Education Opinion

Going, Going, Gone

By Susan Graham — May 03, 2010 4 min read
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First, I don’t think there are too many people who would look at DC schools and say, “Wow, this is great! We really don’t need to change a thing.” Enrollment is down. Some buildings are in disrepair. Security is a problem at many school sites. Special education is backlogged. And yes, there are some incompetent teachers.

However, there are some DC public schools where admission is by application and there is a waiting list. There are schools that are a safe and sane sanctuary for children who live in chaotic and dangerous circumstances. There are schools that are models for academic rigor, artistic expression and diversity. And there are high effective teachers who have done well by their students under circumstances that would try many souls.

Regardless, the DC school system has become a testing ground for school reform, and the leading lady is the high-profile and highly controversial Chancellor Michelle Rhee. This spring she and the Washington Teachers Union appeared to be on track to finally put a new contract to a vote. It contains merit pay factors tied to test scores and to more rigorous teacher evaluations. There is also potential for some serious paychecks. Teachers could earn as much as $100,000 within five years of employment. To play in that compensation category, teachers must agree to sacrifice tenure.

Depending on who you ask, you might be told that Rhee is visionary or vicious, determined or dogmatic, bold or brash, astute or arrogant, an innovator or an ideologue. But whether you see her as the savior of schools or the devil herself, she has been cast as the leading lady of DC school reform and it’s a role she seems to relish.

That’s what bothers me. Whatever Rhee thinks, it’s not all about her. Earlier this week, the Washington Teachers’ Union was ready to send the contract to the membership, but now it is quite possible that after almost three years of negotiation, the carefully crafted new teaching contract could go down the drain.

What’s the problem? Money. In order to pay for the promised bonuses, Rhee and her backers created the DC Public Education Fund and attracted serious money from Bill Gates, Eli Broad, and the Walton Foundation among others. Rhee is quoted on the fund’s site saying

We need the support of the community and private funders to allow us to enact dynamic and essential changes.

Philanthropy is a noble thing, but gifts come tied up with strings, and those strings are usually attached to the donors’ favorite things. String #1 is tied to accountability as measured by test score outcomes. While I might not agree with test results as the best measurement of teacher effectiveness, it is one of the most common merit pay proposals. But here’s the part that really concerns me.

....a provision that allows the funders to reconsider their support if there is a material change in school leadership......

Wow! That’s not string; that’s a rope. Keep Rhee or we’ll take our money and go home. Since teachers are giving up tenure, it seems reasonable to expect Rhee to accept the same level of risk. But apparently not. In effect, the new compensation system is being held hostage to Rhee’s job security and that’s wrong.

Back at the DC Education Fund site, New York City School Chancellor Joel Klein tries to explain why “tenure by foundation fiat” is a good idea:

Overhauling one of the worst-performing school districts in the country will take a philanthropic commitment for the strategic investments that the system itself, for political reasons, is not going to be able to make. In Adrian Fenty and Michelle Rhee, DC Public Schools have the leaders the system needs to bring about real reform. And in the DC Public Education Fund, the business and philanthropic community has its tool to fund the aforementioned critical strategic investments


And that’s another big problem. Chancellor Rhee is a political appointment of Mayor Fenty. Mayor Fenty is up for re-election next October. Fenty says he will keep Rhee if re-elected. His opponent says he will consider keeping Rhee, but is unwilling to guarantee her job.

The tool that the DC Public Education Fund seems to be willing to use is a rather polite threat. It sounds sort of like “Elect the mayor we want, let him appoint the chancellor we want, reform your schools the way we want, and if it goes the way we want, you can have the money. Otherwise, we’ll pull the string, and the rug, out from under you.”

I have read that it is standard practice for donors to set restrictions on their grant money, but this seems akin to election rigging. With all due respect, shouldn’t the people of DC be making these choices, even if they are bad choices? Aren’t these their children sitting in their schools? Isn’t that sort of the whole idea of a democratic society? Isn’t there something rather disingenuous about saying every child has a right to a quality education, but rather than committing to public funding for quality schools, we’ll offer tax-exempt education charity instead? Does this sound like slow-release privatization to anyone?

In her The Life and Death of the Great American School System, Diane Ravitch says

... the offer of a multimillion-dollar grant by a foundation is enough to cause most superintendents and school boards to drop everything and reorder their priorities.... Removing public oversight will leave the education of our children to the whim of entrepreneurs and financiers. Nor is it wise to entrust our schools to inexperienced teachers, principals, and superintendents. Education is too important to relinquish to the vagaries of the market and the good intentions of amateurs.

I do not doubt the good intentions of wealthy people who form charitable foundations. They do good things and they are smart men who’ve amassed huge fortunes. I’m sure Mr. Broad knows a lot about building and Mr. Gates knows a lot about computers, and the Waltons know a lot about selling stuff; but it doesn’t make them education experts. Our public schools should not be a prize at a charity auction. Because if that’s the case, when the hammer falls, we will have sold our children’s future to the highest billionaire bidder -- and I fear that what has made us a great nation truly will be going, going, gone.

The opinions expressed in A Place at the Table are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.