March 7, 2016; Washington Post

Valerie Strauss of the Washington Post writes that while there has been increasing pushback against the bright ideas of philanthropists in the sphere of public education, we haven’t heard much from school superintendents. In fact, in Los Angeles, three other foundations pleaded with Ramon C. Cortines, then the chief at the L.A. United School District, to wait until he was leaving office to critique the massive plan to remake the L.A. school system proposed by philanthropist Eli Broad.

In Idaho, though, the superintendents are not waiting to get off the firing line before standing up. In particular, they object to the J.A. and Kathryn Albertson Family Foundation’s negative characterizations of traditional public schools in their advocacy for alternatives.

Responding to the foundation’s “Don’t Fail Idaho” campaign, Don Coberly, superintendent of the Boise School District, wrote to district staff:

Over the last few weeks, you may have heard or seen the latest advertisements from the J.A. and Kathryn Albertson Foundation’s “Don’t Fail Idaho” campaign. Perhaps the most controversial claim is that four out of five Idaho students are not prepared for life after high school. There are four facts we want you to understand about this campaign:

  1. It promotes an agenda that is designed to undermine public schools.
  2. It is highly inaccurate.
  3. It offers no real solutions to increasing post-secondary readiness.
  4. It is a disservice to the work you do every day for the youth of this district.

Valerie Strauss points to the reaction as part of an increasing pushback against philanthropists who are seeking to privatize schools and drive the school reform agenda. And indeed, the executive director of the Albertson Foundation recently stated at a Rotary Club meeting that the goal of the foundation is to increase charter school seats by 20,000 in the next few years.

Encouraging dissatisfaction with traditional public schools is part and parcel of that effort. So, in response, Coberly and all seven members of the Boise School District trustees board issued a statement that reads in part:

Let’s be clear; this campaign promotes an agenda designed to undermine public schools. It is highly inaccurate. It offers no real solutions to increasing post-secondary readiness. It is a disservice to the work public school teachers, parents, and students do every day.

And then 13 Idaho superintendents issued another statement, saying, in part:

In recent weeks, many of your readers may have seen an advertisement presented by the “Don’t Fail Idaho” campaign which dramatically drops four Idaho students in the middle of the desert and leaves them there with one student left on the bus, forlornly waving to those that were “left behind.” The claim of this advertisement is that four out of five students are not prepared for life after high school.

As superintendents of many schools in this area, we feel it is important to defend our districts against a blatant attempt to undermine support for the public school system that serves this area. The “Don’t Fail Idaho” campaign and its parent organization, the J.A. and Kathryn Albertson Family Foundation, have based their claims on SAT data which is a predictor of a student’s performance in the first semester of their first year in a four-year institution. This data is tremendously narrow and does not reflect what is happening in our schools and with our students.

Superintendent Wendy Johnson of the Kuna School District described the quandary that many educators find themselves in when speaking out in this way:

Like many of you, my blood boils every time I hear the Don’t Fail Idaho rhetoric. Yet I have not acted. Would speaking out mean that I might damage future grant possibilities for students and teachers under my care? Would not speaking out continue to demoralize our hardworking educators and erode our community’s trust in us? On one hand, I knew the devastating effects that the negative messaging was having on all of you–the team I have vowed to lead and protect from negative outside forces. On the other hand, I was worried about the negative effect that speaking out might have on our district–on the many hopes and dreams we have for our students; many of which we cannot afford to accomplish alone.

When wrestling with these questions, I was reminded of an instructional unit that I used to teach called the Power of One. The foundational theme of the study for my students was based on the quote from anti-slavery activist Rev. Edward Everett Hale who wrote, “I am only one, but I am one. I cannot do everything, but I can do something. And I will not let what I cannot do interfere with what I can do.” And with this reminder, I decided that I would tell our district’s story. Students are succeeding in Kuna and in Idaho.

—Ruth McCambridge