Harvard Does It Again

BY HANK REICHMAN

Fresh from the embarrassment of rescinding a fellowship to whistleblower Chelsea Manning while welcoming disgraced Trumpers Corey Lewandowski and Sean Spicer, Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government has again privileged spokespersons for the right while denying their opponents a voice.  Thursday and Friday the school will host a conference on “The Future of School Choice,” headlined by keynote speaker Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos.  The program, consisting of six separate panels, is filled with advocates for charter schools, vouchers and other school “choice” mechanisms, but includes not a single critic of the “choice” agenda.

Take, for instance, Panel 1, “Tax Credits, Education Savings Accounts, and Portability, and the Fiscal Impacts of School Choice.”  Presenters are Paul DiPerna, vice president of research and innovation for EdChoice; Matthew Ladner, senior research fellow at the Charles Koch Institute and co-author of the American Legislative Exchange Council’s “Report Card on American Education: Ranking State K-12 Performance, Progress, and Reform;” Martin Lueker of EdChoice; and Benjamin Scafidi, professor of economics and director of the Education Economics Center at Kennesaw State University.and a Friedman Fellow with EdChoice.  EdChoice, formerly the Friedman Foundation for Educational Choice, was founded in 1996 by Milton Friedman and has been called “the nation’s leading advocate of vouchers” by the Wall Street Journal.

While quite revealing of the blatant hypocrisy of conservative critics of higher education who claim that liberal “bias” on campus prevents the presentation of “balanced” perspectives, there is nothing inherently wrong with a conference that leans in one direction.  Except, perhaps, when the “lean” stems not from honest and open debate among scholars, but from the paid influence of wealthy interest groups.  And here’s where the embarrassment really lies.  Last week the online program claimed the event was sponsored by the school’s Program on Education Policy and Governance and its Taubman Center for State and Local Government “with support from the Charles Koch Foundation, in conjunction witth EdChoice.”  But by Monday the words in quotes had been scrubbed.

In a conversation with a writer for The New Republic, the program’s associate director, Antonio Wendland, acknowledged the change, claiming the previous language didn’t convey the breadth of the program’s sponsorship, which includes the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, which is, of course, another advocate, albeit a “liberal’ one, of the “choice” agenda. “We constantly edit our site all the time, and we thought we would just streamline it,” Wendland said.

The Program on Education Policy and Government is itself hardly a center for independent, much less ‘balanced,” scholarship on education reform.  Its list of institutional sponsors reads like a who’s who of anti-public education foundations:

  • The Achelis & Bodman Foundations
  • BASIC Fund Scholarship Foundation
  • Lynde & Harry Bradley Foundation
  • The Annie E. Casey Foundation
  • Thomas B. Fordham Foundation
  • Milton & Rose D. Friedman Foundation
  • Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation
  • Gordon & Llura Gund Foundation
  • Kern Family Foundation
  • Charles Koch Foundation
  • John M. Olin Foundation, Inc.
  • Lovett & Ruth Peters Foundation
  • William E. Simon Foundation
  • Smart Foundation
  • The Walton Family Foundation, Inc.

In short, the Kennedy School is not sponsoring a reasoned academic discussion of the strengths and weaknesses of the “choice” agenda.  It’s sponsoring a strategy session — or maybe a pep rally — for “choice” advocates, funded by those advocates, who are paying for the Harvard imprimatur.  I’m not saying that’s necessarily wrong or even inappropriate, but it sure doesn’t look good.  Apparently there’s room at Harvard for Lewandowski, Spicer, and DeVos, but not for Manning or any advocate for public schools, any actual school teachers, or maybe anyone not associated in some way with EdChoice, Koch, or similar organizations.

Oh, and in case you’re wondering who can attend DeVos’s keynote, as is so often the case with school “choice,” admission to the event required winning a lottery.

5 thoughts on “Harvard Does It Again

  1. School choice is no longer an agenda of only the right.

    Arne Duncan, Pres. Obama’s Education Secretary, was also a school choice proponent, as is Rahm Emanuel, another prominent Democrat and Obama’s former Chief of Staff.

    It would be smart to have balanced commentary when discussing issues of imbalance.

  2. There’s a big difference between “disgraced”, as you put it (although a highly debatable characterization of these two political operatives) and a convicted felon and treasonous ex-soldier in the service of the United States of America.

    • Are you arguing that felons should be rejected as speakers? I think the main criteria should be whether they have something to say.

      Personally, I admire Manning. That she went to jail for blowing the whistle on U.S. war crimes only makes her more admirable. More generally, I think government secrecy is abused and is a threat to democracy.

  3. On the funding: At the bottom of the Harvard Website linked in the first paragraph of the posting is the sentence: “We are grateful for the generous support of edCHOICE”. If there were so many other funders of the event, why are they no longer listed while edCHOICE is? Did they withdraw their support or is Harvard attempting to conceal it? Or is it simply that that the sponsoring department/program at Harvard is funded by the others?

    On the conference vs. the “fellowship”: A conference that is advertised as funded by edCHOICE — and which prominently features speakers from that organization — is not exactly promoting itself as presenting a “balanced” viewpoint. One may pose the obvious question: If an organization on the opposite end of the spectrum offered Harvard the funding for a conference dominated by its preferred speakers, would Harvard accept the proposition? One suspects not — and it would be nice to know and cite an example.

    If attendance is truly by lottery, then the Q&A sessions of the event might prove interesting. Lottery would appear more democratic than “first come, first served” in order to respect the fire safety limits on their chosen auditorium. Of course, did the draw of this alleged lottery have any impartial observers? 😉

    Equating a conference with a teaching appointment — again the word “fellow” in this context is explicitly explained by Harvard on its Website as an appointment to teach part of a non-credit course — is to gloss over the difference and the very real academic freedom issues raised by Harvard’s withdrawal of the advertised appointment of Chelsea Manning.

    Thus, not all speakers at Harvard are of the same “rank” or “honorific” as Harvard itself would say — and while the ideological concern in both Harvard actions is important to note, the conflation of the Visiting Fellow Program with a simple funded conference conceals an important academic freedom distinction which the AAUP leadership appears unwilling to address.

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