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Education Funding Opinion

In Which I Interview an Insincere Reformer

By Rick Hess — May 08, 2013 3 min read
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I recently had a fascinating exchange with a smart journalist. He wrote, “I’m looking into the major donors from across the country who tried to influence school board races. Critics have questioned the[ir] motives...To what extent are they sincere in advancing reforms they believe in?”

I was struck by how little the question surprised me. After all, supporters of charter schooling, test-based accountability, mayoral control, overhauling teacher tenure and pay, and the like are routinely denounced as “corporatists” or worse. Given that they haven’t yet definitively disproved such charges, they must be true. But why are these foundations assiduously pursuing a malevolent, covert agenda?

To learn the truth, I set out to interview an Insincere Reformer. I found him by hitting one of those watering holes that those fancy foundation staff frequent and hitting the palm of the bartender until he pointed out a likely suspect. I walked up, approaching a slick-dressed guy wearing a fedora and drinking a scotch.

“Hidy,” I said. I pulled up a chair. “Look, I don’t want to waste your time,” I said. “I’m trying to talk to an insincere reformer. I heard you’re one of ‘em.”

“Yep,” he said, taking a drag on his electric Blu stogie. “That’s me. I help dream up insincere education ‘reforms’ that can help provide cover as we work to dismantle America’s schools.”

“Why would choose such a horrific line of work?” I asked.

“It’s a conspiracy, dude. I can’t just say. That’s not what conspirators do.” He paused. “But, if you were to ask the right questions, I might let a hint slip.” He stopped. “Oh, and I really hated my high school social studies teacher, who gave me a week of detention once when I defended the Iraq War.”

“How’d you wind up being an insincere reformer?” I asked.

He thought for a moment. “Well, I originally wanted to lobby for big tobacco or the NRA, but tobacco stopped hiring and the NRA only had jobs in its Washington office. I wanted to spend more time hanging out in hotspots like Denver, Indianapolis, Memphis, Milwaukee, and Detroit, and state capitals like Tallahassee and Sacramento. Education reform was obviously the way to go.”

“Gotcha,” I said. “So, let me ask you this. What’s the game plan? What is it about education that’s so appealing to you profiteering foundation types?”

“Sheesh,” he sighed. “You’re a little slow. K-12 schools spend $600 billion a year. That’s a big chunk of change for us to get our slimy, double-dealing hands on.”

“Hmmm,” I said. “But you guys are aren’t even a nonprofit--you’re a bloody foundation. You’re giving money away, you’re not taking it. So how does changing teacher evaluation or adopting mayoral control put money in your pocket?”

“You’re a step behind, my friend, a step behind,” he said. “You see, I and my fellow grant officers may not be raking it in, but there are companies out there that will sell tests and technology to schools.”

“But haven’t those big vendors always sold tests, instructional materials, and technology to schools?” I asked.

“Well, yes. But now they’ll be able to sell more.”

“Oh,” I said.

“Yes,” he said.

We looked at each other for a moment. “What I still don’t get,” I said, “is what that does for you. I get why sleazy vendors or schools of education may benefit from striking sweetheart deals with mayors or for professional development, but I don’t understand how you personally benefit. I mean, you don’t get a cut or a commission. Changing a law doesn’t get you a finder’s fee. It’s not like many former foundation staff get cushy, big-dollar private sector jobs. And it’s not like Bill Gates, Eli Broad, or one of the Waltons are looking to score a couple bucks in kickbacks. So what’s the advantage of being an insincere reformer?”

“Huh,” he said. “You know what? We may need to give this a bit more thought.”

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