Shifting strategy

To fight poverty in U.S., Bill and Melinda Gates say they may move beyond education

PHOTO: Department for International Development/Russell Watkins

Bill and Melinda Gates say they are rethinking how they address poverty in the U.S. — a move that could have them expand their influential philanthropic efforts beyond education.

The couple’s philanthropy has had an outsized influence on U.S. schools over the last two decades, as they’ve given hundreds of millions to encourage new models for high schools, the Common Core standards, and sweeping changes to teacher evaluation. In a letter released Tuesday, though, they indicate that they’re grappling with how improving education alone isn’t enough to move people out of poverty, and their strategy may be about to shift as a result.

“We’ve been looking at how we might expand our work in the U.S. beyond education,” Bill Gates writes. A trip to Atlanta last fall “reinforced the importance of education,” he said, but also underscored how issues of race, employment, housing, mental health, and incarceration are also connected to their mission. (Gates also supports Chalkbeat.)

It’s an acknowledgement that the U.S. is still grappling with issues that have been more central to their international giving. And it’s in line with some recent research showing that education may matter less than other factors, like local labor conditions, in determining whether poor children move up the economic ladder.

Here are a few other notable lines from the Gates’ annual letter:

  • “Cash-strapped school districts are more likely to divert money and talent toward ideas they think we will fund.” The letter includes a lengthy section grappling with their own disproportionate influence. It’s unfair, they say, but they make up for it by being transparent and changing course when things don’t work — as they’re doing now with their education initiatives. We’ve written recently about their new focus on “networks” of public schools and improving curriculum.
  • “For any new approach to take off, you need three things. First you have to run a pilot project showing that the approach works. Then the work has to sustain itself. Finally, the approach has to spread to other places.” This formula didn’t work for their teacher evaluation work, they acknowledge, as only a few places — including Memphis — have stuck with new systems over the long term.
  • “I wish our president would treat people, and especially women, with more respect when he speaks and tweets.” The letter also includes an appeal to President Trump to be a role model and, on education, to help simplify the financial aid process for poor students applying to college.

Hello Again

Debora Scheffel chosen by acclamation to fill State Board of Ed vacancy

State Board of Education member Debora Scheffel at a campaign event in 2016. (Photo by Nic Garcia/Chalkbeat)

A Republican vacancy committee unanimously selected Debora Scheffel to fill the opening left by Pam Mazanec on the State Board of Education.

Mazanec, a staunch defender of parental rights and school choice who represented the 4th Congressional District, resigned at the end of January to focus on her other obligations. Scheffel previously represented the 6th Congressional District on the board but lost that seat in 2016 to Democrat Rebecca McClellan.

McClellan’s narrow victory gave control of the board to Democrats for the first time in 46 years. Scheffel, who serves as dean of education at Colorado Christian University, moved to Douglas County, and ran unsuccessfully for school board there in 2017.

Scheffel’s selection does not change the balance of power on the state board because she replaces another Republican. Scheffel faced no opposition at the vacancy committee meeting, which took place Saturday in Limon.

Scheffel has said she wants to continue Mazanec’s work on behalf of rural schools and in support of parent and student choice, as well as work to protect student data privacy, a cause she previously championed on the board.

The district takes in all of the eastern Plains, as well as the cities of Longmont, Greeley, and Castle Rock.

the search

As chancellor search continues, Weingarten dismisses Orlando schools chief as ‘Joel Klein type’

PHOTO: Dr. Barbara Jenkins 2013 Award Video/YouTube
Barbara Jenkins has been floated as a possible candidate for New York City Schools Chancellor.

After several months of searching for a new leader for the nation’s largest school system, Barbara Jenkins, the superintendent of Orange County Public Schools in Florida, emerged this week as a contender for the job.

City Hall is still courting the Orlando schools chief, according to a source. But there are several big reasons why Jenkins might not be New York City’s next school’s chancellor — as well as some unusual behind-the-scenes discussion that could help draft Jenkins or other out-of-state superintendents.

One is that Jenkins has voiced concerns about taking the job, according to multiple sources with knowledge of the search. Some said she signaled weeks ago that she was not interested.

Another is that she may not have the union support that has proven valuable to Mayor Bill de Blasio. She definitely doesn’t have the support of Randi Weingarten, the influential leader of the American Federation of Teachers.

Weingarten told Chalkbeat this week that she was “surprised” to hear Jenkins’ name surface, and compared her to leaders of the so-called education reform movement who have had contentious relationships with teacher unions.

I think that Barbara Jenkins is much more in line with the Joel Klein and Michelle Rhee types than she is in line with the Carmen Fariña types,” Weingarten said, comparing the polarizing former schools chiefs of New York City and Washington, D.C. to the city’s current schools chancellor.

Fariña, who has held the top job since 2014 and announced she was stepping down in December, was brought in partly to undo Klein’s policies and has taken a friendly stance toward the city’s United Federation of Teachers. (UFT President Michael Mulgrew declined to talk about discussions he has had with City Hall about Fariña’s successor.)

A third potential issue: compensation. Jenkins made $310,000 in 2017, according to the Orlando Sentinel, while Fariña’s salary is roughly $235,000. A move could mean Jenkins, who is in her late 50s, would have to forfeit some of her future pension, after spending years in the same district, and contend with the high cost of living in New York City.

Those factors could be a problem for many potential candidates, says Kathryn Wylde, the president and CEO of the nonprofit Partnership for New York City, which serves as the business community’s lobbying group. That’s given rise to conversations about whether the chancellor’s compensation could be supplemented — perhaps by a third party, such as an individual who is interested in education. (The Partnership for New York City is not working to find additional funds, she said.)

“It’s understandable that it would be difficult to attract somebody to the city because of our high costs,” Wylde said. “Perhaps that’s something we ought to be trying to address.”

Still, Jenkins generally fits within the profile de Blasio has sketched out for the next schools chief. She has years of experience running a school system with over 200,000 students, and the district has earned praise under her leadership. If chosen, she would be the first black woman to lead New York City’s school system.

Jenkins and Mayor Bill de Blasio declined to comment.

Patrick Wall contributed reporting.