Bidders Striving to Make the Grade in ‘New Schools’ Competition

By Lynn Olson — January 29, 1992 17 min read

They range from the power houses of the education establishment to principals with a good idea, from corporate entrepreneurs to nonprofit do-gooders.

The Feb. 14 deadline for submitting proposals to the New American Schools Development Corporation is fast approaching. And no one, it seems, wants to be left out of the competition.

NASDC is the private, nonprofit corporation created by American businessmen last July, at the request of President Bush, to help underwrite the design and implementation of a new generation of ‘“break the mold” schools.

The corporation has pledged to raise $200 million for the research-and-development effort. In the first stage of the competition, it will award up to 30 one-year contracts of up to $3 million each.

The result has been the educational equivalent of the search for high-temperature superconductivity: frenzied activity, interrupted by occasional public pronouncements and a fever pitch of excitement.

NASDC officials expect to receive as many as 1,000 proposals. By last week, 327 design teams in 49 states and the District of Columbia had notified the corporation of their intent to submit a bid a stop that NASDC encouraged but did not require. The letters came from 139 public or private schools, 86 businesses, 64 education associations, 52 universities, 19 school beards, and 16 individuals.

Interviews reveal that bidders range from a list of who’s who in education to the relatively obscure.

At one end of the spectrum are such noted educational leaders as Theodore R. Sizer, the chairman of the Coalition of Essential Schools; Howard Gardner, a co-director of Project Zero; and James P. Comer, the director of the School Development Project at Yale University. The three are collaborating on a design with the Educational Development Center Inc. in Cambridge, Mass.

William J. Bennett, a former U.S. Secretary of Education, is heading up a group out of the Hudson Institute that includes Chester E. Finn Jr., a former assistant secretary of education; former Gov. Pete DuPont of Delaware; and Denis P. Doyle, a well-known education critic.

Another team of heavy hitters includes the National Center on Education and the Economy, the Learning Research and Development Center at the University of Pittsburgh, a coalition of states and school districts, and Apple Computer.

At the other end of the spectrum are such groups as the Wightwood School in Branford, Conn. The small, independent school of approximately 90 students first heard about the competition from a parent.

Wightwood’s team is drawn almost exclusively from citizens and educators in the local area.

“Three of us went down to Washington for one of those massive bidders’ conferences,” said William H. Kaplan, the school’s headmaster, “and we were really fascinated by it, because it was sort of this feeding frenzy of people from all over the country.”

“We looked at all the money, and we looked at all the power in the room,"he added, “and we thought, ‘Why not?’ Our ideas are as good as anybody’s. But clearly, this is a different swimming pool.”

A ‘Persuasive Tool’

The potential to latch onto large sums of money--especially during a recession has lured many schools and school districts into the water.

“Because of the size of the potential grant, it’s encouraged people to think about risks and adopting radical strategies that they probably wouldn’t have the stomach for at home,” said John Kostouros, the project manager for a bid being put together by the Minneapolis and Robinsdale school districts in Minnesota.

“in this day and age, when school boards are desperate for additional revenue sources,” he added, the prospect of winning up to $20 million over five years is a “pretty powerful persuasive tool.”

The potential to develop a large “aftermarket” for their products has also attracted a wide range of software developers, educational consultants, and individual entrepreneurs. Many design teams said they have been approached by individuals plying their services--ranging from self-esteem curricula to grant writing expertise.

On the flip side, a number of the nation’s most prominent computer and software developers have been courted by design teams hoping to make technology a prominent part of their proposals.

Peter N. Lycurgus, the manager of strategic development for Apple, said, “We’re in the process of talking with upward of a dozen different design teams that we plan on participating on in various ways.”

That ranges from a central role on the National Center on Education and the Economy proposal--including the provision of money, equipment, and technical expertise--to a purely advisory capacity.

“We have been approached by literally a couple of hundred” groups, Mr. Lycurgus said, adding that Apple has chosen to participate on teams that share its philosophy.

Jostens Learning Corporation is also participating on about 15 teams, said Shirley A. McCandless, the director of government partnerships.

In contrast, Sylvan Learning Systems is spearheading its own proposal, in collaboration with other national and international companies.

Several business leaders said the high visibility of the enterprise-which has been backed by both the White House and some of the nation’s top C.E.O.'s--contributed to their decision to participate.

“There are at least a dozen major corporations on the board of directors of NASDC,” noted William C. Purple, a retired president of Bendix Aerospace Company and a former executive vice president of Allied-Signal Inc. “So it’s incumbent upon other corporations outside of NASDC to not only contribute funds, but contribute effort, to what I think is a very high-level intent by industry to try to help.”

‘One Last Chance’

But money and politics are not the only reasons that NASDC has unleashed such a flurry of activity. Others point to the fact that the corporation has been able to ride a wave of frustration and anxiety among would-be school reformers.

“I don’t know what is converging here,” said W. Frank Blount, the president and chief executive officer Of NASDC, “but I don’t think it’s just the money. I think a lot of people who have been very frustrated in making change may see this as the umbrella for having one last chance.”

Several people said the invitation had given them the impetus--and the means--to do what they had already planned, but on a larger scale.

A number of districts are writing proposals to create schools that were already slated to open in the next few years. Others were attracted by the opportunity to develop a more integrated and coherent approach to reform.

“At a time when there’s a lot of struggling with these issues going on, it created an opportunity for folks to coalesce their ideas,” said Sharon Robinson, the director of the National Education Association’s center for innovation. The N.E.A. plans to submit a proposal in conjunction with up to six school districts.

She added that Keith Geiger, the N.E.A.'s president, “was really adamant that our role in a proposal be as a partner with other districts, so that nobody could say, ‘Wow, you embraced the Bush strategy.’”

Many participants praised the openness of the request for proposals, which they said presented a dramatic challenge, if taken seriously.

The R.F.P. states, “No question about schooling should be off-limits; no answer assumed.”

The only constraints are that the designs must help all students meet world-class standards in at least the five core subjects identified by the national education goals, and that-putting aside the initial cost of development---the design should operate on a budget comparable to those of conventional schools.

“The way the proposal is written, it’s very open-ended,” said Sally B. Kilgore, the associate vice president for research in advanced studies at the University of Cincinnati, which has organized a design team. “And because of that, it’s this wonderful intellectual exercise.”

Far more striking than the number of proposals are the unlikely marriages that NASDC has provoked.

Some teams include as many as 30 to 50 partners, ranging from universities and think tanks to businesses, state policymakers, and schools.

The Institute for Educational Transformation at Virginia’s George Mason University has brought together a design team that includes the Council for Basic Education, the Institute for Educational Leadership, the University of Maryland system, Booz-Allen & Hamilton Inc., ORS Associates, and the Fairfax County, Va., public schools.

It also encompasses at least six major corporations, a number of smaller ones, an array of other school districts, and several technical partners, such as the law firm Covington & Burling, which has promised to help with the regulatory side of the effort.

At a recent meeting to review a draft of the proposal, 48 people were present, said Hugh T. Sockett, the president of the I.E.T. and the director of the Center for Applied Research and Development at George Mason.

A similarly large, regional proposal is being prepared by a design team housed at the University of Tennessee. That consortium spans 23 partners, including 4 universities, a number of local and regional businesses, at least 8 school districts, the Tennessee Valley Authority, Oak Ridge National Laboratory, and 2 regional education labs.

The corporation did not require collaborative efforts as part of the R.F.P. and, “officially, coming in alone doesn’t put anyone at a disadvantage,” Mr. Blount said. But the quality of the teams will be a major criterion in assessing the proposals, and partnerships have been encouraged.

“if we were going to get systemic change with one of these institutions,” Mr. Blount noted, “it seems to me that we would already have seen it.”

As a result, observers say, even if NASDC were to disappear tomorrow, it already has left an incredible legacy of networks among groups that seldom communicated in the past.

“I think you could say that NASDC has already performed a great service, because the very process of thinking about collaboration is a form of staff development,” said Barbara S. Powell, an education consultant working with the team that includes Messrs. Sizer, Gardner, and Comer.

Provides ‘Some Legitimacy’

From the standpoint of educators, the initiative has provided a powerful entree into the business community. Although most of the design teams do not appear to be corporateled, regional and local businesses have signed up in droves.

“The business community knows that this is a... partnership that has been validated by the President and by major C.E.O.'s all over the country,” said Douglas Tuthill, the president of the Pinellas Classroom Teachers Association in Pinellas County, Fla., which is part of a large design effort, “so when you go to them and say, ‘We want to plug into this initiative,’ you already have some legitimacy.”

For local businesses, in particular, NASDC has provided direction and coherence for their reform efforts.

In the past, said Deborah H. Pinchak, the vice president of the education division of the Charlotte (N.C.) Chamber of Commerce, businesses tended to hook up with a single school or program “and put all their forces behind that, but it was really difficult to keep track of what the systemic implications were going to be.”

“I think the New American Schools has given everybody a vehicle to plug into and make a concerted effort for what we hope will be a truly systemic reform,” she said. Like some of its peers nationwide, the chamber is working on a team.

The reconfiguration of the R.F.P. to fund up to 20 or 30 separate proposals--instead of 5 or 6 behemoths-may also have encouraged greater corporate participation at the local level, several people speculated, because it caused a number of national corporations to lose interest in generating their own bids.

Finally, observers said, the attraction of a largely untapped, $250 billion school market has drown a number of high-tech firms to the endeavor.

One of the most preeminent is the International Business Machines Corporation, which is working on a proposal with the Austin, Tex., school system and others. Stanford University had been part of the initiative, but withdrew this winter. Regional divisions of I.B.M. have also been involved on a number of design teams.

But Michael E. Dutton, an I.B.M. spokesman, said, “This is a competitive bid process, and they’re reluctant to talk about it at all.”

A combination of serendipity, previous acquaintance, and self-interest have brought many teams together. Others have sought out the best partners they could find to fill specific needs.

Some teams have stressed extensive community involvement in their designs from the start. The High/Scope Educational Research Foundation has been working steadily with the general public and the political leadership in Oberlin, Ohio, where it hopes to launch a NASDC effort.

“While others may have 15 or 20 design-team participants involved in this early process,” said David M. Bruno, the director of adolescent programs, “we’ll have 50 to 60 percent of the entire population of the town involved in some way, shape, or form before Feb. 14.”

Some design teams have been at work full time for months and estimate that they have spent up to $300,000 in money and in-kind contributions to prepare their bids. Others are operating on a shoestring.

And many have dropped out entirely, complaining that the short timeline for submitting proposals and the amount of money required to come up with truly substantive ideas have tilted the competition toward large groups and preexisting ventures.

Ms. McCandless of Jostens said many groups dropped out “when they started taking the R.F.P. apart. A lot of them just said, ‘Hey, we’ve got other things in our district that right now are mandates from the state.’ Between Christmas holidays, and testing, and big budget cuts, they didn’t have time.”

The unprecedented nature of the NASDC competition has also put some state departments of education into a quandary.

In Ohio, Ms. Kilgore said, the state has played a “benevolent but confusing role,” by choosing to put together its own design while vowing to help others with their efforts.

The same is true in Florida, where the education department is cooperating with Educational Alternatives Inc. and Johnson Controls Worldwide on a proposal to have the for-profit companies take over the operation of a district or schools.

“The department’s role in this whole thing is promoting the concept, helping the collaborators identify potential districts, and generally lending the commissioner’s support,” said Walter J. McCarroll, the deputy state commissioner for education programs.

In Minnesota, the education department and the Governor’s office have offered to review proposals and endorse those they view as promising-an action that has enraged some potential bidders.

But Gilbert M. Valdez, the manager of instructional design in the Minnesota Department of Education, said 22 groups chose to submit their plans for judgment.

“Everybody wanted the Governors and the commissioner’s endorsements, and we wanted to be fair about it,” he said, “so what we did was have a pre-selection process.”

In contrast, Tom Fonfara, the education aide to Gov. Tommy G. Thompson of Wisconsin, said that, with 6 to 15 proposals expected from that state, “we felt it wouldn’t be appropriate for the Governor to come in and pick out and individually endorse one over another.”

Left ‘High and Dry’?

Concerns about the nature of the R.F.P. itself-and about the potential for NASDC to raise all of the money it hopes--have led others to withdraw from the competition.

Nancy Young, a spokesman for Whittle Communications Inc., said the firm chose not to participate, because “we want to stay independent.”

Henry M. Levin, the founder of the Accelerated Schools network, had been working with a design team but said he may withdraw his proposal, because of concerns about who would own any “intellectual property” developed under a NASDC contract.

After careful deliberation, Teachers College, Columbia University, also decided not to be a prime player in any design effort.

“We tried to face very squarely the nature of the competition,” said P. Michael Timpane, the college’s president, “and the implications it had for preoccupying, labor-intensive work ... and we simply concluded that it wasn’t feasible.”

He also expressed concern about whether NASDC can Secure $200 million in pledges by December, as it has promised.

“I would be very concerned if we were going to go through this whole enterprise, and have people spend the hundreds of thousands of dollars that they have spent preparing proposals,” he said, “only to be left high and dry after one year.”

To date, the organization has raised $42 million from the business community. Mr. Blount asserts that NASDC’s official fund-raising campaign has not yet begun, and that it already has enough money to underwrite the first round of contracts.

But others said businesses are not enthusiastic about funding someone else’s agenda or paying for design teams that will not directly benefit their state or region.

“A number of corporations have felt that their arms were being twisted and have refused to participate,” said Marshall Smith, the dean of Stanford’s school of education.

Other concerns center on the selection process itself and on the quality of the readers who will review NASDC proposals.

Sue E. Berryman, the director of the Institute for Education and the Economy at Teachers College, said such worries contributed to the institute’s decision not to participate on a design team.

“We felt very unclear about how the winners were going to be selected,” she said. “It was such an open situation that the judges could be presented with a very difficult sot of choices among apples and oranges and peaches and grapes.”

With so many people putting together bids, she noted, it may also be difficult to find qualified reviewers.

“Often what you end up with are people who are just so inappropriate that they wouldn’t recognize high quality proposals in blinding sunlight,” Ms. Berryman said.

C. Reid Rundell, the vice president of operations for NASDC, downplayed the dilemma, arguing that the chance to serve as a reader was an “elite opportunity” that would be attractive to many “very dedicated and qualified” individuals.

But for many people, the more pragmatic concern is what will happen if they do not get funded.

“We’re such a small potato,” said Raymond D. Jorgensen, the principal of Charlotte High School in Punta Gorda, Fla., which is putting together its own proposal. “Are we really going to get a fair shot?”

Many of those interviewed said their efforts would continue with or without NASDC support--although perhaps in a cutback form and at a slower pace.

Others plan to tap alternative sources. Jamie R. Vollmer, the director of operations for the Iowa Business in Education Roundtable, said, “What we have, we believe, is sellable to our own legislature.”

But others admitted they would move on to other things if they failed to win a contract.

Leslie Lenkowsky, the president of the Hudson Institute, said, “If somebody else has resources that would fund us, we’d be delighted to do it. If not, it’s going to be another good proposal that was just ahead of its time.”

NASDC has pledged to shred all bids that are not funded, primarily to meet concerns about secrecy raised by high-tech firms during the bidders’ conferences.

Mr. Blount said the corporation is exploring ways to make the competition more of a “win-win situation” for everyone--a difficult feat when only 3 percent of the proposals submitted may secure any money.

He raised the possibility that the corporation would help publicize the top 100 or so proposals in a major media event; grant certificates signifying that proposals had met NASDC criteria to encourage other funding sources; and sponsor meetings of people throughout the coming year.

He also suggested that after the initial round of contracts is funded, NASDC might act as a broker between small and large design teams, encouraging them to subcontract with each other or to cooperate in future efforts.

As the final hour approaches, many educators are questioning how much truly radical thinking the NASDC process will generate.

“My own sense, from traveling around the country, is that there are 100 very good ideas and about 80 percent of the people participating know those 100 good ideas,” said Ms. Kilgore of Cincinnati, “and the differences are going to be in how those ideas are packaged.”

“Everyone that you talk with now is saying, “We don’t think that there are any new ideas left,’ “she added.

On the other hand, she ventured, “making people attach realistic strategies to dreams is probably one of the most powerful benefits that this initiative has.”

A version of this article appeared in the January 29, 1992 edition of Education Week as Bidders Striving to Make the Grade in ‘New Schools’ Competition