Tuesday, July 03, 2007

A Cautionary Tale (Whether for Public/Private Partnerships or Charter Schools)

This article, Patrons Sway Leads to Friction in Charter School, appeared in the NY Times last week. The Times' synopsis:

"The clash has exposed fault lines of wealth and class that are perhaps inevitable as philanthropists, in New York and nationwide, increasingly invest in public education, providing new schools to children in poor neighborhoods while making communities dependent on their generosity. And for those lucky to have such benefactors, the situation raises core questions: Who ultimately controls charter schools, which are financed by taxpayers but often rely heavily on charitable donations? Do the schools, which operate outside the control of the local school district, answer to parents, or to their wealthy founders?"

A quote from Frederick M. Hess, an expert in philanthropy in education (what an interesting thing to study):

"Frederick M. Hess, an expert on philanthropy in education, said there would be more disputes like the one in Brooklyn as high-profile donors invest their reputations in schools and face “the enormous kind of name-brand question.”

“When those schools disappoint them, when there are disputes or divergence regarding institutional mission,” asked Mr. Hess, director of education policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute, “how are they going to negotiate this relationship?” He added, “What we are seeing is really just the front end of what is going to be a fascinating dynamic.” "

On the plus side for the couple:

"In educational philanthropy, the Reichs were pioneers. They fought for years to get the city’s Board of Education to let them open the Beginning With Children school in 1992 in an impoverished section of Williamsburg, before charter schools became a national trend and at a time when private donors were generally reluctant to write checks to public school systems. The school converted to charter status in 2001. They fought through bureaucratic tangles to get the system to accept a virtually free building, a former Pfizer pharmaceutical factory, which the school now occupies for $1 a year. "

On the minus:

"The 14-member Beginning With Children board included appointees from the Reichs’ foundation, which helps finance the school; parents; teachers; the principal; and community representatives. The board chairman, John Day, is a former Pfizer executive.

The Reichs said the problem was that the board was “constituency-based” and that they wanted members with practical skills like fund-raising or public relations instead. To get the changes, they threatened in a strongly worded letter to cut off their support unless all but three of the board members resigned. Among those told to quit were five parent and faculty representatives.

At a board meeting last month, parents lashed out at the Reichs, angrily describing their relationship as that of master and servant or landlord and tenant. One parent said the threat to cut ties was “a gun pointed at the head of every child in this facility.” In recent years, the school has faced annual budget gaps of up to $635,000 that were filled by the Reichs’ foundation, and parents said they feared that the school would close without the Reichs’ help. Mrs. Reich, 71, said of the letter: “It was not a blunt threat. It was a choice. You can go the way you are going or you can restructure yourselves.”"

It was a problem for their board to be "constiuency-based"? It seems for any public/private partnership or charter, that would be the central tenant. To say that pulling the funds from the school if 11 out of 14 people didn't leave the board is not a threat is a little disingenious. It could be that the parents/teachers asked to leave weren't qualified or working as a team but to say, as the article states, that the couple wants to give teachers a separate input and parents a separate input (with no real power) is akin to being a private school.

The current Board or the next Board has to get a public/private partnership policy on board or we might be facing these kinds of problems if every single one of them has a different MOU (memorandum of understanding). A policy would allow the Board to feel ready to seek out these partnerships.

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