2020

President Winfrey? Here’s what we know about Oprah’s education outlook

Oprah Winfrey, right, hosted N.J. Gov. Chris Christie, Newark Mayor Cory Booker, and Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg when Zuckerberg announced a $100 million gift to Newark schools in 2010.

When Oprah Winfrey delivered an emotional, inspirational speech at the Golden Globes on Sunday, many viewed it as an introductory address for a possible presidential run.

Indeed, after years of denying any political ambitions, people close to Winfrey now say she’s open to running for office, according to CNN. (She again denied plans to run on Monday.)

So what would a President Winfrey look like when it comes to education? As with most policy issues, she hasn’t taken a firm stand — but her background, personal giving, and guests on her show, which aired from 1986 until 2011, all offer clues. Here’s what we know.

She understands racism and poverty in America — and how schools can make a difference.

Growing up impoverished in the South and then Milwaukee, Winfrey endured many of the challenges that disproportionately affect poor children in America, including family instability, teen pregnancy, and frequent school changes. (She was also sexually abused by family members.) She credits a fourth-grade teacher with giving her the intellectual energy to persevere.

“I always, because of you, felt I could take on the world,” Winfrey said in a 1989 special where she honored her favorite teachers. “You did exactly what teachers are supposed to do. They create a spark for learning that lives with you from then on.”

As a teenager, Winfrey did so well at her Milwaukee high school that a teacher decided to help her become one of 16 black students to integrate a high school in an affluent suburb. (She later left that school when her mother decided to send her to Nashville, where she also attended a newly integrated high school.) “It was culture shock for me. It was the first time I realized I was poor,” she said during the 1989 show. “But it made a major difference in my life.”

Those experiences left Winfrey believing in the power of schools to change lives, she has said. “I value nothing more in the world than education,” Winfrey said in 2010. “It is the reason why I can stand here today. It is an open door to freedom.”

She has given to education initiatives that cross partisan divides.

As one of the world’s wealthiest women, with a net worth of nearly $3 billion, Winfrey has directed her giving to a wide array of causes, including education. She has donated to charter schools across the country, participated in a collective to reduce high school dropouts, and funded scholarships for students at historically black colleges.

She even launched a school of her own in South Africa that has sent poor girls to elite universities. For a megastar, Winfrey took an unusually personal role in the school’s development: She handpicked the school’s first class; overhauled the leadership when a sex abuse scandal occurred early on; gave students her personal cell phone number; and took the first graduates shopping for dorm-room decor.

The experience gave Winfrey insights into what kinds of efforts might alter the track of poor students’ lives. “I had worked with other organizations, I had written lots of checks, I had started my own big sister program, where I was taking girls on skiing trips and spending time with them and reading. It doesn’t work,” she said in 2017.

“What works is being able to change the trajectory of somebody’s life where you are literally brainwashing them for the good,” Winfrey added, as she reflected on her school’s first decade. “Because what poverty does is brainwashes you to believe that you are not enough.”

She’s also aligned herself with heavyweights of the ‘education reform’ movement.

Many people treated Winfrey’s enormously popular show as an ideal platform to reach Americans of all races and classes — something that can be especially pressing for education influencers, who are often criticized for imposing their ideas on poor communities.

Toward the end of the show’s run, Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg chose it to announce a $100 million gift to overhaul schools in Newark, New Jersey. Also on that episode: then-New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie and then-Newark Mayor Cory Booker, now U.S. senator. The trio, Winfrey said, “are putting politics aside to help turn around the failing public schools in Newark.”

One of the most education policy-heavy episodes of Winfrey’s show aired in 2010, when Winfrey promoted the documentary “Waiting for Superman” with a special about “the shocking state of our schools.”

The film galvanized support for charter schools, and teachers unions treated it as an attack. Winfrey gave air time to the director, Davis Guggenheim, as well as to philanthropist Bill Gates and Michelle Rhee, then the Washington D.C. schools chief who was attracting attention for trying to fire low-performing teachers.

Winfrey called Rhee “a warrior woman” and appeared sympathetic to Rhee’s agenda, at one point asking her, “Why can’t you just fire bad teachers?” But Winfrey also hit some more positive notes.

“Everybody knows I love good teachers, and there are so many thousands of you — great ones — in this country,” Winfrey said on the show. “So we’re not talking about you if you are a good teacher.”

As part of the episode, Winfrey capped off a round of giving from her Angel Network philanthropy with $1 million awards to six networks of charter schools, which she suggested were making almost superhuman efforts to help their students.

“Imagine this,” Winfrey said. “A school where high school freshmen, reading at a fourth-grade level, can jump ahead five grades in a single school year. Or a school where teachers stay until 11 at night to help children with their homework, and where children say school is like a second family to them.”

Winfrey’s proclivity to promote heroes sometimes resulted in unstable education initiatives getting a boost: One New Orleans charter school that the Oprah Winfrey Network profiled as a promising turnaround effort closed a year later as one of the lowest-performing schools in Louisiana. And Zuckerberg’s Newark donation, which spurred a controversial package of policy changes for Newark schools, had mixed results: Growth in student achievement dropped for three years, but bounced back in years four and five.

Have her views shifted as many in the Democratic party have shifted their education outlook? We don’t know.

One of Winfrey’s most sustained causes has been Booker, whose U.S. Senate race she supported with fundraising and air time.

Booker’s personal evolution on education issues reflects a broader one within the Democratic party. Early in his career, Booker became known for championing charter schools and sat on the board of Democrats for Education Reform, a group that set out to counter the influence of teachers unions in local elections. But as uneven results and pushback from local communities have racked up, Booker puts less emphasis on the most divisive parts of that agenda. Now, he is more likely to promote pre-kindergarten and criticize Donald Trump’s education secretary, Betsy DeVos, than to propose particular policies to improve schools.

That mirrors a broader shift in the education world. Gates, for example, has turned away from funding individual schools and policy initiatives in favor of supporting locally led efforts to improve education.

It’s unclear whether Winfrey is attuned to this shift: Since her show went off the air, Winfrey hasn’t often commented publicly on major matters of public debate, including education issues — although she did endorse Hillary Clinton for president in 2016, and expressed disbelief that Donald Trump, like her an entertainer, had been elected instead. (Trump’s nomination, she said at the time, made her feel for the first time “really qualified” to run for office.)

Her speech at the Golden Globes — which focused on empowering women — suggests that Winfrey is ready to be a public influence.

One clue to her general approach could come from the 2010 “Waiting for Superman” special, when Winfrey also underscored that education is a communal challenge, not an individual one.

“Just because your kids are in a good school, because your kids are graduated from school, doesn’t mean that it is not our country’s problem,” Winfrey said. “Our country will suffer if we continue to look the other way.”

candidate forum

Here are seven takeaways from Chalkbeat’s forum for Shelby County Schools board candidates

PHOTO: Xzavier Bonds
Chalkbeat hosted its first school board candidate forum Thursday, which was split into two panels. The first panel, moderated by reporter Laura Faith Kebede and Central High School graduate Hali Smith, was between candidates from Districts 1 and 8.

With a high-stakes election just two weeks away, Chalkbeat Tennessee hosted its first-ever school board candidate forum on Thursday.

Fifteen candidates are vying for seats from four of Shelby County Schools’ nine districts: 1, 6, 8, and 9. The most contested race is in District 9, where four new candidates are challenging incumbent Mike Kernell. That’s a major difference from two years ago, when four of five open board seats went uncontested.

PHOTO: Rebecca Griesbach
Audience members were able to locate their district on a map. Seats are open for Districts 1, 6, 8, and 9.

About 250 Memphis students, parents, grandparents and educators, attended the candidate forum. The audience could use a texting software to weigh in on brief, “rapid fire” questions posed to the candidates, as well as write in their own questions for the candidates to answer.

“I’m ready for a change,” said retired police officer and public education advocate Claudette Boyd, who used to patrol the Orange Mound area and noticed a “revolving door” of faculty turnovers at its schools.

“I’m here to hear first-hand information and ask questions,” she added. “Why are we still busing kids out of their neighborhoods? Shouldn’t all schools be the same? Why do we have inferior schools and superior schools?”

The event was split into two panels. The first was between Districts 1 and 8, and the second was between Districts 6 and 9. Here are some takeaways from those discussions.

PANEL 1

Parents were seen as having the biggest impact on a child’s education.

Out of five choices — parents, teachers, district leadership, county government, and state government — 53 percent of the audience chose parents as playing the most important role in a child’s education.

“Our parents should be the most important people regardless of what’s going on in the schools,” Michael Scruggs said, explaining that they spend the most time with their children.

Chris Caldwell said parents are most important because they pay taxes to teachers, who have the expertise to sway state government on funding matters and reform efforts. Michelle Robinson McKissack said she favored more teacher-parent interaction, and Jerry Cunningham said the board should prioritize getting parents more engaged.

Candidates favor student voices on the board.

When asked if students should be able to serve on the school board, all participating candidates noted that students should have some say in the decision-making process. McKissack said she supported students being in an advisory role, but that their “number one job is to be a student.” That means they shouldn’t be expected to serve in an “official capacity.”

PHOTO: Xzavier Bonds
Over 200 were in attendance at the forum Thursday night.

“They’re the ones most affected by what happens in the school buildings,” said Caldwell, who noted that there is already a policy for students to participate on the board. “We wouldn’t have school or school districts if it weren’t for the kids.”

“Our students are our audience,” Scruggs added.

Ninety percent of the voting audience favored student voices on the board, including recent graduates Emily Burkhead and Kira Tucker.

“Closer to our age, we’re becoming more aware of what’s going on,” said Burkhead, a Rhodes College student and White Station High graduate, citing the emergence of more recent movements like Black Lives Matter and Take ‘Em Down 901. (Take ‘Em Down 901 is an effort to remove two Confederate monuments from parks in downtown Memphis.)

“There just comes a time to say we’re about to get serious about the school system that we need to see in our community,” added Tucker, a junior at Emory University and a graduate of Central High School.

PANEL 2

Candidates backed expanding the community school model.

District 9 is home to Belle Forest Elementary, the system’s only “community school,” or a school that addresses a student’s social and family needs in addition to their educational needs.

Mike Kernell said he’s an advocate for community schools because from what he’s seen, they’ve done the best job of keeping parents involved.

Kori Hamner, Rhonnie Brewer, and Joyce Dorse-Coleman have visited the school and were pleased with what they saw: students and faculty who “love their school” and “love their community,” Hamner said.

“They bought into what was going on there,” Dorse-Coleman said. “That’s what we need in all of our schools.”

School closures have dramatic impacts on neighborhoods.

Many of the school closures in recent years have been in District 6, and some of the school building are still sitting empty. How should a district determine if a school should close, and what should happen with the empty buildings?

PHOTO: Jacob Steimer
More than 200 people attended the forum.

Minnie Hunter acknowledged she didn’t know a lot about why schools close, but felt like many should stay open, so students don’t have to travel across town to go to another school. Percy Hunter, meanwhile, said he was in favor of letting the community decide what happens to their schools, and how they should stop one from closing.

“An empty school building presents a pretty desolate description for our communities,” said Shante Avant, adding that local residents and community organizations like churches should decide how to fill that space.

The board must act to ensure grade-changing stops.

Shelby County Schools has had several investigations into improper grade changing to pass students along to the next grade even if they aren’t ready. Chalkbeat asked the candidates what they would do to make sure this practice stops.

Kernell said he was in favor of new software to monitor grades, and Dorse-Coleman said teachers shouldn’t have to “teach students to the test” anyway. Avant also acknowledged the board’s recent efforts to install a hotline for those who suspect such activities.

“We have to continue to be open and transparent,” she said.

BOTH PANELS

K-2 suspensions should be banned, candidates said.

Some cities, such as New York City, have banned suspensions among its youngest students, and a bill last year

PHOTO: Xzavier Bonds
Superintendent Dorsey Hopson (left) speaks with a fellow attendee at the forum.

sponsored by State Rep. Raumesh Akbari of Memphis would have stopped the practice in Tennessee unless the student is violent, but it failed. Chalkbeat asked candidates from Districts 6 and 9 about K-2 suspensions, and all favored ending early-childhood suspensions. Seventy-five percent of the audience polled also supported a ban.

“At the age of 5, 6, 7, 8, they’re just finding out who they are,” said Dorse-Coleman. “We need to address the underlying problem instead of waiting until they’re 15, 16, 17 and we want to lock them up.”  

“There is no reason that at that age, suspension is absolutely necessary,” Brewer said.

Scruggs said suspensions do not work at any age. He remembered a time when a student “cursed him out” and Scruggs was tempted to write him up. But then he found out the student was up for adoption.

“He wasn’t cursing me out,” he said. “He was cursing the situation out. … We need to put our money in the right places to help our kids.”

Most candidates were unprepared to have discussions about sexual harassment and protecting lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer students.

Both panels were asked what they could do to better protect LGBTQ students from discrimination, as well as how they would protect all students from sexual harassment and assault.

Caldwell and Scruggs said the board takes bullying and harassment very seriously, and that there are measures in place to make sure violators are reprimanded. McKissack stumbled on the letters “LGBTQ” before noting that “we can always do things better.”

“There is no abuse that I’ve seen” of LGBTQ students, Cunningham said, comparing today to the 1960s.

Several audience members shouted, “Wrong!”

“Somebody says I’m wrong?” Cunningham said. “Well, I haven’t seen it.”

Percy Hunter said issues of bullying and abuse of LGBTQ students must be addressed on a school-by-school basis and that the school would have to know if the parent was in support of the “student’s decision” before taking action.

A recent high school graduate Celia Kaplan took issue with that response.

“What do you mean by choice?” she shouted.

After the event, Hunter clarified that he meant the student’s choice to come out.

“But what are you going to make schools safer so that students can be out in high school?” she asked him after the event. Hunter said that a decision like that would be up to the entire board.

Minnie Hunter said that LGBTQ students should be put in a separate classes, similar to sex education, to learn about the issues that affect them, to which Avant disagreed.

“I don’t believe that we should isolate or create opportunities for folks to criminalize or harass LGBT students,” Avant said. “We have to embrace diversity.”

Kernell advised students with issues to visit his website and file a complaint, and Dorse-Coleman said that discrimination is a “learned behavior.” Avant, Hamner, and Brewer said it was necessary for the board to do more to ensure schools are safe for students in traditionally marginalized groups.

Maude Bryeans, a counselor and Memphis native who has worked in Shelby County Schools for 20 years, said the candidates generally struggled to answer questions concerning concrete plans, and that they simply “gave opinions” instead.

“As an educator, I want to see a plan, I want to see your vision, and I want to know that you know your stuff,” she said, charging that some of the claims made by the candidates were incorrect, such as McKissack’s comment that uniforms went away after six municipal districts split from the Shelby County Schools district in 2014, and Cunningham’s comment that principals’ salaries were increased when the schools merged.

“I was glad to see someone put all the candidates out there though, and have people be able to listen to them,” she said. “I don’t remember this robust of a dialogue in the past. That is at least showing, it seems like, that people care.”

Event co-sponsors included BRIDGES, a student leadership program; the education advocacy organizations Stand for Children and Campaign for School Equity; and Awesome Without Borders.

Early voting runs through July 28. The election will take place on Aug. 2. Have you done your homework? Read more about the candidates and their stances on education issues here.

Future of Schools

CPS $1 billion capital budget hearings: Questions, demands, and mixed feelings

PHOTO: Elaine Chen
Community members gave passionate testimonies at a public hearing at Malcolm X College for the proposed capital budget.

Chicago Public Schools surprised many when it dropped its biggest facility spending plan a few weeks ago with a big “B”—that stands for billion—in the headline.

Considering that the district had planned to spend less than $200 million on capital needs for the 2018-2019 school year, this plan represents a five-fold increase. It relies largely on bonds to pay for building improvements and introduces new schools amid steadily shrinking enrollment, mostly in areas around gentrifying neighborhoods.

Divergent opinions surrounding the capital budget emerged at three concurrent community meetings CPS held Thursday night at City Colleges sites around Chicago: Malcolm X, Harry S. Truman, and Kennedy-King. The Chicago Board of Education is scheduled to vote on the district’s $7.58 billion budget, including the capital plan, on July 25.

At the Malcolm X meeting, CPS Senior Policy Advisor Cameron Mock presented a map showing capital budget projects distributed evenly throughout the city, but, as CPS Chief Financial Officer Jennie Bennett acknowledged, “not all projects are equal.”

Bennett explained that “the allocation of these projects were really in large part due to feedback about need.”

Chalkbeat mapped out the costliest capital projects, and found that the West side, particularly the Southwest side, received the smallest concentration of large investments.

The map shows investments in facility needs over $5 million, all programmatic investments, all investments in overcrowding relief, investments in site improvements over $500,000, as well as sites of the two new classical schools. The map does not show the two new schools in Belmont Cragin and the Near West Side, because the district has not yet specified exact locations. The district also has not yet identified schools for many of its capital projects, such as technology and facility upgrades. See the full plan here.

At Thursday’s hearings, parents from schools that did receive significant funding, such as Christopher Elementary School in Gage Park and Hancock High School in West Elsdon, expressed thanks. But others asked for for more investment.

Residents questioned the plan to build a new $70 million high school on the Near West Side. Lori Edwards, a Local School Council member at Crane Medical Prep on the Near West Side, said that Crane desperately needed air conditioning and heating, doors with windows, and security cameras.

“I’m surprised that we can’t just get basic things instead of building a new high school,” she said.

Questions also surrounded the $44 million assigned for a new elementary school in Belmont Cragin on the Northwest Side to address overcrowding. A sophomore at Prosser High School in Belmont Cragin asked for investment in her school instead. At Prosser, she said, “there needs to be reconstruction in the classrooms, the paint on the walls is falling off.”

Leticia Neri, a mother of two students at Camras Elementary School in Belmont Cragin, was wary of adding a school to the neighborhood. Her children used to attend Burbank Elementary, which is also in Belmont Cragin. When Acero Roberto Clemente, a charter school, opened just two blocks down in 2013, she said that Burbank lost pupils.

However, Mock said the proposed new school was a response to demand in Belmont Cragin. And in fact, several miles north in Uptown, where CPS’s Chief Operating Officer Arnie Rivera and other officials led a meeting Thursday, a handful of Belmont Cragin residents argued in favor of the school.

Parent Mariela Estrada said Belmont Cragin Elementary, which her 9-year-old attends,  is overcrowded. While the district’s formula doesn’t label any Belmont Cragin school overcrowded, the numbers paint a different picture. Belmont Cragin Elementary’s 414 students share a building with Northwest Middle School’s 545 pupils.

“I am really, really grateful right now for what we are getting,” she said.

The North Side, as the map above shows, will receive the most capital funding. Several attendees expressed gratitude for investments in area schools, especially a new ADA compliant gym at McCutcheon Elementary in Uptown, and an expanded test-in Decatur Classical School program in West Ridge, that will add seventh and eighth grades. Students have to test into the city’s five highly competitive classical schools, and hundreds are turned away every year.

Even so, not all North Side residents felt their schools would receive what they need, and many questioned CPS’ process for planning improvements.

A mother of a student at Schurz High School, in Old Irving Park, thanked CPS for a plans to install a new athletic field, but mentioned the school’s leaky roof, faulty heating system, green and black mold under carpets, and peeling paint in the auditorium. “It’s gross,” she said.

Parent Dawne Moon, said Kilmer Elementary School in Rogers Park is “not currently a safe environment.” Moon, a Local School Council member,  complained of rusted lockers, “bathrooms that smell like urine, even after they are cleaned,” temporary covers over holes in the roof that keeps water from pouring into classrooms, and of bricks falling from the ceiling in the school’s gym.  

“We can hope that the next brick doesn’t fall on a kid,” she said.

Betsy Vandercook, co-chair of the education committee at Network 49, a progressive neighborhood group based in Rogers Park, said schools in her neighborhood would get less than what adjacent communities like Edgewater and West Rogers Park would receive.

“Rogers Park is not, for whatever reason getting the same resources that many other North Side communities are getting,” she said about the capital budget proposal. “Take this back, look at it again, look at what is and isn’t needed.”