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.

Philanthropic Plutocrats Pushing the Levers and Pulling the Strings

Over the weekend, here and here,  this blog covered last week’s pieces by David Sirota, here and here, that exposed the $3.5 million grant the Public Broadcasting Service solicited from the Laura and John Arnold Foundation to pay for a PBS series, The Pension Peril, that has been portraying the advocacy position of the Laura and John Arnold Foundation that opposes public pensions.  PBS agreed to return the grant and put the series on hiatus when the conflict of interest was exposed.

It used to be that nonprofits brought ideas to foundations when they submitted proposals for funding.  These days it is far more common for the foundation to set an agenda and then seek organizations who can be granted funds to implement the foundation’s priorities.   Joanne Barkan describes the shift in grant making: “The roles of grantor and grantee have… changed.  Once upon a time, the mega-foundations established a goal and sought experts to do independent research on how to achieve it.  Today many donors and program officers have preconceived notions about social problems and solutions.  They fund researchers who are likely to design studies that will support their ideas.  Instead of reviewing proposals from outside the foundation, they hire existing nonprofits or set up new ones to implement projects they’ve designed themselves.  The mode of operation is top-down; grantees serve their funders.  Mega-foundations also devote substantial resources to advocacy—selling their ideas to the media, to government at every level, and to the public.  They also directly fund journalism and media programming in their fields of interest.  All this marks a cultural transformation of big philanthropy.”

Over the weekend Connecticut blogger Jonathan Pelto explored another example connected to the Public Broadcasting Service and promotion of a foundation sponsor’s point of view in PBS programming.  Pelto points out that the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation has granted $20.2 million to the Teaching Channel during the past three years, with the foundation serving as its primary funder.  The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation is also a well-known funder of development and promotion of the Common Core Standards.  According to Pelto, “The Teaching Channel is one of the most vocal proponents of the Common Core Standards,” which it has been promoting in hour-long segments on PBS, “Teaching Channel Presents.”  The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation has granted to PBS affiliate WNET  $370.091 as a sponsor of “Teaching Channel Presents.”

Here is how political philosopher Benjamin Barber reflects on the new trend in philanthropy. His example, a little dated now from his 2007 book Consumed, relates directly to charitable giving in New Orleans after the 2005, Hurricane Katrina:  “First a privatizing ideology rationalizes restricting public goods and public assets of the kind that might allow the public as a whole to rescue from their distress their fellow citizens who are in jeopardy; then the same privatizing ideology celebrates the wealthy philanthropists made possible by the market’s inequalities who earnestly step in to spend some fragment of their market fortunes to do what the public can no longer do for itself. .. The private philanthropist does for others in the larger public what they have not been enabled to do for themselves, as a public; democracy on the other hand empowers the public to take care of itself.” (p. 131)

Peter Buffett, son of billionaire Warren Buffett, agrees with Benjamin Barber:  “As more lives and communities are destroyed by the system that creates vast amounts of wealth for the few, the more heroic it sounds to ‘give back.’  It’s what I would call ‘conscience laundering’—feeling better about accumulating more than any one person could possibly need to live on by sprinkling a little around as an act of charity.”

Examples from this past weekend illustrate that billionaire philanthropists have been spending not only on acts of charity but also on public policy projects, promoting their own “solutions” in many policy areas including public education.  But they do so without the accountability of democratic checks and balances.  They get to decide on their own whether their agenda will serve the public good.  While, of course, there is no absolute guarantee that democratic oversight of publicly owned institutions or democratically developed public policy will serve or protect the public good, at least as projects are undertaken on the part of the public, the pros and cons are publicly debated and public oversight ensures transparency.

In her 2010 book, The Death and Life of the Great American School System, Diane Ravitch defines the danger of the new philanthropy:  “…it is worth reflecting on the wisdom of allowing education policy to be directed, or one might say, captured by private foundations.  There is something fundamentally antidemocratic about relinquishing control of the public education policy agenda to private foundations run by society’s wealthiest people; when the wealthiest of these foundations are joined in common purpose, they represent an unusually powerful force that is beyond the reach of democratic institutions.  These foundations, no matter how worthy and high-minded, are after all, not public agencies.  They are not subject to public oversight or review , as a public agency would be.  They have taken it upon themselves to reform public education, perhaps in ways that would never survive the scrutiny of voters in any district or state.  If voters don’t like the foundations’ reform agenda, they can’t vote them out of office.  The foundations demand that public schools and teachers be held accountable for performance, but they themselves are accountable to no one.  If their plans fail, no sanctions are levied against them.  They are bastions of unaccountable power.” (pp. 200-201)

PBS News Admits Hidden Sponsor of Anti-Pension Series; Stops Coverage of Story

Here is a quick weekend update on an important development about media coverage of issues connected to school reform. This time the topic is so-called news coverage of public pensions, the kind of pensions school teachers pay into throughout their careers.  Attacks on teachers’ fringe benefits including pensions are central to the political agenda of the corporate school deformers.

On Wednesday, David Sirota published an in depth investigation exposing that the Public Broadcasting Service (PBS) sought out a $3.5 million grant from the John and Laura Arnold Foundation to sponsor a long running series that began last fall, “The Pension Peril.”  Sirota reported that PBS kept the grant a secret, never announcing the sponsor as the segments were aired.

Nobody mentioned that the series was being paid for by “former Enron trader John Arnold, a billionaire political powerbroker who is actively trying to shape the very pension policy that the series claims to be dispassionately covering…  Arnold has been using massive contributions to politicians, Super PACs, ballot initiative efforts, think tanks and local front groups to finance a nationwide political campaign aimed at slashing public employees’ retirement benefits.  His foundation which backs his efforts employs top Republican political operatives, including the former chief of staff to GOP House Majority Leader Dick Armey (TX).  According to its own promotional materials, the Arnold Foundation is pushing lawmakers in states across the country ‘to stop promising a (retirement) benefit’ to public employees.”

In this instance Sirota’s exposure brought a happy ending.  Last night the NY Times reported, WNET to Return $3.5 Million Grant for Pension Series.  According to the newspaper’s report, “In the absence of the funding from the Laura and John Arnold Foundation, the project, called “Pension Peril,” will go on hiatus, although WNET will continue to report on the topic.”  PBS and WNET  claim they have discontinued the series “in order to eliminate any perception on the part of the public, our viewers and donors that the foundation’s interests influenced the editorial integrity of the reporting for this program.”

I urge you to read David Sirota’s fascinating investigative piece.  While I have been very much aware of sponsorship by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation of NBC’s Education Nation series and have watched carefully to discern the ways Gates Foundation policies on public education influence the choice of panelists, for example, with a dearth of public school teachers and an abundance of their critics, at least NBC News has been transparent about the sponsorship.  I guess that’s something.