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Sidebar on a Social Keiretsu: NY Times Mag Interviews the New Philanthropy

If you’ve been following my series on the social keiretsu, you know that publications are the subject of a forthcoming post. One of the points I’m going to make is that most readers will regard the positions of several people from the same institution with greater skepticism than one made by the same number of people from different organizations. The reasons are obvious – it’s more likely that the individuals in the second instance have arrived at their positions independently, while it's clear that the individuals in the first case share interests likely to account for their convergence. Where parties appear to be independent, but are in fact closely related and share interests, but this is not disclosed, the effect on readers is misleading per se.

Via editor Paul Tough, and probably February's Yale Education Leadership Conference, the March 9 New York Times Sunday Magazine provides a case study of the problem.

In “How Many Billionaires Does It Take to Fix a School System?” Tough interviews: "Steve Barr… founder and C.E.O. of Green Dot Public Schools, a charter-school operator based in Los Angeles. Frederick Hess… director of education-policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute. Vanessa Kirsch… founder and president of New Profit, Inc., a venture philanthropy fund based in Boston. Joel I. Klein… chancellor of the New York City school system since 2002. Tom Vander Ark…. [u]ntil 2007… executive director for education at the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation."

Edbizbuzz readers know that these are not unrelated parties. (See board relationships here, finances here). The relationships might be considered similar to that of local units to the state and national teachers unions, the newspapers owned by Ruppert Murdoch, or the state Democratic and Republican parties to the DNC or RNC. Readers may not know that Klein now sits on the board of the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools (NAPCS), along with Steve Barr. Gates funds Hess and provided substantial funding to Green Dot through the New School Venture Fund (NSVF - the West Coast’s version of New Profit). Having left Gates for reasons that may be related to the failure of his small schools grant strategy, Vander Ark has few points of contact with the network. Kirsch has many connections, but arguably sits just outside it’s boundaries.

In fact all but two of the organizations discussed by the group are related and have overlapping, mutual interests. I can't speak about the Tiger or Olin Foundations, but the New Teacher Project founded by Michelle Rhee was launched with New Profit funding, an NSVF representative sits on its board. Rhee, now Chancellor of the DC Public Schools, was recommended to Mayor Fenty by Klein. The Knowledge is Power Program (KIPP) received major funding from Gates directly and through NSVF during Vander Ark’s tenure, as did Achievement First. An NSVF representative sits on the board of Achievement First. Mike Feinberg, KIPP founder sits on the NAPSA board with Klein and Barr. New Leaders for New Schools is another New Profit start that also received funding from Gates. The Broad Foundation funded Green Dot, New Teachers and New Leaders directly and through NSVF, and a representative sits on the NAPCS board. Walton is this collective’s core funder and Bradley is becoming more important.

What looks for all purposes to be a group of independent experts with independent perspectives, is actually a handful individuals with close and mutually dependent institutional ties.

Who cares? How is this relevant to the reader assessment of what’s presented? How does this affect school reform?

Because these are closely related parties, readers should not expect any participant to highlight the weaknesses or shortcomings of a colleague’s argument. It’s a bit like what Democrats hope for after they pick their candidate for President. They all have the same basic position, they depend on each other to a greater or lesser extent, they have to work together, and pointing to each other’s flaws doesn’t help them make their general case. Readers who know this will expect problems with their strategies to be glossed over. Readers who don’t know this may think they are getting something closer to an unvarnished discussion.

magine if this collection was not in school reform, but pharmaceuticals. Imagine Vander Ark as the former director of investment in pharmaceuticals for Merrill Lynch, Hess as the drug industry stock analyst for a brokerage advising Vander Ark, Kirsch as the president of an investment bank facilitating transactions with these firms, Barr as the CEO of a pharmaceutical firm that received funding from Vander Ark and Kirsch,. (Actually this hypothetical is pretty close to the venture philanthropy-social entrepreneur model.) Add to this scenario, Klein as the head of the Veterans Administration purchasing drugs from the firms (while sitting on the board of their trade group). Can you imagine the editors of the New York Times publishing such an interview without disclosing these ties? (Can you imagine the paper would not inquire into the conflict of interest between Klein's sitting on a trade group association while serving as the head of a government agency buying their products?) In fact, several participants in our hypothetical discussion would be required by securities law to disclose these relationships.

So why not education? After all, tax-exempt organizations like Green Dot, Achievement First, New Teachers, New Leaders, and KIPP may be heavily subsidized by foundations, but they are also earning fees from the public education system, and so the taxpayer.

There’s nothing horrible or earth-ending about one interview. The points made are valid, as far as they go. But if Tough does not want to be seen as someone who provides a field for this group, throws them softballs, and permits their hits to be presented as home runs, he really owes his readers some balance. It’s not that he should find enemies of the new philanthropy, these people or their organizations. That’s something most New York Times readers can supply as they read the piece. It’s more that there is a need for critical look at the strategy and the interviewees' implementation on its own merits, according to its own measures of value (results at a price. for a start on the CMO charter school strategy see here.) Some kind of follow-up along this line would be a real service.

The more general point is that after a while, absent public knowledge. this collectives views become treated by the media and seen by the public as "the view" on school reform around market-based principles, and their failures (or successes) become a proxy for the validity of a whole class of reform concepts. I don't expect the network protest what's happening, but reporters really owe the public more.

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