Private Dollars and Public Education

For years now, we have heard how school districts simply don’t have the necessary funds to operate as we expect.  Just in recent weeks, we’ve had education advocates lobby for $23 billion in federal funding to help pay teacher salaries, asking for outside assistance to avoid major cuts to their payrolls and their educator forces.  And while this $23 billion for edujobs has gotten stymied in Congress, it hasn’t been because folks feel it is inappropriate for anyone other than the school district to pay for teacher salaries.

So why the double standard when it comes to the District of Columbia Public Schools and Chancellor Michelle Rhee’s plans for financial incentives and pay raises for teachers who excel in the classroom?  Over in today’s Washington Post, Bill Turque offers up another strong piece on the evolution of teaching in our nation’s capital, this time focusing on efforts by the DC Office of Campaign Finance to investigate charges that the philanthropic support behind the new teacher pay pact somehow violates the law.

Let’s pause to take a look at the basic facts.  Rhee has pushed for nearly three years to enact her vision to boost student acheivement and teacher quality in DC Schools, offering up a new approach to scrap traditional teacher tenure and reward educators based on performance.  To accomplish this, she secured $64.5 million from private foundations, including Broad, Walton, Robertson, and Arnold.  Knowing the politics of our little city by the swamp, these generour philanthropic donors included language in their agreements that they could pull back the $64.5 million if Rhee is no longer with DCPS.  The Cliff Notes version here — these foundations are investing in Rhee and her vision of teacher quality.  If Rhee isn’t here to shepherd the project, the donors reserve the right to re-evaluate their financial commitment to the District.

Accusers say this is a violation of the law, and that such wiggle langauge does nothing more than protect Rhee in the event of a change in mayoral leadership.  The Chancellor, the allegations go, personally benefits because she agreed to such “leadership clauses.”

Over on WaPo’s editorial pages, the newspaper rightfully questions why such an investigation is even being pursued.  As WaPo notes, Rhee raised millions from credible philanthropic organizations, all with a significant track record in public education and school improvement. 

It all makes Eduflack wonder, if Rhee had gone to these foundations, hat in hand, because she needed $60 million to avoid laying off hundreds of teachers, would there be the same outrage?  If the Chancellor were coming forward and saying she can’t make due with her available resources and needs real help to shore up her basic operating budget, would there be the same concern?  Or is this simply an issue of using a little inginuity to break the status quo, and the status quoers being upset about it?

From the cheap seats, it seems that Rhee is using philanthropic support exactly as it is intended.  DCPS operations continue to get funded through the traditional mixes of federal, state, and local funding (though a little less traditional in DC’s case).  Rather than cut those core services and programs, Rhee has secured outside funding to implement an innovative (or not so innovative, depending on your perspective) program intended to boost student achievement and teacher quality.  If it works, terrific.  If it doesn’t, it is largely the outside funders who fail to gain return on their investment.

In return, those philanthropic causes want to see some conditions on their contributions.  They aren’t handing over tens of millions of dollars blind.  They want oversight and assurances.  They want guarantees.  And they want some stability in management to make sure years aren’t wasted or programmatic goals don’t change mid-stream.  All seems perfectly reasonable.

Without question, there are a significant number of individuals — inside DC, in the eduaction community, etc. — who simply don’t like DCPS’s new teacher pact.  They will play whatever cards they can to try and delay and derail the deal, particularly knowing that this year’s campaign for DC mayor could result in new leadership, both for the city and for DCPS.  But this investigation seems silly, even for DC politics.

It does raise a very important point, though.  We are at a time when more private sector and philanthropic money is going into public K-12 education than ever before.  From the Gates Foundation to the matches sought by the pending federal Investing in Innovation grants, public/private partnerships and third-party financial support is becoming more and more the norm these days.  Yet much of these deals seem to still happen behind closed doors.  We learn of private support, but we often don’t know the dollar figures involved or the conditions attached, as we do with the current DCPS deal.

It seems we need some additional sunshine on the process.  A common database where philanthropic donations over a certain threshold are reported and cataloged.  A place where we can see who is giving money (and for what and with what conditions) and who is receiving it.  A clearinghouse where we can both see the inputs of such public/private school improvement efforts, as well as the documented outcomes of such investments.  A way to see what is working and replicate it, using these philanthropic supports to guide systemic reforms later on.

I recognize that folks are tired of reporting and accountability, but if we are to truly learn from these sorts of public/private investments, a little sunshine and accountability can be an enormous help.  And it may even maximize such outside investments, allowing us to see real, long-term results. 

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