CLASS is a project of the Chalkboard Project also know as Foundations for a Better Oregon.
Whenever the topic turns to education in Oregon, the mention of the Chalkboard Project is sure to enter the conversation. Time and again ex-Governor Kitzhaber has invited ”expert” testimony from the Chalkboard Project to enlighten members of the Oregon Education Investment Board (OEIB) on research and policy. The Governor always promptly exited the room when public testimony, conflicting or otherwise, was given . . . always.
The Chalkboard Project is a perfect example of the nationwide transformation that JoAnne Barkan writes about in Got Dough? How Billionaires Rule Our Schools in Dissent magazine:
The cost of K–12 public schooling in the United States comes to well over $500 billion per year. So, how much influence could anyone in the private sector exert by controlling just a few billion dollars of that immense sum? Decisive influence, it turns out. A few billion dollars in private foundation money, strategically invested every year for a decade, has sufficed to define the national debate on education; sustain a crusade for a set of mostly ill-conceived reforms; and determine public policy at the local, state, and national levels. In the domain of venture philanthropy—where donors decide what social transformation they want to engineer and then design and fund projects to implement their vision—investing in education yields great bang for the buck.
Foundations for a Better Oregon, a group of charitable organizations whose combined assets total over three billion dollars (that’s billion with a “b”) concocted the Chalkboard Project to become a player in the education reform scheme and have garnered unprecedented influence at a bargain basement price — about $21 million of theirs and $12 million of ours (taxes) as of 2013. These foundations came together to form the Chalkboard Project:
- Meyer Memorial Trust $714,334,614
- Oregon Community Foundation $1,429,874,155
- Ford Family Foundation $721,115,314
- Collins Foundation $179,740,959
- James F. & Marion L. Miller Foundation $161,280,919
- Jeld-Wen $$19,261,341
If Chalkboard was created by foundations to support education reform, one might wonder why in the past several years Chalkboard has been awarded millions in government grants. While it was originally supported entirely by the foundations and other charitable funders, in 2010 it received its first government grant of about $112,000 or about 7% of its $1.6 million in revenue. Over the next few years (after the creation of the OEIB) revenue from government grants skyrocketed to nearly $5 million annually or 70% of its revenue. In less than a decade, the Chalkboard Project has gone from being funded primarily by foundations to receiving the majority of its revenue from the state. It has also gained optimal influence over education policy in Oregon. You might ask why Chalkboard’s founding foundations, worth over $3 billion collectively, need government funding that could be much better spent by k-12 school districts? Good question.
According to information gleaned from scrutinizing 990s filed with the IRS, Foundations for a Better Oregon (a.k.a The Chalkboard Project) was founded in 2004 with a $150,000 grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and some small change from others. One thing that foundations have championed is paying unqualified (out of field) people relatively large sums to act as CEOs to create their vision. This is not only true for Chalkboard, but for many other reform organizations as well. Sue Hildick has been the president since its founding, and although Chalkboard has several staff members, Sue and one other person are paid the lion’s share in salaries. Sue pays herself $228,717 a year; Dan Jamison makes $170,949 and the other salaries and wages of $443,969 appear to be divvied up among the remaining 11 employees. That’s 47% for the top two execs and 53% for everyone else. Funny thing. Since 2009, when the foundations were paying the bills, Sue was paid about $130,000 a year, but when the government — you and me– started paying most of the bills, her compensation rose about $100,000 to nearly $230,000 as of 2013. It’s good to be queen.
Chalkboard president Sue Hildick, who has no education credentials, enjoys the enviable position of providing counsel on matters that affect kids and families, teachers, and schools on a daily basis. Why Hildick? Is she an education wunderkind? Does she possess knowledge about teaching and learning that will make Oregon schools the best in the nation — as Chalkboard’s mission states? Should Oregonians trust her to do what is best for our children? The answer to all of these questions is a resounding NO! Here’s why.
Chalkboard is one of those organizations cited in the Barkan article, one that wants to project its vision onto us. Nevermind that its vision may not be our vision. With a little of its own money and a lot of ours, it has envisioned a dream education for us. So, does Chalkboard share our vision? Not if it isn’t advocating for the Quality Education Model (QEM). Not if it isn’t demanding that public school programs be fully and equitably funded. Not if it isn’t led by an engaged educator who can relate to the needs of teachers and students. We don’t need a bunch of filthy rich foundations telling us how to educate our kids and teachers.
So, where do our Chalkboard tax dollars go? It’s hard to say. None of the money seems to reach the classroom. No books or librarians in the budget. No music or art. There seems to be a lot of polling, marketing, lobbying, branding, and consulting going on. Listed on its website are these partners annotated here with the type of business each operates.
- DHM Research — opinion polling
- ECONorthwest — economic consulting
- Mambo Media — marketing and media
- NW Public Affairs — lobbyists
- Quinn Thomas Public Affairs — lobbyists
- Squishy Media — website development
- Leopold Ketel — branding agency
- Kira Higgs Consulting –thought leader with no education experience. What the?
- Education First — founding partner is from the Gates Foundation, other staff are Broadies, TFAers, etc., few have real education credentials; services mimic the memes of STEM, College and Career Ready, Teacher Leaders
A quick look at its IRS 990s raises multiple red flags. Troubling. Here are some:
- Foundations for a Better Oregon should identify itself as doing business as the Chalkboard Project.
- The organization was founded by six charitable organizations (plus Gates) dedicated to making sure Oregon has the best schools in the country. Since 2011, (the year OEIB was created) well over half its budget has come from government grants instead of from the foundations. You might say the government (OEIB) is now the seventh foundation in the Chalkboard Project
- The conflicts of interest among board members are ubiquitous.
- The salary paid to two employees is nearly half the entire amount paid out to all other employees.
- The travel budget seems high compared to the number of employees. Where is everybody going?
- Conference fees (expense) seem high compared to the number of employees. Which conferences?
- The “Other” line item expense is nearly a million dollars in some recent years yet unaccounted for on the form. Where did all that money go?
- There is no rhyme nor reason as to the amounts granted to school districts. For example, in 2012 and 2013 Salem-Keiser school district received over a $1 million in grants annually while Portland Public Schools received only $10,000. And why did the governor’s office receive a $35,000 CLASS grant in 2011 and another grant for $75,000 in 2012? Head scratch.
- Expenses for consultants and lobbyists seem to be a sizable part of the business especially when compared to amounts paid out to most school districts.
- Since 2011, up to 70% of Chalkboard’s funding has come from government grants. Face palm.
The Chalkboard Project is only a tiny sliver of the education reform pie. It was created to marginalize education professionals and give businesses and foundations the means to control the teaching profession and public schools in Oregon. Chalkboard wields tremendous power in this state. It seems to be accountable to no one. To some, Chalkboard may even have the appearance of a slush fund with so much of its expenses either questionable or unaccounted for. As disturbing as that is, of much greater concern should be the OEIB’s power to act as a charitable foundation with our taxes, to ignore conflicts of interest, to cherry-pick who benefits and who does not, while holding all to the same standard. It’s unconscionable. Time to say no more of our tax dollars for Chalkboard. (Sorry Sue, you may have to take a pay cut.) Time to wave a not-so-fond farewell to the OEIB.