Superintendents, Inc.

The new Minneapolis public schools super, groomed the corporate way by a conservative foundation

As the Minneapolis School Board wrapped up two days of interviews with the three finalists for the district superintendent's post two weeks ago, one of the applicants offered a summation of the whirlwind process. "I think you have three about equally qualified candidates," Providence schools chief Cheryl King was quoted in the Star Tribune as telling the board members. "What you have to ask yourself about now is, who is the best fit?"

As it happened, it wasn't King. Instead, the school board and community activists involved in the nine-month superintendent search were unanimous in settling on Thandiwe (pronounced TOHN-de-way) Peebles, an administrator in Cleveland and a straight-talking veteran of some of the nation's most hard-bitten schools.

But in at least one other respect, King wasn't too far off the mark. All three of the finalists considered for Minneapolis's top job have ties to a superintendent training program run by a California billionaire with a conservative political agenda for school reform. Hand-in-glove with President Bush's controversial No Child Left Behind initiative, that agenda includes using corporate and military leaders to run school systems more like businesses, using stock-analysis techniques to rate schools' cost-effectiveness, and creating ever increasing numbers of charter schools to put competitive pressure on public schools.

Peebles and King are both graduates of a program known as the Urban Superintendents Academy, run by the Broad Center for the Management of School Systems. The third candidate, Joseph Olchefske, has served as faculty for the program and is named in its literature as one of its "heroes."

Whether these connections were a factor in Minneapolis's selection process is unknown, in part because all but the very last phases of the district's search were handled by a Los Angeles-based consultant, exempting discussions with all but the three finalists from open-meeting laws. The consultant, Ed Hamilton, has ties to the billionaire behind the Broad Foundation and has promoted its alumni during searches conducted for other districts.

Founded in 1999 by Eli Broad, a former partner in large-scale housing developer KB Home, the Broad (pronounced brode) Foundation is an effort to bring the best business management practices to public schools by training the next generation of "education CEOs." Over the last five years, Broad has poured some $400 million into the nonprofit and, to hear school administrators here and elsewhere tell it, changed the face of the pool of potential superintendents nationwide.

That largesse has bought influence for Eli Broad, who recently served on California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger's transition team. He has close ties to U.S. Secretary of Education Rod Paige, author of George Bush's No Child Left Behind initiative and an early and vocal supporter of Broad's "venture philanthropy." Other supporters include such conservative reformers as former Michigan Gov. John Engler (a "market-based education policy" pioneer), Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, and a roster of blue-chip business moguls.

"They're prominent in the mix," says Debbie Menashe, a former member of the Portland school board, which last year conducted its own superintendent search. "Almost all of the large, urban superintendents and boards are attending foundation courses. They are really kind of in the [mainstream] of what's going on in K-12."

 

Historically, most local governmentshave required school superintendents to be licensed. In preparation, potential education leaders have undergone training, usually either at a university or through a state agency. The most prestigious and well-known is Harvard University's Urban Superintendents Program, which graduated the late Richard Green, a popular former Minneapolis Schools superintendent. Closer to home, the St. Paul-based Bush Foundation trained some 25 Minnesota superintendents each year from 1975 to 1995, explains Charlie Kyte, executive director of the Minnesota Association of School Administrators.

Those programs may have had their educational philosophies--Kyte says the Bush Foundation's local program was overhauled in the mid-'80s to include material on school reform and on "how to be a change agent"--but they didn't have the kind of ideological agenda that appears to drive the Broad Foundation. Nor did they have the national reach: Helped by its deep pockets, Broad recruits candidates aggressively; many are former corporate executives and retired military officers with little or no education background.

The Urban Superintendents Academy accepts 20 fellows per year, pays their expenses, and promises placement assistance. Over the course of 10 months, fellows participate in seven intensive sessions held in different cities. Past classes have heard from ex-faculty member and Minneapolis finalist Olchefske, formerly superintendent in Seattle and a onetime investment banker for Piper Jaffray. Olchefske was first hired as the Seattle district's chief financial officer by a superintendent who was himself a retired military officer. During his five years as superintendent, Olchefske instituted a number of sweeping reforms. He resigned last year after a $34 million budget shortfall was discovered.

The foundation's mission doesn't stop with superintendents, either. Broad recruits and trains potential school board members and lower-level school administrators, and finances a union reform effort. As Bush's No Child Left Behind initiative has been implemented, the foundation has also worked with the U.S. Education Department and Standard & Poor's on the rollout of a national online school rating service that will measure "return on resources," among other things. Broad grants promote charter schools and tying teacher pay to better student test scores.

The nonprofit's mission dovetails with Eli Broad's political aims as well. In 1999, according to Governance magazine, Broad contributed $200,000 toward a slate of candidates who ultimately succeeded in taking over the L.A. school board. Two years later, he and Los Angeles Mayor Richard Riordan "pressured one board member to scale down a teacher salary increase, and then, when she refused, contributed to a candidate who ousted her in the next election," according to Governance.

Just how much influence the foundation's considerable dollars have bought in Minneapolis remains an open question. (Audrey Johnson, the board's point person for the recent search, did not return phone calls for this story.)

On the one hand, many of the candidates seriously considered by the search firm hired to help in Minneapolis's search were Broad grads. If Minneapolis's current school leadership had this aspect of the candidates' backgrounds in mind when they composed their shortlist, it may be a sign that the district has accepted the politically charged notion that running schools like corporations is the way to save the most disadvantaged students.

On the other hand, there isn't enough on the record to conclude that Peebles and other Broad alumni are swallowing the foundation's agenda wholesale. Even those with questions about Broad's agenda note that its pupils are accomplished professionals capable of ignoring bad advice. (Peebles, for example, is credited with raising test scores and sharpening discipline in failing schools in first Harlem and then Cleveland before encountering Broad.) And not all of the presenters at Broad's academy are grinding radical axes: Attendees have also heard from St. Paul Superintendent Pat Harvey and Minneapolis Federation of Teachers President Louise Sundin.

Nonetheless, even if the Minneapolis candidates' shared credentials are a coincidence, it suggests that a group of people with an ideological agenda have gained a great deal of influence over the process of minting new education leaders throughout the country. Indeed, last August, Peebles was a finalist for the superintendent's post in Charleston, South Carolina; she lost the job to another Broad alum, Maria Goodloe.

Ousted superintendent David Jennings, a former corporate executive and Republican state lawmaker, was the kind of outsider Broad is attempting to promote as the new reformer of public education. He embraces public charter schools and labor relations reform. But when he was appointed 10 months ago, it was exactly those attributes that made him a lightning rod for leaders in the African American community. It will be worth watching whether Peebles, who is African American and a career educator, in fact advances a similar agenda.

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