Last Sunday, I published a blog post about NJ State Board of Education (NJBOE) member, Peter Simon, and his family's philanthropic foundation, the William E. Simon Foundation. If it had not been for the New York Times piece, which mentioned his brother as a possible candidate for the Vatican Ambassadorship, I probably would never have taken the time to look closely at a Board member.
I had decided to bring it up during public testimony at Wednesday's NJSBOE meeting. It was one of the rare days when testimony is permitted to be on any topic. I found out late Tuesday that Simon had stepped down from the Board. No one knew why.
Wednesday morning, at the beginning of the NJSBOE meeting, Board President, Mark Biedron, announced that Peter Simon had stepped down. No reason was given. Biedron also said there had been discussion on "social media" about Simon's family's foundation and donations made to charters, and that Simon had abstained from voting. Biedron added, if Simon had remained on the Board, he would have abstained from voting on the new proposed charter regulations.
Obviously, I was very glad to hear that, as were other people in attendance. Although, why mention it all?
The day was filled with a lot of charter-related testimony, both for and against. As people representing entities who had received money from the Foundation spoke, I could't help but wonder if it would have mattered if Simon abstained. He still might have been tasked with listening to public testimony (not all board members do) and, presumably, providing some feedback to those who weren't there to hear testimony firsthand.
This is not an indictment of Peter Simon. It's an honest question of how reasonable it is to presume the ability of anyone to separate their personal ties from their ability to perform due diligence for the public, with the public's interests foremost in mind. It also demonstrates the need to have transparency at all times.
A couple of months ago, Mark Biedron introduced the new charter regulations with a nod to how hard the Department of Education (NJDOE) had worked on them with charter schools groups. I can't find meeting minutes from those meetings. They aren't posted anywhere that I can find. If someone has them, or can point me to them, I'd like to see who was in the room and what was discussed. There aren't that many charter players in New Jersey, so it's easy to guess who might have been in those meetings, and two of the biggest ones received money from the Simon Foundation.
It's important to note Biedron made no mention of engaging anyone in the communities who are currently affected by the tremendous drain on public school funding that occurs wherever charter schools operate. Undoubtedly, those folks would have had a lot to say about the impact of making it easier for charter schools to expand.
This all leads to a much bigger issue and that is how people come to be seated on the NJ State Board of Education. From the NJDOE website:
The New Jersey State Board of Education has 13 members who are appointed by the Governor with the advice and consent of the New Jersey State Senate. These members serve without compensation for six-year terms. By law, at least three members of the State Board must be women, and no two members may be appointed from the same county. (Please note: we are currently down 5 members)Since the governor also appoints the Commissioner of Education it's easy to see how this becomes a stacked deck really quickly. We happen to currently have a governor who is not interested in public education. He has spent his entire tenure slamming public schools and public school teachers while also shorting his own school funding formula by about $7 billion and calling public schools "failure factories."
In theory, the State Board of Education should serve as "checks and balances" for anyone who is governor. They should be there for all students in the state and free from outside interests. The question is, Do we have that? Maybe even, Is that possible given how those positions are chosen? These are questions our next governor is going to have deal with.
Here is the original testimony I prepared for last Wednesday.
I wanted to spend my time today talking about alternative assessments for ESSA accountability purposes. However, I recently came across what appears to be a conflict of interest related to one of the State Board of Education members.
I find myself in the unenviable position of having to point it out and to ask that they recuse themselves from voting on anything related to charter schools, including the new proposed charter regulations.
The Board member is Peter Simon. He is Co-Chair of his family’s philanthropic foundation, the William E. Simon Foundation. The Foundation’s website has listings of grants made in 2014, 2015, and 2016. The 2015 and 2016 listing links are not working, but the 2014 links are. The 2014 listings on the Foundation website are not complete. The Foundation’s 990, publicly available on GuideStar, has the full list of grants made that year.
There are roughly $3.3 million in grants made to charter schools, charter associations, and groups who lobby for so-called school choice. Of those grants, three in particular, stand out: New Jersey Charter Schools Association, JerseyCAN, and the Association of American Educators who have a partnership with New Jersey Charter Schools Association.
The reason they stand out is because New Jersey Charter Schools Association and JerseyCAN actively lobby this Board for expansion of charter schools, and currently, for the new proposed charter regulations.
This appears to be a conflict of interest. I ask that Mr. Simon remove himself from any and all voting regarding the fate of charter schools or the charter industry.