The issue of conflict of interest has been coming up a lot lately. Just before the holiday weekend, a friend pointed out one of the choices for Ambassador to the Vatican, William E. Simon, Jr., is the brother of one of the members, J. Peter Simon, of the NJ State Board of Education (NJSBOE). The New York Times wrote about the possibilities of ambassadorship here.
Curious, I decided to take a closer look at Peter Simon. He is, after all, helping to steer public education in New Jersey. Are there affiliations that make his seat on the SBOE problematic?
It turns out, yes, maybe there are. You decide.
Peter's late father, William E. Simon, former US Treasury Secretary, served under President Nixon, beginning in 1974, through President Ford's administration, resigning in 1977. He is also the founder, along with his sons, of William E. Simon and Sons, LLC, a private equity firm which specializes in technology, information technology, education, and manufacturing. Peter is currently Co-Chairman of the Firm along with his brother, Bill.
Bill, Sr. and his wife, Carol, created The William E. Simon Foundation in 1967. Their seven children all serve on the Board of Directors. Peter and Bill, Jr. are Co-Chairmen. According to the Foundation's website...
"The charitable philosophy that guided him (Bill, Sr.) in establishing Foundation’s purposes drew heavily on the thoughts expressed more than a century ago by Andrew Carnegie in The Gospel Of Wealth, where he wrote, “In bestowing charity, the main consideration should be to help those who will help themselves; to provide part of the means by which those who desire to improve may do so; to give those who desire to rise the aids by which they may rise; to assist, but rarely or never to do all.” Helping those in need to realize the full promise of their own talent and drive is a large mission, but Mr. Simon was not a man to do things in a small way, and he always recognized the art of the possible."In the 1990's the Foundation reviewed its giving practices and created a more formalized process for their grants. Presumably this was done to further the Vision Statement of the Foundation...
[T]o help inner-city youth and families gain access to education and community-based services that promote their independence, personal success, and full participation in America’s free, democratic society.Their Mission Statement, in part, continues...
[S]upports programs that are intended to strengthen the free enterprise system and the moral and spiritual values on which it rests: individual freedom, initiative, thrift, self-discipline, and faith in God... the Foundation’s primary aim is to provide inner-city youth with environments, opportunities, and encouragement to develop the personal values and skills that will enable them to become independent, contributing members of society. The Foundation achieves this goal through its support of direct services and public policy research...In its direct service portfolio, the Foundation focuses primarily on two geographical areas: Jersey City and the South Bronx.Sounds good so far, right? Let's take a look at their grant recipients. Their website has the recipient lists from 2014, 2015, and 2016. Guidestar provides 990's from 2014, back to 2012, before hitting their paywall. Many of the grants are to religiously affiliated groups, Catholic charities, Boy Scouts, Boy and Girls Clubs of America, Catholic schools, etc. All are in keeping with Bill, Sr.'s deep Catholic faith.
There are also grants to charter schools, charter associations, and other education reform groups. That's where things get a bit sticky as we are heading into the first NJSBOE meeting of 2017. The second hearing is on the agenda for the new proposed charter school regulations. I wrote a piece in November about the public testimony taken at NJSBOE on the new regulations. You can read about that here.
The proposed changes include:
- Permit a weighted lottery for charter school enrollment;
- Establish an expedited renewal process for high-performing charters;
- Permit single-purpose charter schools;
- Ease the way for charter schools to secure facilities and capital funding;
- Establish a pilot program for charter-specific teacher, administrator, and school business administrator certifications;
- Streamline procedures around budgetary controls and fund monitoring; and
- Enact other regulatory changes.
Bottom line for charter schools in New Jersey: No local control at all. Charters are approved by the NJ Commissioner of Education, not by the people living in the community affected. Charters are paid for directly out of the local district's public education school budget. Charters can expand without any local authorization or regard for the impact on the local public schools. Charter school operators do not have to disclose how public money is spent. Charter schools are not required to have elected school boards. Charter schools do not educate the same demographics as public schools, and as a result, are highly segregated.
Keep these points in mind as you read through where the Foundation money goes. Ask yourself if Peter Simon should recuse himself from voting on the new charter regulations. In 2014, he oversaw the distribution of about $3.3 million to charter schools, associations, and organizations which support charter schools and school choice.
I chose the 2014 year because the Foundation's website has a list of those donations along with the correct attributions, and GuideStar has the 2014 990 filing available for anyone to see. I cross-referenced the website with 990 filing.
From the Foundation's website: 2014
Association of American Educators Foundation: $100,000 for program support, including New Jersey. On their website, they claim to be an alternative to teachers unions. They have a page dedicated to responding to statements from the NEA. And, they have a page dedicated to New Jersey. The regional director's bio says she has taught in the classroom, been a college advisor, and been an education sales rep for a "major publishing company." That New Jersey page also has an announcement for their new partnership with the New Jersey Charter Schools Association.
Brilla College Preparatory Charter School: $50,000 for technology and equipment to support a blended learning program.
Center for Education Reform: $2,500 for program support. Among the education issues CER supports are school choice and charter schools.
Charter School Growth Fund: $500,000 (paid $250,000) for "Fund II support to grow high quality charter networks". "As a national nonprofit (CSGF), we make multi-year, philanthropic investments in talented education entrepreneurs building networks of great charter schools, and we provide them with support as they grow." In 2005, they created the National Fund for the purpose of "accelerating the growth of the nation's best charter schools."
Children's Aid College Prep Charter School: $25,000 for Support for Life Coaches in the 2014-15 school year.
Common Sense Institute of New Jersey: $2,500 for "Who's Leaving NJ And Why" Report
Educators 4 Excellence: $30,000 for "Program Support for New York programs. E4E is reform movement group for teachers and is heavily funded by the Gates and Broad Foundations."
Ethical Community Charter School: $50,000 for "Support for an Architect, a Fundraising Consultant, a Language Arts & Math Consultant, and a Development Officer in the 2014-15 school year."
Families for Excellent Schools: $5,000 as a "token of appreciation" to the CEO who presented at the Jersey City Leadership Forum. FES is a pro-charter school group which organized and mobilizes parents to fight for charter schools and their expansion.
Family Life Academy Charter School: $25,000 for a Wellness program.
Foundation for Excellence in Education: $20,000 for program support. This is Jeb Bush's very reformy education group whose board includes Betsy DeVos and Joel Klein. Among the group's "reform agenda" is school choice, CBE, digital learning, and so on.
Foundation for Opportunity in Education: $200,000 (paid $100,000) for program support. I couldn't find the website to this group.
Golden Door Charter School: $37,752.00 for "Support for the purchase of Chrome books, laptops which will facilitate new NJ state testing in the 2013-14 school year."
Great Futures Charter High School for the Health Sciences: $209,000 for "Start-up costs and general operating support in the 2014-15 school year."
Harlem RBI: $15,000 for "Program Support for South Bronx site in the 2014-15 school year."
Harvard University: $65,000 for "Support for the education reform journal, EducationNext, in 2014."
Icahn Charter Schools:
School #1 $25,400 for "Support for a professional development project for K-2 teachers in the 2014-15 school year."
School #2 $22,500 for "Support for a math consultant in the 2014-15 school year." School #6 $12,880 for "Support for a professional development project for K-2 teachers in the 2014-15 school year."
School #7 $12,220 for "Support for a professional development project for K-2 teachers in the 2014-15 school year."
Institute for Justice: $25,000 for "Support for litigation work on school choice issues in 2014."
JerseyCAN: $10,000 for program support. This group heavily supports charter schools in New Jersey.
KIPP Academy Charter School: $100,500 for "Support for the implementation of a new ELA program and a new math program."
National Alliance for Public Charter Schools: $65,000 for "Support for their work to foster a strong charter school sector in order to increase the academic achievement of all students in 2014."
National Counsel on Teacher Quality: $5,000 for program support. Diane Ravitch has written about NCTQ and this piece in the Washington Post is instructive.
National Right to Work Legal Defense Foundation: $30,000 for "Support of its charter school legal defense program, which seeks to prevent compulsory teacher unionization at charter schools nationwide, in 2014."
New Jersey Charter Schools Association: $25,000 for "Support for the communication campaign for this charter school policy and service organization in 2014."
Success Academy Charter Schools: $150,000 for "Support for a parent engagement campaign in the 2013-14 school year."
From GuideStar, the 990 filing for 2014: (These are the donations NOT listed on the Foundation's website. The 990 does not provide information about what the grant was used for beyond a simple designation, like "education.")
Alliance for College-Ready Public Schools: $5,000
Alliance for College-Ready Public Schools: $5,000
Alliance for School Choice: $100,000
Alliance for School Choice: $5,000
Children's Scholarship Fund: $170
Children's Scholarship Fund: $250,000
Children's Scholarship Fund: $245,845
Civic Builders: $333,333
Civic Builders: $100,00
Family Life Academy Charter School: $5,000
Family Life Academy Charter School: $25,000
Foundation for Opportunity in Education: $100,000 (The Foundation website showed a total grant of $200,000 and $100,000 actually paid. This is the other half of the grant.)
Friends of Learning Community Charter School: $97,500
KIPP New York Inc.: $250,000
Pacific Research Institute for Public Policy: $50,000
Pacific Research Institute for Public Policy: $75,000
Parents Challenge: $1,000
Philadelphia School Partnership: $10,000
Success Academy Charter Schools: $5,000
Success Academy Charter Schools: $250,000
Thomas B. Fordham Institute: $50,000
Willow Creek Foundation: $5,000
Woodrow Wilson National Fellowship Foundation: $25,000
The 2015 and 2016 Foundation website lists have errors in them. When you click through any of the grantees, the information page shows the same information for every grantee, so we can't see the amount of the grant or what it was for. Unfortunately, GuideStar does not yet have the 990's for those years. Here are the related grantees from the Foundation's website:
New Jersey Charter Schools Association
National Right to Work Legal Defense Foundation
Thomas B. Fordham Institute
Family Life Academy Charter School
Ethical Community Charter School
Children's Aid College Prep Charter School
Association of American Educators Foundation
Foundation for Excellence in Education
Hyde Leadership Charter School
Hunts Point Alliance for Children
Friends of Learning Community Charter School
Friedman Foundation for Educational Choice
Soaring Heights Charter School
Brilla College Preparatory Charter School
I feel the need to state, unequivocally, I have no issues with people making money. I hope no one is doing an eyeroll just because of his family's history or their ability to make money. The family fortune is not the point of this piece.
However, when that money is used, philanthropically, to further the privatization of public education, and the person who is overseeing those donations while also serving on a public board which has influence over the course of the industry they significantly support, I think we have a serious conflict of interest where the charter regulations are concerned.