We have entered a time in education when the line between public and private education is blurring, and the influence of moneyed interests is increasing. The primary drivers of this melding of public and private education are economic and philosophical. On the economic side, state aid to education has been reduced, a tax cap has been imposed, health insurance and pension obligations continue to rise, and in its haste to obtain highly conditioned federal RTTT dollars, the state legislature hurriedly passed an evaluation law so full of mandates that it costs most RTTT participating districts far more than what they will receive. For districts not participating in the RTTT, it is just all cost.
Fiscal uncertainty also emanates from Washington, D.C. The nature and extent of the federal spending cuts agreed to as part of the recent debt ceiling deal are unknown, but won’t be good. It is estimated that the automatic cuts that will go into effect if further cuts are not agreed upon will reduce federal funding to the U.S. Department of Education by $3 billion a year above and beyond the initial cuts.
The philosophical drivers are from many sources, but are commonly grouped together under the umbrella banner of the “education reform movement.” This movement includes any number of well-financed foundations (Gates, Walton, Broad, Wallace…), businesses, politicians, charter school advocates, individual philanthropists, as well as those such as New York City Mayor Bloomberg, who may fall into multiple categories.
The motives of those philosophically opposed to the status quo presumably are diverse, ranging from a heartfelt desire to do good to a pure profit motive, but there is no reasonable denial of their impact. They manifest themselves in many ways, some of which seem a little too cozy. Consider the
1) Wireless Generation, a company that has worked with the New York City school system in the past, has a current $1.5 million no-bid contract with the New York City schools. Just this past June, Wireless Generation was set to receive a $27 million no-bid contract from the State Education Department to be funded from RTTT money until the state comptroller stepped in. Wireless Generation is owned by Robert Murdoch’s News Corp., which in turn employs Joel Klein, former Chancellor of the New York City Department of Education as the CEO of its education division.
2) In February, the regents approved the Relay School of Education, the first new education school it has approved in 80 years, to train teachers in a non-traditional manner. The Relay School grew out of Teacher U, a partnership between three charter school management companies and Hunter
College, whose dean of education is David Steiner, formerly the New York State commissioner of education.
3) Despite the RTTT dollars, the January Regents exams were on the chopping block until Mayor Bloomberg and several anonymous donors contributed enough money to finance some of the exams this January. While our state education department gleefully announces receipt of a federal grant in excess of $28 million to provide incentives for new charter schools, the students who need the administration of the January regents are dependent upon the goodwill of Mayor Bloomberg and his friends. Excuse me if I decline to celebrate the re-direction to charter schools of more public education dollars.
4) The Regents Research Foundation, funded by many of the private foundations mentioned above, as well as by the Tisch family and the National Association of Charter School Administrators, has privately hired research fellows to “advise” the commissioner. The eleven research fellows together have one year of principalship experience and ten years of teaching experience. They essen-tially act as shadow senior SED staff, playing a central role in policy development. I do not know who they report to.
It truly seems as if public education is being hijacked right in front of our eyes. It is being purchased by those few with the financial resources to do so. If the legislature won’t intervene by providing adequate funding for public education, and a majority of the Board of Regents is willing to allow the increasing influence of those who can afford to purchase it (at the expense of the Regents’ own influence and authority), then the blurring of private and public education will continue, and we can only hope that the motives of the buyers are not profit driven.