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Local Schools: Do Billionaires Know Best?

The New York State Board of Regents believes in whiz kids. No, not our kids. The Regents have clearly sent the message that our kids are so dopey and lacking in “college and career readiness” that the state must immediately force a whole new curriculum on our schools, and a new testing system to prove just how much our dopey kids need this new curriculum.

The whiz kids on the Regents’ speed-dial are a group of 27 Regent Fellows, full-time “education reformers.” They are tasked with coming up with ways to improve “educational outcomes,” develop systems to measure just about everything that is measurable, and use that data to evaluate our kids, their teachers and their schools. They also have been instrumental in the state’s implementation of the Common Core standards and the accompanying curriculum. There is nothing like it anywhere else in the country.

“They’re like rock stars,” State Education Commissioner John King’s communications director told James M. Odato, who reported on the fellows last week in Albany’s Times Union.

The fellows offer unique skills and expertise, the spokesman said, and without their help “we would be struggling.”

But don’t look for the Regent Fellows on the State Education Department table of organization. They are not public employees. Rather, these advisors, with salaries approaching $200,000 a year, are paid with money from private foundations.

As Odato reported, this three-year-old operation started with $1 million from Regents Chancellor Merryl Tisch’s family foundation, and soon rounded up $18 million more from sources that are not known for benign benevolence. That is, generally, there are agendas behind the donations.

The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, for instance, kicked in $3.3 million. Gates is a huge believer in standardized tests and using those scores to hold various parties accountable.

The Gates Foundation also has been behind numerous “charter-style” public schools. I taught at such a Gates-backed school in the South Bronx. It was heartbreaking. About all these kids had was test preparation, though it was labeled “academics.” Art? No. Music? No. Library? No.

Interestingly, Gates himself attended a lavishly funded private school in Seattle that had one of the first computer labs. He spent much of high school in this lab. And we know where that led. By the same token, my South Bronx students can expect rewarding careers operating Number Two pencils and Scantron sheets.

Other backers of the Regents Fellows include hedge fund investor Julian Robertson. His spokesman told Odato that Robertson supports state Education Commissioner John King and his goals.

“One of [Robertson’s] basic tenets is that teachers should be paid well for good performance,” he added.

That’s performance based on standardized tests.

And so, while King and Tisch roam the state holding hearings at which parents, teachers and superintendents knowledgeably and passionately oppose these “reforms,” and push instead for the kind of public education most of us were fortunate to have in our youth, it is doubtful these officials are hearing mere taxpayers. After all, they have the brilliance of whiz kids, even “rock stars,” waiting for them in Albany.

John Owens is editor in chief of Anton Community Newspapers, and author of Confessions of a Bad Teacher: The Shocking Truth From The Front Lines of American Public Education (Sourcebooks). Email: This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it