Lesson Plan From a Departing Schools Chief
Joe Nocera, a top business columnist in the NYT, with a first-rate article last Saturday about Joel Klein, who's had the toughest job in America for the past 8 years. I'm quoted near the end:
In the intervening eight years, Mr. Klein transformed both himself and New York's $23 billion school system. He will leave his post with a reputation as the country's pre-eminent education reformer. He has welcomed the charter school movement with astonishing fervor — some 30 percent of Harlem's schoolchildren now attend a charter school. He spent millions on technology so that the school system could distinguish between schools that were improving and those that weren't. He has closed down dozens of the worst schools, replacing them with smaller schools that have more intimate classroom settings. He empowered principals, making them, as he puts it, "the C.E.O.'s of their buildings."
And, as any education reformer must, he fought endless battles with the teachers' union. He eliminated New York's infamous rubber rooms, where bad teachers literally spent years waiting, at full pay, for the hearings that would determine whether they could be fired. And he wrenched some important concessions from the union, like gaining for his principals the ability to hire the teachers they wanted, rather than those imposed on them by the union's seniority system. (Alas, seniority still rules when it comes to letting teachers go.)
The improvement is unarguable. Graduation rates are up over 20 percent since he took over. Thousands of parents sign up for the lotteries each year that decide whether their children will get into a coveted charter school slot. Test scores are up…
… That was the accountability part of the equation. The competition part came in the form of those charter schools. As part of his drive to open charter schools, Mr. Klein courted an important ally: New York's wealthy hedge fund community, which has backed them with tens of millions of dollars.
Charter schools, explained Whitney Tilson, the founder of T2 Partners and one of their most ardent supporters, are the perfect philanthropy for results-oriented business executives. For one thing, they can change lives permanently, not just help people get by from day to day. For another, he said, "hedge funds are always looking for ways to turn a small amount of capital into a large amount of capital."
A wealthy hedge fund manager can spend more than $1 million financing a charter school start-up. But once it is up and running, it qualifies for state funding, just like a public school. Except that in most cases, charter schools save the taxpayers money because they are much more cost-conscious than the typical big city public school. "It is extremely leveraged philanthropy," Mr. Tilson said.