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The Tangled Web

September 17, 2013

This morning, The McCarville Report (TMR) released a document showing that the Oklahoma State Chamber has applied for a Walton Family Foundation (WFF) grant. The grant application lists the project name as “Start-up Funding for Business-Education Reform Advocacy.” Here is how the Chamber describes the purpose of the grant:

This grant request will provide funds in the amount of $300,000 over three years for the Oklahoma State Chamber to establish a new 501 (c) 3 education reform advocacy organization under its auspices that is geographically diverse and ambitious in its aims to advocate for an aggressive change agenda within Oklahoma’s K-12 education system. The first year’s grant is for $100,000 to be evaluated and renewed based on fulfilled outputs and outcomes, as specified below.

The new organization under the umbrella of the State Chamber will seek to educate key stakeholders and policy makers in Oklahoma City, Tulsa and statewide on the need for additional reforms that emphasize protecting and expanding school choice, embracing innovative models, data-driven accountability for schools and school leaders, transparency from school districts, addressing the performance of chronically low-performing schools, and an unwavering commitment to improved student achievement. An annual report will measure progress on outputs and outcomes, with quarterly updates to keep WFF informed along the way.

The Oklahoma State Chamber will seek out additional philanthropic and business community support and funding to ensure the new reform advocacy organization achieves financial sustainability. WFF expects to be joined in supporting the effort by other anchor funders within Oklahoma. The State Chamber will seek support from the Inasmuch and George Kaiser Family Foundations, as well as funding commitments from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and the Arnold Foundation, among others.

The first six months will be spent establishing non-profit status, appointing a board and hiring an executive director. As the new entity hires and executive director and executes its own business plan, the Oklahoma State Chamber will continue to provide staff, office space and other resources for the new entity, and will bring its reputation and strong credibility both at the State Capitol and in the business community.

The last thing this state needs is another non-profit established to “advocate for an aggressive change agenda” in education. This is all code for creating a foot patrol to steer legislators and other key stakeholders towards very specific agenda items. Chief among those is school choice, which after all these years, is still nothing more than cover for diverting money into private schools on behalf of people who are already paying for that. The WFF is but one of the funding sources for the soon-to-be created Organization. The other foundations listed in the introduction are like-minded in their support of reforms that have nothing to do with improving education.

The proposal also lists desired outcomes of the grant, and hence, the Organization. Reviewing them adds both clarity and questions:

Outcome 1: Permanent Establishment of new advocacy organization. By November 1, 2013, the Oklahoma State Chamber will establish a fully functioning education reform non-profit in Oklahoma City.

Outcome 2: Board adoption of business plan – By November 30, 2013, Board will review and/or revise and approve business plan (drafted by executive director).

Outcome 3: 2014 Legislative Agenda – By the beginning of the legislative session, the new nonprofit will unveil its 2014 legislative agenda, along with collateral communications materials that explain core principles, advocacy mission and importance of key reform issues to Oklahoma’s economic success.

Outcome 4: 2014 Legislative Agenda – By the end of the 2014 legislative session, 50 percent of Oklahoma lawmakers will express support for the key provisions of the legislative agenda, core principles and advocacy mission.

Outcome 5: 2015 Legislative Agenda – By the beginning of the 2015 legislative session, all key legislative leaders will have attended a meeting to learn about the 2015 legislative agenda.

Outcome 7: 2014 Research Projects – By the end of 2014, the research projects of the new organization will have been disseminated to all members of the legislature, the Governor, the State Superintendent and the State School Board.

I wonder what happened to the sixth outcome. It must be with those 18 minutes Nixon lost.

We don’t know what the legislative agenda is that the Organization will be pursuing, per se, but we can be certain it isn’t one driven by the interests of Oklahoma parents. For that matter, it won’t be driven by Oklahomans at all. This is the ALEC agenda, the Jeb Bush FEE agenda, the Michelle Rhee agenda. The proposal decries not only the loathsome Education Establishment, but also the temerity of previous reform efforts, specifically those championed by Governor Fallin’s former Secretary of Education, Phyllis Hudecki:

While Oklahoma has organized a business-education coalition in the past called the Oklahoma Business Education Coalition (OBEC) it has recently lost its drive for reform, and has not been geographically diverse overall. A new approach seems to be required. The State Chamber has a proven track record of pro-business reforms and advocacy for bold education reforms (it recently led the charge to legislate a statewide charter authorizer and to form a statewide recovery district for low-performing schools, among other key reforms). However, the State Chamber has not been able to devote as much bandwidth to education reform issues that a separate organization, under its guidance and with its support, could. This provides a chance for a true statewide entity that focuses on innovation and choice within Oklahoma’s education system, as well as data-driven instruction, improved student achievement, accountability and transparency. While Oklahoma forged new territory with a package of reforms passed between 2008 and 2010, the status quo has effectively pushed back against further reforms because there has been no organized voice fighting for additional change. The timing seems right for a new statewide entity to help tackle additional reforms.

That’s where this whole thing became a page-turner for me. In July, Hudecki resigned from Fallin’s cabinet to return to OBEC. She was replaced by a reformer with national stature in the movement (Robert Sommers). I don’t know if news of this proposal provides any more insight into that transition than we had during the summer, but we can’t help but wonder – especially since one of the names on the WFF application is Damon Gardenhire, who used to work for Superintendent Barresi.

There was a time when OBEC drove reform in Oklahoma. School leaders didn’t always agree with what the organization wanted, but there was always a seat at the table for them. The new Organization seems as if it will be one letter (E) shorter. It’s just a business and billionaire coalition for education reform sans educators. The Chamber further trashes OBEC in this representation of the proposal’s pros and cons:

Strengths: Weaknesses:
Focused on policy reform outcomes rather than vague pronouncements. Initial success highly dependent on recruitment of strong Executive Director candidate.
Geographically diverse – in contrast with previous business reform efforts in Oklahoma, which have been tied closely to one MSA. Attention must be paid to right mix for board members to ensure clear school choice and reform focus.
Tied to the State Chamber’s human and capital resources, Potential candidate for ED from outside the state will face challenges related to idiosyncrasies of Oklahoma’s culture and rural-urban political mix.
Affiliated with the State Chamber’s strong credibility and clout at the State Capitol and in the state’s business community. There is a strong possibility that the formation of this new statewide entity will weaken or lead to the dissolution of OBEC, which could be perceived as a weakness. However, OBEC has lost most of its visionary leadership and clout recently.
Focused on Oklahoma specific research to inform policy decisions.  
Dedicated to evaluating, protecting and improving prior reforms.  
Connected to business leaders for influence and ideas to address reforms to Oklahoma’s education system.  

One more thing I think I need to mention is that on page two of the grant application, the Chamber states that “a key part of the effort will also focus on recruiting a ‘super star’ from the education reform movement nationally, an individual with a proven track record of successful project management and consensus building.” They’re looking for a rock star.

Any ideas about who that could be?

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  1. Rob miller
    September 17, 2013 at 6:12 pm

    Is Tony Bennett still looking for a job? Excellent research as always!

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  2. September 17, 2013 at 8:49 pm

    “a proven track record of successful project management and consensus building” ~ I cannot think of one person who has done this. We have a bunch of projects that are wrecking havoc, and consensus among educators, students and parents is not being successfully brought about by any “rock star”. And as far as the effects of “Education Reform” on business, it is pretty clear that property values plummet when local public schools close to make way for this sort of “reform.”

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  3. September 17, 2013 at 11:23 pm

    Oklahomans are going to wake up one day and wonder who let the wolves in the back door. Long about the time they figure out that football hurts the corporate bottom line so the school can’t have a Homecoming, they’ll realize something is amiss.

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  4. Red-cockaded woodpecker
    September 20, 2013 at 11:58 am

    Chamber of commerce is high jacking OK’s education policy. Check out how well this approach has worked in other states; teach for America kids fill the teaching positions in the charter schools, students are pushed out of charters so the school can preserve high test scores, and educational funding will line the pockets of chamber of commerce cronies. There is an absolute blueprint for this take over and the goals have nothing to do with OK students.

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  5. joeddins
    February 18, 2014 at 8:44 am

    I have my letter ,May 19,2006, from OBEC,signed by 58 leaders,Asking for support on the ACE (Achieving Classroom Excellence) bill. “This proposed measure will make our students smarter and…If passed the bill would 1.Enhance High School Testing.” It did. 2.Strengthen Mastery of Algebra I for ALL Students.” It did not. Sunday ,Sommers ? on OETA said Common Core will do the same thing. My wife thought that sounded good. I reminded her of the difference in cheerleader and analyst. D. Ravitch suggests Mr gates has bought Public Television.
    I suggest allowing the Chamber Of Commerce, Gov Fallin , Bill Gates, etal the free use of “Standards ” makes the job of discrediting High Stakes Testing difficult.
    For Algebra I ,I have deep data, AlgebraI End-Of Instruction Test Scores by Grade Level 3-Year history 2003, 04,and 05.By direction of ACE the SDE.made Limited Knowledge Adequate( or Satisfactory ) This increased the number passing from 12,000 to 32,000. No increase in AlgebraI ability. By moving from a ” closed test ” to a “open test, with what ever teachers do in test preparation, almost every student passes.
    The old description “demonstrate a general understanding ” is now “demonstrate an adequate understanding”.
    There is no evidence any one in the legislature. is willing or capable of
    articulating these ideas.
    Please correct any errors or faulty logic in my thinking. I would like to be included in further planning to correct problems created by ACE.
    Joe Eddins Vinita , Oklahoma 918-256-2205

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  1. September 30, 2013 at 7:29 am
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