Billionaire charter-school boosters like Education Secretary Betsy DeVos and Eli Broad and have turned school leadership into a cartel system focused on advancing careers and enriching businesses. One can see, in the track record of Broad-infused school leaders like John Covington, the workings of this cartel.
In leadership positions in both Kansas City and Detroit, Covington is considered by many observers to have had an impact on student achievement that was minimal or negative. Yet, in both Kansas City and Detroit, his impact on the community disruption was profound.
During his tenure in Kansas City, Covington generally angered teachers and parents and focused on leadership imperatives more familiar in the business community, such as “right-sizing.” Student scores on standardized tests declined under his tenure, and after he left, the Kansas City district lost its accreditation due to continuing low achievement. In a 2014 article, Kansas Star reporter Joe Robertson wrote, “Most of the classroom reforms Covington started in Kansas City were subsequently dropped.”
Covington also left his Michigan position under a cloud of controversy over the lack of academic progress in the schools and questions about tens of thousands of dollars a month spent on travel expenses by his administration. The state-operated district he led was regarded as a failure and was shut down in 2017.
But what Covington brought with him from Kansas City to Detroit was his connection to Broad and his relationships with private businesses—most notably, a software company called Agilix, its Buzz learning platform, and the School Improvement Network (SINET) consulting firm.
As was reported in the Detroit Metro Times by Curt Guyette, the same journalist who would later break the Flint water crisis story, after Covington was instrumental in bringing Agilix and its software platform to Kansas City, he then promoted the product to the Education Achievement Authority (EAA) as a critical component of “student centered learning.” Under the EAA’s direction, as the Michigan ACLU reported, the district paid a total of $1.9 million to SINET to use Buzz, which “was merged with another educational software” organization. SINET had also partnered with Agilix in Kansas City, according to Guyette.
Guyette recounted how Covington and his employee Mary Esselman, who also came with him from Kansas City, worked to get the Buzz software platform “expanded” not only in Michigan but across the country, often as what Esselman and company representatives referred to as a “joint project between EAA,” SINET and Agilix officials.
Using emails obtained by Michigan ACLU, with assistance from Pedroni, Guyette detailed how the software was barely functional and increasingly angered teachers who were forced to use it. “We’re building this plane as we fly it,” Esselman was reportedly fond of saying.
Broad’s presence loomed large in the emails. In an email to an Agilix employee, Esselman wrote, “As you know we are still struggling our way through how to meet the varying needs of different levels of the organization as it relates to Buzz … the big issues prior to our visits from the governor, head of education committee, and Eli Broad.”
In another email to several Agilix support staff, Esselman wrote, “Guys … We have Eli Broad, the governor, Head of Education in the House and Senate, hedge funders, etc. coming … If we don’t fix this they will not be on the platform and it will be a debacle. This is important.”
Covington’s efforts to advance the interests of education-related businesses, while disrupting the community and accomplishing little on improving academic achievement, are recurring themes of many Broad network school leaders.
Litany of Scandals
For years, Sharon Higgins kept an impressive running account on her Broad Report website of superintendents who graduated from the Broad academy and their various debacles.
Among the list of past leaders is Maria Goodloe-Johnson, a 2003 graduate of the Broad program, who as superintendent of Seattle schools alienated teachers by hiring Teach for America, used false information to manipulate the board, and had numerous ongoing conflicts of interest with private nonprofits and consultants. She was fired when an audit found that $1.8 million in contracts awarded through a program she administered “provided no public benefit or were questionable.” After she was fired, Goodloe-Johnson was hired by Covington to be his top academic officer in Michigan.
Another notable Broad-associated leader who became ensnared in financial scandals was John Deasy, a 2006 graduate of the Broad program. Deasy was hired to lead Los Angeles schools in 2010 despite past controversies when he was superintendent of a school district in Maryland where he was investigated for having improperly received a doctorate degree. His questionable credentials were tied to a university dean who, the Washington Post reported, eventually “was sentenced to 63 months in federal prison and was ordered to pay $510,000 in restitution to the University of Louisville and $1.64 million to the University of Rhode Island” for defrauding the universities of $2.3 million in federal grant funds meant for research into the 2002 No Child Left Behind federal law pushed through by the reform movement. After a seven-month investigation, the university concluded Deasy’s degree was legitimate, and Deasy has denied any connections to the fraud case, according to Nicholas Filipas’ reporting for the Record.
As Los Angeles school superintendent, Deasy frequently angered teachers and “irked” school board members. Although graduation rates improved under Deasy, studies eventually showed that widely used credit recovery programs using low-quality, computer-based instruction made those increases suspect.
Deasy’s tenure was overwhelmed by scandals with private contractors, including the rollout of a new student records system “widely described as ‘disastrous’” and a $1.3 billion failed iPad program, which Deasy personally brokered with Apple and the Pearson publishing company, that added to district budget deficits. His resignation in 2014 did little to dampen Broad’s desires to privatize Los Angeles schools by turning half into charters, which was revealed in a plan leaked to the press the following year. Months after Deasy resigned, the Broad Center hired him as a consultant.
A list of Broad-trained school leaders compiled in 2018 by the Center for Media and Democracy’s PR Watch highlighted other Broad graduates with deep ties to the school reform community, private nonprofits and businesses, and the charter school industry.
A 2019 retrospective on the influence of Broad-trained leaders written by retired school teacher Tom Ultican put the count of graduates at 243 people and noted the abundance of alumni who figure prominently in the charter school industry, including:
- Tom Torkelson, founder of IDEA Public Schools (a charter operator);
- Diane Tavenner, founder and CEO of Summit Public Schools (a charter management organization);
- Cristina de Jesus, president of Green Dot Public Schools California (“a non-profit network of charter schools”);
- Soner Tarim, founder of Harmony Public Schools (“one of the largest K-12 charter school networks in Texas,” according to the Broad Center); and
- Caprice Young, founder of the California Charter Schools Association.
But perhaps no one has leveraged the Broad network more adroitly than Joseph Wise.
Leveraging the Cartel
A 2003 graduate of the Broad Academy, Wise partnered with David Sundstrom in 2007 to create Atlantic Research Partners (ARP), which eventually grew to include superintendent search services, school leader professional development programs, and district consulting services. Their business model made it possible to place new school leaders, often from the ranks of Broad programs, into positions where they could aid in pushing districts toward purchasing other products and services from ARP’s other businesses.
Wise and Sundstrom also co-founded and helped lead a Chicago charter school network, and Wise is CEO and co-founder of Acceleration Academies, a for-profit charter school chain, where Sundstrom also serves as chairman of the board.
The Wise-Sundstrom conglomerate also includes Education Research and Development Institute (ERDI), a controversial company that acts as an intermediary bringing together school administrators and education vendors to help companies improve the products and services they offer school systems. Specifically, ERDI arranged get-togethers by paying superintendents consulting fees plus expenses to travel to conferences at luxury resorts where they would meet with company representatives, according to a 2017 investigative report by the New York Times. The companies, in turn, underwrote the conferences with substantial fees paid to ERDI. (ERDI recently issued a press release in which it said honoraria paid to education leaders will be paid “on their behalf to the nonprofit/charitable foundations or organizations of their choice.”)
Broad’s network of school leaders with close associations to ERDI and its events included Barbara Byrd-Bennett, a former Chicago school leader who was sent to prison over a scandal involving secret consultant contracts. During her tenure in Chicago, Byrd-Bennett was hired as an executive coach in the Broad Academy, Substance News reported.
Another Broad graduate Calvin Watts, from the 2018-19 cohort, who became superintendent in Kent School District, Washington, became mired in controversy when board members questioned why he had participated in five ERDI-hosted conferences. In the ensuing fallout, both parents and teachers demanded Watts resign, and a group of parents filed a lawsuit accusing Watts of “misleading the public” and having “steered” the district into “the equivalent of bankruptcy.” In 2019, the Kent school board ceased automatic renewal of Watts’ contract to ensure his term isn’t renewed beyond June 30, 2021.
However, scandals resulting from Wise’s ERDI group have not prevented Broad-trained school leaders from developing similar business arrangements that thrust school leaders into potential conflicts of interest.
Broad Entrepreneur Robert Avossa
Robert Avossa, Broad Academy graduate of 2011, has built a formidable business enterprise resembling the one Wise created, and school leaders attracted to the Broad network have recently been ensnared by it.
In his four-year stint as superintendent of Fulton County (Atlanta, Georgia) schools, Avossa compiled a generally positive list of accomplishments including raising graduation rates and standardized test scores while pushing for fewer standardized tests. He also shepherded the district through its first years as the state’s “largest ‘charter’ district in Georgia, which” gave it the “freedom” to expand “options” such as charter schools.
Yet, Avossa left Fulton County suddenly to take a position as head of Palm Beach County, Florida, schools, where his management style became much more controversial. Under his leadership, administrator ranks surged and their salaries soared, relationships with board members became more adversarial, student achievement gains fell significantly short of desired goals, and his push to hire a Boston-based consulting group, Education Resources Strategies, to conduct a $570,000 study on the district’s financial resources drew widespread questioning.
After serving a little over three years, Avossa abruptly resigned in 2018 to join publishing company LRP Media Group that specializes in the school leadership market. LRP publishes District Administration, a long-running magazine distributed for free to qualified subscribers. The publication generates most of its revenues by selling advertising to companies that market education-related products and services.
The same year Avossa joined LRP as senior vice president and publisher of education products, a short article in District Administration announced LRP had also acquired the National Superintendents Academy, a leadership professional development business previously owned by Atlantic Research Partners, the company owned by fellow Broad graduate Joseph Wise.
The article includes a quote from the former managing director of the National Superintendents Academy Peter Gorman, who was Avossa’s boss at Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools in North Carolina, where Gorman served as superintendent and Avossa as chief strategy and accountability officer. Gorman is a graduate of the Broad Academy, class 2004.
LRP’s events business includes professional development “summits” for school leaders and a graduate style academy, à la Broad, where “motivated participants” can “[l]earn from highly successful superintendents and executives.”
The events often feature speakers who are Broad Academy graduates, including Gorman and former Sacramento superintendent Jonathan Raymond.
In testimonials featured on the website promoting the events, previous attendees describe a scenario much like what occurs at ERDI events in which school officials interact with the event “sponsors,” meet “the people behind the product,” learn “research” about the products, and “try the products out.” One participant, Jake Seely, says, “This event is better than ERDI.”
Companies that have signed up to be District Administration sponsoring partners—called “thought leaders” who “are committed to improving outcomes for our nation’s students”—include Amazon, Hewlett-Packard, and Sprint.
A typical agenda for a summit event includes an evening reception and dinner with “entertainment” on day one, an hour-long keynote from Gorman on day two, and numerous “Thought Leader Presentations” through the second and third days in which, presumably, companies present their wares.
The summits and the academy are advertised in District Administration magazine along with ads from education marketers, and advertorials—paid articles that mimic editorial—selling products and services for school leaders.
Many of the advertisers in District Administration are also clients of ERDI, including Dreambox, which purchases the inside front cover space, one of the most expensive pages, and sponsored advertorial space.
When school leaders aren’t in the Broad inner circle, they often want to be and will go to great lengths to curry the network’s favor.
In Clarke County (Athens, Georgia), local journalists and citizens have been digging into superintendent Demond Means’ relationship with Avossa and the Broad network. Based on documents obtained by a public records request, Flagpole Magazine reporter Rebecca McCarthy delved into Means’ efforts to get into the Broad school leadership training program and his hiring of Avossa as a consultant to assist his efforts.
“Means approved a $15,000 contract with Avossa for 10 days of consultations, plus travel and other expenses,” McCarthy noted, and Avossa helped “Means in a number of different ways, in addition to coaching him on applying to the Broad Academy. These services include refining presentations, offering tips on how to handle community concerns and editing documents,” including a letter sent to school board member John Knox “accusing Knox of micromanagement and unprofessional behavior (which Knox denies).”
When Avossa was superintendent of Palm Beach County schools, he had requested the board allow him to hire his former boss and Broad graduate Gorman as an “executive coach” to help train and advise the district’s administrators.
Documents a Clarke County citizen obtained via an open records request also show that while he was being paid to advise Means, Avossa sent three emails to Means inviting him to attend a District Administration Leadership Institute summit in Atlanta on September 18-20, 2019, with Avossa’s company covering “airfare (up to $400), lodging” and meals. It’s not clear whether Means accepted the offer.
Under Avossa’s wing, Means eventually had an interview with the Broad Academy requiring him to fly to Los Angeles to be among the 2019 Broad fellows. He wasn’t chosen. “Their loss,” Avossa wrote after getting the disappointing news.
Means also drew flak when a parent group filed an ethics complaint accusing him of having a conflict of interest with Advancement Via Individual Determination (AVID), a private nonprofit offering consulting and training programs claiming to close race-defined achievement gaps and raise the percentage of students enrolling in college. Flagpole reported that Means recommended “the board spend $511,000 to send teachers for [AVID] training” without disclosing that he had an ongoing business relationship with AVID in which he received $500 for a day’s work.
Means was eventually cleared of the conflict of interest charges.
AVID is also a client of ERDI.
The Role Search Firms Play
To avoid conflict of interest issues, school districts have frequently relied on leadership search firms to vet candidates for high administrative positions. But previous investigations of school leadership search firms have found these companies frequently forego background checks of prospective candidates they recommend, promote favored candidates regardless of their experience or track record, and push board members to keep the entire search process, including the final candidates, confidential from public scrutiny.
Covington left his leadership position in Michigan and applied to be superintendent of Nashville schools. When his name came up as a finalist in a search conducted by Schaumburg, Illinois-based Hazard, Young, Attea, and Associates (HYA), local news outlet the Tennessean raised the alarm about his troubled past. Board members questioned how the search was conducted, and the local “teachers’ union said basic due diligence was not followed in vetting candidates” and asked for a refund of at least some of the money spent with the search firm, according to Nashville NBC affiliate WSMV-TV.
After the fallout over Covington’s inclusion in the Nashville search, for which HYA was hired to consult, the finalist for the position turned down the job. The Nashville board had to conduct another search, this time hiring search firm Jim Huge and Associates.
Broad graduates dominated the roster of finalists recommended by Huge. Of the six finalists, three—Bradley Leon, Allen Smith, and Kenneth Zeff—were graduates of the Broad academy. Another, Joel Boyd, was accused of being a Broad acolyte in 2013 while he led the Santa Fe district.
Of the remaining two candidates—Jesus Jara and Shawn Joseph—Joseph got the job. But Joseph quickly became mired in conflict of interest issues for pushing through no-bid contracts with companies Joseph had close associations with and were also questioned by Nashville school board member Amy Frogge, as Our Schools has previously reported, “about possible connections these vendors might have to ERDI. A district audit would confirm that ERDI’s affiliated companies—including Performance Matters, Discovery Education, and six other companies—had signed contracts totaling more than $17 million with the district since Joseph had been hired.”
It’s not clear whether or not superintendent search firms tend to favor candidates who have come through the Broad program, but there are numerous examples where Broad alumni were at the top of the lists in searches that hired superintendent search contractors. Calvin Watts was chosen as superintendent for the Kent County, Washington, school district following a search contracted to be overseen by the search firm Ray and Associates. Means was sole finalist in the Clarke County, Georgia, superintendent search conducted by HYA. Although Means would eventually fail to get into the Broad Academy, he had expressed enough interest in the Broad Foundation to apply and work with Avossa.
Wait, It Gets Worse
Public school districts will continue to be vulnerable prey for businesses and education reform careerists as long as “markets are still viewed as a good thing,” Pedroni said.
“Education is still viewed as a gold mine,” he stated, and even when companies have horrible results, they still reap huge profits because education reform advocates believe for-profit corporations have the secret sauce for school improvement.
It doesn’t help that the latest version of school reform federal law, the Every Student Succeeds Act, enables businesses to have even more power over public schools.
According to that law, reported Education Week, school accrediting organizations that judge the worthiness of education programs are now also allowed to sell school improvement products and services.
Among the first organizations to take advantage of this opportunity is AdvancED, an accreditation agency that recently rebranded as Cognia after it acquired Measured Progress that offers online classroom-observation tools, consultant services, and teacher and leadership training programs. Measured Progress is also a client of ERDI.
That arrangement, EdWeek reporter Daarel Burnette II noted, gives unregulated organizations like Cognia the power to “use the heavy stick of accreditation to nudge states, districts, and schools into buying its growing list of school improvement services.”
At least four states, Burnette reported, “have already taken up AdvancED [now Cognia]’s offer of expanded services to some degree, signing contracts ranging from $250,000 to $1 million.”
To understand the true power of this new arrangement, keep your eyes on Clarke County, Georgia. In his ongoing conflict with school board members, superintendent Means recently “implore[d Cognia] to intervene in the school district,” Blake Aued of Flagpole magazine reported, “citing what he calls micromanagement on the part of several school board members.”
Should Cognia take up Means’ offer and threaten to take away the district’s accreditation, who would be surprised to see the district being pushed into a contract for consulting or training services from Cognia?
It would be yet another example in the well-documented narrative of reform advocates going to incredible lengths to take care of each other, regardless of the damages they may have left in their wake.
In fact, when Covington suddenly resigned from his position in Michigan, he didn’t have to worry about where he would go next. Soon after leaving, he was hired with a contract for $300,000 to start a new school reform initiative—for the Broad Foundation.
This is the second of a two-part article produced by Our Schools, a project of the Independent Media Institute. To read the first part, click here. To learn more about school privatization, check out Who Controls Our Schools? The Privatization of American Public Education, a free ebook published by IMI.
Jeff Bryant is a writing fellow and chief correspondent for Our Schools. He is a communications consultant, freelance writer, advocacy journalist, and director of the Education Opportunity Network, a strategy and messaging center for progressive education policy. Follow him on Twitter @jeffbcdm.