You can’t improve schools by running over educators
John Arnold survived the Enron collapse, started his own hedge fund and then retired in 2012 – when he was 38 – with an estimated personal wealth of $3 billion. Not bad, eh? Not bad for anyone, least of all a graduate of the often-maligned Dallas Independent School District.
Of course, not every child who enters DISD is the son of a corporate lawyer, as was Arnold. Many other DISD kids come from backgrounds of much lower income and lower expectations, and many fail along the way. This supposedly is the reason that Arnold, who now lives in the very upscale River Oaks neighborhood of Houston, is a major financial backer of a controversial effort to overhaul Dallas ISD by converting it into a home-rule charter district.
In a recent interview with the Dallas Morning News, Arnold credited the obvious role of teachers in his own success, acknowledged that teachers are “vital” for public schools and said he wasn’t trying to put teacher unions out of business. His recent, public record, however, is largely a slap at educators, the same people who help put him where he is today.
Until the Dallas ISD takeover attempt, Arnold was best known for his proposal to do away with defined benefit pensions for teachers and other public employees and replace them with risky, 401(k)-style investment plans that could evaporate if the economy sours on the eve of a teacher’s retirement. Since most Texas teachers don’t get Social Security, their hard-earned TRS defined-benefit pensions are about their only nest egg. And, it is downright galling for a 40-year-old billionaire to propose taking that away.
According to the Dallas Morning News, a foundation established by Arnold and his wife gave $72.6 million to education-related groups and causes from 2008 through 2012. But let’s take a look at some of the top 10 recipients of Arnold’s money.
Some $20,223,700 went to Teach for America, a corps of college graduates who teach in struggling schools. The theory may sound good, but it is only a temporary education fix, at best. Many of these young graduates have no intention of becoming educators. They teach for a few years, move on to higher paying jobs, and are replaced by other young people who also soon will be moving on. Some districts may hire them because they are cheaper than more-experienced, appropriately certified teachers.
The Arnold foundation has given more than $9 million to charter school networks and $1.5 million to Parent Revolution, a group supporting “parent trigger” laws enabling parents to turn over neighborhood public schools to private operators of charter schools. And, the foundation has given more than $12 million to two groups founded by Michelle Rhee, who declared war on teachers when she headed public schools in Washington, D.C.
And, now, Arnold is backing a misnamed group called “Support our Public Schools,” which, if it succeeds, could wipe out contractual and grievance rights for teachers and all other Dallas ISD employees – and force them to take pay cuts.
If Arnold is so interested in improving public education, why doesn’t he take some time to sit down and meet with real educators, the people in the classroom everyday, instead of going out of his way to undercut their influence and their livelihoods?