School Choice & Charters Opinion

Can We Exorcize “Evil” From the Education Reform Debate?

By Anthony Cody — October 02, 2012 4 min read
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Advocates of education “reform” are reeling a bit from the backlash that has greeted the release of “Won’t Back Down.” All of a sudden mainstream critics were seen pointing out connections between the movie’s financial backers and the political agenda it advanced. Amidst this shift we are hearing calls that critics of “reform” cool our tone.

Daniel Willingham writes here:

I think it's fair to say that, in education policy, some of us have gone too far. People who disagree with us are depicted as not merely wrong, but evil.
This characterization is most noticeable in what is broadly called the reform movement.
People who advocate reforms such as merit pay, the use of value added models of teacher evaluation, charter schools, and vouchers are not merely labeled misguided because these reforms won't work. They are depicted as bad people who are unsympathetic to the difficulty of teaching and who are in the pockets of the rich.
Likewise, those who see value in teacher's unions, who are leery of current methods of teacher evaluation, who think that vouchers threaten the neighborhood character of schools are not merely wrong: they are accused of looking out for the welfare of lousy teachers.
And of course both sides are accused of "not caring about kids."

I agree with Daniel Willingham that we ought to be careful about attacking the motives of those with whom we disagree.

But I have a genuine question. We are all aware of the BILLIONS of dollars various corporations (and their foundations) are pouring into education, through for-profit and nonprofit channels. The vast majority of this money is going towards one side of the education reform debate -- so much so that it is often termed “corporate reform.” Many of these corporations have short or longterm interests in the outcome of this debate and are sponsoring advocacy in many forms. Many of the people who are participating in this debate are on the salaries of these corporations or their non-profit proxies.

For example, this week, amidst all the negative reviews of “Won’t Back Down,” there appeared a surprisingly positive one, over at The Atlantic. Chris Arnold wrote a review entitled “The Movie Teachers’ Unions Hate, but Everyone Else Should Appreciate.” Arnold uses a large part of his review to rebut AFT president Randi Weingarten’s critique of the film, and declares the movie to be “important.”

In the original posting of his review, there was no mention of the fact that Mr. Arnold works for The New Teacher Project. This organization is a non-profit sponsored by the Gates and Walton foundations, which has worked for years to “increase accountability” in teacher evaluations. Its 2009 report, “The Widget Effect,” has been frequently cited when legislation is enacted tying teacher evaluations to test scores.

Parent activist Leonie Haimson uncovered this connection, and flagged it in the comments on his review. Others, including me, joined her in requesting that this connection be disclosed. The article now has been modified to include this information, but Mr. Arnold’s first response was rather dismissive:

... the views represented here are 100% my own. In my free time, I write for many publications on a variety of topics, including baseball, immigration, literature, gun control, and yes, movies.

Clearly, if Mr. Arnold wants to review Hotel Transylvania, or the designated hitter rule in baseball, his employment at TNTP is irrelevant. But when the movie in question is all about education reform, his affiliation should not be hidden. The article now has no less than three disclosures of Mr. Arnold’s employment, so his editors at The Atlantic apparently overruled him and decided that such disclosures are warranted.

And this brings me back to Daniel Willingham’s plea that we not depict those with whom we disagree as “bad people who are unsympathetic to the difficulty of teaching and who are in the pockets of the rich.” I do not waste time on my blog or in my life dividing people into “good” and “bad.” Life and people are far too complicated for such simplistic categories. But I do think it is entirely relevant to look at who is paying the salaries of advocates of various positions. In the debate over “Won’t Back Down,” it is rather obvious where Randi Weingarten is coming from, and readers can draw their own conclusions. In the absence of disclosure, Mr. Arnold’s interests in defending the movie are far less clear.

I think we need MORE disclosure of this sort, not less.
I happen to think that most of the corporations (and their foundations) now sponsoring non-profits such as TNTP and a myriad others, are leading us in a disastrous direction.

This would be less urgent if we had a functioning democracy in America. Sadly, the system has been rigged by billionaires, and those with funding, lobbyists, astroturf groups and friends in ALEC are calling the legislative shots across the country. We need people to have a far greater awareness of the machinations of these organizations.

If you are unsure or skeptical of what I am describing, take a few minutes to listen to Jonah Edelman of Stand For Children, another Gates funded project. He describes how his organization maneuvered to (he thought) make it impossible for Chicago teachers to strike.

As Joanna Barkan described in this article, behind closed doors, there is bare-knuckles money politics at work here:

Stand for Children's Jonah Edelman--who has turned his nonprofit into a political machine with prodigious fundraising capability and offices in eleven states--articulated the afternoon's main themes: "We're not using money for political purposes almost at all in this movement. If one percent of the money that's going into charter schools went into politics and elections in the support of education reform, we would end up with way more progress for the movement." Later, he exhorted, "And if you search your heart and you feel uncomfortable using certain tools, get over it." He also addressed the legal issue: "It really needs to be 'by any means necessary,' and you can do a lot legally. What you can't do legally in terms of electioneering, that's where partnerships come in." Joe Williams, executive director of Democrats for Education Reform (another robust political outfit with affiliates around the country), offered more specific advice: "Find more creative lawyers. We need them [ed reform nonprofits] to fire all of their lawyers that tell them 'no' all the time, if they have traditional 501(c)3 lawyers...."

I believe in respectful dialogue. And I am sure there are some who occasionally go “too far” in characterizing their opponents as evil. But I also believe in speaking the truth, and the truth is the billionaires investing in education “reform” are getting something for their money -- there are some people who are under the influence of those paying them six figure salaries. The truth is that under the guise of “education reform” teachers are being unjustly humiliated and fired, and students are being greatly harmed.

The proponents of these non-solutions may be merely misguided - I have no way of seeing into their hearts. Evil is a sort of theological designation that I am not interested in. What I am interested in is getting our schools back into the hands of people whose motives are not complicated by allegiance to billionaires or their foundations. I am interested in a return to democracy, from the halls of Congress to the locally elected school board. I am interested in returning our public schools to the domain of the people most directly concerned and involved in them, and away from “reformers” with all sorts of mixed motives, some obvious and some concealed.

What do you think? Is the stance taken by advocates of education “reform” influenced by their funding and affiliations?

Editors’ Note: The Bill & Melinda Gates foundation helps support coverage of business and innovation in Education Week.

The opinions expressed in Living in Dialogue 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.