Hedge-Fund Billionaires Seek Reform Without Research

03/30/2015 01:14 pm ET | Updated May 30, 2015

In a hard-hitting piece on profit-driven education reform for The Nation, George Joseph slams the "hedge-reform coalition" for its disingenuous forays to remake public education.

"It is interesting to note that even back in 2010, at the height of their naïveté about education-reform politics, the hedge-fund reform coalition never considered attempting to build a movement actually centered on the needs and input of students and parents," Joseph wrote. "In fact, internal e-mails from Education Reform Now [an advocacy nonprofit supported by the hedge-fund industry] seem to conceive of parents, particularly parents of color, as objects to authenticate their preconceived plans, rather than active participants and decision-makers within their reform club."

As an example, Joseph cites a 2010 email to Joe Williams, Education Reform Now's executive director, from a former Houston school district trustee. The email's subject line asked if help had been identified for an opinion piece. Williams briskly responded, "I don't have any Hispanic voice that I can deploy right now."

True, this is just one email. But a patronizing attitude seems to characterize much of Education Reform Now's early mobilization strategies. In communication after communication, the tone is one of "reformers" seeking to enable poor, urban students to flee and be "saved," either at private schools through the use of vouchers or at existing schools that are essentially privatized and repurposed as public charter schools. They assume what's best for poor families without asking these families, and they seemingly ignore the scientific research that might guide their funding decisions.

Among the reformers' beliefs:

  • Increased test-based evaluation of students, teachers, and schools of education.
  • Elimination or weakening of tenure and seniority rights.
  • An end to pay for experience or advanced degrees.
  • Closing schools deemed low-performing and replacing them with publicly funded but privately run charters.
  • Replacing governance by local school boards with various forms of mayoral and state takeover or private management.
  • Vouchers and tax-credit subsidies for private-school tuition.
  • Increases in class size, often tied to the firing of 5 to 10 percent of the teaching staff.
  • Implementation of Common Core standards.
  • Adoption of college and career readiness as a standard for high school graduation.

I am not anti-charter. I have experience with some excellent charter schools -- such as those run by Joe Nathan and his colleagues in Minneapolis -- and have been impressed by a few KIPP-run schools I've visited. In fact, I agree with those who view charters not as the solution but as part of what ought to be an ongoing effort to develop educational options, especially for urban families of color who struggle with poverty.

Yet charter schools are not a cure-all. Some research suggests that they perform no better than existing public schools, with public schools doing slightly better on state achievement tests. And supporters concede that even if we wanted to, it would be nearly impossible to take the charter movement to scale. There are 98,706 public schools in our nation, serving 50 million students. Currently, approximately 2 million children attend 6,000 charter schools.

With all of this understood, why are the billionaire "disruptors" of the hedge-fund world so hell-bent on establishing charter schools? Money and influence may help to explain it.

Charter-school developers want a piece of the $500 billion spent to educate American children every year. And charter-school supporters insist that public-education spending must go down, despite the wide gap in funding between poor and wealthier districts. The Nation piece suggests that New York hedge-fund giants fear that they will be asked to pay higher taxes to fuel equitable funding of all New York schools, as required under a 2007 court decision that has yet to be enforced.

If we are truly interested in taking school transformation to scale, we would be smarter to invest in the following:

  • Providing the estimated 3.2 million educators in America sustained opportunities for peer coaching and collaborative learning.
  • Supporting successful programs, practices, policies and structural changes that are rooted not in ideology but in data-driven research.
  • Sustaining a national effort to reduce poverty and the need to mitigate the pernicious impact it has on learning and life trajectories.

Social programs, such as the earned-income tax credit (EITC) and the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (known as food stamps), are critical if we are to help those mired in poverty. We also must address the inequality of economic outcomes. It is irresponsible to think that schools working on their own can entirely mitigate the negative effects that poverty has on the health and cognitive growth of students. The cry of "no excuses" directed at schools for not sufficiently educating poor children of color might be better directed at the influence of social class and income inequality on determining the fate of millions of schoolchildren.

A two-pronged approach, focused on improving schools and supporting anti-poverty programs, may enable families challenged by poverty to write for themselves a better future. That's education reform we all should support.

Eric J. Cooper is the founder and president of the National Urban Alliance for Effective Education, a nonprofit professional development organization that provides student-focused professional development, advocacy and organizational guidance to accelerate student achievement. He can be reached at He tweets as @ECooper4556.

This commentary is developed in part from "The Fierce Urgency of Now: Obstacles and Solutions for Improving the Promise of America," Eric J. Cooper's chapter in the peer-reviewed Handbook for Urban Education Leadership, soon to be published by Rowman & Littlefield.