2020

President Winfrey? Here’s what we know about Oprah’s education outlook

Oprah Winfrey, right, hosted N.J. Gov. Chris Christie, Newark Mayor Cory Booker, and Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg when Zuckerberg announced a $100 million gift to Newark schools in 2010.

When Oprah Winfrey delivered an emotional, inspirational speech at the Golden Globes on Sunday, many viewed it as an introductory address for a possible presidential run.

Indeed, after years of denying any political ambitions, people close to Winfrey now say she’s open to running for office, according to CNN. (She again denied plans to run on Monday.)

So what would a President Winfrey look like when it comes to education? As with most policy issues, she hasn’t taken a firm stand — but her background, personal giving, and guests on her show, which aired from 1986 until 2011, all offer clues. Here’s what we know.

She understands racism and poverty in America — and how schools can make a difference.

Growing up impoverished in the South and then Milwaukee, Winfrey endured many of the challenges that disproportionately affect poor children in America, including family instability, teen pregnancy, and frequent school changes. (She was also sexually abused by family members.) She credits a fourth-grade teacher with giving her the intellectual energy to persevere.

“I always, because of you, felt I could take on the world,” Winfrey said in a 1989 special where she honored her favorite teachers. “You did exactly what teachers are supposed to do. They create a spark for learning that lives with you from then on.”

As a teenager, Winfrey did so well at her Milwaukee high school that a teacher decided to help her become one of 16 black students to integrate a high school in an affluent suburb. (She later left that school when her mother decided to send her to Nashville, where she also attended a newly integrated high school.) “It was culture shock for me. It was the first time I realized I was poor,” she said during the 1989 show. “But it made a major difference in my life.”

Those experiences left Winfrey believing in the power of schools to change lives, she has said. “I value nothing more in the world than education,” Winfrey said in 2010. “It is the reason why I can stand here today. It is an open door to freedom.”

She has given to education initiatives that cross partisan divides.

As one of the world’s wealthiest women, with a net worth of nearly $3 billion, Winfrey has directed her giving to a wide array of causes, including education. She has donated to charter schools across the country, participated in a collective to reduce high school dropouts, and funded scholarships for students at historically black colleges.

She even launched a school of her own in South Africa that has sent poor girls to elite universities. For a megastar, Winfrey took an unusually personal role in the school’s development: She handpicked the school’s first class; overhauled the leadership when a sex abuse scandal occurred early on; gave students her personal cell phone number; and took the first graduates shopping for dorm-room decor.

The experience gave Winfrey insights into what kinds of efforts might alter the track of poor students’ lives. “I had worked with other organizations, I had written lots of checks, I had started my own big sister program, where I was taking girls on skiing trips and spending time with them and reading. It doesn’t work,” she said in 2017.

“What works is being able to change the trajectory of somebody’s life where you are literally brainwashing them for the good,” Winfrey added, as she reflected on her school’s first decade. “Because what poverty does is brainwashes you to believe that you are not enough.”

She’s also aligned herself with heavyweights of the ‘education reform’ movement.

Many people treated Winfrey’s enormously popular show as an ideal platform to reach Americans of all races and classes — something that can be especially pressing for education influencers, who are often criticized for imposing their ideas on poor communities.

Toward the end of the show’s run, Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg chose it to announce a $100 million gift to overhaul schools in Newark, New Jersey. Also on that episode: then-New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie and then-Newark Mayor Cory Booker, now U.S. senator. The trio, Winfrey said, “are putting politics aside to help turn around the failing public schools in Newark.”

One of the most education policy-heavy episodes of Winfrey’s show aired in 2010, when Winfrey promoted the documentary “Waiting for Superman” with a special about “the shocking state of our schools.”

The film galvanized support for charter schools, and teachers unions treated it as an attack. Winfrey gave air time to the director, Davis Guggenheim, as well as to philanthropist Bill Gates and Michelle Rhee, then the Washington D.C. schools chief who was attracting attention for trying to fire low-performing teachers.

Winfrey called Rhee “a warrior woman” and appeared sympathetic to Rhee’s agenda, at one point asking her, “Why can’t you just fire bad teachers?” But Winfrey also hit some more positive notes.

“Everybody knows I love good teachers, and there are so many thousands of you — great ones — in this country,” Winfrey said on the show. “So we’re not talking about you if you are a good teacher.”

As part of the episode, Winfrey capped off a round of giving from her Angel Network philanthropy with $1 million awards to six networks of charter schools, which she suggested were making almost superhuman efforts to help their students.

“Imagine this,” Winfrey said. “A school where high school freshmen, reading at a fourth-grade level, can jump ahead five grades in a single school year. Or a school where teachers stay until 11 at night to help children with their homework, and where children say school is like a second family to them.”

Winfrey’s proclivity to promote heroes sometimes resulted in unstable education initiatives getting a boost: One New Orleans charter school that the Oprah Winfrey Network profiled as a promising turnaround effort closed a year later as one of the lowest-performing schools in Louisiana. And Zuckerberg’s Newark donation, which spurred a controversial package of policy changes for Newark schools, had mixed results: Growth in student achievement dropped for three years, but bounced back in years four and five.

Have her views shifted as many in the Democratic party have shifted their education outlook? We don’t know.

One of Winfrey’s most sustained causes has been Booker, whose U.S. Senate race she supported with fundraising and air time.

Booker’s personal evolution on education issues reflects a broader one within the Democratic party. Early in his career, Booker became known for championing charter schools and sat on the board of Democrats for Education Reform, a group that set out to counter the influence of teachers unions in local elections. But as uneven results and pushback from local communities have racked up, Booker puts less emphasis on the most divisive parts of that agenda. Now, he is more likely to promote pre-kindergarten and criticize Donald Trump’s education secretary, Betsy DeVos, than to propose particular policies to improve schools.

That mirrors a broader shift in the education world. Gates, for example, has turned away from funding individual schools and policy initiatives in favor of supporting locally led efforts to improve education.

It’s unclear whether Winfrey is attuned to this shift: Since her show went off the air, Winfrey hasn’t often commented publicly on major matters of public debate, including education issues — although she did endorse Hillary Clinton for president in 2016, and expressed disbelief that Donald Trump, like her an entertainer, had been elected instead. (Trump’s nomination, she said at the time, made her feel for the first time “really qualified” to run for office.)

Her speech at the Golden Globes — which focused on empowering women — suggests that Winfrey is ready to be a public influence.

One clue to her general approach could come from the 2010 “Waiting for Superman” special, when Winfrey also underscored that education is a communal challenge, not an individual one.

“Just because your kids are in a good school, because your kids are graduated from school, doesn’t mean that it is not our country’s problem,” Winfrey said. “Our country will suffer if we continue to look the other way.”

Indiana's 2018 legislative session

Holcomb calls for changes to Indiana diplomas and more computer science in annual address

PHOTO: Shaina Cavazos
Gov. Eric Holcomb addresses lawmakers during his 2018 State of the State speech.

Gov. Eric Holcomb’s second major address to Hoosiers stuck closely to his biggest education policy priority for 2018: Ensuring students are prepared for life after high school.

“We must ensure that every Hoosier student receives an education infused with STEM subjects, critical thinking skills and the intellectual curiosity that prepares them for lifelong learning,” Holcomb said. “So when they graduate from high school, they have a ticket to their future success, be it going on to college or entering the workforce to realize a fulfilling career.”

His speech Tuesday night didn’t break much new ground, and some main themes — such as emphasizing science education and job training — are holdovers from last year. But while K-12 education has never been Holcomb’s strong suit, his remarks did indicate the importance the Republican governor is placing on adjusting the education system to better address his economic goals and showed he would be willing to even put money behind the effort.

His remarks on education — which took only a few minutes of his 30-minute speech before the legislature — appeared to align with a couple of key bills winding their ways through the Indiana General Assembly.

A bill to create a single state diploma has the support of some Republican legislative leaders so far, as well as state Superintendent Jennifer McCormick. It’s not clear exactly where Holcomb comes down on this issue, but he did call for changes to the state’s current system, which has four separate diplomas.

“Late last year, Indiana’s State Board of Education took a crucial step by approving new graduation pathways for high school students beginning in 2019,” Holcomb said. “And this year, we must advance a more relevant high school diploma so that every student graduates with a diploma that is their opportunity to advance to the next step along their path.”

Read: Indiana’s new high school graduation rules were widely opposed by parents and educators. The state board approved them anyway.

Holcomb also said he supports a plan requiring all district and charter schools to teach about computer science in grades K-12, which would include funding so schools can train teachers in the subject area. The money, in the $2 million-dollar range, would come from several existing funds. Currently, about 42 percent of schools in the state offer such instruction.

“This year … we’ll enact legislation to require every Indiana K-12 school to offer computer science courses,” Holcomb said. “And we’ll pay for the teacher professional development they’ll need to inspire their students.”

Here he differs from McCormick, who supports giving more science, technology, engineering and math education to students, but doesn’t want to make it mandatory for districts.

“We want to see it offered to students,” said Adam Baker, spokesman for the Indiana Department of Education. “Their academic path is a decision they need to drive along with the input of their parents, and local educators and counselors.”

Leading state Democrats felt Holcomb’s speech lacked specificity and vision, particularly in the area of job training.

“I was struck more by what he didn’t say,” said Rep. Terry Goodin, House Minority leader and former superintendent. “I guess I was expecting more of a bold vision or bold idea in terms of what do we need to do to the workforce system here in Indiana.”

Yet Republicans cheered some of Holcomb’s goals on job training, acknowledging how unusual it is that legislative leaders and the governor would be on the same page on major priorities.

“I’ve worked with seven different governors, this is somewhat of a unique session,” said House Speaker Brian Bosma. “We’re all on the same page that workforce is the most critical issue.”

Below, you can find more excerpts from Holcomb’s speech.

On job training

“Over the next year, we’ll use the newly created Education to Career Pathways Cabinet — led by Secretary Blair Milo, Superintendent Jennifer McCormick, Commissioner Teresa Lubbers, DWD Commissioner Fred Payne and OMB Director Micah Vincent — to set the framework to guide regions and communities.

By next year, we must be armed with the framework to drive legislative action, including funding changes. But now, lawmakers, we need your support to position this cabinet for success to ensure our school-age Hoosiers are gaining the experiences and skills they need to thrive in our ever-changing global economy.”

On expanding education programs

“We’ll also take better advantage of programs with proven results, such as the Jobs for America’s Graduates program — or JAG. Last month, I agreed to become the chairman of this terrific national program that helps at-risk students complete their high school diplomas.

I’m committed to expanding JAG. It works. So, as we evaluate programs over the next year, we’ll maximize existing resources and work with the private sector to add 250 more programs all across Indiana within the next five years.”

Read more about Holcomb’s background, first year in office, 2018 education plans and more.

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Teachers unions are ‘thrilled’ by Gov. Cuomo’s education agenda, but school funding remains in play

PHOTO: Philip Kamrass- Office of Governor Andrew M. Cuomo
Governor Andrew Cuomo during his 2018 State of the State address.

Just three years ago, when Gov. Andrew Cuomo was locked in a ferocious policy battle with the powerful state teachers union, he mocked those whose only idea to improve schools is “more money, more money, more money.”

All that extra funding had ever achieved, he said then, was mediocre academic results, “a larger and larger bureaucracy and higher salaries.”

But now, as Cuomo prepares to seek a third term this fall and eyes a potential presidential bid in 2020, he’s changed his tune.

In his agenda-setting State of the State speech last week, he proposed a slate of uncontroversial, union-friendly education proposals — the continuation of a yearslong shift away from the controversial policies involving teacher evaluations, charter schools, and other issues that put him at odds with teachers unions in 2015.

Most significantly, he’s dropped the argument that New York gets too little in return for the amount it spends on schools, instead calling last week for the state to continue its “historic investment in public education.”

However, it remains to be seen whether his rhetoric will translate into a big boost in dollars. The state faces a budget crunch and looming federal spending cuts, which has Republican lawmakers calling for fiscal restraint. Meanwhile, advocates question how serious Cuomo is about sending more money to schools.

So far, we have no reason to think the reality of his budget will meet the rhetoric,” said Billy Easton, executive director of the union-backed Alliance for Quality Education.

Despite his past wariness about unchecked education spending, Cuomo has actually expanded that part of the state’s budget over his two terms as governor.

Last year, he negotiated a $1.1 billion hike in state education aid, which he touted as the “largest investment in the history of the state.” Over the past seven years, he has boosted school spending by more than $6 billion to $25.8 billion last year — its highest level ever, a Cuomo spokeswoman pointed out.

However, advocates are still smarting from Cuomo’s (ultimately unsuccessful) attempt last year to make changes to a formula designed to funnel money to high-poverty school districts. Advocates said the changes would have allowed the state to withhold funding that those districts are owed under a decade-old lawsuit, but officials disputed that claim and said the governor still planned to give high-needs schools their due.

In last week’s speech, Cuomo railed against “funding inequities” and called for increased aid to poor districts. However, last year’s battle over the funding formula has left advocates doubting Cuomo’s sincerity.

“So far with him, school aid has been an exercise in the ‘hunger games’,” Easton said. “If he’s just going to give a little more to the neediest districts but still leave them way underfunded, then he’s just playing games.”

State officials said any suggestion that the governor has underfunded schools is “patently false.”

If school-funding advocates remain leery of Cuomo, the teachers unions — once the governor’s fiercest enemies — have mostly made peace with them as they rally around a common enemy: President Trump and his allies in Congress.

“We’ve had differences in the past. We’ve had fights with him,” said Michael Mulgrew, president of New York City’s teachers union. But they are now united in their opposition to President Trump’s agenda, which he called “an existential threat to our core principles.”

“We’re working together,” said Andy Pallotta, president of the state teachers union, in a separate interview. He said the union is “thrilled” with Cuomo’s move in their direction.

Cuomo and the state legislature must still hash out this year’s budget, the largest chunk of which traditionally goes to schools. So far, state Republicans, who control the senate, have sent mixed messages on spending.

Carl Marcellino, who chairs the senate education committee, told Politico New York: “For the most part, education will continue to grow.” But Senate Majority Leader John Flanagan has urged caution about increasing spending. On Tuesday, he proposed a series of tax cuts, which could restrict revenue to the state.

Whatever the outcome of this year’s budget negotiations, some observers remain skeptical that Cuomo is truly committed to a labor-backed education agenda centered on increased spending.

“I’m not sure that he’s more progressive — I think he’s simply highlighting a more progressive agenda,” said David Bloomfield, a professor of education, law, and public policy at Brooklyn College and the CUNY Graduate Center. “To my mind, he’s the same old Cuomo.