Publicly funded agencies navigate the intrigues of interest groups
The call came in late one afternoon. The caller did not give her name but said she was a Washoe County School District employee. She urged that the News & Review take a look at the role of the Broad Academy in Los Angeles, among whose alumni was Washoe schools superintendent Heath Morrison.
“There are those of us here in the school district who believe that they [Broad graduates] are trying to corporatize school districts,” she said.
Broad Superintendents Academy, headquartered in Los Angeles, has not made much of a secret that this is, indeed, its intent. Material on its website seems to indicate that it wants to make education operate like a business. Broad (pronounced Brode) trains CEOs and other commercial executives as well as those with military and education experience to become urban school superintendents. The academy refers to education as a business: “Wanted: the nation’s most talented executives to run the business of urban education.”
Author and DePaul University professor Kenneth Saltman has written, “A central priority of the Eli Broad Foundation [which funds the superintendents academy] is to recruit and train superintendents and principals from outside of the ranks of professional teachers and educational administrators and, related to this, to shift administrator preparation away from universities and state certification to the control of outside organizations that embrace corporate and military styles of management and that share the venture philanthropy agenda. … In this view, educational leadership is imagined ideally as corporate management and the legacy of public educational administration is devalued.”
Critics are numerous. Parents have complained about Broad superintendents cutting parents out of education policy. Broad critics say the school is in love with bigness—consolidating education processes so they are impersonal and unaccountable—corporate.
For a school that is only a decade old, the academy has had a lot of success. More than 20 of the nation’s top 75 school districts have Broad alumni as superintendents, including three in a row in Oakland.
When one Broad grad was being considered for Louisiana state superintendent, a Schools Matter item described the candidate as “freshly minted from Eli Broad’s corporate training school (Class of 2010) for future superintendents who are trained how to use their power to hand over their systems to the Business Roundtable.” Eli Broad, founder of the training school, was an executive at the retirement investment firm SunAmerica.
Washoe superintendent Morrison’s critics point out that he is a graduate of the Broad Academy, as though it were the equivalent of a madrasah. But Morrison, who attended Broad’s 10-month program between his tenure as a Maryland district area superintendent and his hiring to be Washoe superintendent, says he’s perfectly capable of picking and choosing from what he learned there.
“They introduce you to reform, they introduce you to strategies, they introduce you to both sides of the argument about how to improve student achievement, and I think you take it as training and what you do with it is really up to you,” he said. “So I was happy to be part of that, but it certainly has not defined my superintendency. But I’m very proud to say I was a Broad superintendent.”
Whether Broad graduates are likely to cherry-pick from Broad’s teachings is a legitimate question, but so far not one has related Morrison’s decisions with Broad’s agenda.
Want some money?
Probably of greater concern are organizations that come bearing gifts in a crippling recession. The givers often are less interested in the public’s needs or the agency’s principles than in their own agendas.
Earlier this month, a news release went out from a Center for Public Policy Studies at the University of Nevada, Reno. The wording of the release made it appear that the Center already exists: “The Great Recession, fiscal distress, and respective policy responses have rekindled intense debates about the appropriate roles of government and the private sector in fashioning economic outcomes, at both the macro and micro levels. Political rhetoric about the causes and consequences of government intervention has been fierce, yet our academic institutions have been largely mute in these debates due to an absence of a central, recognized forum for policy research and development. To fill this void, a center for Public Policy Studies at the University of Nevada, Reno will be a nexus for rational public policy debate on critical issues facing Nevada, our region and our nation.”
The release also reported that “the Koch Foundation has recognized the commitment we are seeking and has agreed to increase the impact of your support by offering to match the first $1 million (subject to Regents’ approval and satisfactory agreement on final terms).”
This set off alarm bells. There are several Koch Foundations, but this one is the Charles G. Koch Foundation, which has a history.
Charles and David Koch are the sons of Fred Koch, a founder of a gargantuan industrial conglomerate in oil, gas and chemicals. The two sons have provided funding to a wide variety of libertarian and private enterprise political organizations, and David was the Libertarian Party vice presidential candidate in 1980. Among the organizations funded by Koch money are FreedomWorks, the Federalist Society, the Heritage Foundation, Patients United Now (which opposes a single-payer health care system) and the anti-environment group Citizens for the Environment.
Earlier this year, the Charles G. Koch Foundation pledged $1.5 million to Florida State University’s economics department.
“In return, his [Koch’s] representatives get to screen and sign off on any hires for a new program promoting ‘economy and free enterprise,’” the St. Petersburg Times later reported.
The newspaper further reported, “The power of university faculty and officials to choose professors without outside interference is considered a hallmark of academic freedom. Under the agreement with the Charles G. Koch Charitable Foundation, however, faculty only retain the illusion of control. The contract specifies that an advisory committee appointed by Koch decides which candidates should be considered. The foundation can also withdraw its funding if it’s not happy with the faculty’s choice or if the hires don’t meet ‘objectives’ set by Koch during annual evaluations.”
The Reno news release named faculty for the Center for Public Policy Studies: Economists Brad Schiller, Mark Pringle, John Dobra, Thomas Cargill and Gerald O’Driscoll. The first four are among Nevada’s top economists (O’Driscoll is with the Cato Institute in Washington, D.C.). All are conservatives.
The news release referred inquiries to UNR College of Business development director Kristen Kennedy, but she knew little about the proposed Center and referred calls to Dean Gregory Mosier.
Mosier said the Center did not yet exist and its creation depended on several things that have yet to unfold. He said the project is in a very early stage: “We don’t have a single piece of paper other than that [news release] … We don’t have a single thing in writing.”
He said he was familiar with both the Charles G. Koch Foundation and with the Florida dispute, which he said was one of the reasons he and the university are approaching the matter cautiously. The Florida matter, he said, was a good place to look at the pitfalls of found money.
“We’re about being nonpartisan, and we’re an institution that actually does do objective analysis,” he said. “There are things that happened in other places that we wouldn’t agree to.”