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20 Reasons to Pick a New State Superintendent

With the primary elections coming up in a little over three weeks, I have been thinking about the best way to remind people how important the race for Superintendent of Public Instruction is. Yesterday, I re-posted my earlier piece on the seven candidates who have filed for the position. Since then, more than 2,000 people have read it. More importantly, quite a few have clicked through to the webpages of the candidates.

If he were in the race, friend-of-the-blog Rob Miller would be in eighth place in this very unscientific straw poll.

I also wrote a short reminder that we all need to be turning up our efforts at raising awareness for whichever candidate we favor. That post generated the following comment from a reader, though one who is obviously not a huge fan:

I’m not voting for Janet Barresi either. But not because you repeated “Koch Brothers,” “Jeb Bush,” and “Foundation” as some sort of shibboleth. As far as I’m concerned, Janet Barresi is no more or less dishonest and one-sided than your own attacks on her have been.

I’m still curious. Where was the outrage when Sandy Garrett had us at #49, seemingly content to remain there forever? Was that OK, as in “Oklahoma values,” because she didn’t rock the boat, didn’t challenge the largely self-serving public education establishment?

As a person who takes constructive feedback seriously, I felt I had to respond.

If your point is that my use of those terms is just as much an attempt to evoke a predictable response from my core readers as it is when Barresi says “liberal” and “education establishment,” I suppose I’m guilty as charged. Yes, I too use loaded language. As for your claims that I have been “dishonest” on this blog, I’d love for you to point out specifically where that has been true. If you think I’m “one-sided” because I don’t criticize Sandy Garrett, please keep in mind that I started this blog a little over a year after she left office. I have been critical of many Oklahoma politicians – not just Barresi. When SG was state superintendent, I often pointed in my professional dealings to things with which I disagreed – just never to this extent.

I have also been critical of President Obama and Secretary Duncan, but on a more limited scale since I tend to focus on the Oklahoma education issues.

Most importantly, though, thank you for reading, and I’m glad to hear you won’t be voting for Barresi.

Surely we can all think back to a time prior to 2010 when we scratched our heads and wondered why Garrett and the SDE were doing things in a particular way. She led a major state agency for 20 years. We questioned many things. We also got answers. We had regular meetings with top SDE staff that included opportunities for meaningful stakeholder input. It was a very different time.

I began this blog in 2012 with a commitment to discussing the present state of public education in Oklahoma and how our elected officials’ decisions impact the future. When appropriate, I also discuss the past. That is why for the next three weeks, I’m going to be counting down the top 20 reasons to vote June 24 – for anybody other than Barresi.

The list is a work in progress, but I have a pretty good idea of what my top three will be. I have also received input from stakeholders, but unlike with reason #20 below, I’m interested in what you think. In any case, I am pretty certain that I will leave out a few of your favorite memories. I may do one a day, but if I know me, I’ll skip a day or two, and then double up somewhere down the line.  Let’s get this started!

Reason #20 –Oklahoma’s ESEA Flexibility Waiver

About the time that Barresi took office, those crazy feds were developing a process by which states could request flexibility from the original requirements of the No Child Left Behind Act (the title given to Congress’s 2001 re-authorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act). Oklahoma, along with the other states that constitute the Chiefs for Change (C4C) group, relied heavily on Jeb Bush’s Foundation for Excellence in Education (FEE) in writing their waiver requests. By the time SDE staff met with educators that October, Oklahoma’s request had largely been written.

Fortunately, we have some historical accounting for how that process went. The non-profit group In the Public Interest compiled a database of conversations between state officials and representatives of FEE. One of my favorites includes a discussion, a few months later, between the SDE’s Kerri White and FEE’s Mary Laura Bragg.

[16 Oct 2011]

Mary Laura,

Thank you for a great conference this past week in San Francisco. The meeting helped provide a nice overview of the reforms that C4C are advocating for across the nation.

Superintendent Barresi asked that I contact you to get a better understanding of how C4C and the Foundation can assist Oklahoma as we are working on our ESEA Flexibility Request. We understand that there will be a lot of work over the next few weeks in determining identification definitions, interventions, and timelines, as well as actually doing the calculations in order to create our list of Reward, Priority, and Focus schools before November 14. Is the Foundation planning to provide general policy assistance to C4C states, or is there also help available in writing, editing, and revising the Request?

We will be meeting with LEA representatives all day Tuesday to construct the basic outline of our request based on the principles for which C4C are advocating. We are looking forward to their input and guidance and to put it in the context of the work of the Foundation.

Thank you so much for your assistance.

We also have record of the invitation Ms. White sent to those nominated to serve on the working groups (from a reader – some people save everything).

[6 Oct 2011]

Congratulations!  You have been nominated and selected to serve on one of three ESEA Flexibility Working Groups.  Please see the attached list to verify which working group you have been selected to participate in.  We will need you to participate in two meetings.

The first meeting will be held via webinar (so you can participate from your own computer) on Monday, October 10 at 10:00 a.m.  In order to register for this webinar, please go to http://oksdetraining.webex.com; click on the “Upcoming” tab; and click on “Register” next to “ESEA Flexibility” on October 10.  You will receive an email confirmation with instructions for how to sign-in to the session.  This meeting should last less than one hour.

The second meeting will be in Oklahoma City at the State Department of Education on Tuesday, October 18 from 9:30 a.m. until 3:30 p.m.  You will receive more details about this meeting soon.

I am attaching two documents from USDE’s Flexibility Website that should be beneficial for your review prior to Monday’s webinar.

Please let us know if you have any questions.

Thanks,

Kerri

Congratulations, indeed! As anyone who was there will tell you, very little was on the table for discussion. The major decisions had already been made. Suggestions that were unanimous by the working group were not even considered. Those running the meeting were very direct about this.

Another favorite is this one, which is a general playbook of all the reforms favored by C4C, FEE, as well as Arne Duncan and the USDE. It includes everything that our state has adopted since 2011: A-F Report Cards; tying teacher evaluation to test scores; college and career readiness standards; and third grade retention. In case it is unclear to anyone why Barresi’s entanglements with these groups bother me so much, it’s because she has tied every action of the SDE to what Jeb Bush wants. Oklahomans who occasionally appear in her working groups are usually there only to fulfill a nominal requirement for stakeholder input. It is never meaningful.

Barresi and her top officials at the SDE established this pattern early in their tenure there. It has continued with every major decision. And it is one of the top 20 reasons that I will be voting for someone else June 24.

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February Review / March Preview

March 1, 2013 Comments off

I hoped at the end of last month’s (p)review post that February would be exciting. I wasn’t disappointed. With over 6,100 page views, it was the second-best month since this blog started last April. The A-F Report Card issues flared up again – almost to the point that I didn’t get to write about anything else. Hopefully that will change in March. There are issues with the quantitative portion of TLE, incremental steps being taken towards school vouchers (with two more private schools approved to accept LNH scholarships yesterday), and of course budgeting concerns that have just been made worse by Sequestration. Meanwhile, the parent trigger, measures to arm teachers, and instant transfer policies are all moving forward.

Here’s a look back at the top five blog posts for February:

  1. I’m Not Making This Up (But That Would Be Allowable, I Suppose) – Surprisingly, with all the writing I’ve done on the different A-F events, the top post for the month was one about science. Legislation is moving forward to allow students to opt out of any science content that they find objectionable. That’s tough to swallow. I don’t want public schools to be a place where children are told their beliefs lack significance. But it also shouldn’t be a place where they are allowed to bury their heads in the sand and ignore science. Faith and facts are not mutually exclusive. The fact that this post resonated so strongly with readers buoys my confidence in people.
  2. Misunderstanding? Hardly! – And now we’re back to form with a post about the A-F Report Cards. Superintendent Barresi told a group of parents that the OU/OSU researchers had changed their mind and now supported the system. They hadn’t. It was an inexplicable statement that for which she hasn’t been held accountable.
  3. The Silence is Broken – It took the Oklahoman almost three weeks to comment on the Washington Post article discussing the ties between Jeb Bush, his Foundation For Excellence, and the SDE. When they did, they glossed over all the important links showing how corporate influences are the real forces behind state policy. As usual, the Tulsa World was much more thorough. The frustrating thing about this is that the Oklahoman has good reporters capable of the work.
  4. These are not the Rules You’re Looking For – Last week, after a legislative committee voted to throw out the existing rules for A-F Report Cards, the SDE quickly issued rules that change precious little. They seem to have been hastily constructed and create more problems than they solve. I have a hard time believing that these are the rules that will be in place for next year.
  5. Get Serious, People – Much of February saw the legislature wasting time on issues that have nothing to do with helping kids or helping schools. They want to keep students from being bullied, but they don’t want to protect everybody. They also want to make sure a teacher can paddle children, even if the principal or school board do not allow it. What could be more important than that?

My sincere hope for March is that we will see the conversation turn more serious and constrictive. In lieu of that, I’ll surely be here, filling this space.

Rules Not Withstanding, A-F Report Cards are Lousy

February 24, 2013 Comments off

I was amused today at the editorial in the Oklahoman (that sounds really familiar). Using comments by a researcher with ties to Jeb Bush and the Foundation for Educational Excellence, the paper has decided that the work of researchers with a background in education and statistics is still bunk and that Oklahoma’s A-F Report Cards are still great.

There have always been two separate lines of criticism with the A-F Report Cards. First is the idea that you can distill everything a school does down into a letter grade. You can’t. Schools are too complex for that. Even if you accept this idea, though, there are fundamental flaws with the A-F Report Card methodology. That is where I usually focus my attention.

Before I go back to that, I want to spend a few words focusing on the first part again. We all know that implementation of A-F Report Cards is a key piece of the Jeb Bush reform movement playbook. The reason for this probably bears repeating. Parents understand that schools are complex. Every campus has something to distinguish itself from every other campus. Letter grades group all the schools together and set them up as either winners or losers. This is a necessary part of developing the narrative that public education is failing. Communities that might otherwise be content with their schools begin to doubt what they have always known.

Ancillary to this is the fact that you can do the exact same thing in two schools and get entirely different results. The kids come from different homes. The experience levels of the teachers vary. The school is a different size. There are many reasons why the same inputs do not produce the same outputs. And no matter what reform darling Steve Perry said in Tulsa Friday, poverty does matter. A great article by Carrie Coppernoll today shows what I’ve been saying about this since April.

As an example, I give you the table below, for which I have cherry-picked ten elementary schools with varying characteristics and results. (I plan to do a multi-part review of the proposed A-F rule changes this week, and I will refer to this list again for that.)

School

Free/Reduced Lunch %

Student Achievement

Student Growth

Bottom Quartile

Whole School

Letter Grade

A

3.5%

101

98

***

96

A

B

13.4%

97

91

80

96

A

C

24.8%

104

93

***

96

A

D

25.9%

100

92

97

96

A

E

30.1%

97

98

70

96

B

F

37.2%

90

96

51

96

B

G

59.8%

83

90

63

95

B

H

62.6%

101

80

78

96

B

I

68.4%

88

82

70

96

B

Looking at these ten schools – not knowing where they are, how big they are, whether they are part of a large or small school system – ask yourself two key questions:

  1. Which school is doing the best job?
  2. Which school would you want your child to attend?

I only picked A and B schools for a reason. If I added in C schools, you wouldn’t consider them as an answer to either question. Even if I made a strong case for why a C school somewhere is beating the odds just to get that high, and you were partially convinced that I was right, you would look at that letter grade and overlay the concerns that every parent has and look for some place different. That’s part of the plan.

Among the four A schools, there is a pretty good range of free/reduced lunch participation. Looking at the whole set of data, It’s pretty common for elementary schools with less than a quarter of its students qualifying for lunch assistance to get an A. It’s also notable that two of these schools didn’t have to count students in their bottom quartile because there were a minimal amount of students below proficient in the first place. That’s the measure that caused schools the most problems.

Among the B schools, there’s an even wider range in poverty. Is School I doing a better job than School F, considering their poverty levels? You could make that argument, but I would say there is still not enough evidence to say for certain. Just as a letter grade is weak as a singular representation of a school’s outputs, poverty is weak as a singular representation of a school’s inputs. There are always more pieces to the puzzle than data can capture. That’s the problem with accountability measures, VAM, the qualitative portion of TLE, and the third-grade retention law.

The point is that no single number or letter can tell us how effective a school is. We’re obsessed with trying to measure everything and then assign meaning to it. Ask yourself a third question: No matter what formula you use, is this good for kids?

The Silence is Broken

February 17, 2013 5 comments

Nearly three weeks after the Washington Post wrote about the web between Jeb Bush, his Foundation for Education Excellence, Chiefs for Change, and the development of education policy in several states – including Oklahoma – the Oklahoman has finally written about it. This article in the news section discusses the influence of conservative groups – like ALEC – on Oklahoma legislation, with strong denials from state leaders that our laws are being written out of state. The editorial page covered the education controversy more specifically in a post titled, “School change driven by policy; not conspiracies.”

Normally when I link to an editorial, I don’t include the title. This one amused me. The story has been out there for three weeks. The Tulsa World has covered it. I’ve written about it four times, beginning on January 31 with this post. For all the insistence that policy decisions are being made at the local level, the evidence to the contrary is too great to ignore. Officials from out-of-state groups are not only writing the majority of Oklahoma’s education laws; they are also writing the administrative rules for implementing those laws.

The major problem with this is that it all boils down to what happens in Florida. And no matter how much we hear that the Sunshine State is the model for all things great about education reform, the results just don’t back up the rhetoric.

In a desperate ploy to prove – something, I’m not quite sure what – the editorial (again, it’s worth mentioning that Superintendent Barresi’s campaign manager’s husband writes for the editorial staff) tried to compare these entanglements with a scandal involving a former Skiatook superintendent. He’s in jail, so maybe there is something to that. In the end, the paper is critical of the fact that some “gullible souls actually buy into this twaddle.”

(Yes, they called concerns about where Oklahoma policy comes from twaddle. I’m glad the editorial ended there. I think we were headed towards describing something as ballyhooed or interjecting a consarnit  if it had continued.)

The problem is not just education, you know. If you’d like to see a list of all legislators on ALEC’s task force, go here. Oklahomans listed include:

  • Rep. Jabar Shumate (OK D-73), Alternate
  • Rep. Ann Coody (OK R-64), Member
  • Rep. Lee R. Denney (OK R-33), Member
  • Sen. John W. Ford (OK R-29), State Chairman and Education Task Force Member
  • Rep. Sally R. Kern (OK R-84), Alternate
  • Sen. Jim Reynolds (OK R-43), Alternate

It should also be mentioned that the Oklahoman’s article today (not the editorial) offers a defense of the parent trigger law and the film Won’t Back Down. Keep in mind that the newspaper’s parent company put up the money for this film – one of the worst-rated films on both IMDB and Rotten Tomatoes.

Your takeaway from this entire hubbub should be to understand that all of the reforms taking place in Oklahoma schools were not conceived by a single Oklahoman. Among all of our policy makers, there are no new ideas. Our legislators – even our governor and state superintendent – are but a farm team for the national organization. In their attempt to move up from AA to AAA and maybe someday even the show, they’ll do anything to please the national and corporate masters.

To answer the question I asked 17 days ago, that’s where education policy comes from.

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.

Jeb, FEE, and the SDE: Why Entanglements Matter (Part Two)

February 4, 2013 1 comment

In Part One, I gave as brief an overview as I could of the key entities involved in the email database. Here I am going to link to seven specific emails that collectively show a pattern of hypocrisy, entanglement, and disregard for Oklahoma’s voters and schools. Obviously, there are other selections that could further support my point, and upon your own reading, you may find some that better support it. But Part One was already over 900 words, so I wanted to be selective.

These five sample emails are arranged in a way to make a point. They are not in chronological order. As emails are customarily informal, I have not corrected them or imposed a [sic] notation where convention might otherwise dictate I do so.

August 10, 2011 – Superintendent Barresi asks the Foundation for Excellence in Education for guidance in developing Oklahoma’s NCLB Waiver.

Patty:

Sec. Duncan called the governor and asked that Oklahoma send a framework document to him next week prior to USDE releasing guidelines. I assume other C4C folks received the same call. I have a meeting tomorrow with gov staff to discuss. I am putting together my ideas but want to bounce some things off of your or anyone working on this.

Thanks,

Janet

This email is important for at least two reasons. First is that it establishes a pattern of the SDE running important ideas through FEE before making them public. This was two months before the Department asked for volunteers and nominations to serve on the three committees that were convened to provide input on writing the waiver.

January 31, 2012 – Three FEE staff members describe the waiver process alternately as “strong-arming” and “bribing.”

Jeremy Ayers, Senior Education Policy Analyst:

…there is appetite among states for a strong, but more flexible, federal role in accountability. … 11 states have already signed up for adopting state-defined performance targets, within federal parameters specified by the waiver package. 27 states propose to do so in February.”

Mike Petrilli, Executive Vice President:

Excuse the conversation folks but this is incredible. The federal government forces states into certain “parameters” in order to get flexibility, and the fact they many are willing to go along means they don’t actually want (or need) more flexibility? What choice do they have? And what I’m hearing from states is that what you call “a constructive back and forth” amounts to strong-arming by Uncle Sam.”

Terry Ryan, Vice President for Ohio Programs & Policy, Fordham Institute (but with FEE email account):

It is not so much strong-arming as bribing. Ohio has largely kept its state department of education functioning on federal grant dollars, and this is apt to continue for at least the next biennium. Bet it is similar in other states.

State education agencies couldn’t do their work without the support of federal dollars. That is both unfortunate and true. At the same time, the reformers couldn’t do their job without entities such as FEE to clear the political underbrush. I find it ironic that FEE staffers complained about having to deal with the USDE’s demands when states were simultaneously begging for approval of their plans. Lesson: Be careful what you wish for.

February 8, 2012 – The Oklahoma SDE Assistant General Counsel circulates draft rules of the A-F Report Cards.

Attached for your review is a revised draft of the A-F rule – which incorporates all of the edits we made today. We will pick up tomorrow morning at 9:00 am with section (f).

On this one, it’s not as important what was said, but who received it. In addition to Superintendent Barresi, eleven other people at the SDE were recipients. There were also two FEE staff members on the recipient list. The final person listed was somebody using a meridianstrategiesllc.com email account. A Google search for Meridian Strategies, LLC, comes up with this web front with no links to content. The website corporitionwiki.com indicates that this is a Tallahassee firm with one active officer – Patricia W. Levesque (also the  CEO of FEE). Meridian was founded in 2007, about the same time as FEE and Chiefs For Change.

That means there is another affiliate of this Florida-based group influencing Oklahoma policy, and we know next-to-nothing about them. The pattern continues…

August 28, 2011 –Teri Brecheen of the SDE and Mary Laura Bragg with FEE discuss draft rules for Oklahoma’s newly-written 3rd Grade Retention law.

Good Morning, Mary Laura,

I hope you had a wonderful Weekend…

I have these 2 Rules and Technical Document to finish. I want your input to finish them… we will have to work with what Oklahoma has in place at this time and add in the future those pieces that are making Florida Reading the model it is…

Do you have some time today?

Teri

And in response:

Hey Teri,

I’m really concerned, as you are, about the “other” on the good cause piece – as the rule reads, it allows any kid to be promoted – which would negate the entire law. So I’m trying to work on ways to close that loophole with my legislative person.

Skipping ahead:

In the meantime, it would be helpful if you could get a decision on where the legislature was going with paragraph L – and is the portfolio they mention in L DIFFERENT from the one set up in K(4)? We would recommend that it be the same, which would allow some control over the subjectivity of the teacher/principal. We are worried that creating a list for the “other cause” is too prescribed and if you leave something out, you’ll be stuck, and also you give an excuse to promote anyone, which goes against the intent of the law. I’ve cc’d Jessica, hoping she can shed some light.

This exchange shows that going back at least to 2011, the SDE has valued the opinion of FEE staff more than teachers and principals, who clearly need to be controlled. Keep in mind that we’ve often heard a narrative of distance from policy decisions in the 2+ years Barresi has been in office. Well, the legislature wrote the A-F laws. The legislature passed the 3rd Grade Retention law. The State Board requested a budget of…

It’s nonsense. No reform has passed through the legislature that didn’t emanate from the SDE. And nothing began there; it all started in Florida.

June 8, 2011 – Patricia Levesque introduces Superintendent Barresi to Scott Laband.

Supt Barresi,

I want to introduce you to Scott Laband the vice president of Colorado Succeeds an education advocacy group in Colorado.

In conjunction with Stand for Children Colorado, they would like to host a 3rd grade literacy forum to influence the literacy task force created by Gov. Hickenlooper. One of the goals is to get the task force to adopt an Oklahoma style test based promotion policy in 3rd grade.

They would like to invite you to speak on a panel. I will be speaking on the panel as well.

After the 2011 legislative session, Superintendent Barresi was a hot commodity on the speaker circuit. She had a triumphant first few months in office in the sense that she had orchestrated the passage of several game-changing reforms. The “Oklahoma style” 3rd Grade law Levesque references is really a “Florida style” law. But it had a new messenger.

This is a good place to cut myself off. There are other gems in there, if you’re willing to dive in and search. In a way, it’s like art. We all can look and see different things, based on our own experiences. Cumulatively, the emails make two key points:

  1. Barresi and her staff knew what laws they wanted before they had any idea how they would implement them.
  2. The SDE’s reliance upon “policy by think tank” is a slap in the face to local control.

What a tangled web we weave.

Jeb, FEE, and the SDE: Why Entanglements Matter (Part One)

February 4, 2013 3 comments

When times are tough, you find out who your friends are. When someone does an open records search of emails, you find out who public figures’ friends are. You also find out who is in control of public policy.

When the non-profit In the Public Interest released its database featuring thousands of emails between states and various outside groups with a for-profit interest in education, I tried to take it all in. I’ve read all the emails on the Oklahoma page of their database, and you can too. I’ll give you my thoughts on several specific emails in part two of this blog. First, I want to provide a little background about some of the key players in this story.

In the Public Interest

Before Valerie Straus wrote about all of this for the Washington Post, I had never heard of this group. Here is how the non-profit Washington, D.C. group describes itself:

In the Public Interest is a comprehensive resource center on privatization and responsible contracting.  It is committed to equipping citizens, public officials, advocacy groups, and researchers with the information, ideas, and other resources they need to ensure that public contracts with private entities are transparent, fair, well-managed, and effectively monitored, and that those contracts meet the long-term needs of communities.

In the Public Interest is funded by the Partnership for Working Families, also a DC-based non-profit. According to Guidestar, for tax year 2010 (most recent year listed), their total revenue was $2.3 million, mostly from donations. They finished the year with just under $2 million in assets. I do not have information on who their major donors are.

Chiefs for Change

This organization that used to claim representation from nine states, but now only counts eight. With Indiana State Superintendent Tony Bennett losing his re-election bid last fall (and subsequently being hired as Florida’s schools’ chief), that state no longer appears on their masthead. They get their funding from the Foundation for Excellence in Education, an innocuous-sounding group. The purpose of FEE, as described on their website, is to:

Founded by former Governor Jeb Bush in 2008, the Foundation for Excellence in Education’s (Excel in Ed) unique contribution is working with decision makers on developing, adopting and implementing reform policies. We are a hands-on, how-to organization that provides model legislation, rule-making expertise, implementation strategies, and public outreach. Our staff has years of experience working with state and local governments, legislative bodies, in the classroom, and with the media.

They’re completely straightforward about their purpose. They had $8.3 million in revenue in 2011 (Guidestar’s most recent year for them). Their tax form lists their end-of-year holdings as $9.5 million. Their largest listed expenditure was a two-day summit “designed to provide lawmakers and policyshapers with the policies and strategies to improve the quality of education.” Expenses for this summit were $1.09 million. Revenues received were about $84,000. This is not a conference designed to help the organization break even.

The FEE website lists the conference agenda here. I have no idea which “lawmakers and policyshapers” (not a real word, by the way) attended the conference, but those who did were able to enjoy sessions such as Fed Up With Failure?

America is experiencing a renaissance in education. Yet, nearly every state in the nation faces a chronic problem with a pool of historically poor-performing schools. How do you turnaround a school or school district that has fundamentally institutionalized failure? Learn how bold leaders are altering the course of history at these schools and changing the lives of students who attend them.

This partial speaker list for the summit reads as a who’s who of special interests and known critics of public education.

  • Tony Bennett – then Indiana Superintendent of Public Instruction
  • Tom Luna – Idaho Superintendent of Education
  • Bryan Hassel, Co-Director, Public Impact
  • Hanna Skandera – then New Mexico Secretary-Designate of Public Education
  • Matt Ladner – Senior Advisor on Policy and Research, FEE
  • Patricia Levesque – Executive Director, FEE
  • Joel Klein – Executive VP and CEO, Education Division News Corporation
  • Gene Maeroff – author of School Boards in America: A Flawed Exercise in Democracy
  • Ben Austin – Executive Director, Parent Revolution
  • Paul Pastorek – Former Louisiana State Superintendent of Education
  • John Danner – Co-founder and CEO of Rocketship Education
  • Rick Ogston – Founder and Executive Director, Carpe Diem Collegiate High School
  • Darren Reed – Vice President, Blended Schools, K12, Inc.
  • Julie Young, President and CEO, Florida Virtual School
  • Jay Greene – Department Head and 21st Century Chair in Education Reform, University of Arkansas
  • Clark Jolley – Oklahoma State Senator
  • Jed Wallace – President and CEO, California Charter Schools Association
  • Fernando Zulueta – President, Academica Corporation

As with In the Public Interest, I don’t have details on who the biggest contributors to FEE are, but somebody has an interest in promoting reform if they are willing to lose a million dollars a year on a two-day summit. I don’t know anything about the accommodations for attendees, but a month before the summit, the Chiefs for Change joined Tony Bennett (the school superintendent, not the singer) at Don Shula’s No Name Lounge for dinner during a PARCC (one of the Common Core testing consortia). Suffice it to say that the Chiefs and summiteers weren’t eating at Chili’s. Nor were they buying their own dinners.

This background is important to understand. Jeb Bush founded FEE. Chiefs for Change is a subsidiary of FEE. Lawmakers attend FEE conferences, receive royal treatment, and hear tales from those with a financial interest in policy change. They hear continuously that public education is failing and they can save the children. They hear that teachers and their unions conspire to limit student growth. They get scripted talking points and contacts to help them in shaping laws and implementing policy.

In Part Two, I look at a selection of emails from the database, including messages to and from SDE staff (Including Barresi), as well as exchanges among FEE staff.

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