Marc Dean Millot Part IV: Updated

Millot: Sound Decision or Censorship at TWIE (IV)
By Marc Dean Millot

I've posted three essays. So What?

I am not the first person to see his column ("Three Data Points. Unconnected Dots or a Warning?") pulled for arbitrary and capricious reasons. Alexander Russo is not the first editor forced to choose between a rock and a hard place. Andrew Rotherham is hardly the first bully to pull some strings. There’s no news there.

Like the "series of series" I wrote in This Week In Education about Education Sector's fraudulent Charter School Management Organization report, the gross abuse of charter and nonprofit law perpetrated by CMO Imagine Schools, and the incredible disregard for chartering law by Massachusetts Education Secretary Paul Reville, Commissioner Mitchell Chester, and several State Board members, this story is important because it offers readers a rare opportunity to confirm something many suspect, that there’s something very wrong happening here. Inevitably, those opposed to charter schools or introducing public education to market mechanism will use these stories to condemn both concepts.

That’s regrettable, but inevitable, and no moral basis for remaining silent. I hope these stories are wake up call to the vast army of good people in the market, the centrist legislators who support it, and the moderate foundations that ceded this arena to a small clique that this part of school reform could use some itself. Silence has allowed a kind of "anti-blob" to gain far too much influence, on far too little evidence.

There would be no story if I had gone along with Russo decision’s to keep the post off. Just another of the blogosphere’s one-day mysteries. Most people in my situation would have remained silent - and I wouldn’t blame them. I’ve noted comments in the blogosphere noting my “bravery” or “courage” in taking matters this far, but there was no courage involved. Were I a young analyst, tied into the social keiretsu I’ve described (and its damn hard for anyone with a market-orientation to be independent of it) then I’d be brave – and almost certainly foolhardy.

The keiretsu parted company with me years ago. In 2003, the handful of foundations supporting the emerging charter movement – at least the West Coast part of the "new philanthropy," cut long-time charter leaders out of the loop and off from funding. This included Eric Premack in California, John Ayers in Chicago, and Shirley Monestra in DC – people who played important roles passing and implementing their states charter laws’ These were experienced pro-market reformers, but preferred to harness business discipline to mission, rather than nonprofit tax advantages to corporate style; doubted the financial, educational and social viability of the Charter Management Organization model; and pressed their points with vigor. Above all they constituted the grassroots independent community-based charter movement’s “policy wonk connection” to federal and state government, the national education conversation, and the local media.

The remaining “leaders” of organizations in and around the charter movement saw the massacre, and decided discretion was the better part of valor. Consistent with the golden rule, many fell into line, most remained silent. The National Charter School Alliance, the bottom-up “membership” organization representing charter school associations that I led was strangled at birth. I was fired for using my own money to explore legal questions related to the withdrawal of a promised grant, and then cut off from education think tank publishing channels I had enjoyed for years. After the situation settled, the keiretsu formed a top-down “leadership” organization, the National Alliance of Charter Schools. (I think I have the emails to and from the key figures documenting this period on one of my old computers.)

Like many victims of the massacre, I found another way to make a living. Mine kept me involved in the emerging market, built a teeny-tiny business, and found various outlets for my writing. During that period I got some (important) crumbs from colleagues who sympathized with me but relied on keiretsu funding. Eventually I found the blogosphere offering the independent writer access to the market for ideas.

So I was throwing nothing away when I did not accept Russo’s decision as the last word. No one tossed from that club is going to be let back in. Russo might have been brave inviting me to write my column for TWIE – I know he regrets the decision. But the keirtsu had already pulled my financial and publishing plugs. Indeed, Rotherham’s move has only increased my readership - and even added to my client base. So I’m not brave.

What’s at issue here? At one level the social outlets for two groups of people:

The first, mostly young, idealists who believe in a market where local community-based organizations can operate public schools, where nonprofits apply concepts and techniques of operation developed by business, and where they purchase support services from the private sector.

The second, business entrepreneurs who took state and federal interest in “what works” seriously, built research and development into their classroom products and services, understand that their programs cannot work without educator support, and hope to sell their offerings to public schools to improve teaching and learning.

The behavior of the keiretsu gives both these groups a bad name, and makes it that much harder for them to play a constructive role in public education

What the keiretsu does not represent is “k-12 business.” The large multinational publishers have a very profitable business selling content to a school districts, and are very happy leaving superintendents with the impossible job of managing the large systems. The last thing they want is to operate public schools and see their profits disappear. The next to last thing they want to see is their manageable market of 15,000 odd sales channels (i.e. school districts) atomized into 100,000-plus schools. The experiment with EMOs discouraged investors from that business anyway, and only philanthropy – with its capacity to subsidize its ideas for a better world - could consider it viable.

So the future of some market concepts and the people who favor them are at stake. Important to me and them, but not likely to invigorate the many people who have supported me in this series even as they oppose any introduction of public education to the market place.

What should energize all well-meaning citizens is the keiretsu's abuse of power, how they’ve operated over the years, how they operate now, and the great potential for doing it with billions of dollars of federal education spending. Do we really want federal education policy to be whip-sawed with every new President or Secretary of Education? Whatever your philosophy, don't we need some stability, and shouldn't change at least be based on some kind of objective evidence?

This is why I wrote my column. I know what this group has done. I still believe that implementing complete transparency in the RTTT and I3, keeping officials with clear conflicts of interest completely out of the decision processes, and having the Secretary address the issues I laid out publicly, will lead to a competition based on the merits. Absent these features, I have my doubts.

Next: Finally, what to say about the reactions?

Update: See my last post on this fiasco on Borderland (http://borderland.northernattitude.org//) next week.

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