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The Ongoing Discussion of an Education Reform Keiretsu

I promise to jump back into the debate over the "AEI-edsector-Fordham-plus" axis with both feet tomorrow. Just a few points until then.

Short of vouchers, I am an unabashed advocate for a market in public education, as anyone who reads what I've written here on edbizbuzz or in print, listened to my podcasts, reviewed my resume, or met me knows.

My observation on the network is not that they want to destroy public education as we know it and hand it off to capitalists who care only about a profit. The fact is that the private sector has dominated k-12 content from Day One through publishers. This group wants to change that hammerlock as much as the government monopoly of public schooling, and I agree with them on both points.

I think the best defense the network can possibly hope for is attacks from their ideological enemies and long time antagonists. I do not welcome these diatribes, because they distract those who favor market-based solutions to public education problems, but have no particular dog in this fight, from thinking about more important issues.

In my view, the problem here is that a very small group of people have set up a keiretsu - a group of organizations, and more important people, based around a few funders, with mutually reinforcing boards of directors that effectively place those organizations in the control of those people. More on this tomorrow.

In and of itself this raises issues of control and the extent to which the organizations exist for the benefit of the individuals - a big non-no in state nonprofit and federal 501(c)(3) laws. If eduwonkette or someone else doesn't lay this out beforehand, I will. And I, for one, distrust concentrations of power at all scales.

But I think a more serious problem is the extent to which this group has served as a bottleneck or gatekeeper for market-based thinking rather than a conduit. Opponents are simply legitimized by taking them on; if you are in the same market-based philosophy there is a cost - delegitimation and forget ever getting their money or invited to their confabs as a speaker or discussant. I've experienced the chilling effect on colleagues first hand, and I've received the phone calls myself. This can't be good for public discourse. Again, there is nothing wrong with funders funding what they want, or organizers inviting who they want to their conferences, or eduwonks deciding who to write with. But there are consequences, and the consequence of this group's decisions has been a narrowing of discussion.

Finally, I think we need to look at what this group has accomplished with the resources they control. It seems that the general consensus is that they have not done all that much with federal policy. On the outreach front, they seem to be exclusive more than inclusive. On the social entrepreneur front, very few of their fee-based institutions are close to viable absent their funders' subsidies - and the results are unremarkable. They are works in progress. Possibly promising educationally. And the group made a decision to go down this national enterprise approach and give up on the independent local model - especially in charters. They can spend their money any way they want, but the opportunity costs of their strategies are still worthy of debate.

In short, you don't have to be a member of the blob to have policy problems with the anti-blob network.

As to the matter of sour grapes, I'll get to that later. There are two instances from my prior lives where disclosure is relevant. Since 2004 I've been in business for myself, providing information services on the school improvement marketplace. As for independence, I deliberately priced my firm's information services so that no one client can easily spend much more than $2500 per year. I want to make, win or lose my policy arguments on the merits, without any question of some funder pulling the strings or offering covering fire for my colleague's as part of a log-rolling exercise.

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