Bills Gates ‘Compact’ Comes with Strings Attached; SRC Ponders Trading ‘Seats’ for Money

by Lisa Haver

To secure a Bill Gates Foundation grant, the SRC would have to agree to overhaul 25 percent of District schools by 2017 and continue privatizing education.       

Last Wednesday, Philadelphia became the 10th major city to be courted by Bill Gates when his “District-Charter Collaboration Compact,” an initiative to help ease resistance to building new charters, was presented for consideration to the School Reform Commission.  Gates has taken on a reputation as a school reformer and philanthropist, donating money to struggling school districts in big cities, including Baltimore, Denver, Los Angeles, and New York.  But the money he offers isn’t free; it comes with strings attached.   

To be eligible to receive a grant from Gates, schools districts must agree to his vision of school reform and pledge cooperation by signing a “compact”.  This compact includes, among other things, promoting the expansion of charters and agreeing to shut down schools that are deemed failing.  The compact being reviewed by the SRC in Philadelphia calls for an overhaul of the poorest performing quartile in the system (approximately 50,000 seats) with “high quality alternatives” by 2016-17. 

The problem with Gates and his education grants is that he doesn’t just sign the check and let the city decide what’s best for its students.  In order for districts to qualify for money, they must agree to his agenda.  Just as Grover Norquist, who is accountable to no one, has tied the hands of the Super Committee with his no new taxes pledge, Gates undermines the authority of local school boards with his pro-charter, pro-privatization “compact”.  Bill Gates has joined the ranks of school “reformers” such as Michelle Rhee who, despite having no degree in education and virtually no experience teaching, have appointed themselves experts in the field. 

Diane Ravitch, in her recent book, The Death and Life of the Great American School System:  How Testing and Choice are Undermining Education, describes some of the destruction the Gates Foundation has wrought.  Manuel High, one of Denver’s oldest and most prestigious schools, was forced to divide itself into three separate schools because of the “small school” agenda Gates was pushing at the time; his ensuing disruption caused the school board to close it temporarily. Mountlake Terrace High, just outside Seattle, suffered the loss of many teachers and administrators in 2004 after being forced to split into five separate schools in order to receive the Gates funding. 

The Philadelphia School District, which is still recovering from a $630 million budget deficit, is in no position to refuse Gates’ offer.  How can the SRC say no to free money when the district is so deep in the hole?

The reality, of course, is that the money is not free.  The price is the autonomy of the SRC.  The price is the democratic procedure in the city and the state under which the community and its elected leaders make informed decisions about its schools; what the city and District believes is best for its children will become secondary to the dictates of the “compact”. 

Ravitch writes: “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.”

This “compact” demanded by Gates, which is now under review by the SRC, demands that each and every school in the bottom 25 percent of the District (approximately 50,000 seats) be overhauled or turned into a charter by 2017.     

What’s most concerning is that charters, as a whole, perform no better than traditional neighborhood schools.  Of the 73 Philadelphia charters that took the PSSA in 2011, only 60 percent, (44 schools), made AYP; these schools are a far cry from what Gates bills as “high performing”.  Worse still are the conclusions drawn by Stanford University’s CREDO study, the most comprehensive report on Pennsylvania charter schools performed to date.  CREDO stated:

This report covers academic achievement growth at charter schools in Pennsylvania over a four-year period [2007-2010]. Overall, charter school performance in Pennsylvania lagged in growth compared to traditional public schools. Looking at the distribution of school performance, 60% of the charter schools performed with similar or better success than the traditional public schools in reading and 53% of charter schools performed with similar or better success in math compared to traditional public schools. Performance at cyber charter schools was substantially lower than the performance at brick and mortar charters with 100% of cyber charters performing significantly worse than their traditional public school counterparts in both reading and math.       

Charter performance aside, where is the commitment to improving all public schools?  Instead of a helping hand, there is only a raised yardstick.  The Gates compact lays out the future of our schools in no uncertain terms:  “Failure to significantly improve would bring meaningful consequences, including closure.”

The members and policies of the new SRC has given many Philadelphians hope.  There is an honest commitment to transparency and community involvement.  For the first time ever, during Wednesday’s meeting, the floor was opened to questions from the audience. But how much power does this body truly have when its policies can be dictated by billionaires with deep pockets and rigid contracts?

Lisa Haver is an education activist and retired teacher.

Historically, U.S. Education Secretaries Have Been Disconnected From The Classroom

by Christopher Paslay

Most will agree that No Child Left Behind is a flawed education reform policy.  U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan told Congress this spring that the “law is fundamentally broken, and we need to fix it this year.” 

President Obama believes this to be the case, which is why he is has directed the U.S. Department of Education to grant waivers to districts that fail to meet annual benchmark standards. 

When President Bush enacted NCLB, he insisted it was a sound policy that would improve education in America.  The reality of the situation, of course, is that good policy doesn’t always translate into good practice.  Those writing policy—scholars, researchers and politicians—are not always plugged-in on the ground floor; few have substantial experience teaching at the K-12 level. 

A top-to-bottom review of those responsible for writing much of America’s education policy reveals interesting results.  Arne Duncan, President Obama’s education secretary, has no experience teaching in a K-12 public school classroom and holds no license to teach in one.  Although Duncan was the chief executive officer of the Chicago Public Schools, and was involved in a number of education foundations, his experience working directly with children stems from his time helping his mother run a tutoring program in Chicago, which he spoke about in a speech called “A Call to Teaching” at the Rotunda at the University of Virginia in October of 2009:

“My mother ran an inner-city afterschool program in a church basement on the South Side of Chicago, and raised my sister, brother, and me as part of her program. Every student in her afterschool program was African-American and came from a low-income family. Many of the students had to overcome tremendous adversity every day just to be in that program. When I was little, the older students tutored me. When I got older, I tutored the younger students. That is her philosophy—the 15 year-olds tutor the 10 year-olds, the 10 year-olds tutor the 5 year-olds, and the 5 year-olds help to clean the tables. I saw in that program, day after day and year after year, that a well-run tutoring program is a good thing. But I learned that a good tutoring program run by a caring adult was a great thing. The students my mother tutored felt that she understood them, and they knew that she cared deeply about what happened to them. The sense of connection that great teachers create is second only to a parent’s love in its power to transform lives.”  

Secretary Duncan’s stint helping his mother tutor a small group of urban children in a church basement was no doubt inspiring, but this experience hardly mirrors the challenges facing fulltime teachers in inner-city classrooms.      

Margaret Spellings, George W. Bush’s second-term education secretary, also had no experience teaching in a K-12 public school classroom.  Spellings graduated from the University of Houston with a bachelor’s in political science.  Her experience prior to working for the White House involved writing educational policy at the university and state level.  According to her bio on the U.S. Department of Education’s website, Spellings was the first mother of school-aged children to serve as Education Secretary, so she had a “special appreciation for the hopes and concerns of American families.”

Rod Paige, Bush’s first Education Secretary who received a doctorate in physical education from Indiana University, worked with students as a teacher and a coach, although not at the K-12 level.  Richard Riley, who served as Clinton’s Secretary of Education for both terms, was a lawyer and politician and never taught in a K-12 classroom.  Lamar Alexander, Bush Sr.’s secretary, was a politician and professor and also lacked any K-12 teaching credential.  In fact, the only Education Secretary who ever taught fulltime in a K-12 school was Terrel Bell, Ronald Regan’s first Education Secretary, who taught at the high school level in 1946-1947    

Much of the same holds true at the local level.  Mayor Michael Nutter’s chief education officer, Lori Shorr, has no K-12 teaching experience or licenses.  Although Dr. Arlene Ackerman, superintendent of Philadelphia public schools, has experience as both a K-12 classroom teacher and principal, only one of five members of Philadelphia’s School Reform Commission has any experience teaching in a K-12 school.               

In order for education policy to be sound in theory and practice, the realities of everyday K-12 classrooms—and the voices of those teachers working in them—must be accounted for.  When policy is not balanced with feedback from instructors it can in some cases do more harm than good.