Kevin Huffman Promotes Entrepreneurial School Agenda in Commentary about Pandemic-Driven School Closings

Kevin Huffman begins his recent Washington Post column with a warning about problems he expects to result from the widespread, coronavirus-driven school closures: “As the coronavirus pandemic closes schools, in some cases until September, American children this month met their new English, math, science and homeroom teachers: their iPads and their parents. Classes are going online, if they exist at all. The United States is embarking on a massive, months-long virtual-pedagogy experiment, and it is not likely to end well.”

This is pretty harsh. While in many places teachers are going to enormous lengths to create interesting projects to challenge children and keep them engaged, virtual schooling is a challenge. Online efforts school districts are undertaking to meet children’s needs during this long break are likely to be uneven.  Huffman describes Stanford University research on the problems with virtual schooling, problems that are being exacerbated today by inequitable access to technology.

But what Kevin Huffman neglects to tell readers is that his purpose is not entirely to analyze his subject—the ongoing shutdown of schools.  At the same time as he discusses the widespread school closure, he also manages to share the agenda of  his current employer, The City Fund, a relatively new national group that finances the election campaigns of of charter school advocates running for seats on local school boards, supports the rapid expansion of charter schools, and promotes portfolio school reform. And when the Washington Post tells readers that Huffman, “a former education commissioner of Tennessee, is a partner at the City Fund, a national education nonprofit,” the Post neglects to explain The City Fund’s agenda.

Huffman serves on the The City Fund’s staff, along with Chris Barbic who, under Huffman, was brought in to lead the now failed Tennessee Achievement School District (ASD), a state school takeover body founded when Huffman was the Tennessee Commissioner of Education. In her new book, Slaying Goliath, Diane Ravitch describes Huffman and Barbic’s work in Tennessee: “The State Education department, headed by Disrupter Kevin Huffman, selected a charter school star, Chris Barbic to manage the new ASD.  Barbic had previously led the YES Prep charter chain in Houston. Barbic boldly pledged that the low-performing schools in the ASD would reach the top 25 percent in the state rankings within five years. The ASD opened in 2012 with six schools, and the countdown clock began ticking. The annual cost was estimated at $22 million a year for five years. In year four, Barbic had a heart attack and resigned from his leadership role to join the staff of the Laura and John Arnold Foundation.  By the end of year five, none of the initial six schools in the ASD had reached the top 25 percent. All but one were still mired in the bottom 5 percent… The ASD experiment failed.” (Slaying Goliath, p. 247)

Huffman’s tenure as Tennessee Commissioner of Education was not smooth. Huffman, Michelle Rhee’s former husband, came to Tennessee following work as an executive at Teach for America. When he resigned from his Tennessee position in 2014, reporters at the Chattanooga Times Free Press described his tenure as Tennessee’s state commissioner: “Last year, the former Teach for America executive drew complaints from nearly a third of local superintendents who wrote a letter to (Governor) Haslam complaining about Huffman’s leadership style, saying he showed little respect for their views and professional educators generally… (I)n June, 15 conservative GOP lawmakers wrote Haslam to demand Huffman resign or be fired. They listed grievances of school administrators and teachers.”

When Chris Barbic left the Tennessee Achievement School District, he moved to the staff of the Laura and John Arnold Foundation.  Now Barbic and Huffman are both on staff at The City Fund, an organization whose funding comes primarily from the Laura and John Arnold Foundation and from Netflix founder, Reed Hastings.

Once one sets Huffman’s recent Washington Post commentary in this context, his recommendations and the sources he quotes are not surprising.  He compliments the “nimble and collaborative” approach of the no-excuses charter school chain, Achievement First and thanks Achievement First for offering to guide the Providence, Rhode Island public schools. Achievement First charter schools employ a strict, no-excuses learning philosophy that demands obedience enforced by punishment, a learning strategy that has been criticized as developmentally nappropriate for young children and contrary to fostering inquiry and curiosity.

During the coronavirus-driven school closures, Huffman encourages public school leaders to join in a virtual, online forum to be hosted by Chiefs for Change, where “school districts can share how they are collaborating with charter schools during this crisis.” Chiefs for Change is the state school superintendents’ organization founded by Jeb Bush to promote entrepreneurial and business-driven school accountability.  Huffman enthuses that charter school-public school collaboration—the ideology behind portfolio school reform—will support children while the schools are closed: “Hopefully, in the coming weeks, those jurisdictions struggling to support online coursework will catch up and find workarounds for students without access to technology, learning from the more entrepreneurial players.”

The City Fund is a promoter of “portfolio school reform” in which school district leadership treats charter schools and traditional public schools alike as though they are investments in a stock portfolio, managing them all, and supposedly promoting their collaboration, and then shedding the bad investments and investing in the successful experiments.  Portfolio school reform has not succeeded in fostering charter and traditional district school collaboration in the places where it has been tried—New York City, and Chicago, for example. The competition built into the model pits one school against another, especially when charters are given the freedom to choose the neighborhoods where they open and compete for students and budgets with the neighborhood public school.

Huffman concludes by recommending that as public schools open next fall, states should demand that schools administer the standardized tests most states have cancelled this spring because their public schools are closed: “(S)ince states are losing standardized testing this spring, they’ll need to administer tests at the start of the next school year to see what students know after the crisis. Assessments should be informative and not used to measure or rate schools or teachers. Without this, it will be impossible to know the extent of the challenge and where resources should be deployed to deal with it.”

The assumption here is that teachers themselves will not be able to assess children’s needs as they welcome their students back to school next fall.  Huffman is certainly correct that any standardized tests after the months’ long break should not be used to rate and rank the schools the students have been unable to attend during the pandemic.  But to assume that teachers need standardized tests—whose results are always released months after the tests are administered—is ridiculous.  Certified public school teachers and other local school professionals are trained to be able to assess each child’s needs. The best investment when schools reopen will be in small classes where teachers can devote time and attention to helping every child catch up.

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.”