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Reflections on the Edbizbuzz-Eduwonk Exchange

February 16, 2008 6 min read
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Four points from my own reflections on this discussion overnight.

First, the fact Andy Rotherham/eduwonk has responded to eduwonkette and before that Alexander Russo - rather ignored them like the other names they’ve named, suggests that he is aware of the problem and has at least tried to deal with its most overt features - for example through edsector’s disclosure policy. Whether the others don’t give it a second thought I don’t know, but they have demonstrated no sense of obligation to explain themselves to the hoi polloi. eduwonk is at least giving it a shot on his own blog.

Second, if you actually enumerate the people circulating around (what for a placeholder I’ll call) the AEI-Fordham-eduwonk axis, it’s maybe 20 people, 30 tops in perhaps 10 institutions - including not just wonks in wonk shops, but staff in the philanthropies and “social entrepreneurs” in public education.
This might lead a Martian to conclude that either our $500 billion a year public education enterprise involving perhaps 10 million adults in the education of 50 million kids has only a tiny group of people who have something useful to say about education policy from the slightly right of center pro-market point of view, or a small group has been very successful capturing the available funding and outlets for that perspective.

“Bravo” to these winners of the marketplace for foundation funding of right-centrist ideas; and the unions and other groups may have see something similar - but we’re still left with an unhealthy narrowing of public discourse in each group and across the spectrum.

As an example, I’ll offer one field of play, where I had front row seat from about 1991, and rather naively stepped out on the field in 2003:

Prior to 2002 there were two schools of thought about charter and charter scale with sufficient funding to have a recognizable voice in public discourse: 1) a bottom-up, “membership” - oriented perspective based on independent charters and local social entrepreneurs; 2) a top-down “leadership” -oriented” perspective focused on the nonprofit Charter Management Organization. (The second group, not I, coined the two terms). The proponents of the leadership model are part of the aforementioned network which includes the charter movement’s funders - especially in the Walton Family and Gates Foundations, and the financial intermediary New Schools Venture Fund and more specifically their program officers. After 2003, proponents of the bottom-up school and their organization were defunded, neutered, or taken over at the state level - consider Eric Premack (Charter School Development Center) and the fight over control of the state association in California, John Ayres (Leadership for Public Education) in Chicago, and Shirley Monestra (DC Charter School Resource Center) in the District of Columbia. Voila, the top-down school emerged as the only viable voice nationally or in Washington for the movement. And remarkably, all those little folks who can’t make it without that foundation support got very quiet about it all very fast.

Some may call this “airing dirty laundry.” Another way of looking at it is an explanation for why the network/club/axis is not only called into question by those on the opposite side of the political fence, but those who are broadly in the same camp. who are not dependent on the network’s money.

There’s nothing “wrong” with this in the sense that people have a right to work with who they want, and philanthropy is under no obligation to fund anything. Nevertheless there are effects, and whether those effects are good for policymaking, policy debate or school reform are legitimate questions for academic research and those engaged in the policy process.

Third, if you then look at the funded work this group is engaged in and especially their moveable feast of conferences and workshops they’ve sponsored, it’s hard not to detect the “same monkeys, different trees” phenomenon. Between sponsoring; serving on panels as presenters, discussants, or moderators; and attending each others conferences, this core of thirty or so pretty much monopolize the “outreach” and “engagement” functions.

Again, from the standpoint of market competition for the funding to do these things - bravo to the winners. Still, it’s easy to understand why some might consider this group to be a self-perpetuating, insular club less likely to engage each other in deep debate, more inclined to mutual back-slapping and log rolling - and to writing the history of reform policy in ways that place them in a favorable light. Just a thought.

Consider When Research Matters: How Scholarship Influences Education Policy, edited by Rick Hess and announced Friday, in particular the chapter on Scientifically Based Research in NCLB by Mike Petrilli and Paul Manna. I have not read the chapter yet, but I have read the paper on which it is based. I will get into this in greater detail in edbizbuzz next week, but it leaves the reader with the sense that this was all about the victory of phonics in the reading wars. To leave Bob Slavin and Sylvan Learning out of this discussion, or the debate over similar terms in the Comprehensive School Reform Demonstration Program of 1997, is a bit like recounting MacBeth without mentioning the that the play starts with the defeat of the rebel Macdonwald, and then neglecting to discuss the roles of MacDuff and Banquo. This is another area where I know something first hand. New American Schools and its Design Teams were not only involved in both laws, but hired Vick Klatt and D’Arcy Philps at Van Scoyoc as lobbyists. (Yes, 501(c)(3)'s can lobby, but they must stay within certain strict rules of purpose and accounting. One of my jobs as COO was to see that we did.)

Fourth , I have some thoughts on the “independence” of think tanks that I’m not sure I’ll be able to expand on any time soon in edbizbuzz. We can’t really know the motivations or intentions of any eduwonk. They may write for love, money, ideology, or simply wherever the analysis takes them. Nevertheless, whether they and their organizations are independent is something we can know, given objective evidence.

The mark of independence is not being able to offer examples of having turned down funders for whatever reason. What matters is whether the organization would be materially affected by the loss of any given funder. I mean “material” in the legal sense; i.e., that it would change the basic nature of the enterprise - big loss of staff, closing shop, etc. To the extent that a think tank is affected by such a loss, it is “dependent.” If we agree that funders fund perspectives they prefer, rather than anyone competent to run any kind of think tank, it’s fair to say that the organization in question is dependent on adherence to a particular point of view.

I suspect that by this definition Fordham is independent; edsector, AEI and most Washington policy marketing shops of all political stripes are not.

I think I’ve exhausted myself on this topic - for the weekend anyway, although I have a lot to say about the eduwonk’s close cousins in this network - the (to some extent) “so-called” social entrepreneurs and venture philanthropists in public education - starting here.

The opinions expressed in edbizbuzz 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.

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