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Closing the Department of Education’s revolving door

One of Education Secretary Arne Duncan’s favorite talking points is that “the best ideas in education won’t come from Washington.” But if his policy agenda is any indication, he may think the best ideas come from for-profit companies, and the front groups they control. 

No matter who has them, the “best ideas” take time, energy and resources to become reality. And in a growing number of public school communities, increasing amounts of all three are being spent preparing for and taking mind-numbing tests, struggling to keep professional teachers in classrooms, and fighting to protect our schools from hostile takeovers and closure. Even as they cut the people who make it possible for kids to learn (and even just to remain safe on school grounds), districts continue to spend money on pre-packaged curricula and tests, testing-related tech products, and an expanding array of for-profit education services, all in an effort to win a so-called “race to the top.”

{mosads}Could that be a result of the revolving door between many of the corporations selling those products and services and the federal education officials involved with many of the department’s high-profile initiatives?

For instance, early Common Core (CCSS) critics will recognize recent Chief of Staff and Race to the Top leader Joanne Weiss, who came to the Department from NewSchools Venture Fund (NSVF), a “non-profit venture philanthropy firm” whose donors include for-profit testing giant Pearson and nonprofit-in-name-only Educational Testing Service. She publicly hailed the Common Core standards, which states had to adopt to compete in Race to the Top, because widespread adoption created national markets for education companies. That’s a troubling stance for someone in her position to take, especially when you consider how much of our money the department awarded to testing companies– not to teachers or professional development, as the new standards rolled out. Weiss now works as a consultant for other organizations seeking influence with the Department.

There are also leaders like Karen Cator, who came to the department directly after leading Apple’s education ventures. She left to become CEO of Digital Promise, a federal project focused on bringing more tech and data integration to schools, that is funded by companies including Apple, Pearson, and Amplify (Rupert Murdoch’s education venture).

It’s worth noting that the department knows there could be a problem with hiring so many people coming from the same types of organizations. The issue emerged when two top officials, current Acting Deputy Secretary Jim Shelton and former chief of staff Margot Rogers, came to the department directly from the Gates Foundation. Yet rather than take that as a cue to diversify their recruitment, they received ethics waivers so they could continue to consult freely with Gates.

It’s not shocking that corporations seek profits; that’s what they do. Education companies are no different, especially given how many of their CEOs hail from other sectors crossing into the education market.

But public education isn’t just a market, and our children are more than line items on a balance sheet. That’s why education policymaking shouldn’t be driven by people who have a vested interest—and a fiduciary obligation—to see them that way.

By now,  we’ve seen the fallout of revolving door politics in enough industries and other areas of government to know the importance of clear boundaries separating for-profit companies, their marketing efforts, and our public officials. This is especially true in education, when children’s futures are at stake. 

With that in mind, Integrity in Education, a new organization I’m helping to launch, filed Freedom of Information Act requests this week asking for communications and other information relevant to current and recent Department officials with documented connections to for-profit companies and related foundations. Recognizing that the first step to solving a problem is to better understand it, we areworking to understand precisely who is influencing our education policies and how.

America is blessed with many dedicated teachers, loving families and capable students who regularly do amazing things together, especially when we have the resources to support our best ideas. We deserve full representation in the policymaking process, and within the government agencies we fund. That means we have a responsibility to make sure they are working on behalf of all of us – not just the corporate interest groups who organize to get their foot inside the revolving door.

Stevens is a former teacher and the executive director of Integrity in Education.

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