"A child's learning is the function more of the characteristics of his classmates than those of the teacher." James Coleman, 1972

Saturday, December 05, 2009

Imagine That

Don Willis, the businessman claiming "public schools are dead" while pushing the for-profit charter chain known as the Imagine Schools, has certainly earned himself the dubious distinction as one of the most insane charter backers. On the other side of the crazy scale, Karen Francisco, a Journal Gazette reporter, has outdone her corporate newspaper peers by providing one of the few examples of critical journalism that actually tells the truth about the influence of monied interests in public education. Take it away, Karen (via the Journal Gazette)

Pot shots at public schools – imagine that

Don Willis offers little else in championing charters

Karen Francisco

If a school leader’s effectiveness is measured by the volume of ridicule he levels at other schools, Don Willis is a talented educator. His performance at a recent Imagine Schools board meeting left little doubt that he is more comfortable attacking the competition than explaining why the charter schools he promotes are a better choice.

In a peculiar three-part meeting of the two current Fort Wayne Imagine charter school boards and the board of a potential southeast-side school, Willis, president of two of the three local charter school boards, did not so much preside as hold court for an audience that seemed eager to disprove the notion that local control has been handed over to a for-profit education-management company based in Virginia. The Fort Wayne businessman’s remarks – mostly attacks on Fort Wayne Community Schools and East Allen County Schools – revealed more about him than about the schools he claims to have nurtured.

There’s no small measure of irony in Willis’ embrace of charter schools. “Public schools are dead,” he said in a 2006 interview. “A lot of them have to die.” Yet from within the public school system, he has staked a position as an aggressive critic of public education and a rival for state money. It’s a contest he alone created, perhaps out of spite for the local education community’s unwillingness to accept his views.

At the November meeting, Imagine students occupied little of Willis’ attention in a one-hour attack on The Journal Gazette’s recent investigation of the charter school boards. Willis, in fact, put any doubt about the rigor of local oversight to rest when he endorsed a memo in which Imagine Inc. founder Dennis Bakke prescribed that local school boards act as puppets for the charter school company.

Bakke himself apologized for the memo and insisted that local boards “advise Imagine on all aspects of the education of children” and “ensure that government funds … are used only for purposes intended by and consistent with the law.”

Willis’ disjointed presentation did not directly challenge any of the questions raised by reporters Dan Stockman and Kelly Soderlund. He offered out-of-context school data to attack Fort Wayne Community Schools and boasted of Imagine students “diagramming sentences,” apparently as evidence of higher-order thinking. He dropped names, referring to the governor as “Mitch,” and to the state superintendent of public instruction as “my friend Tony Bennett.” He referenced a visit here by Carol D’Amico, a former George W. Bush administration official, inflating her title to “former U.S. secretary of education” – a post she never held. He criticized Karyle Green, the first-year East Allen superintendent, making light of her qualifications for the job.

For their part, Willis’ fellow charter school board members seemed to accept his outlandish claims and school comparisons as sufficient defense. In response to the disclosure that a Fort Wayne charter school board had lent its 501(c)(3) tax-exempt status to the Texas charter schools outside of a public meeting, the board rubber-stamped a series of resolutions, with only Willis’ assurance that the measures meet legal muster.

They also gave no indication that they will exercise more oversight. Members of the three boards – meeting consecutively in a format that apparently puzzled even the participants – asked few questions and gave a passing glance to financial measures. Amazingly, a brief update on Imagine’s efforts to offer high school courses drew no questions.

The local Imagine board members have bought into Willis’ claim to be an education expert. Everyone else should challenge him. Was his appointment to the state superintendent’s transition team an endorsement of his qualifications? Or was it an acknowledgment of $25,000 in contributions to Aiming Higher, the organization set up to advance the governor’s political agenda, and $11,000 in contributions to Daniels’ and Bennett’s campaigns?

Money speaks as loudly in education as it does anywhere else. But it shouldn’t be allowed to grant undue influence when it comes to Indiana schools. The parents and teachers behind the local Imagine schools deserve charter oversight committed to improving educational opportunities, not to costly and damaging attacks on existing schools. It’s time to examine Don Willis’ motives.

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