Thursday, May 12, 2022

Shmoozing with the reformster big-wigs

Whitney Tilson is a representative of a certain type of reformster.

Tilson is a walking Great Story-- his parents are educators who met while serving in the Peace Corps. Tilson's father earned a doctorate in education at Stanford, which adds the story-worthy detail that young Whitney was a participant in Stanford's famous marshmallow experiment. That's an apt biographical detail. The original interpretation of the experiment was essentially that some children are better than others because they have the right character traits. More recent follow-up research suggests that a bigger lesson is that it's a hell of a lot easier to show desired character traits when you live in a stable environment.

Tilson became a big name in the world of value investing, and he has used his gabillions to fuel the charter school world. He's a big backer of KIPP, TFA and DFER. He is nominally a liberal Democrat, but he has no love for teachers and some pretty clear dislike for their unions.

Well, he's not just a backer of Democrats for Education Reform--he's a founder who made a certain tactical decision to put the D in DFERLeonie Haimson has a great quote from the film version of Tilson's magnum opus about ed reform, "A Right Denied," and it's a dream of mine that every time somebody searches for DFER on line, this quote comes up.

“The real problem, politically, was not the Republican party, it was the Democratic party. So it dawned on us, over the course of six months or a year, that it had to be an inside job. The main obstacle to education reform was moving the Democratic party, and it had to be Democrats who did it, it had to be an inside job. So that was the thesis behind the organization. And the name – and the name was critical – we get a lot of flack for the name. You know, “Why are you Democrats for education reform? That’s very exclusionary. I mean, certainly there are Republicans in favor of education reform.” And we said, “We agree.” In fact, our natural allies, in many cases, are Republicans on this crusade, but the problem is not Republicans. We don’t need to convert the Republican party to our point of view…”

In public, Tilson has liked to portray himself and his very rich friends as scrappy underdogs, fighting against Entrenched Powers, characterizing this group of exceptionally wealthy and well-connected folks as "outmanned, outspent, and outgunned," which sounds inspirational albeit unrelated to any reality I'm familiar with. 

If you subscribe to Tilson's chatty newsletter, you get a window into how all this works for a globe-trotting wealthy hedge fundie. Most recently Tilson updated us on his trip to the Robin Hood gala, an annual event at which rich folks in NYC come give some money to a foundation run by hedge fundie John Paul Tudor, a charter school-loving supporter of outfits like the Relay Faux Graduate School of Education. In Tilson's account, you get a feel for how interconnected all these folks are:

I ran into many ed reform warriors including Robin Hood co-founder David Saltzman, his roommate at Brown eons ago, Norman Atkins (co-founder of North Star Academy in Newark and the Relay Graduate School of Education), Emily Kim (whose Zeta schools are expanding from five to eight this fall), and Brett Peiser, the CEO of Uncommon Schools.

I also chatted with Mike Bloomberg and thanked him for his incredible long-term support of charter schools.

Susan and I were seated at the CNN table, where I ran into an old friend, Marcus Mabry, who played an important role in the launch of Teach for America.

In the fall of 1989 and a team of six of us, led by Wendy Kopp, including Dan Oscar and Kim Smith, were recruiting campus representatives who, the next spring, would help us recruit the 500 inaugural corps members.

But nobody had ever heard of Teach for America, so we needed a high-profile article in a major publication, so I called Marcus, who had been my sister’s Resident Advisor at Stanford. He was at Newsweek and, long story short, wrote a full-page article that came out in the fall of 1989 that helped put TFA on the map.

Just all good ol' buds. I regret to inform you that John Legend is also a long-time Robin Hood board member and Whitney Tilson BFF..

I'm not saying this is inherently evil and naughty. I am saying that some days there seems to be a high degree of insular clubbiness among certain sectors of the education amateur reform world.

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