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New Group Seeks to Counter 'Toxic Nature' of Education-Policy Debate

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A well-funded new communications organization headed by a former aide to U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan aims to elevate the tone and goals of the national debate over K-12 education policy, its leaders and backers say.

"We plan to bring in voices of a lot of people who are turned off by the toxic nature of the conversation to see if we can facilitate a more productive and respectful conversation," said Peter Cunningham, the executive director of the new group, Education Post, who was assistant secretary for communications and outreach at the U.S. Department of Education for most of President Barack Obama's first term. 

Education Post has attracted total initial funding of $12 million over three years from the Los Angeles-based Eli and Edythe Broad Foundation, New York City-based Bloomberg Philanthropies, the Bentonville, Ark.-based Walton Family Foundation, and an anonymous donor. (The Broad Foundation provides support to Education Week for coverage of personalized learning and system leadership; the Walton Family Foundation supports some coverage of parent-empowerment issues.)

While Cunningham said the new group is not meant to be a policy organization, the grouyp does list areas of focus that appear to dovetail with goals of the three named funders: high expectations and rigorous standards for every student, accountability for principals and teachers in helping students meet those standards, and charter schools as a viable form of public school choice.

"For some time, we've been disappointed with the tone of the education debate, with a lot of name-calling and a lot of question of people's motives," said Bruce Reed, the president of the Broad Foundation, and a former senior White House official under Presidents Bill Clinton and Barack Obama.

"We want to see a debate about what works in education," said Reed, whose foundation funds many areas of education. "Most of the people in the organizations we work with are too busy starting schools or teaching kids to spend much time to take part in a policy debate about what they do. They're showing up at 7 in the morning to run a school and grading papers late into the night. They're not blogging vicious comments at the bottom of every education news story that gets written."

Cunningham said some of the new group's work will be behind the scenes, drafting op-ed articles for policymakers, educators, and others, as well as providing strategic advice. But a more public effort will involve writing blog posts and responding to public misconceptions.

"When we see people repeating things that are not true, we'll try to challenge that," he said.

The new organization, based in Chicago, has attracted two other former Duncan aides: Ann Whalen, who played a key role in programs such as Race to the Top; and Tracy Dell'Angela, who was the communications chief of the department's Institute of Education Sciences. Russlyn Ali, who was the department's assistant secretary for civil rights during the first Obama term, is on the fiduciary board of Education Post.

A Mix of Reactions

Some professionals in education communications not affiliated with Education Post said they were a bit mystified about whether one more organization in the realm of education policy and ideas could significantly change the debate.

"My initial response was, 'Ugh!" said Arnold F. Fege, the president of a Washington group called Public Advocacy for Kids and a longtime player in education policy and communications efforts. "Parents are not reading these blogs. Teachers aren't reading them. Principals may read them. But if people [in education] do read them, the reaction will be, 'Here's another person who's never been in the classroom who's trying to explain to me what I should be doing.'"

Sheppard Ranbom, the president of CommunicationWorks, a Washington-based public relations firm that focuses on education clients, said he was taken aback by the amount of money contributed to Education Post.

"We're seeing far more money than ever introduced into education communications," he said. "To be successful, this effort needs to show inclusiveness and truly bridge divides, and not just carry the views of any particular group of funders."

Andrew J. Rotherham, the co-founder of consulting firm Bellwether Education Partners and someone who has been active in education communications, said he thought the new effort was on the right track.

"What's refreshing is that there is some transparency here" with Education Post and its goals and funders, he said. "I don't understand when having [policy] goals became incompatible with having a civil conversation. There is no one in this entire debate [about improving schools] that doesn't have views."

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