In this interview with Peter Cunningham, EduShyster gains his insights into the current thinking of the billionaire reformers.
Peter Cunningham was Arne Duncan’s communications director during Duncan’s first term. In Washington, he was known as “Arne’s Brain.” He is smart, charming, and well-spoken. So far as I know, he was never a teacher, but that is not a qualification these days for holding strong views about fixing the public schools. Cunningham is now back in Chicago. He started a blog called “Education Post,” which was funded with $12 million from the Broad Foundation, the Walton Family Foundation, Bloomberg Philanthropies, and an anonymous philanthropy. Its goal, proclaimed at the outset, was to introduce a more civil tone into education debates and to advance certain ideas: “K-12 academic standards, high-quality charter schools, and how best to hold teachers and schools accountable for educating students.” Translated, that means it supports Common Core standards, charter schools, and high-stakes testing for teachers, as well as school closings based on testing.
You might say it is on the other side of almost every issue covered in this blog, as Ed Post praises “no-excuses” charter schools, standardized testing, Teach for America, and other corporate-style reforms.
EduShyster asked Cunningham if he feels the blog is succeeding, and he cites Nicholas Kristof’s recent column–admitting the failure of most reform efforts and the need to focus on early childhood programs–as an example of progress. When she pressed him about his “metrics” for “betterness,” he replies:
Cunningham: I think that an awful lot of people on the reform side of the fence are thrilled by what we’re doing. They really feel like *thank God somebody is standing up for us when we get attacked* and *thank God somebody is willing to call out people when they say things that are obviously false or that we think are false.* When I was asked to create this organization—it wasn’t my idea; I was initially approached by Broad—it was specifically because a lot of reform leaders felt like they were being piled on and that no one would come to their defense. They said somebody just needs to help right the ship here. There was a broad feeling that the anti-reform community was very effective at piling on and that no one was organizing that on our side. There was unequivocally a call to create a community of voices that would rise to the defense of people pushing reform who felt like they were isolated and alone.
EduShyster: That expression you see on my face is incredulity. But please go on sir. I want to hear more about the isolation and alone-ness of people pushing reform. How they are faring today?
Cunningham: Take Kevin Huffman. Now you can disagree with him on policy, but he felt like people were waking up everyday and just attacking him on social media. He tried to respond, and he just felt like it didn’t matter. By 2012-2013, Team Status Quo—your label not mine—was very effectively calling a lot of reform ideas into question. I mean look around the country. Huffman’s gone, John King is gone, John Deasy is gone, Michelle Rhee is gone. I’ve created the ability to swarm, because everyone felt like they were being swarmed. We now have people who will, when asked, lean in on the debate, when people feel like they’re just under siege.
There is much in this interview that is fascinating, but most interesting to me is that the billionaires, who have unlimited resources were “feeling isolated and alone.” They felt they were “being piled on and that no one would come to their defense.” They needed to hire bloggers to defend them.
This is indicative, I think, of the fact that social media is very powerful, and those who oppose the “reformers” own social media. The pro-public education voices are in the millions–millions of teachers, principals, parents, and students. The billionaire reformers hire thousands. Whether you consider the more than 200 bloggers who are part of the Education Bloggers Network, which advocates for public education, or consider Twitter and Facebook, the critics of billionaire-backed reform and privatization are many, are outspoken, and command a huge forum. No wonder the billionaires are feeling lonely and isolated. They can create astroturf organizations like StudentsFirst, Education Reform Now, 50CAN, TeachPlus, Educators4Excellence, and dozens more groups, but it is typically the same people running a small number of organizations and issuing press releases.
Is it time to feel sorry for the billionaires?
Be sure to read the comments that follow the interview.