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.”

passing the mantle

With Sharon Griffin’s departure, Shelby County Schools has big (stiletto) shoes to fill

PHOTO: Kayleigh Skinner
Sharon Griffin

In many ways, Sharon Griffin embodied the hope many have for the future of Shelby County Schools.

After she became chief of schools last year, she planned to use the knowledge she had acquired working with several struggling schools to improve all Memphis schools.

So the announcement Tuesday that she is leaving Shelby County Schools to spread her expertise to schools across the state was “bittersweet,” said her boss Superintendent Dorsey Hopson.

Indeed, the loss to the district’s leadership team is tremendous. As a homegrown leader with success in boosting test scores for students in the poorest areas of the city, Griffin was seen as Memphis’ answer to an influx of state and national influence on education in the city.

Though low performing schools operated by Shelby County Schools have outpaced progress of those run by the state, educators say Memphis schools have a long way to go. The city’s students, who are mostly children of color living in poverty, still lag far behind the state average.

Griffin, a charismatic leader with a vibrant personality who is known for her bleach-white hair and colorful collection of stilettos, has been a go-to expert nationally as city school districts seek to combat the impact of poverty on student learning.

Hopson was sentimental when he read a prepared statement — a rarity for him — announcing Griffin’s departure during a school board meeting Tuesday.

“After a long-standing career in [Memphis schools], I consider Dr. Sharon Griffin family. And she has shared with me her personal and professional goals to continue to support students. We support her and wish her continued success and thank her for the undeniable imprint she’s left on Shelby County Schools,” he said.


Read more about Griffin’s first and only year as chief of schools for Shelby County Schools.


Griffin had just unveiled an academic plan three weeks ago to get the district to its lofty Destination 2025 goals of graduating most of its students on time and ready for college or the workforce by 2025.

Though many expected she would be around to carry out the plan she and her colleagues spent months putting together, education onlookers say she has built a team that can see it through.

“There’s no question that there is not another Sharon Griffin waiting in the wings,” said Marcus Robinson, who has helped raise money for Memphis schools through the Memphis Education Fund. “But I believe strongly that the superintendent and his senior staff are working on a plan to transform Shelby County Schools. Dr. Griffin has had leadership in designing that plan, so I am confident that the work will continue.”

Miska Clay Bibbs, a school board member, said part of what made Griffin a good leader is that she cultivated other leaders. One recently came back to run the Innovation Zone where he was once a principal. Schools in the Innovation Zone add an extra hour to the school day and offer support services for students, most of whom live in poverty.

“One of the good things she did do is assemble a good team,” she said, adding they have all “grown up in the ranks together.”

“The knowledge is there and I’m looking forward to them having the opportunity to perform,” she said.

The search for a chief academic officer will also change direction, because the district was looking for someone who would have worked closely with Griffin.

“When you have someone like Sharon in place, you have to make sure they complement her skill set,” Hopson said. “So, I think that now as we continue to search, we have to think about the role a little differently.”

One silver lining Hopson pointed to: Griffin can help “reset” Shelby County Schools’ often antagonist relationship with the state.

“This could have the makings of a win-win for priority schools throughout the state,” Hopson said. “I love Sharon. And Sharon is family. And if I can work with anybody, I can work with Sharon.”

Memphians have clamored for more input on the state’s decisions since the state-run Achievement School District started in 2012. Both of Griffin’s predecessors lived in Nashville, even though all but two of the schools they oversaw were in Memphis. And previous attempts at a formal process for community input mostly fell flat.

Since the state district was created, local and state districts have sparred over the state’s authority to expand grade offerings at charters, sharing student contact information, and enrollment.

For state Rep. Raumesh Akbari, a Democrat who has collaborated with the state to work out the kinks in its district, the timing is right considering Griffin’s groundwork in Memphis and need for more collaborative leadership at the state level.

“I’m hoping the footprint in the infrastructure she’s put in place will help Shelby County keep moving forward,” she said. “And because she understands Shelby County Schools and schools that are on the priority list, that should help her form a more collaborative relationship between the ASD, Shelby County schools and other districts across the state.”

Read more about how Griffin’s hiring is breathing new life into Tennessee’s Achievement School District.

Statehouse correspondent Marta W. Aldrich contributed to this story.

political games

How state Senate elections, Simcha Felder, and a new Democratic deal could shape New York’s education policy

PHOTO: Creative Commons, courtesy JasonParis

With two key Senate elections on Tuesday, the fate of New York state’s Senate is up in the air and some important education issues could hang in the balance.

If the Democrats pick up two Senate seats in the Bronx and Westchester County, they will have a majority on paper in a chamber that has been dominated by Republicans for years. They will not, however, be able to move Democratic agenda items forward this term without help from Simcha Felder, a rogue Democrat who has a spot in the Republican conference. Felder sent a statement Tuesday saying he would remain with the GOP until the end of the session, quashing any hopes for an instant change in chamber dynamics.

But the broader sea change, including the reconciliation of two factions of Senate Democrats, could make a difference after further elections in November.

The Republican-controlled Senate and the Democratic-controlled Assembly have split predictably on education issues for years. The Senate fought for charter schools and private schools, while the Assembly protected New York City interests and sought larger sums of money for public schools.

But if Democrats eventually lead the Senate after November’s elections, school funding, charter school policy, and how students are disciplined could all be revisited. Here’s what you should know about how education policy could change:

Immigrant students could get new protections

Year after year, the Democratic-led Assembly has passed a bill that would give undocumented immigrants access to state college aid. The Senate Republicans, on the other hand, has rarely bring it to the floor for debate.

The DREAM act could have better chances if the Democrats take control of the Senate. It’s one of the top issues that Senate Democratic Leader Andrea Stewart Cousins mentioned in her budget priorities this March. Additionally, the governor and top state education officials support the measure.

Board of Regents Chancellor Betty Rosa said she is interested in seeing more support for English Language Learners and undocumented students.

“The unification [of two Democratic factions] is an opportunity to advance many of the issues that, I think have, in many ways, not moved forward,” Rosa said to Chalkbeat on Monday.

Passing the DREAM act could also beef up the governor’s progressive credentials in a year when he is facing a primary challenge from Cynthia Nixon, who is running to the left of Cuomo.

School funding could get a boost

A Democratic majority in the Senate could help boost school funding.

Senate Democrats support phasing in the state’s “Foundation Aid” formula over three years. Supporters of the formula say that schools are owed billions in school aid as a result of a 2006 settlement.

Though the Senate Republicans typically push for more spending restraint than the Assembly, Cuomo is arguably a more formidable roadblock to increasing school aid. Each year, he proposes spending less on schools than either the Assembly or the Senate. Last year, he proposed a change to foundation aid that some advocates said amounted to a “repeal” of the formula.

“I think that a Democratic Senate would make a big difference,” said Billy Easton, the executive director of the Alliance for Quality Education, which has long fought for additional school funding. “But I think that Governor Cuomo would still be a major impediment.” (Since lawmakers have finished this year’s budget, any significant school funding changes would have to take place next year.)

Cuomo is also being challenged a primary opponent who has made school funding central to her campaign and has worked as a spokesperson for AQE. If she pulled off an upset in November, school funding dynamics could change dramatically.

Charter schools might lose a key ally

Senate Republicans have been key allies for the charter schools so losing them would probably spell bad news for the sector.

For instance, Senate Republicans supported charter school priorities in their budget proposal, including ending the limit on how many new schools can open and providing more money for schools that move into private space. Senate Majority Leader John Flanagan and his conference have also been reliable backers of charter schools at the end of budget negotiations, often helping to secure extra funding.

In stark contrast, the Senate Democrats proposed additional transparency and accountability measure for charter schools. Their budget was praised by state and city teachers union leaders, who are foes of the charter sector.

However, the breakaway group of Democrats now reconciled with their Democratic colleagues are more supportive of charter schools. The leader of the breakaway group, Jeff Klein, has been at Albany’s massive charter school rallies. Klein and his allies could help block any major charter school policy shifts.

School discipline policies could shift

A Senate flip could change statewide rules related to school discipline.

Assemblywoman Cathy Nolan, who chairs the chamber’s education committee, has sponsored legislation that discourages suspensions and promotes the use of “restorative” discipline practices, including solving behavioral issues through peer mediation and class meetings. It would also prohibit the use of suspensions in kindergarten through third grade, except in extreme circumstances. (New York City has already curbed suspensions for the city’s youngest students.)

Teacher evaluation discussion may get another life

In their perfect world, state teachers union officials would see repeal of the state’s unpopular teacher evaluation law this year and a push to let local districts decide how to evaluate educators.

“We are hopeful that there is a serious discussion about teacher evaluations,” said state teachers union spokesman Carl Korn.

But so far, lawmakers haven’t been taking up the issue. Instead, the Board of Regents has been leading the charge by spelling out a long-term plan to revamp the evaluations.

Would having Democrats in charge in the Senate change that dynamic? It’s possible but not likely. In their budget proposal, Senate Democrats seem philosophically-aligned with the state teachers union, arguing that there are too many “state mandates” when it comes to evaluations. But their proposed process for solving the problem (convening a team of experts) is more in line with the Board of Regent’s vision. Additionally, any teacher evaluation change would require Cuomo to tackle the unpopular issue in an election year.

This story has been updated to reflect that Senator Simcha Felder will remain with the GOP until the end of the session.