Excellence in Action
Winning the International Education Arms Race
A National Summit on Education Reform
October 8-9, 2009
Washington D.C.

A Report by Ira J. Paul, President, Independent Voices for Better Education, Inc.

I attended the Foundation for Excellence in Education summit as president of Independent Voices for Better Education, Inc. (IVBE, Inc.) The event was awesome. 

The summit began on Thursday at noon with a luncheon and a discussion on How to Win the International Arms Race with former Florida Governor Jeb Bush and New York City Chancellor Joel Klein. The focus was on closing the achievement gap and suggestions on how we could rethink and retool our education system for the 21st century.

Strategy Session 1: Show me the Money: Funding and Incentivizing Success in the Classroom

Strategy Session 2: Spin City: Communicating the Case for Reform, with or without the Fourth Estate:  I chose Session 2.  The panelists included: Michelle Bernard, President and CEO, Independent Women’s Forum, Stephen Moore, Writer, Wall Street Journal, Dana Perino, Chief Issues Counselor, Burson-Marsteller, and Joe Williams, Executive Director, Democrats for Education Reform.

The focus was on successful strategies for advocating and defending education reform to our policy makers in both our home state, Washington D.C. and the court of public opinion. The session was followed by questions and answers.  Afterwards I met briefly with Michele Bernard, we exchanged business cards and she encouraged me to contact her as she looks forward to networking with IVBE.

The general session followed after a brief break and the topic was The Great Debate: Academic Standards in America Dealing with Content versus Performance Benchmarks to National versus State Standards, followed by questions and answers.  Chester E. Finn, Jr., President, Thomas B. Fordham Foundation moderated the debate.  The panelists included Byron Auguste, Director, McKinsey & Company, Mitchell D. Chester, Commissioner, Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education, Neal McCluskey, Associate Director, Center for Educational Freedom, The Cato Institute, Gary W. Phillips, Vice President and Chief Scientist, American Institute for Research, and Gene Wilhoit, Executive Director, Council of Chief State School Officers.

After a 45 minute recess I had a chance to meet with and speak with many of the other people in attendance at a reception.  A discussion on Allies in the International Education Arms Race covered the fact that more and more of our American leaders are looking across to other countries for the best ideas in education.  The moderator was Jeb Bush, with panelists Peje Emilsson, Founder and Chairman, Kunskapsskolan Education Sweden, Julia Gillard, Deputy Prime Minister and Minister for Education, Minister for Employment and Workplace Relations, and Minister for Social Inclusion, Commonwealth of Australia, and James Tooley, Professor of Education Policy, Newcastle University. This session was followed by questions and answers and dinner.

The next morning began with a discussion on Defeating the Status Quo: Big Reforms Yield Big Results with Chancellor Michelle Rhee, Washington D.C. Public Schools.  On Thursday, the American Federation of Teachers and the NEA held a protest against the Chancellor and bused in teachers from various areas of the country.  Chancellor Rhee has shaken up the educational establishment in Washington D.C., has fired 50% of her Principals and has gotten rid of some of the most ineffective teachers.  She is a believer in mayoral control as opposed to school boards and is grateful to have a mayor who supports her and doesn’t interfere with what she is doing.  Congress has allowed her to bypass tenure laws allowing her to re-staff schools with effective teachers. 

Chancellor Joel Klein has not been able to do this and is hampered by union tenure laws.  One of the changes that Chancellor Rhee is trying to enact is a pay scale for teachers who are willing to give up tenure in exchange for a much higher salary.  The teacher unions have been successful in frustrating her efforts on this.  The Chancellor testified in Congress and asked that they continue the Washington D.C. voucher program.  She stated that even though she would lose some funding for her schools, she believed in competition that would be in the best interests of the students and parents to continue it. 

I was very impressed with Chancellor Rhee and all she has been able to accomplish in such a short time.  The teachers’ unions have every right to fear her.  Should the Chancellor be successful with her reforms, they will be implemented in other states, and the union tenure laws could be abolished.  Should this happen, teachers will finally be treated and paid as professionals, and will no longer have any use for the union that has held them back and diminished their status.

Strategy Session 3: Top Gun Teachers: Recruiting and Retaining the Best of the Best, and

Strategy Session 4: Blueprint For Aspiring Architects: Profiling Successful Voucher Models followed. I chose Strategy Session 4.  The panelists included: Robert Enlow, President and CEO, Friedman Foundation for Educational Choice, Matthew Lanner, Vice President of Research, Goldwater Institute, Chip Rogers, Majority Leader, Georgia State Senate, and Will Weatherford, Chair, Education Policy Council, Florida House of Representatives. 

The discussion and following question and answer session focused on the successful school choice programs already taking place and some of the policy makers who are successfully advancing and implementing choice in their states.

Strategy Session 5: Stacking The Deck: Keeping Education MVP’s in the Classroom and

Strategy Session 6: Let Freedom Ring: Overcoming the Political and Legal Challenges to Choice were next after a break.  Being limited to one session, I chose Session 6.  The panelists were John E. Chubb, Chief Development Officer and Senior Executive Vice President, Edison Learning, Tim Keller, Executive Director, Institute for Justice, Arizona Chapter, Gerald Robinson, President, Black Alliance for Educational Options, and Adam B. Schaeffer, Policy Analyst, Center for Education Freedom, the Cato Institute. 

The discussion followed by questions and answers dealt with school choice and strategies that need to be implemented to advance the cause when the opponents of choice remain well organized, well funded and politically savvy.  Winning legal and political strategies were discussed for protecting and expanding school choice.

Lunch was next with a panel discussion, An 8-Track Tape Deck in an iPod World: Fast-Forwarding America’s Education System.  The lead panelist was Frederick M. Hess, Resident Scholar and Director of Education Policy Studies, American Enterprise Institute.  The other panelists included: Clayton M. Christensen, author of Disrupting Class and Robert and Jane Cizk Professor of Business Administration, Harvard Business School, John E. Chubb, Chief Development Officer and Senior Vice President Edison Learning, and William P. Coley II, Member, Ohio House of Representatives. 

Technology and overcoming the primary obstacles to student achievement were discussed followed by questions and answers. 

Strategy Session 7: What Gets Measured, Gets Done: The Essential Role of Data in Fueling Student Achievement

Strategy Session 8: The War on Charter Schools: Combating the Emerging Threats to Public School Choice followed. I chose Session 8. 

The panelists included: Jeanne Allen, President, Center for Educational Reform, Jonathan K. Hage, Chairman, President and CEO, Charter Schools USA, John M. Legg, PreK-12 Policy Committee Chairman, Florida House of Representatives, and Susan Schaeffler, Founding Principal and CEO, KIPP DC.

The panel discussed the growth of charter schools and how they have had success in closing the achievement gap and the current and emerging threats to public school choice, including over-regulation, lax accountability for student performance and the political pressures triggered by a conflicting union agenda.  Questions and answers followed. 

 The General Session began following a short break.  The Florida Formula For Student Achievement: A National Model for Closing the Achievement Gap was the topic followed by questions and answers.  The Panelists included: Jeb Bush, former Governor of Florida, Matthew Lander, Vice President of Research, The Goldwater Institute, Patricia Levesque, Executive Director, Foundation for Excellence in Education and Foundation for Florida’s Future, and Eric Smith, Commissioner, Florida Department of Education. 

The panel looked at the Florida Formula for Student Achievement and the bold educational reforms that transformed the dramatic rise in student learning gains and moved Florida from near the bottom of the scale ten years ago to near the top.

After a one-hour recess, I once again had a chance to meet with and converse with many of the other people in attendance at a reception.  Jeb and Patricia Levesque thanked me for coming and I had my picture taken with Jeb and Mary Matalin and her husband James Carville, who later presented the final session.

The topic for the final session was, All’s Fair: Love, War and Politics, Even Education.  Both Mary Matalin and James Carville offered their personal perspective on the direction of our country and the prospect for finding common ground across party lines to reform education for the 21st century.  Both were entertaining and gave valuable, heartfelt advice during the question and answer period.

This seminar was outstanding.  The wealth of knowledge and information put out was amazing.  I had the opportunity to meet and discuss education reform efforts with policy makers and activists from other states as well as mine and made new contacts that I can network with.  We have come a long way since the early days when IVBE was the pioneer grassroots education reform organization founded in 1990, and was arguably the first one to reach out to the public and point out the abuses and corruption in school districts. Our efforts are bearing fruit.  The mainstream media are beginning to listen, while journalists such as Bob Norman, who blogs for New Times, picked up on what we were saying early on and still does a magnificent job. Log onto his blog, The Daily Pulp, www.newtimesbpb.com.

We still have a long way to go and need to stay focused.  Our enemies are out there and are well organized.  They will do whatever they can to protect their turf, but we are having an impact and we are making a difference.