The nomination of Californian Ted Mitchell to the number two position at the U.S. Department of Education is the latest indication that proponents of school privatization are continuing to gain influence over the Obama administration’s education policy.
“He represents the quintessence of the privatization movement,” Diane Ravitch, an education historian and former Assistant Secretary of Education under President George H.W. Bush, tells Capital & Main. “This is a signal the Obama administration is committed to moving forward aggressively with transferring public funds to private hands.”
In education “privatization” refers to the contracting out of traditional public education services to for-profit companies or to charter schools that are set up as nonprofit organizations. In many ways, the Mitchell nomination reflects the ongoing battle being fought in Washington and in school districts across the country. It’s a battle that pits the views of teachers, their unions and community groups against a movement that is backed by wealthy philanthropists and corporations.
Mitchell is a former Occidental College president who had previously served as then-Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger’s president of the California State Board of Education. He was nominated by the White House to become Under Secretary of Education last October. Mitchell is also the founder and chief executive of NewSchools Venture Fund, a nonprofit whose stated goal is “to transform public education through powerful ideas and passionate entrepreneurs so that all children – especially those in underserved communities – have the opportunity to succeed.”
But critics like Ravitch say that Mitchell and NewSchools Venture Fund are in the forefront of a movement to privatize public education, a radical transformation that would benefit technology, testing and textbook companies such as Pearson, the London-headquartered multinational publishing and education giant.
Furthermore, the website of Students Matter names NewSchools Venture Fund as a supporter of Vergara v. California. This lawsuit, currently being tried in Los Angeles Superior Court, is aimed at scrapping teacher seniority protections in California. Vergara’s sponsor, Students Matter, is a nonprofit created by Silicon Valley entrepreneur David Welch – whom Business Week identified as a NewSchools investment partner.
Sabrina Stevens, the executive director of Integrity in Education, says in an interview that “[Mitchell’s] nomination is an example of the kind of thing we are worried about – corporate influence at the U.S. Department of Education.”
Stevens, a former teacher who worked with students in low-income communities in Philadelphia and Denver, says that she has been disappointed that pro-privatization views have gained a stronghold in the education department.
“It doesn’t look like there are any voices representing the views of ordinary school stakeholders: everyday teachers, students and their families,” she says.
“There’s a lot of high level policy talk about reducing education to numbers, with an overemphasis on tests,” Stevens continues. “That’s not how learning works. We don’t want to have the Pearson Department of Education.”
Mitchell’s nomination was approved by the U.S. Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions last month. He still must be approved by the full Senate. Mitchell did not respond to requests from Capital & Main for comment.
Frederick Hess, director of education policy studies at the conservative American Enterprise Institute, says that Mitchell, whom he has known for 15 years, is highly qualified to be Under Secretary of Education.
“Ted Mitchell is an incredibly smart and even-tempered guy,” Hess tells Capital & Main. “He’s got a ton of relevant experience. He’s thoughtful and he likes to listen, he is somebody very used to people disagreeing and giving them a fair hearing. I think it’s a terrific choice. It’s very much consistent with the open-minded approach the administration is taking.”
Jeffrey Henig, a political science and education professor at Teachers College, Columbia University and an expert on the dynamics of education policy, says that the Mitchell nomination appears to send a strong message about the direction of education policy.
“This does look like a signal that President Obama is continuing to place more bets with the reform crowd,” he says.