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