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Entanglements Part Three: Tulsa World Edition

February 11, 2013 6 comments

The Tulsa World ran a spread Sunday covering the influence of outside organizations on the Oklahoma State Department of Education. Its writers were thorough in highlighting the implications of these connections. They showed that even in the Internet age, there is a place for good journalism. While a number of people read this blog daily to see what is going on in public education, I can’t call state officials and ask questions like newspaper reporters can.

The article cites  an extensive pattern of corporations contributing to groups like the Foundation for Educational Excellence and having an inordinate influence on public policy:

Testing companies and for-profit online schools see education as big business,” said In the Public Interest Chair Donald Cohen. “For-profit companies are hiding behind FEE and other business lobby organizations they fund to write laws and promote policies that enrich the companies.

The writers, Andrea Eager and Kim Archer, go on to point out the connection between Superintendent Janet Barresi, Apangea Learning, Inc., Jeb Bush, and former Indiana State Superintendent Tony Bennett. Having been the guest of Apangea on a trip in 2011, Barresi piloted a program with the company in January 2012 for $470,000. Since then, the cost has expanded to $1.5 million per year.

It should be noted that Apangea’s program – Think Through Math – is being provided free to school districts as an online support for math instruction. It should also be noted that the SDE answered questions from the World by saying that Apangea went through a proper RFP process.

The World also discusses the role of FEE in policy development. One email they highlight shows that not only did the Foundation help construct administrative rules; they also provided influence after the fact:

An email from December 2011 indicates that the Bush foundation was heavily involved with the Oklahoma State Department of Education’s writing of the rules used to implement legislation including the new A-F school report cards, changes to the Reading Sufficiency Act intended to end “social promotion,” and online supplemental learning.

“Based on my work with your team, I don’t anticipate any issues getting approval from your board, but we are happy to provide any kind of air cover – op eds, tweets, letters to the editor, and even expert testimony at the board meeting if you need it,” wrote Mary Laura Bragg, director of state policy implementation at the Foundation for Excellence in Education, in an email to Barresi.

Other emails show that Assistant State Superintendent Kerri White sought assistance with Oklahoma’s application for a waiver from the federal No Child Left Behind Act from Chiefs for Change and the Jeb Bush foundation and Bragg responded with a referral to John Bailey, whom she called, “our federal policy superstar.”

That “superstar” influenced Oklahoma policy on A-F Report Cards, third-grade retention, mandates for online instruction, and probably most significantly, the state waiver to No Child Left Behind. The waiver was so poorly constructed, it left the state with three separate accountability systems. Explain that to school patrons.

Governor Fallin is also linked to Bush and FEE, though her spokesperson takes a “so what” attitude towards it:

“I don’t have any direct knowledge of corporations or individuals who promote Jeb Bush or his group,” said Alex Weintz. “Our involvement with him is as a fellow governor who knows Gov. Fallin personally. Jeb Bush has a perspective when it comes to education. He believes accountability measures such as A-F work; so does Gov. Fallin. The results in Florida were obviously successful. We hope we can achieve the same kind of results in Oklahoma.”

Oklahoma involvement with FEE extends to the legislature as well. This is instructive because it provides context for the coming voucher push in the legislature:

In late November, Barresi organized a large delegation – 12 state Education Department employees, legislators and several state board of education members – to attend the foundation’s national summit, an annual event, which was held in Washington, D.C.

An agenda for the event lists Barresi as a panelist at a session called “Transforming Education for the Digital Age,” and state Rep. Jason Nelson, R-Oklahoma City, as a panelist at a session titled “Reaching More Students with Vouchers and Tax-credit Scholarships.”

(By the way, in the past, Nelson has shied away from the term voucher in Twitter conversations. When he is in state, he sticks with the euphemism scholarship).

The World also showed the link between Barresi and the Carpe Diem charter school in Arizona, which adds to the intrigue of the selection of Oklahoma’s new Career Tech head: Bob Sommers, the chief executive officer and managing partner of Carpe Diem.

Finally, the article points out the folly of following Florida in the first place. Their education system isn’t better than ours. That claim is as false as the constructs on which all this reform is predicated. Public education is not broken. It does not need to be fixed by corporations.

So thank you, Tulsa World, for continuing to ask questions and making people uncomfortable. I wish there were two major papers in the state operating that way.

Career Tech: A Peculiar Choice

February 7, 2013 2 comments

I don’t discuss Oklahoma Career Tech much. It’s not my background. I respect the work the centers do, and I think as far as their partnerships with public education go, they do a lot of good for high school students.

I was a little taken aback, though, to read about the new director for the statewide system. From the Tulsa World:

Bob Sommers of Middletown, Ohio, will begin work with CareerTech in April. Sommers is CEO of Carpe Diem Learning Systems, a learning services company.

Before going to work for Carpe Diem, Sommers served in several capacities with the Ohio Department of Education from 1986 to 2001. Before that, he was the superintendent of Butler Technology and Career Development Schools, a career-technical school district based in Hamilton, Ohio.

Sommers will succeed Phil Berkenbile, who will step down Thursday. Kay Martin, a former superintendent of the Francis Tuttle Technology Center, will be the interim director.

Carpe Diem, of course, has close ties to Jeb Bush, and the Foundation for Educational Excellence. I went to the state Career Tech website, and read a longer announcement, including this:

“We are extremely fortunate to have in Oklahoma’s CareerTech System someone of Bob Sommers’ vision and proven track record of improving student performance,” said Barresi. “He has 15 years experience in supervision and leadership in Ohio’s career-technical education and has collaborated with Ohio Gov. John Kasich on the creation and passage of major educational reforms for improved student performance and cost effectiveness. His vision for the future of the Career and Technology System in our state is forward thinking and exciting. I look forward to working with him.”

I also don’t know much about Carpe Diem. They operate charter schools with really large class sizes because the kids spend most of their time on computers. They don’t necessarily have good test scores (but make excuses for that.)

What I do know is that Sommers is used to running education as a business – a business in which he still has a financial stake. Will he divest from that? I don’t know, but it’s worth asking. Will his move to Oklahoma open the door for Carpe Diem to come here and “change the ecology” of education?

Time will tell. Meanwhile, we need to keep close watch.

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