Finn Basks in Role as Standards-Bearer, Gadfly

By Lesli A. Maxwell — December 19, 2006 9 min read
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When Chester E. Finn Jr.—already one of Washington’s best-known education policy entrepreneurs—took charge of an unknown foundation in Dayton, Ohio, in 1997, the match quickly blossomed into a fruitful marriage.

Drawing on a nearly $50 million endowment in need of a mission, Mr. Finn, in the decade since, has shaped the Thomas B. Fordham Foundation into one of the most provocative and prolific platforms for education ideas in the country. Scores of manifestos, reports, books, newspaper op-eds, editions of the Education Gadfly e-mail newsletter, and think tank confabs have widely cast Fordham’s credo: High academic standards and a robust menu of school choice will reinvent and improve American education.

But what kind of imprint Mr. Finn, known by friends and colleagues as Checker, has made as the president of the foundation is hotly debated.

“Plenty of people knew Checker, but when Fordham appeared on the scene, I think most people said, ‘What’s that?’ ” said Christopher T. Cross, an education consultant who was an assistant U.S. secretary of education in the first Bush administration.

Now, ask like-minded thinkers, and Fordham gets credit for forcing change in the direction of academic rigor and standards and helping move charter schools into the political mainstream. Ask opponents of Fordham’s view of the world, and they criticize the foundation’s ideology, research, and what some believe to be downright hostility toward public schooling.

Becoming a Player

When the Fordham Foundation opened up shop in Washington 10 years ago, its identity was inseparable from that of Mr. Finn. The popular shorthand for the foundation in those early days was “Checker. Charters. Choice.”

Mr. Finn first got fired up about education as a young graduate student working on poverty issues in Cambridge, Mass. By the time he was established in Washington, however, his résumé reinforced what many believed was, and is, his often traditional and conservative notion of what public education should be, although he prefers the adjective “radical” to describe his views.

He’s a graduate of the Phillips Exeter Academy and has three degrees from Harvard University. He worked for Daniel Patrick Moynihan, the late Democratic senator from New York, served as an assistant secretary of education in the Reagan administration, and was an education professor for 21 years at Vanderbilt University. He was also a founding partner in the Edison Project, the forerunner to Edison Schools Inc., the noted experiment with for-profit public schooling.

“When I first met Checker 12 years ago, I thought he was a right-wing lunatic who talked all the time about privatization and vouchers,” said Kati Haycock, the director of the Education Trust, a Washington-based advocacy group that pushes for greater academic rigor for disadvantaged students.

In collaboration with the education historian Diane Ravitch, who later served as an assistant education secretary under President George H.W. Bush, Mr. Finn in 1981 created the Educational Excellence Network, a loose-knit collection of scholars and policymakers who shared research and ideas and wrote often about their views of education reform. Typically, they championed strong academic standards and results-based accountability.

With connections to the wealthy Fordham family in his hometown of Dayton—his grandfather had been the lawyer for Thomas B. Fordham, the industrialist whose fortune was used by his widow to create a charitable foundation in 1959—Mr. Finn, 62, saw an opportunity to attach the network’s education ideas to an institution that could provide a reliable stream of financial support to disseminate them.

He was on the Fordham Foundation’s board of trustees during the years when Thelma Fordham Pruett, the widow of the industrialist, “ran it as a checkbook in a desk drawer to give money to her favorite charities,” Mr. Finn said. After she died in 1995, and Fordham’s endowment ballooned to $50 million, Mr. Finn persuaded the other board members to let him take the reins and brought in his education allies, including Ms. Ravitch, to serve on the board.

“I said, ‘Let’s work on education in Dayton,’ ” Mr. Finn recalled in a recent interview. “But I was also thinking that this is enough money to make us a player in the national debate.”

Carrying the Torch

Fordham operates on a roughly $4 million annual budget; about half comes from the endowment, the rest from outside sources such as the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. Those grants are managed by the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, the legal entity set up to receive external financing for projects.

With a staff of 13, Fordham churns out at least 12 reports a year, produces the sharply written Gadfly for the free weekly’s more than 7,000 e-mail subscribers, and is often a host, co-host, or participant in the frequent education policy “salons” held in Washington.

Mr. Finn’s style—scholarly, yet combative and witty—makes him a favorite of many policy experts and journalists.

And his policy protégé Michael J. Petrilli, 33, who served as an associate assistant deputy secretary in the U.S. Department of Education during the current President Bush’s first term, has become almost as ubiquitous in those circles as Mr. Finn in his job as Fordham’s vice president for national programs and policy. (Earlier in his career, Mr. Petrilli worked as a research assistant for Education Week’s Quality Counts report.)

See Also

Read the related story,

A Think Tank Takes the Plunge

Fordham’s mission to push for its brand of school improvement both nationally and in Ohio is unusual.

But it was Fordham’s unrelenting call for standards-based reform that propelled it into the national spotlight, and high standards remains its marquee issue.

With the July 1998 release of a highly critical, state-by-state evaluation of academic standards, Fordham grabbed the attention of academics, policymakers, state schools chiefs, and editorial writers. With an easy-to-understand letter grading system, “The StateofStateStandards” gave more than half the states a D for their overall efforts. The evaluation was a summary of five earlier reports issued by Fordham that had deemed many state’s content standards for mathematics, science, history, geography, and English unacceptable.

The foundation has kept up its reviews of state standards, and released its latest state-by-state examination this past August.

“It’s terribly important for somebody to responsibly carry this torch on standards, and I think that they really have,” said Ms. Haycock of the Education Trust, who has collaborated with Fordham in recent years on projects to improve standards.

Critics of Fordham, however, argue that the foundation’s work on standards has not been fair.

Social studies standards have been a favorite target for Mr. Finn, who once likened leaders in the social studies field to “lunatics” and wrote in a report in 2003 that they “were inclined to view America’s evolution as a problem for humanity rather than mankind’s last, best hope. ...”

Richard Theisen, a high school social studies teacher in Minnesota for 35 years and a past president of the National Council for the Social Studies, has tangled with Mr. Finn and his foundation.

“Fordham is in an attack mode that identifies what, in their conservative or neoconservative view, is wrong,” he said, “rather than engaging in an honest, one-on-one dialogue about the strengths and limitations of our programs.”

Chester E. "Checker" Finn Jr., the president of the Thomas B. Fordham Foundation, listens to a debate last week on the K-12 curriculum at a Washington forum sponsored by the foundation.

Kenneth R. Howe, an education professor at the University of Colorado at Boulder, wrote a review of Fordham’s latest report on state standards for the Think Tank Review Project, jointly created by the Education and the Public Interest Center at the University of Colorado and the Education Policy Studies Laboratory at Arizona State University.

Fordham’s research on standards was fatally flawed, he writes, without evidence to back up why it assigned certain letter grades to states and without establishing a positive relationship between the grades it gave to states and the academic performance of students as measured by the National Assessment of Educational Progress.

In an e-mail to Education Week, Mr. Howe said Fordham “shapes research conclusions and policy recommendations to fit with its hidebound, partisan commitments,” and said that without a willingness by the foundation to have its research subjected to peer review, its findings shouldn’t be taken seriously.

Shunning Predictability

Mr. Finn insists he is no ideologue. “The last thing I want to be is predictable,” he said.

Perhaps with that fear in mind, he has forged alliances with politically diverse groups such as the Education Trust. This year, the foundation recruited three Education Trust leaders, including Ms. Haycock, and John D. Podesta, who was chief of staff to President Clinton and is now the president of the Center for American Progress, a Democratic-oriented Washington think tank, as signatories to its “Fund the Child” manifesto in support of a new method of school funding. (“Call for ‘Weighted’ Student Funding Gets Bipartisan Stamp of Approval,” July 12, 2006.)

But Mr. Finn’s membership on the board of directors of K12 Inc., a company founded in 1999 by former U.S. Secretary of Education William J. Bennett that develops and sells Web-based curricula for home-schoolers and “virtual” charter schools, has drawn scrutiny.

Mr. Finn, who holds stock options in K12, said he takes care to avoid any conflicts of interest between his role with the privately held company and the Fordham Foundation. For example, he said, he turned down an opportunity for Fordham to sponsor a K12 virtual charter school in Ohio.

Alex Molnar, an education professor and the director of the Education Policy Studies Laboratory who is a frequent critic of Fordham, said there’s no way to know if there is a conflict of interest.

“There isn’t any transparency at all,” he said. “We just have to take Mr. Finn’s word for it.”

Even one of his longest-term colleagues does not agree with Mr. Finn’s solicitation of outside funding to support Fordham’s work.

“One of Fordham’s greatest strengths has been its independence, and I don’t think it should be taking money from other groups,” said Ms. Ravitch, who has been on Fordham’s board of trustees for 10 years. “To be a gadfly means to stand apart and be able to blow the whistle on anybody and everybody.”

With the revamped foundation approaching its 10th anniversary, Mr. Finn ordered up examinations of its work and impact. He hired a former editor at The Christian Science Monitor to write a report and contracted with the Editorial Projects in Education Research Center, a sibling of Education Week, to conduct an “influence survey” to size up which people, organizations, information sources, and studies have had the most impact on education policy in the past decade. Mr. Finn, the foundation, and the Gadfly made the top 10 lists, but not Fordham’s reports.

Mr. Finn himself professes to be reluctant to assess the foundation’s mark. Asked if a superintendent of schools in the Midwest would have heard of Fordham and read its reports and manifestos, Mr. Finn hesitates for a moment.

“He or she might know of us, but probably isn’t on our mailing list, which is our mistake,” he said. “But even if they were, they probably wouldn’t read our stuff, which is their mistake.”

A version of this article appeared in the December 20, 2006 edition of Education Week as Finn Basks in Role as Standards-Bearer, Gadfly


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