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.”

New Report: How Big Money Has Been Swinging Elections Against Public Education

In a fine new report, the Network for Public Education Action exposes, “how the super rich buy elections to undermine public schools.” The report presents nine case studies—in Newark, New Jersey; Washington state; Los Angeles; Perth Amboy, New Jersey; Louisiana; Rhode Island; Minneapolis; New York; and Denver—where billionaire dollars have been carefully invested to buy elections and promote the privatization of public education.

Who are the people investing their fortunes in privatizing public schools? The report, Hijacked by Billionaires, begins with profiles of the people who have either donated more than a million dollars to candidates or political committees or have contributed to at least three of the nine elections profiled in the case studies. The report’s index of billionaires includes Netflix’s Reed Hastings; the Walton family, founders of Walmart, and including Alice Walton, Jim Walton, Carrie Walton Penner, Greg Penner, and Steuart Walton; Donald and Doris Fisher, founders of The GAP; the Bloomberg family including former New York mayor Michael Bloomberg and his daughter Emma; Microsoft founder Bill and his wife, Melinda Gates (The report tracks personal, not Gates Foundation gifts.); California businessman Eli Broad; co-founder of Microsoft, Paul Allen and his Vulcan Inc.; California businessman William Bloomfield; Lane Grigsby and Cajun Industries, the Louisiana construction company; former ENRON trader John Arnold and his wife Laura; the Bezos family including Amazon’s Jeff Bezos and his parents Jackie and Mike; venture capitalist Nick Hanauer; Samson Oil heiress Stacy Schusterman; SiliconValley venture capitalist Arthur Rock; Steve Jobs’ widow, Laurene Powell Jobs and the Emerson Collective LLC; Eagle Capital Management’s Ravenel Boykin Curry IV and his wife Elizabeth; Purdue Pharma’s Jonathan Sackler; and Katherine Bradley, who is connected with three of the case studies and whose husband chairs Atlantic Media Group.

So… what’s in it for these people? “Many of the big charter chains have boards that include billionaires—allowing those who would never dream of sending their own children to a charter or neighborhood public school to direct the education of thousands of disadvantaged children. For some billionaires, charter directorship has become a source of pride and prestige. Other billionaires despise teacher unions (and all unions) and blame them for the struggles of poor students. They prefer charter schools, because more than 90% of them have no unions… Others have true disdain for democracy and believe if ordinary people govern their schools, corruption is inevitable. Still others believe that only the marketplace and consumerism can produce quality. If the marketplace and competition made them and their business successful, then surely that will work for schools too. All are united by the belief that education cures poverty and that their enormous wealth has little to do with the economic injustice and generational poverty that plagues our cities and rural communities… The billionaires’ refusal to confront the importance of poverty and its negative effects on school performance suggests that their focus on school choice is meant to distract us from policy changes that would really help children, such as increasing the equity and adequacy of (public) school funding, reducing class sizes, providing medical care and nutrition for students, and other specific efforts to meet the needs of children and families.”

Here are brief summaries of three of the report’s case studies:

After a string of failures, Washington State finally passed a ballot initiative to permit charter schools: “In November 2012, Washington State voters passed the Charter School Ballot Initiative 1240, which provided for the establishment of up to 40 charter schools within five years.  It passed by a very slim margin, 50.69% in favor, to 49.31% opposed. This was Washington State’s fourth charter school ballot initiative with the first three attempts having failed in 1996… 2000… and 2004…  In addition to ballot initiatives, pro-charter legislation had been proposed and failed.”  Who were the billionaires who invested enough to get the initiative passed in 2012? The largest investors from within Washington were Paul Allen and Bill Gates, the co-founders of Microsoft; venture capitalist, Nick Hanauer; and Jackie and Mike Bezos, parents of Amazon’s Jeff Bezos. Large out-of-state investment came from Netflix’s Reed Hastings and Education Reform Now, based in New York, the 501(c)(4), dark-money affiliate of Democrats for Education Reform. The report lists other investors, including $1.1 million from Alice Walton.

In 2011, a huge influx of out-of-state money tipped the Louisiana Board of Elementary and Secondary Education: “John White spent two years as a teacher with Teach for America. He later became an executive director of TFA in both Chicago and New Jersey and a deputy superintendent in New York City under ‘reform’ chancellor Joel Klein. Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal decided he wanted White as his state superintendent… The only problem was that Jindal did not believe that Louisiana’s then current state board, the Board of Elementary and Secondary Education (BESE), would deliver enough votes in support of White.  In Louisiana, the state superintendent is determined by a supermajority of BESE members—at least eight out of the total eleven must vote a candidate into office….”  Jindal reached out to his friend Jeb Bush and the political influence of Bush’s Foundation for Excellence in Education and an alliance of pro-corporate-reform state school superintendents Jeb had convened—Chiefs for Change.  Members of both groups reached out to key allies to help fund the 2011 BESE election: Michael Bloomberg, Eli Broad, John and Laura Arnold, Alice and Jim Walton, and Carrie Walton Penner.  Smaller gifts came from Arthur Rock, Reed Hastings, and Michelle Rhee’s StudentsFirst.  From within Louisiana, the Grigsby family and Cajun Industries donated a quarter of a million dollars. BESE was flipped to Jindal’s satisfaction, and John White, Jindal’s favorite candidate for state superintendent—the guy favoring Teach for America—was approved by the new BESE.

The third example among NPE’s case studies is of New York, a state where Wall Street money has made Governor Andrew Cuomo a strong supporter of charter schools: “Since his first gubernatorial campaign in 2010, Andrew Cuomo received generous contributions in exchange for his support of charter schools…  When Cuomo sought money from the hedge fund community, it was made clear that he needed to support their pro-charter agenda… In exchange for Cuomo’s support of charters, charter board members became extraordinarily generous to the Cuomo campaign. One donor was the Great Public Schools PAC, started by the controversial Success Academy Charter School leader, Eva Moskowitz.” Success Academy Charters’ board members have been primary contributors: Dan Loeb, Bruce Kovner, Joel Greenblatt and his wife Julia, Bryan Binder, Daniel Nir and his wife Jill Braufman, Andra and Dana Stone, Kent Yalowitz, Catherine Shainker, Jarret Posner, Suleman Lunat, and John Petry.  The list of New York and Connecticut donors to Cuomo campaigns—people who are connected with charter schools, and even in some who own construction companies that build charter schools—continues for three pages.  In Cuomo’s 2014 bid for reelection, “All the efforts and contributions made by charter advocates paid off.  In the final two months of the election, Andrew Cuomo outspent his Republican gubernatorial opponent… five to one… Post-election, Andrew Cuomo Inc., was left with about $9 million for his next campaign.”

The Network for Public Education Action urges readers to follow the money in their own states. “Education reform billionaires are trying to buy elections across the country… The Citizens United decision allows corporations and other groups and individuals to form Super Political Action Committees (Super PACs) called Independent Expenditure Committees (IECs). These IECs are allowed to ‘spend unlimited sums of money on ads and other communications designed to support or oppose a candidate.'” However, because Independent Expenditure Committees are required to report their contributors to the Federal Election Committee, the report’s authors were able to document many of the names of contributors.

NPE Action’s new report that tracks an enormous web of wealthy givers trying to undermine public schools across the states is disturbing.  The report traces the massive political power of people whose fortunes have grown with today’s exploding inequality.  In his new book, Winners Take All: The Elite Charade of Changing the World, Anand Giridharadas worries about the same trend. Giridharadas challenges the power of money in our modern Gilded Age: “What is at stake is whether the reform of our common life is led by governments elected by and accountable to the people, or rather by wealthy elites claiming to know our best interests. We must decide whether, in the name of ascendant values such as efficiency and scale, we are willing to allow democratic purpose to be usurped by private actors who often genuinely aspire to improve things, but first things first, seek to protect themselves… We must ask ourselves why we have so easily lost faith in the engines of progress that got us where we are today—in the democratic efforts to outlaw slavery, end child labor, limit the workday, keep drugs safe, protect collective bargaining, create public schools, battle the Great Depression, electrify rural America, weave a nation together by road, pursue a Great Society free of poverty, extend civil and political rights to women and African Americans and other minorities, and give our fellow citizens health, security, and dignity in old age.” (pp. 10-11) (This blog explored Giridharadas’s new book here.)

Nonprofit Charters Turn Taxes into Profits for Board Members

Yesterday the Economic Policy Institute published a stunning new report that examines Rocketship Charter Schools and the financial backers tied to the success of the Rocketship chain of schools.  The report’s author is political economist Gordon Lafer, who examines Rocketship Charter Schools in the context of Wisconsin, where corporate lobbies such as the Wisconsin Policy Research Institute, a member of the far-right State Policy Network, working together with the American Legislative Exchange Council, have supported recent legislative efforts to privatize public schools in Milwaukee.   While these advocates did not succeed in the recently concluded Wisconsin legislative session, Lafer warns, “Nevertheless, the more ambitious proposals will likely remain at the core of Wisconsin’s debates over education policy, and legislative leaders have made clear their desire to revisit them in next year’s session.”

Why should efforts to privatize schools in Wisconsin matter to you and me?  The corporate lobbies and investors working to privatize public schools are active in your state and mine just as they are in Wisconsin.  Vouchers, for example, began in Milwaukee over 20 years ago.

Lafer’s focus in the new report is the Rocketship chain of charter schools, launched originally in California by promoters who intend to expand into Wisconsin and other states.  The Rocketship charter chain uses “‘blended learning,” which substitutes computers for teachers for part of each day, thereby permitting far larger classes.  According to Lafer, “The profit margins of ‘blended learning’ schools—which split students’ days between in-person and online instruction—aren’t as high as those of entirely virtual schools, but they may be the next best thing. For this reason, investment banks, hedge funds, and venture capital firms have increasingly looked to ‘blended learning’ as a preferred model for urban school districts.”  Rocketship’s philosophy incorporates four principles: replacing teachers with computers for part of the day, relying on young and inexpensive teachers, narrowing the curriculum to math and reading, and focusing on preparing students for standardized tests.

This is a rather long, in-depth report about school privatization in Wisconsin, not only the influence of ALEC and the Wisconsin Policy Research Institute, but also the role of the business community including the Metropolitan Milwaukee Association of Commerce.  Most fascinating to me, however, is Lafer’s documentation of the power behind the development of Rocketship’s “blended learning” model and the not-for-profit’s plans for rapid expansion.  “While Rocketship has realized significant financial growth over its short lifetime—from 2010 through 2013, the company’s assets increased by over 600 percent, from $2.2 million to $15.8 million—the schools’ academic achievements, even by their own measures, have not followed the same trajectory.”  Rocketship charters’ standardized test scores “show significant declines in academic performance,” which is perhaps why Rocketship continues to adjust its approach to “blended learning” while Rocketship has never suggested eliminating the on-line curriculum altogether.  According to Lafer, Rocketship’s promotion of large classes (a ratio of fifty students per teacher at one point), whose disadvantages are supposedly offset through on-line learning, enables the company to spend far more on administration than traditional public schools.  Rocketship has been investing a sizeable part of its administrative costs into future growth and expansion.

Another prime reason for Rocketship’s commitment to on-line learning is the charter network’s business partnership with its own for-profit providers of curricula.  “Rocketship Education is a nonprofit company.  However, its operational model blurs the distinction between for-profit and nonprofit businesses.  At the heart of what makes Rocketship different from other schools is online instruction—often conducted using licensed software applications supplied by for-profit vendors.”  Reed Hastings, CEO of Netflix, and venture-capitalist John Doerr both sit on Rocketship’s Board, but they are at the same time primary investors in DreamBox Learning, a for-profit company that provides the math curriculum used by Rocketship.  “Thus, Hastings and Doerr help fund the nonprofit Rocketship chain, which contracts with a for-profit company they partially own…,”  although it is impossible to learn the size of Doerr and Hastings’ profits because DreamBox is privately held. That the DreamBox math curriculum has been rated by the U.S. Department of Education as producing “no discernible effects on mathematics achievement for elementary school students,” has not undermined Rocketship’s loyalty to DreamBox.

Rocketship also buys the services of Zeal software, a for-profit company founded by Rocketship’s (now retired) founder, John Danner.  Lafer concludes: “As with DreamBox, then, Rocketship’s relationship with Zeal features a nonprofit school serving as a testing ground and customer base for personally and financially connected for-profit companies.  Rocketship’s use of both DreamBox and Zeal software would likely be prohibited as illegal conflicts of interest if they took place in a public school system.  If a board member proposed that a school contract with a vendor with whom he or she had a personal financial relationship, this would be rejected out of hand.  But Rocketship is not bound to uphold the same standard of ethics demanded of public officials, and it does not.”

While public regulation is missing in the charter sector, it is important to remember, however, that the dollars filling the coffers of DreamBox and Zeal are from taxes.