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A small circle of friends: Bush's new American schools.

In the spring of 1991, President Bush, Education Secretary Lamar Alexander and a roomful of Fortune 500 C.E.O.s launched a bold new industrial venture: the New American Schools Development Corporation (NASDC). This private enterprise promised a revolution on the shop floor of American education: what Bush called "break-the-mold" schools and a sharp departure from "failed experiments of the past." It was the centerpiece of Bush's education plan and was supposed to mark the emergence of corporate America as the savior of the nation's schoolchildren.

Today, NASDC is in such financial trouble that many in the education world wonder if it will last another year. Rather than showcasing a corps of diverse and heretofore unheralded innovators, most of the educational R&D teams endorsed by the corporation comprise an incestuous circle of right-wing ideologues and privatization advocates, teacher-hating technocrats and recession-rocked military contractors, their funding made palatable to the press and public by token support for established and respected liberal school-reform advocates.

NASDC's only unqualified success has been in public relations. The press has uniformly bought NASDC's claim that it supports "a new generation of American Schools" and the "best of the best" in education reform. In fact, NASDC offers an important cautionary tale about how those who would undermine public schools move their agenda forward--and about the illusory promise of corporate salvation.

The idea behind NASDC was simple. Lamar Alexander and his deputy, former Xerox C.E.O. David Kearns, persuaded some two dozen corporate leaders from such outfits as A.T.&T. and Eastman Kodak to help raise 200 million for educational innovation across the philosophical spectrum. In 1992, went the plan, NASDC would fund twenty to thirty "design teams"; eventually those "designs" would compete for adoption by 535 schools, one in each Congressional district. So committed was the White House to NASDC that President Bush called its board to Camp David for a rare five-hour private meeting. One conservative scholar extolled the initiative by invoking Mao's famous dictum, "let a hundred flowers bloom."

From the beginning NASDC's fundraising fell vastly below expectations. In February the corporation's president, retired A.T.&T. executive W. Frank Blount, abruptly resigned, replaced by former Reagan Labor Secretary Ann McLaughlin. By July, when NASDC announced its R & D grants, the corporation had raised only $50 million.

Even that much-touted $50 million is mostly smoke and mirrors: Lee Hicks, NASDC's vice president of development, admits that only $10 million has actually been donated. The rest is in the form of "verbal pledges," and each corporate donor "has been allowed to set up its own payment schedule." (As NASDC donor A.T.&T. says in its own ads: Get it in writing.)

The smoke and mirrors are not confined to NASDC's fundraising. NASDC developed an elaborate review process for grant applications, involving dozens of independent readers, designed to convey the impression of objectivity. But the spin of NASDC's grants was doctored from the outset. The corporation even has an in-house spin doctor--Saul Cooperman, the man ultimately responsible for recommending proposals to NASDC's president and board of directors.

Cooperman was Education Commissioner of New Jersey under Governor Thomas Kean, a Republican who now chairs the NASDC board. In 1990 Cooperman was canned by James Florio, Kean's successor. Florio condemned Cooperman's "monolithic top-down education philosophy," which disrespected teachers, parents and communities alike. As commissioner, Cooperman exhibited his disregard for the credentials of education professionals by proposing that business executives with no classroom experience be installed as C.E.O.s of schools. He opposed lawsuits by the families of urban schoolchildren who challenged the state's vast school-funding inequities. "It's a pipe dream," he said last year, "to think you should strike for [fiscal] equality" between rich and poor school districts.

Cooperman left office as a leading proponent of standardized national knowledge testing. His testing proposal has been denounced by education advocates ranging from the National P.T.A. to the N.A.A.C.P., whom he in turn scorns for such "yammering." He's been identified by The Wall Street Journal as a member of Lamar Alexander's "brain trust" and a key player in the Bush Administration's campaign to remove schools from the public domain.

This was the man in charge of NASDC's supposedly objective search for educational innovators. Under Cooperman's guidance, NASDC selected eleven out of the 686 proposals the corporation received from around the country. Only one proposal involved an African-American educator in a top leadership role. Just two of the eleven grants went to projects headed by women. True, a minority of the plans could be considered liberal or progressive reform efforts--one proposal for schools controlled by Los Angeles teachers and community leaders, for instance, and another uniting the expertise of longtime reform advocates James Comer, Howard Gardner and Theodore Sizer of Yale, Harvard and Brown, respectively. But a clear majority of NASDC's grants went to proposals that conform to at least the broad outlines of the private-sector, market-driven philosophy embraced by Bush, Alexander and their camp followers.

Indeed, several NASDC design proposals are clearly aimed at scuttling democratically accountable, community-based and teacher-centered public schooling. A Minneapolis consulting group will establish "charter schools" no longer answerable to local school boards. The National Alliance for Restructuring Education, based in Rochester, New York, will "apply principles of Total Quality Management," learned from "America's best corporations," to classrooms. Former Education Secretary William Bennett will establish a network of quasi-private schools independent of school district authority. In Bennett's schools, "principals will assume the role of C.E.O." Bennett's curriculums will be based on his own list of Great Books. At-risk youths will be offered not support services but a special effort at "character building."

Perhaps most chilling, many of the plans approved by NASDC use technology, along with low-cost, nonprofessional classroom assistants, as a way of radically reducing the authority and presence of teachers. In Bensenville, Illinois, a suburb of Chicago, teachers will be little more than part of the technological apparatus: "The teacher's desk will be replaced by an Electronic Teaching Center" that will provide the main connection between teachers and students. Bolt Beranek and Newman, an engineering conglomerate and military contractor, will run two elementary schools in Massachusetts built around "pervasive use of the computer." Traditionally, educators fretted over teacher-pupil ratios. That will no longer be the case under many of the proposals funded by NASDC. The Community Learning Centers of Minnesota point out that in their academies, ratios of personnel versus technology" may "differ radically from those currently found in public schools."

All these high-tech plans implicitly disregard the power of teachers as professionals and students as thinkers. In these schemes, teachers are conduits and cops, carrying information and enforcing rules. Children are little more than receptacles, whose ability to contain the prescribed information can best be measured in an objective national knowledge test. Such plans ignore decades of recognition by social scientists and classroom teachers alike that a child's consciousness is built not just through the ingestion of information but through the subtle day-to-day interactions among teachers, students and parents.

One of the favorite charges leveled by today's educational right is that overly democratic public schooling has encouraged patronage, corruption and a general decline of educators' willingness to focus on moral issues. Public education, Bennett complained in a 1987 speech, has a morally "slippery quality" that evades accountability. All the more ironic to find that when it comes to Bennett's "Modern Red Schoolhouse" plan for NASDC, the corporation becomes a vehicle for conservative cronyism and ideological bid-rigging. Bennett's staff for his project reads like a Who's Who of right-wing education reform, including close associates of Cooperman, Alexander and other Bush Administration insiders.

Take, for instance, Bennett staffer Dennis Doyle, a Hudson Institute analyst. Doyle wrote a book with David Kearns, Alexander's deputy. Doyle started a private reform enterprise, the Educational Excellence Network, with another Alexander aide, Diane Ravich. Along with Cooperman he's on that Wall Street Journal list of Alexander's closest advisers.

Or consider another Bennett staffer, Chester Finn Jr.--also one of those Education Department brain trusters and an employee of Chris Whittle's private-school venture, the Edison Project. Finn helped write the Bush Administration education plan that created NASDC in the first place. In the Reagan Education Department, he worked for Bennett alongside another deputy named Peter Greer. Today Greer, who after leaving the Education Department was hired by Bennett's own mentor at Boston University, John Silber, is a member of the NASDC funding advisory panel chaired by Cooperman.

NASDC's intertwined relationship with the Education Department raises some serious questions on its own. It's against the law for federal officials to devote their work time to such private enterprises as NASDC. But "the best known secret" about NASDC, reported the respected professional journal Educational Researcher last year, "is that many Department of Education staff have been asked to work on its development" in apparent direct violation of federal law.

On one level, NASDC is just an extension of the Bush Education Department--a way to get around Congress to fund the likes of Bennett. NASDC is also dangerous because its very conception rests on the myth of what Bush called those "failed experiments of the past." In fact, educational innovation has flourished, and educators today have a clear and proven notion of reforms that work. What's failed is basic funding for schools. And this leads directly to the core principle underlying NASDC's creation: that corporate America has the skill and financial resources to carry out an overhaul of the nation's schools.

It is here where NASDC's failure is most evident. In an interview Saul Cooperman says the corporation asks "the fundamental, systemic questions about schools: What ought to be taught? How do children learn? How should schools be run?" But what about how schools should be paid for? That's a little too nosy a question for NASDC. The corporation, says Cooperman, "is going to stay 100 percent out of that one."

But it is that last question which puts the education debate back where it belongs: on public financing. Among the top nineteen industrial nations, the United States ranks seventeenth in public spending for education, and dead last in compensation of teachers. The United States is also the only major industrial nation to promote a radically inequitable school-financing system based on local property taxes. If the nation--citizens and corporations alike--truly wants a "world-competitive" school system, it must adopt a competitive school-finance system that ends inequity and instills respect for educators and students alike.
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Title Annotation:New American Schools Development Corp.
Author:Spillane, Margaret; Shapiro, Bruce
Publication:The Nation
Article Type:Cover Story
Date:Sep 21, 1992
Words:1753
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