Thoughts on Gates-funded publicity

By Pamela Grundy

The first clue came when the phone rang at the house of my friend Carol Sawyer. At the other end was a pleasant woman who said she was conducting a survey on education in our school district, Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools. Carol doesn’t much care for phone surveys, but she’s interested in anything that has to do with CMS. She said yes.

A few minutes in, she realized that this was no ordinary survey. Question after question sought her opinions on key aspects of CMS policy: strategic staffing, weighted student funding, pay for performance and more. She could give free responses, which the surveyor typed up. Someone had spent a lot of money.

When she asked who had commissioned the survey, the woman wouldn’t say, beyond a vague reference to a “foundation.”

A survey about CMS wasn’t really a surprise. Knowing what members of the public think about CMS policies definitely matters these days.

It’s been a rocky year, with a set of school closings that deeply angered the affected communities and a massive expansion of standardized testing that disrupted learning, infuriated parents and teachers, and drew national attention.

On the heels of this turmoil, our superintendent left to go work for Rupert Murdoch. Now, we’re about to elect three new school board members. The new board will pick the new superintendent, who will then set the course for the next few years. It’s a crucial time. The survey made sense.

The question was: who wanted to know?

Her curiosity piqued, Carol phoned our school board representative to see if he knew anything. The survey was news to him, he said, but he’d ask around. One thing led to another, and we turned our attention elsewhere.

Until yesterday. The headline said it all: “Bill Gates funds CMS PR Blitz.” Turns out that Gates money had funded the survey as part of a $200,000 PR campaign – being handled by Charlotte’s Chamber of Commerce – to “inform” the public about district policies.

“Although change can be intimidating,” the endeavor’s website reads, “reform in the classroom means continuous improvement to better students, teachers and the community at-large.” It defines “reform” as “to put or change into an improved condition.”

(Don’t guess Bill got his money’s worth on those ungrammatical mouthfuls but that’s his problem.)

Of course, we looked first for a statement about CMS’s standardized testing expansion – the 52 new tests that packed school board meetings, sparked countless letters and e-mails, and barely survived two 5-4 school board votes.

Unsurprisingly, the Chamber’s spokesperson denied that the effort, which bears the unwieldy name of “Educating Change Now,” was designed to change people’s minds about testing. “This is not an advocacy campaign,” she stated, adding that all they were trying to do was inform the public about CMS’s current operating blueprint, known as Strategic Plan 2014.

But the educatingchangenow website clearly states that “effective teaching can be defined as more than a year’s worth of content in a year’s time,” and that a key strategy for strengthening teacher effectiveness is to “develop a measure for a year’s worth of growth for every subject and grade level.” If it smells like a test (or actually a whole lot of tests) . . .

My thoughts immediately turned to the news stories back in March that detailed a Gates Foundation effort to spend more than $3 million to “win over the public and the media to its market-driven approach to school reform” by seeking to create “strong ties to local journalists, opinion elites, and local/state policymakers and their staffs,” as well as supporting local groups willing to advocate for the test-driven “value added” calculations of teacher effectiveness.

Is this democracy?

Clearly, in this country, people and organizations are free to state their opinions. But as a friend of mine frequently reminds me, while we are all entitled to our own opinions, we are not entitled to our own facts.

The educatingchangenow website and its in-your-face video urge folks to “take a closer look at the facts.” But they don’t direct them to any of the many studies of districts where high-stakes standardized tests and pay-for-performance schemes have failed to produce any growth in student achievement. They don’t even suggest that a debate exists. They make their statements about “effective teaching” as though they were gospel truths, and offer links to CMS and Gates Foundation sites.

This campaign is being funded by private money given to a private entity which didn’t seem to feel the need to inform all members of the school board that the campaign was about to launch. What should we make of that? Should the future of our public schools be heavily influenced by the actions of wealthy private organizations, acting independently of our elected representatives?

The 2014 plan includes a range of endeavors, some of which I agree with. But I don’t think a slick, privately-funded publicity campaign is the best way to go about building support for them. For one thing, I don’t think it will work. But more important, it doesn’t foster the debate and honesty needed to move a divided community forward.

A couple of weeks ago, I met Chamber of Commerce president Bob Morgan for the first time. We were at the grand opening of a Plaza-Midwood branch of Rita’s Italian Ice. He cut the ribbon and I accepted a much-appreciated donation to the Shamrock PTA. We talked about our kids. We toasted each other with paper cups of mango-flavored ice. We didn’t mention testing.

I don’t think Morgan or the other Chamber folks wish our schools ill. But like Peter Gorman, Arne Duncan and plenty of other would-be “reformers,” they haven’t chosen a path – educational or political – that will take us where we want to go.

Pamela Grundy is a co-founder of Parents Across America, and co-chair of the Meckenburg County advocacy group Mecklenburg ACTS. She blogs at:

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