School Choice & Charters Opinion

Conflicts of Interest and the Race to the Top

By Diane Ravitch — February 16, 2010 3 min read
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Dear Deborah,

It is not surprising that the Race to the Top has generated enormous buzz among educators since it dangles $4.3 billion to states that do what the U.S. Department of Education wants them to do. Now President Obama has announced that he is so pleased with the response to the Race that he intends to add another $1.3 billion in prize money to the competition.

Since this is an administration that claims to be about results, it is surprising, is it not, that they are increasing the prize money in the absence of any evidence that the competition is on the right track?

No, it is not surprising because the competition is in the hands of people who arrived in Washington with an ideology. They are not pragmatists. There is a nexus of power, and it begins with the Gates Foundation, which has a lock on decisionmaking at the Department of Education. If this election had been held five years ago, the department would be insisting on small schools, but because Gates has already tried and discarded that approach, the department is promoting the new Gates remedies: charter schools, privatization, and evaluating teachers by student test scores.

As we both know, personnel is policy. Secretary Duncan put Jim Shelton, a Gates Foundation executive, in charge of the department’s half-billion-dollar Innovation Fund. And he selected Joanne Weiss to run the Race to the Top competition. Weiss was chief executive officer of the NewSchools Venture Fund, whose primary purpose is to launch charter school networks. I do not know Weiss, and I assume she is an upstanding citizen; but to my knowledge, she has never been an education practitioner or scholar or policymaker. She is an education entrepreneur, who has sold goods and services to the schools, and who most importantly led an organization dedicated to creating privately managed schools that operate with public money. So, why should it be surprising that the Race to the Top reflects the priorities of the NewSchools Venture Fund (charter schools) and of the Gates Foundation (teacher evaluations by test scores)?

I try not to be naïve. I admit to a certain streak of idealism. I suppose that is why I continue to be surprised when I read about efforts to suppress critical discussions of charter schools. I was shocked when Education Sector toned down Tom Toch’s friendly discussion of the charter sector, in which he expressed concern about the capacity of charter chains to expand enough to meet Secretary Duncan’s goal of thousands of new high-quality charters. Leave aside the fact that Toch was one of the founders of Education Sector, there is still the odor that arises when a sensible critique is censored by its sponsors.

Now comes another clumsy effort to silence someone who raises reasonable questions. Marc Dean Millot, who has been writing incisively about the business of education for many years, posted a blog in which he posed questions about the conflicts of interest at the U.S. Department of Education. Millot wrote:

I have now heard the same thing from three independent credible sources—the fix is in on the U.S. Department of Education's competitive grants, in particular Race to the Top (RTTT) and Investing in Innovation (I3). Secretary Duncan needs to head this off now, by admitting that he and his team have potential conflicts of interests with regard to their roles in grant making, recognizing that those conflicts are widely perceived by potential grantees, and explaining how grant decisions will be insulated from interference by the department's political appointees.

It turns out that Millot asked questions that someone didn’t want to be heard. The blog was removed, and his contract cancelled. The good news is that the Internet is making it very difficult to censor anyone. You can be certain that the censors will fail, because the original is almost certain to appear uncut on the Internet within days or hours.

Whatever Secretary Duncan chooses to do with the good advice offered by Millot, I have a prediction to make: As hundreds and possibly thousands more charter schools open, we will see many financial and political scandals. We will see corrupt politicians and investors putting their hands into the cashbox. We will see corrupt deals where public school space is handed over to entrepreneurs who have made contributions to the politicians making the decisions. We will see many more charter operators pulling in $400,000-500,000 a year for their role, not as principals, but as “rainmakers” who build warm relationships with politicians and investors.

When someday we trace back how large segments of our public school system were privatized and how so many millions of public dollars ended up in the pockets of high-flying speculators instead of being used to reduce class size, repair buildings, and improve teacher quality, we will look to the origins of the Race to the Top and to the interlocking group of foundations, politicians, and entrepreneurs who created it.


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