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OP-ED | Don’t Let Foundation Money Be A Trojan Horse

by | Sep 19, 2014 10:00am
() Comments | Commenting has expired
Posted to: Education, Opinion

I’ve written a great deal — some complain too much — about the corporate education reform issues in our state. It’s gotten to the point where I feel like Cassandra of Greek mythology, but the reason politicians don’t believe me isn’t because I’ve denied them favors like the Cassie of yore. Rather, it’s because I haven’t given them big enough campaign donations.

Then this week I read the Hartford Courant report on the discovery that computers and equipment are missing from the Jumoke Academy at Milner, and realized that despite all I’ve written previously, it’s time for this Cassandra to revisit the Trojan Horse story.

Last year, Hartford received a “gift” in the form of a grant from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. Hartford is a city where the Board of Education is under mayoral control — a situation the corporate education reformers in this state (and many forces from outside the state) tried extremely hard and spent a lot of money to try to replicate, unsuccessfully, in Bridgeport in 2012

This means that Mayor Pedro Segarra appoints five members of the Hartford Board of Education, and four are elected by the people of Hartford. However, according to its bylaws, the Board is meant to act as a whole.

But that’s not what happened in the case of the $5 million grant announced back in December 2012.

On June 29, 2012, staff members of the Gates Foundation came to Hartford for a meeting. According to a memo former Hartford Schools Superintendent Christina Kishimoto sent to the Board on October 12, 2012 — which was the first time the wider board knew of the meeting — “Participants included Board of Education Chair Matthew Poland, Mayor Segarra, Hartford Public Schools, Achievement First and Jumoke Academy senior staff members, Hartford Foundation for Public Giving, Connecticut Council for Education Reform, ConnCAN, and other corporate, community and philanthropic partners.”

The grant was paid through the Hartford Foundation for Public Giving, which receives 3 percent of the total ($150,000) for serving as fiscal agent. $150,000. Just think of all the Donors Choose literacy programs in Hartford that money would fund, saving teachers the indignity of having to beg donations for sets of classroom books.

But that’s not the worst part about the Gates grant. What’s really disturbing is that by funneling a grant through another foundation, a private foundation was able to impose public policy behind closed doors, and what’s more, impose policy that required taxpayer money — all without transparency or accountability.

I had to file a Freedom of Information request in order to get a copy of the paperwork on the Gates grant and what I received was only the partial information, because as Connecticut taxpayers will have learned from the Jumoke/FUSE fiasco, while charter schools consistently argue they are “public” when it comes to accepting money from the state, they are quick to claim that they are private institutions when it comes to transparency and accountability.

But what is clear from the grant paperwork is that Hartford Public Schools committed to giving more schools to Achievement First and Jumoke Academy/Fuse, a commitment made by just some members of the Board of Education in applying for the grant, which appears to be a clear abrogation of the bylaws. Further, as a result of the commitment made by those board members, financial costs would accrue to Hartford Public Schools that were not covered by the grant — for example, the technology to administer the NWEA map tests, something I wrote about back in December 2012, just after the grant was announced.

One of the Gates Foundation grant’s four initiatives was to “Build the district’s capacity to retain quality school leaders through the transformation of low-performing schools, replicating Jumoke Academy’s successful model of a holistic education approach.”

I wrote to the Gates Foundation this week asking them what due diligence they did on Jumoke and how a foundation with the legal and accounting resources that surely must be available to them could have missed the kind of financial improprieties that were going on at the charter school management organization that managed the school. They did not comment prior to deadline.

Family Urban School of Excellence (FUSE) — the charter school organization that oversaw Jumoke Academy and Hartford’s Milner Elementary School — no longer manages any Connecticut schools and is the subject of an FBI investigation. It’s also the subject of a state Education Department investigation. Those investigations were prompted after Michael Sharpe, the charter school management group’s CEO, resigned following news reports revealing his criminal past. Sharpe also admitted to a Hartford Courant reporter that he had lied about his education credentials.

I’m also curious as to how the familiar alphabet soup of edreform organizations who were involved in the private meeting in June 2012, and who consistently showed up at Board of Education meetings supporting charter takeovers by Sharpe and FUSE, were so surprised by that organization’s financial and ethical improprieties. Aren’t these the same people who are telling us to run schools like businesses? Isn’t due diligence part of doing business?

Jennifer Alexander of ConnCAN, for instance, wrote a glowing recommendation of FUSE in support of the Booker T. Washington charter school application for New Haven shortly before the whole house of cards imploded. ConnCAN was founded by Jonathan Sackler and counts familiar names among its major 2013 contributors. There’s the Lone Pine Foundation — in other words, Stephen Mandel, who through his Zoom Foundation was instrumental in trying to change Bridgeport’s charter to give the mayor control of the city’s schools. Mandel is the treasurer for the national Board of Directors of Teach for America. In other words, yet another example of a “charitable” foundation trying to control policy away from the disinfection of sunlight. ConnCAN issues an annual report card on public schools. I think it’s time for a report card on ConnCAN.

And let’s not forget others in this edreform circus, like the Rev. Kenneth Moales Jr., an ally of Bridgeport Mayor Bill Finch and Paul Vallas who said, and I quote from ConnCAN’s own blog: “Sharpe’s credentials are beyond reproach.”

If it hadn’t imploded, the Gates Foundation grant conditions required Fuse/Jumoke to be managing two additional schools besides Milner by the end of the grant period in 2015. In return, the foundation would allocate FUSE/Jumoke Academy $1,054,143 of the $5 million grant.

I wrote asking the Gates Foundation how much of the grant had been paid to Jumoke before the Feds showed up at the door. They didn’t respond.

In January, I questioned why we were financing short-term technology for Common Core implementation with long-term construction grants. At the time, I asked the state Board of Education why certain charter and magnet schools were getting so much more funding per pupil than the surrounding district schools. Take for instance, FUSE/Jumoke.

“The Jumoke Academy Charter Schools network, which are operated by an organization called the Family Urban Schools of Excellence (FUSE) received a $260 per pupil grant, whereas the districts in which its charters operate, Hartford and Bridgeport, received $30 and $45 respectively.”

I was told by the state Education Department that I shouldn’t be looking at these figures on a per pupil basis, because they were construction grants. But interestingly, when I called a FUSE employee to get the most up to date pupil count for the story she went straight to per pupil when I explained the focus of my piece. It was pretty clear I wasn’t the only one thinking in those terms, yet the State Department of Education was most anxious that I shouldn’t.

This week, I emailed to the state Board of Education to find out if there’s any chance that we’ll see any of that $360,000 technology grant back now that FUSE is under FBI investigation. After all, we taxpayers are the ones on the hook for those long-term bonds. Not surprisingly, the answer was . . . no answer.

After the Gates grant was announced in December 2012, elected Hartford Board of Education member Robert Cotto Jr., who is chair of the board’s Policy Committee, proposed revisions to HPS’ existing policy on state and federal grants in early 2013 to that committee.

“In support of these revisions, I referenced the Gates Foundation grant that committed the Hartford Public Schools to substantial policy changes (more testing and more charter schools) even though the Board never voted on the Gates grant itself, only to accept funds later on. The Mayor, as a member of the policy committee, and the Kishimoto administration would not support the revisions to this policy to require a Board vote before applying to a private foundation for a grant. Brad Noel, the final member of the committee, was undecided. This can be shown in the minutes and audio of the meetings in the policy committee,” Cotto said in an email.

Mayor Segarra, Matthew Poland, The Gates Foundation, ConnCAN, the Connecticut Council for Education Reform, the Hartford Foundation for Public Giving, Achievement First, and those who pushed for and agreed to these conditions outside public scrutiny, should now take the responsibility for their failure.

Let’s recognize that just because someone is a wealthy business person doesn’t mean they always make the right choices. Look at Microsoft’s performance during the stacked ranking years. By accepting a gift from the Gates Foundation in this manner, Hartford admitted a Trojan horse to disrupt public education and disable democracy, submitting voters to the dictates of one wealthy man.

That’s why we need transparency and accountability in our state, not backroom deals structured to avoid the public eye, but which still impact the public purse.

Note: The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and the state Department of Education declined to comment on this piece by deadline.

Sarah Darer Littman is an award-winning columnist and novelist of books for teens. A former securities analyst, she’s now an adjunct in the MFA program at WCSU, and enjoys helping young people discover the power of finding their voice as an instructor at the Writopia Lab.

DISCLAIMER: The views, opinions, positions, or strategies expressed by the author are theirs alone, and do not necessarily reflect the views, opinions, or positions of CTNewsJunkie.com.

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Comments

(17) Archived Comments

posted by: Luther Weeks | September 19, 2014  2:58pm

Luther Weeks

Like the judge said in the Roland case, transparency!

posted by: Fisherman | September 19, 2014  9:19pm

...NOOOOOOOOO! Not another education story, when there is so much more for you to write about, Sarah!

posted by: ocoandasoc | September 20, 2014  1:27am

My God, we have to stop Bill Gates and others like him from pouring hundreds of millions of dollars into our nation’s public schools. We know all too well about their hidden agenda – to make sure that every child gets an education that will help them to become happy and productive citizens. What a sinister plot! Sure, Connecticut may have the worst achievement gap in the country between poor inner-city kids and those in the wealthier suburbs. But maybe that’s the way we like it… and, in any case, it’s none of their business.  Just because we’re one of the richest states in the union doesn’t mean we have to squander our resources or come up with an education funding formula that’s equitable. And if we want to let the teachers unions leaders prevent us from making the changes that would bring our public schools out of the 1950’s and into the 21st century, well, that’s our right! Let’s run these meddlers out of the State before they accomplish something and make us look bad. We’ll get around to solving our problems… sooner or later.

posted by: dano860 | September 20, 2014  7:45am

I’ve said it before,”, follow the money.”
The majority of all education budgets go for the staff, not the student. A bigger budget comes out an opportunity for the union to negotiate raises. It doesn’t ever enhance or improve the students education. Big money is poured into the cities but the drop out rates are still abysmal.
Look at a town like Ellington, almost the lowest per student cost in the State and they put out great students that go on to higher education.
Great story Sarah, let’s hope a follow up with the Gates Foundation replies is soon to come.

posted by: RogueReporterCT | September 20, 2014  12:51pm

RogueReporterCT

Can we tawk? #1 Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation gave Multiple Millions to NPR, and most of their coverage of the Core is to act as a mouthpiece. #2 Mark Zuckerberg of Facebook, after dropping $200Mil on charter schools in Newark, NJ, gave nearly $1B with a “B” in stock to an outfit called the Silicon Valley Community Foundation. A big chunk of this foundation’s mission currently is to promote the common core. There’s no way of knowing how much of it is Zuckerberg’s impetus because of the non-transparency that they proudly advertise to their donors. If you agree with Councilman Cotto, and I do, these foundations are in essence laundering money for politics, because their initiatives result in a change of policies at the local level. It’s in the same league as the Koch Brothers.

posted by: Sarah Darer Littman | September 20, 2014  1:45pm

Ocoandasoc - you really tried hard to miss the point here, didn’t you…it’s about transparency, accountability and democracy, not about the actual giving of money. But sure, go ahead and try to change the subject.

posted by: RogueReporterCT | September 20, 2014  4:46pm

RogueReporterCT

Couldn’t help but notice that the two critical respondents to date both bring up unions. Now that you have tackled Trojan Horses, Sarah, maybe you could give someone a lesson on Strawmen.

posted by: Bulldog1 | September 21, 2014  10:42am

Did comment authors 2&3 actually read the article?
Or are they just corporate shills that simply say “business is right every time and anytime regardless of the results?

And I suspect Ellington has a teachers union too.  As well as patents who generally have high expectations of their children.

Is it wrong to expect the public’s business to be conducted in public rather than behind the smokescreens of corporate entities and foundations with only a school board member or two to use as cover?

And yes O the Gate’s and the rest of the so called “reformers’ do have an agenda:  To commoditize education so that corporate America can have access to the billions spent on public education as a new source of profit. And, if you can in the meantime, teach children to be good corporate drones who never question any directive from above all the better.  Happy and productive citizens?  As if they care.

So of course unions are inconvenient. They get in the way of more profit for the 1%.  Hence the need to try to emasculate them.

And yes despite the dollars sent to poor districts (rural ones too) problems are rife.  Unless parents can somehow induced to support the process of education and the value of education nothing changes.  High expectations are everything.

posted by: Bulldog1 | September 21, 2014  10:44am

Oh, and Cassandra or not Sarah keep at it.  Or the crooks, profiteers and politicians win.

posted by: Pro-Public Education | September 21, 2014  9:51pm

Sarah, this was absolutely brilliant. Moales quote about “Dr.” Sharpe was absolutely priceless. I sent to 93 of my personal contacts. Keep exposing these charlatans!

posted by: dano860 | September 22, 2014  7:00am

Bulldog, hardly a corporate shill!
Transparency is the topic and what happens behind closed door negotiations rarely makes it out to the public.
Not wanting to change the subject but what happened to the story of the State underfunding the teachers retirement fund,Hartford Courant. They admitted that they have shifted money around and left the fund hanging.
the FBI will do as the Feds did in the Rowland case, follow the money.
As far as the 1%, where’s the profit in education for the guys?
In any survey or study it is common place to discard the lowest 5% and the highest 5%. If your worrying about 1% you must be ignoring the other 99%, just saying!

posted by: Sarah Darer Littman | September 22, 2014  7:16am

Fisherman, the first line of this piece was written with you in mind, because your comments get just. get. so. boring. and. repetitive. This isn’t just “another education story.” It’s about transparency, corruption, and many other issues, but alas, you don’t bother to read deeply and critically enough to see that.

posted by: Sarah Darer Littman | September 22, 2014  7:23am

Thanks, Pro-Public Education. Let’s not forget that when the State made its illegal takeover of the Bridgeport Board of Education, acting state commissioner of Education George Coleman appointed Moales to the Bridgeport Board of Ed. Let’s also not forget that Rev Moales was treasurer of Mayor Bill Finch’s political campaign.

posted by: Sarah Darer Littman | September 22, 2014  7:53am

Dano, if you’re wondering where is the profit in education for the 1%, read some of my earlier pieces. There’s an interesting CNBC video at the bottom of my 1/24/13 piece, “An expensive ‘gift’ for taxpayers without accountability.”

CNBC interviewer: “Why would I want to add charter schools into my portfolio?”

David Brain: “It’s a very stable business, very recession resistant . . . growing 12-14 percent a year . . . a public payer, the state is the payer on this category . . . a $2 1/2 billion opportunity annually.”  Let’s not pretend that this is all about altruism and “for the kids”. If they were really “about the kids” why are teachers having to beg on Donors Choose for sets of classroom books? Why are the investments being funneled from one foundation through another to avoid scrutiny and accountability? Why aren’t they bothering to do proper due diligence on the charter organizations that they are requiring the state to invest OUR money in? Ask yourselves those questions.

posted by: dano860 | September 22, 2014  11:33am

Sarah, that’s the reason I never supported the magnet schools or any others operate as a for profit business. They start to act like colleges and turn their interests into a ‘me first’ or what’s the ROI on this investment?
Operating like a business and operating as a business must be kept separate and distinct.
I still don’t believe that the 1% are the problem! they are investors. When projects go out to bond it is the people with the money that we rely upon to get it done. In return they get a nominal % for their money. If you have the money to invest and the government is crazy enough to let you run ruff shod and abuse the system I would ask who is the real problem here.
As the Gates Foundation (should) has mandates, milestones and reporting requirements so should the government.
You’re correct there is a lack of accountability and responsibility here.

posted by: RogueReporterCT | September 22, 2014  7:03pm

RogueReporterCT

Don’t miss a fabulously canned rebuttal:

http://www.ctnewsjunkie.com/archives/entry/op-ed_lets_develop_solutions_to_connecticuts_toughest_problems/

it’s a classic rhetorical trajectory that illustrates the vulnerabilities of those who argue against education reform. Because Sarah Littman focused a narrow argument against charter schools and forgot to repeat the obvious often enough—disparate funding in rich versus poor districts is the underlying problem that needs to be addressed—Jennifer Alexander very facile-ly tried to seize the high ground by going there. So far, only one direct respondent bought it, and of course tipped his hand by bringing up unions.

posted by: state_employee | September 23, 2014  6:50am

Sarah this was fantastic. Please keep digging.