorf, Alice Walton and Jim Walton. These funds were used for independent expenditures supporting choice-friendly candidates: five for the state school board and 20 for the state legislature… In the spring of 2019, Borden sent $60,000 to the Newark group, Great Schools for All PAC in support of the charter friendly school board candidates of the Moving Newark Forward slate.  All three won handily….”

Matt Barnum describes The City Fund’s justification for trying to expand privately operated charter schools: “The key argument made by The City Fund is a straightforward one…. The organization’s new website cites evidence that nonprofit charter schools in urban areas outperform district schools, that district students aren’t hurt academically by charter school expansion, and that in New Orleans and Washington, D.C., where charter schools have rapidly grown, overall student performance has improved… And the City Fund omits other research that is less favorable to its approach, including a study of the Achievement School District in Tennessee, in which charter operators attempted to turn around struggling schools…. The initiative, led by Chris Barbic, now a City Fund partner, did not produce gains in student achievement.”

There is a whole other set of research—ignored by school privatizers like the City Fund’s board members and staff—demonstrating catastrophic fiscal damage for public school districts when money is sucked out by a growing charter school sector. The clearest example is in Oakland, where political economist Gordon Lafer traces the loss of $57.3 million every year from the public school district whose traditional schools have been progressively undermined: “To the casual observer, it may not be obvious why charter schools should create any net costs at all for their home districts. To grasp why they do, it is necessary to understand the structural differences between the challenge of operating a single school—or even a local chain of schools—and that of a district-wide system operating tens or hundreds of schools and charged with the legal responsibility to serve all students in the community.  When a new charter school opens, it typically fills its classrooms by drawing students away from existing schools in the district…  If, for instance, a given school loses five percent of its student body—and that loss is spread across multiple grade levels, the school may be unable to lay off even a single teacher… Plus, the costs of maintaining school buildings cannot be reduced…. Unless the enrollment falloff is so steep as to force school closures, the expense of heating and cooling schools, running cafeterias, maintaining digital and wireless technologies, and paving parking lots—all of this is unchanged by modest declines in enrollment. In addition, both individual schools and school districts bear significant administrative responsibilities that cannot be cut in response to falling enrollment. These include planning bus routes and operating transportation systems; developing and auditing budgets; managing teacher training and employee benefits; applying for grants and certifying compliance with federal and state regulations; and the everyday work of principals, librarians and guidance counselors.” “If a school district anywhere in the country—in the absence of charter schools—announced that it wanted to create a second system-within-a-system, with a new set of schools whose number, size, specialization, budget, and geographic locations would not be coordinated with the existing school system, we would regard this as the poster child of government inefficiency and a waste of tax dollars. But this is indeed how the charter school system functions.”

Puerto Rico Will Experiment with Shock Doctrine Education Reform

Even though our education-disrupter-in-chief, Arne Duncan, has moved to the private sector to work for Laurene Powell Jobs’ Emerson Collective, L.L.C., we should not expect his kind of thinking in education to disappear. Duncan—purveyor of disruption through charter schools—believer in social entrepreneurship as a replacement for old fashioned school systems—father of rewarding the kids who can race to the top in a climate of competition—represented a wave of business school theorizing about public education that is absent from Betsy DeVos’s plain old libertarian philosophy. Still, it turns out, DeVos is quite supportive of a new plan to introduce marketplace school choice in Puerto Rico.

Catherine Cheney reports on a Global Skills & Education Forum last week, a forum whose agenda reflects today’s push to turn over whole education systems to philanthropic-driven experiments in privatization. In Cheney’s report, you’ll see that venture philanthropists are exploring how to bring “quality education for all” across the world and doing it for profit—or sometimes not-for-profit—based on theories hatched in think tanks underwritten with billionaire philanthropic dollars donated to foundations or L.L.C.s like the Chan-Zuckerberg Initiative or Powell Jobs’ Emerson Collective.

It is sometimes hard to parse out how all this will work when one reads about it through the glowing haze of business school rhetoric.  Here is Cheney’s description: “‘There is definitely an interest in for-profit companies that serve the very poor right now, but it’s mostly concessional ventures, groups that are quasi-philanthropic,’ said John Rogers, a partner and education sector lead at the Rise Fund, a global impact fund led by the private equity firm TPG. The fund is looking for opportunities to help the mass market in a way that is not concessionary, Rogers said.  The Rise Fund’s first investment in Latin America was in Digital House, a group of schools based in Argentina providing digital skills across Latin America. Rogers said he hopes more groups that are making grants and program-related investments will consider for-profit companies because they may find that the focus on profit also delivers greater scale.”

Cheney describes lots of controversy and discussion at the recent global education forum about Bridge International Academies (BIA), the for-profit, tech-heavy schools exported to Kenya, Uganda, Liberia, and India, where governments have been contracting with—and sometimes disgustedly cancelling the contracts with—BIA schools. Bridge International Academies was built with a huge personal investment by Bill Gates, Mark Zuckerberg and others. There have been problems of high tuition for parents along with mixed results for children and for the governments that worry about undermining stressed out public systems by contracting with an international, tech-heavy scheme. Cheney describes controversy swirling around BIA schools: “New models that push for change are often met with resistance, and that has certainly proven true in efforts to transform education.  Bridge International Academies is one high-profile example of the backlash against Silicon Valley’s involvement in education. The tech heavy chain of private schools has come under fire in multiple countries, leading to a legal battle over some of its schools.  Some Bridge investors have dismissed many of the concerns, saying the backlash comes from people who do not want to see the status quo disrupted….”  One analyst explained: “Bridge International Academies serves as a cautionary tale about the problems of perception when a model appears to be replacing people rather than supporting people.”  Of course, the problem may be reality rather than mere perception: people may well be concerned when electronic devices are used to increase class size and reduce the number of live teachers.

All this international policy talk serves as a backdrop for what is being discussed and planned in Puerto Rico, the U.S. territory ravaged by Hurricane Maria last September. The reality is that when disaster strikes these days, there are plenty of philanthropically funded think tanks and consultants poised to sell your government on the ideology of privatizing your public schools.  Remember that after Hurricane Katrina in 2005, one of the primary funders of the privatization of New Orleans’ schools was the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.

On March 22, POLITICO reported: “A law that would overhaul Puerto Rico’s education system—and usher in charter schools and taxpayer-financed vouchers for alternatives to public schools—is on its way to the desk of Gov. Ricardo Rossello.  The plan was pitched as the island’s education system grappled with a tough recovery and mass migration to the states following Hurricane Maria.  The proposal finalized by both legislative chambers this week would reduce the number of students who can receive school vouchers to… 3 percent—down from the 5 percent Puerto Rico’s House of Representatives had approved last week… The Legislation would allow for the creation of charter schools, or for the conversion of existing public schools into charters. An amendment from the island’s Senate, however, prohibits specialized schools, like Montessori schools, from converting to charters.”

The source of this plan, according to The Nation, is Julia Keleher, Puerto Rico’s Secretary of Education, but previously a consultant from Philadelphia hired by Puerto Rico to “reform” the island’s education: “(I)n the four years leading up to her appointment, Keleher’s consultancy firm, Keleher & Associates, had been awarded almost $1 million in contracts to ‘design and implement education reform initiatives’ in Puerto Rico… With the assistance of DeVos’s office, Keleher’s department has now produced an education-reform bill designed to increase ‘school choice through measures such as the creation of charter schools and school-voucher programs.'”

How have Betsy DeVos and the U.S. Department of Education been involved?  Apparently Keleher has worked through the winter with Jason Botel, DeVos’s assistant secretary.  For The Intercept, Rachel Cohen reports: “DeVos and her federal education department have certainly been involved. DeVos’s Deputy Assistant Secretary Jason Botel has been in ‘close communication’ with Puerto Rio’s Education Secretary Julia Keleher for months since the storm, and in a blog post published in January, Botel wrote, ‘We look forward to supporting students, educators and community members as they not only rebuild what’s been lost, but also improve, rethink and renew.'”  Cohen adds: “At a time when the island is starved of investment and inching slowly through a storm recovery, many Puerto Rican’s worry that the government is treating this more as an opportunity to disrupt education, rather than stabilize it—while also potentially opening the doors for supercharged corruption.”

Only weeks after the governor’s signing of the new education plan, Puerto Rico’s Department of Education has now announced the closing of 283 public schools. Valerie Strauss puts this number in perspective: a third of the public schools on the island. The stated purpose of the school closures is to save money by consolidating schools after many students have left Puerto Rico for the mainland.

Nobody in a position of power seems to have questioned the logic of expanding school choice and privatization at a time when public school enrollment has already been falling as families abandon the island. Researchers like Bruce Baker and scholars at Chicago’s Roosevelt University have, however, pointed out repeatedly that by expanding the number of charter schools in the same geographic space while public school enrollment has already been dropping, cities like Chicago have further undermined their public school districts by creating an ongoing cycle of closure of neighborhood public schools.

Many worry that Puerto Rico’s experiment with privatization is another example of what—in relation to the seizure and privatization of New Orleans’ schools after Hurricane Katrina, Naomi Klein called “the Shock Doctrine.” Certainly those at the Global Skills and Education Conference are contemplating disruptive education reform—developed with money from technology-driven venture philanthropies to be introduced top-down in the developing world where public schools are suffering.  Klein’s description of the use of Hurricane Katrina, the 2005 natural disaster, as the excuse to disrupt and privatize the public schools of New Orleans remains pertinent to  Julia Keleher and Jason Botel’s plan for the disruption of education in hurricane-devastated Puerto Rico today.

Here is Naomi Klein: “In sharp contrast to the glacial pace with which the levees were repaired and the electricity grid was brought back online, the auctioning off of New Orleans’ school system took place with military speed and precision.  Within nineteen months, with most of the city’s poor residents still in exile, New Orleans’ public school system had been almost completely replaced by privately run charter schools.  Before Hurricane Katrina, the school board had run 123 public schools; now it ran just 4.  Before the storm, there had been 7 charter schools in the city; now there were 31.  New Orleans teachers used to be represented by a strong union; now the union’s contract had been shredded, and its forty-seven hundred members had all been fired.  Some of the younger teachers were rehired by the charters, at reduced salaries; most were not.  New Orleans was now, according to The New York Times, ‘the nation’s preeminent laboratory for the widespread use of charter schools’…. I call these orchestrated raids on the public sphere in the wake of catastrophic events, combined with the treatment of disasters as exciting market opportunities, ‘disaster capitalism.'” (The Shock Doctrine, pp. 5-6)

Did Mark Zuckerberg Just Get Taken In Again on Education Reform?

You may remember that Facebook founder, Mark Zuckerberg’s initial foray into education was in Newark, NJ, where he allowed then-mayor Cory Booker and governor Chris Christie to convince him to donate $100 million to fund their scheme to charterize Newark’s public schools.  Now Zuckerberg and his wife, pediatrician Priscilla Chan, have launched the huge Chan Zuckerberg Initiative, and they have hired Jim Shelton to run it.  Shelton headed up the Office of Innovation and Improvement at Arne Duncan’s U.S. Department of Education, where he rose through the ranks to become Assistant Deputy Secretary, Deputy Secretary and Chief Operating Officer.

Shelton was really good with the rhetoric. In 2012 he told Michele McNeil of Education Week: “(T)hough the federal government provides only a small fraction of education funding, we are one of the largest single sources. We send incredible signals to the marketplace about what should happen with innovation.  That’s not been something either policymakers or regulators have thought a lot about… (I)nnovation happens in the context of an ecosystem.  R&D leads to entrepreneurship and investment, which leads to adoption and use… (W)hen we create things like the Investing in Innovation competitive grant program (i3), we are defining an evidence threshold that was not a part of most federal education programs before… As i3 continues and as we get more comfortable putting tiered evidence levels in other areas of the department, we will work on that.”

Shelton has now taken a job heading up the new Chan Zuckerberg Initiative, described by Benjamin Herold for Education Week: “The Chan Zuckerberg Initiative was formed last fall, when the couple announced their intent to give 99 percent of their Facebook stock, valued at an estimated $45 billion, to a variety of causes, headlined by technology-enabled personalized learning in K-12 education.  Created as a limited liability corporation, the organization is free to make philanthropic donations, invest in for-profit companies, and engage in political lobbying and policy advocacy.” Mark Zuckerberg built his fortune from Facebook.

In many ways, Shelton’s resume and training are a perfect match for his new job running the Chan Zuckerberg philanthropic limited liability corporation. Shelton came to the U.S. Department of Education via a series of jobs in the business and philanthropic sectors.  Writing for Schools Matter, Susan Ohanian explains that after graduate school, he worked as a program analyst at Exxon, then moved to McKinsey, Edison Schools, the NewSchools Venture Fund, then the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. After he left the federal government last year, he took a job as Chief Impact Officer at 2U, a company that helps colleges and universities develop online degree programs.  He earned a B.A. in computer science and then a joint business-education MBA/MA from Stanford.  Ohanian quotes the Stanford Educator‘s description of this program: “training people to apply business know-how to the field of education. Numerous high-profile alumni like Shelton now fill the leadership rosters of charter school organizations, venture funds, other education-related nonprofit and forprofit enterprises…”

Describing Shelton’s new appointment for Inside Philanthropy, David Callahan argues that Shelton will be leading Chan and Zuckerberg’s philanthropic corporation to signal a primary shift in the direction of school reform.  Callahan reminds us of Zuckerberg’s earlier failed initiative—investing $100 million behind the Booker-Christie effort to expand charters in Newark: “You can see why Zuckerberg might have been originally attracted to a reform model hinging on large-scale disruption.  Many of the people in the tech world have made their fortunes by destroying yesterday’s industries and creating new products that sweep quickly to market dominance. Business funders have flocked to a charter movement promising the same thing: The creation of a better product that would over time, put traditional public schools out of business.  They’ve also backed attacks on teachers unions, hoping to knock off defenders of the status quo much as Uber is now working to bust the cartel power of taxi drivers worldwide.  But Newark showed the limits of these strategies, as have failures in other cities, such as Milwaukee.  And Zuckerberg and Chan’s takeaway, apparently, was that wielding dynamite is not the proper way to achieve change in systems where, in fact, everyone mostly shares the same goal: helping children succeed… The most notable thing about the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative is that the focus is mainly on how students learn, as opposed to the institutional context in which they learn.”

We’ll see how all this goes.  It is important, however, to consider what is largely missing from the coverage about the new philanthropic corporation Shelton will be managing.  Zuckerberg’s definition of “personalized learning” is about the use of computers and represents what he has apparently learned from his very successful business—Facebook. “Personalized learning” here has nothing to do with the trust and understanding built in the relationship of a real child and a human teacher. There is no talk about what teachers study about learning theory or education research in academic college and university programs. There is no talk, so far at least, about the experiences of real teachers and what they think they need to help children. There is no attention at all to the scale and coverage required in public education understood as a systemic enterprise intended to meet the needs and protect the rights of an enormous and very diverse population of children and adolescents—50 million of them. It is really all about experimenting with new innovations and trying to replicate them.

Natasha Singer, covering Shelton’s new appointment for the NY Times, quotes Shelton: “When you think about philanthropy, the question is, ‘How can you be catalytic?’ It’s a huge opportunity for transformational work.”  Shelton may be better at being catalytic and transformational than demonstrating careful follow-through, however.  Though evidence-based reform was his claim at the U.S. Department of Education, Shelton’s management of the Department’s Office of Innovation and Improvement has been criticized for lack of oversight. In June, 2015, the Alliance to Reclaim Our Schools, a coalition of national education organizations, asked Secretary Duncan to establish a moratorium on federal support for new charter schools until the Department improved its own oversight of the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Innovation and Improvement, which is responsible for the federal Charter School Program.  The Alliance cited a formal 2012 audit in which the Department of Education’s own Office of Inspector General (OIG), “raised concerns about transparency and competency in the administration of the federal Charter Schools Program.”  The OIG’s 2012 audit discovered that the Department of Education’s Office of Innovation and Improvement was ill equipped to keep adequate records or put in place even minimal oversight of the funds it disbursed.  An October, 2015 report from the Center for Media and Democracy, Charter School Black Hole, also exposed the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Innovation and Improvement’s total abrogation of responsibility for oversight of an education sector to which it has granted $3.7 billion since 1995.

Based on Shelton’s record managing the Department of Education’s Office of Innovation and Improvement and his reliance on business rhetoric, one wonders where Shelton will take Priscilla Chan and Mark Zuckerberg’s new philanthropic corporation and its effort to redefine the future of American education.