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.”

exclusive

Walton memo recommends charter advocates do more to persuade Democrats and appease unions

Governor Charlie Baker speaks during an announcement regarding Charter Schools at Brooke Charter School in Boston, Mass. on October 8, 2015. (Photo by Jessica Rinaldi/The Boston Globe via Getty Images)

Charter advocates in Massachusetts need to better galvanize charter teachers and do more to convince Democrats if they want to win future fights, recommends a memo commissioned by the Walton Education Coalition.

Earlier this week, Chalkbeat reported on part of the memo — a postmortem of a high-profile effort to raise the cap on Massachusetts’ charter schools — and has since obtained additional pages, which appear to make up the entirety of the report. (The Walton Family Foundation, which is legally separate from the Walton Education Coalition, is a funder of Chalkbeat.)

The final pages highlight challenges that charter advocates will likely face in the state and offer a playbook for moving past their recent defeat — though it’s far from clear whether these strategies will be successful.

The report recommends mobilizing teachers who support charter schools, acknowledging the widespread opposition to the 2016 ballot initiative among Massachusetts teachers, who were trusted in their communities.

“If the opposition is on the ground, they must be matched on the ground, by equally trustworthy validators,” concludes the report, which is dated March 2017.

Another potential counterweight: parents.

“If parents can be mobilized to voice opposition, teachers may listen and break from the pack,” it says. “Alternatively, research should be conducted to identify a voice, alternative to teachers, that can be trusted on education reform.”

The report acknowledges the challenges in persuading Democrats, who overwhelmingly opposed the referendum, known as Question 2. In the future, charter advocates may need to push their messaging to the left, the report suggests.

“Advocates should test owning the progressive mantle on education reform and charters: this is about social justice, civil rights, and giving kids a chance,” it recommends. “While this is a problematic frame for the electorate as a whole, it may speak to the values of a Democratic electorate.”

U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos, who is especially unpopular among Democrats, just adds to advocates’ challenge. “As Trump and Education Secretary Betsy DeVos begin to champion school choice, we need to separate Democratic goals and motivations from theirs in left-leaning states,” the report says.

The partisan divide is opening up in national polling and playing out in local politics. The latest example is in Colorado, where the state party recently passed a resolution highly critical of Democrats For Education Reform.

The memo recommends that charter advocates try to appease their opposition by pushing for additional spending on all schools. Research has shown that the expansion of charters comes at a significant price for district schools, which was a key issue in Massachusetts and elsewhere.

“By giving a little to everyone, and sweetening deals with additional funding, the narrative that new charters will ‘take’ from current schools becomes less relevant,” the memo says.

In Massachusetts, it’s clear that charter advocates have a long way to go to change the narrative in the state. Earlier, the report notes that that there was “such a fierce opposition that No on Question 2 signs were seen in January [2017] at the Women’s March in DC.”

Read the full memo below.



Digging in

‘I do not plan to resign,’ McQueen tells lawmakers over latest testing missteps in Tennessee

PHOTO: Marta W. Aldrich
Tennessee Education Commissioner Candice McQueen testifies Wednesday before state lawmakers about technical problems that stalled students' online TNReady tests this week. Beside her is Brad Baumgartner, chief operating officer of Questar, the state's testing company.

Candice McQueen adamantly told state lawmakers Wednesday that she will not step down as Tennessee’s education commissioner over the state’s bungling of standardized tests for a third straight year.

One day after House Democrats called for the embattled leader to resign, McQueen reported that students were testing successfully online on the third day of TNReady. She said the problems of the first two days had been addressed — at least for now.

The commissioner opened a two-hour legislative hearing with an apology to students, parents, and educators for technical problems that stalled testing and affected tens of thousands of students this week.

“We were completely devastated when we heard that districts were again having technical issues yesterday,” she said of issues now being attributed to a “cyber attack” on the data center operated by testing company Questar.

She reported speaking with the head of the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation about a possible criminal investigation — but that jurisdictional issues may prevent that since Questar’s data center is located in Minnesota. Immediately, she said, the state will work with Questar to hire an independent investigator.

Rep. Mike Stewart

That plan angered Rep. Mike Stewart, a Democrat from Nashville, who fired off the opening question that set the tone for most of the day’s dialogue.

“Could you answer the fundamental question why you should not use this hearing to resign right now, based on these consistent failures?” Stewart asked, citing problems that go back to 2016 when Tennessee canceled much of TNReady after the state’s first attempt at online testing collapsed.

“I do not plan to resign,” McQueen responded, adding that she expected to power through the next three weeks of testing with “continued improvement and success.”

At her side was Brad Baumgartner, chief operating officer of Minnesota-based Questar, which is under a $30 million annual contract with Tennessee’s Department of Education that expires this year. He took responsibility for this week’s testing failures.

“I think it’s important for members here to understand that the department did everything that they could to thoughtfully plan for this administration, as did the commissioner,” Baumgartner told lawmakers.

“We own the last couple of days,” he added.

That prompted Stewart to ask McQueen why the company that’s acknowledging mistakes is also spearheading the investigation into them.

"Honestly, I can’t think of a single entity less qualified to investigate this problem than Questar, which has consistently failed."Rep. Mike Stewart, D-Nashville

“What I heard is that I don’t have any information, but I want to make an excuse for the person who hired us and gave us a bunch of money,” Stewart said. “… Honestly, I can’t think of a single entity less qualified to investigate this problem than Questar, which has consistently failed.”

McQueen said the state and Questar will consult with the TBI about bringing in a third-party investigator, and she pledged to ask Davidson County’s attorney general to request a TBI probe. (After the hearing, she formally made that request.)

She added that she was open to the idea of suspending accountability measures for one year and holding students, teachers, and schools harmless based on this year’s tests, if that is the will of the legislature. But state lawmakers, who are expected to wind down the 2018 session next week, would have to authorize that change since it’s now part of state law.

In contrast to Stewart, Rep. Mark White came to McQueen’s defense and urged her to dig in her heels.

“Don’t you dare consider resigning,” the Memphis Republican told the commissioner. “The easy thing to do is quit and give up when the going gets tough.”

He recounted how Tennessee was blasted in 2007 for its low academic standards and dishonesty in reporting that its students were doing well on state achievement tests when they were tanking on national tests.

“We were failing our students 10 years ago,” said White, calling the testing problems “hiccups” and hailing the state’s more rigorous standards.

“[Today] we are the fastest-improving state in the nation. We didn’t get there by pushing back and giving up and throwing our hands up and saying, ‘Oh it’s too hard.’”

A former classroom teacher and university dean, McQueen was appointed education chief in late 2014 by Gov. Bill Haslam. On Tuesday, a Haslam spokeswoman said the Republican governor has “complete confidence in Commissioner McQueen.”

You can see McQueen’s presentation below: