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Daily Howler: Did ReadNet have an educational plan? Gootman never quite asks
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CHARTER SCHOOL DOWN! Did ReadNet have an educational plan? Gootman never quite asks: // link // print // previous // next //

MCKINNEY, EVER HELPFUL: Unfortunately, Dana Milbank has it right in this morning’s Post. What a disaster for the Dems! The party spends years chasing after DeLay. And when it finally gets Tom’s scalp, it ends up debating Cynthia’s hairdo! Will Representative McKinney get arrested? If so, it will be legitimate history—the first successful arrest by DC police in at least the past dozen years! But more seriously, this story has the potential to be Condit 2—an essentially trivial matter involving one member which helps define the Democrats down, in a perfectly pre-scripted way. Democrats can’t keep their pants on! And: Democrats hate the police! (Obviously, Chandra Levy’s death wasn’t trivial—but Condit’s role in the matter always was.)

Of course, McKinney has long been helpful—to the Republican Party. As you know, it’s Hard Pundit Law; DC elites never discuss bizarre events from Campaign 2000. But our favorite McKinney Moment came from that race, when she called Candidate Gore a racist just as he began to pull away in the polls in September 2000. In Milbank’s column, Republican congressman David Dreier says the GOP should thank McKinney for her efforts this week. But then, they should have thanked her in 2000 too! For a concise review of the facts, here’s the start of a follow-up AP report, written one month after the original incident. Helpfully, this follow-up report hit the wire on the day of Bush and Gore’s first debate:

THE ASSOCIATED PRESS (10/3/00): To her friends, Cynthia McKinney is a refreshing new face in a sea of congressional clones.

She's a single mother raised in the heart of the civil rights movement who is unafraid to speak out—even against fellow Democrats...

Just over a month ago, an embarrassing blunder jeopardized McKinney's relationship with her party's own presidential candidate.

Late one Friday afternoon, McKinney's office faxed news organizations a statement blasting Vice President Al Gore's low "Negro tolerance level" and accusing him of seldom having more than one black in his presence.

The statement came in response to a "report" by attorneys representing 250 black Secret Service agents in a discrimination lawsuit against their employer. They had alleged a secret quota within Gore's security detail that limited the number of black agents around him.

Later, the attorneys themselves backed off the charge, but McKinney's news release remained on her Internet site. In the subsequent seven days, she scheduled and then canceled four interviews with The Associated Press—and even more after that—to talk about the matter.

Not until a week later—on the day Gore arrived in Atlanta to campaign—did she issue a retraction explaining the release was never intended for public distribution. One staffer apologized this way for McKinney's refusal to talk: "Congresswoman McKinney has a fire to put out right now."

McKinney still refuses to explain how the remarks ever ended up on her office stationery or say whether she planned to apologize to Gore...

Classic McKinney! Of course, since discussions of Campaign 2000 are still embargoed, this absolute world-class dumb-ass event escapes mention even today.

No, this incident didn’t get major play in the major mainstream media. (Though it was reported in the Post and the Times.) But it did provide fodder for conservative news orgs, and the AP dutifully filed full reports in September and then in October. And of course, the incident got wide play in Georgia, a state which is located right next to Florida. Did any Sunshine State voters stay away from Gore because of McKinney’s helpful remarks? We have no way of knowing. But the state was rather narrowly decided, as readers may well recall.

For the record, we can provide one personal observation about this matter. As a college student, Gore had two black roommates—at the same time! And yes, these two gentlemen were frequently “in his presence,” a fact for which we can vouch. The troubling Tennessean was just 17 when this two-year period began. It ended when one of these roommates—showing wisdom beyond his years—abandoned those cold New England winters and transferred back to UCLA, right there in his golden home state. Needless to say, UCLA won the national title in each of the next six years.

HELPFUL TIPS ON LOSING ELECTIONS: How helpful were McKinney’s remarks in 2000? Three examples:

First, here’s how Paula Zahn opened her nightly program (then on Fox) on Friday, September 8:

ZAHN (9/8/00): Tonight, according to a Democratic member of Congress, Al Gore's, quote, Negro tolerance level has never been too high. We'll explain.
Zahn “explained” during a “fiery debate” which consumed her program’s entire first segment. (In best fair-and-balanced manner, one guest thought Gore did have a tolerance-level problem; one guest thought he didn’t.) The following Monday, McKinney’s “Negro tolerance” remark was quoted on The News with Brian Williams—sourced to U.S. News and World Report, where it was also being featured. But our favorite treatment came from Wes Pruden, in his editor’s column in the Washington Times. In the following passage, the clownish Pruden was happy to vouch for McKinney’s dead-on “filter.” And omigod! He even stopped by The Fancy Hotel, and journeyed to foppish St. Albans:
PRUDEN (9/12/00): This was all very nice, but it did not address Rep. McKinney's assertion that Al has a "low Negro tolerance level." Miss McKinney has the fine-grain race filter that every Southerner, black and white, is born with, and if she senses that Al, who grew up tolerating room-service waiters at the Fairfax Hotel and was educated at St. Albans, where the water fountains dispense Perrier, has a low Negro tolerance level we have to assume that she knows what she's talking about. When she caved to the inevitable pressure and disavowed herself over the weekend, insisting that the remark she put on the Internet was not for public consumption and that her remark "does not represent my thinking”—if her thinking doesn't represent her thinking it's not clear whose thinking it could represent—Al no doubt figures he has it both ways again.
Pruden rushed to thank McKinney—just as Dreier says his party should do in today’s Milbank piece.

Special report—Charter school down!

PART 3—WHAT, THEM WORRY: Yes, Elissa Gootman invites us to boo-hoo-hoo about the heartbreak of ReadNet’s closing. But she also gives interesting information about several aspects of ReadNet’s decline. The soon-to-be-shuttered New York charter school had trouble finding a building, she says—and it handled its money quite poorly (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 4/5/06). That’s all well-and-good—but something rather important is missing. At one point in her front-page Times report, Gootman offers this odd summation of what the ReadNet experience shows:

GOOTMAN (4/3/06): The brief life of the ReadNet school offers a stark lesson in the ways in which charter schools can go wrong—with initial troubles finding a building, continuing financial woes and difficulties attracting qualified staff. ReadNet has received close to $3 million in public financing.

''I think the experience of ReadNet will certainly be a cautionary tale for all charter schools around their financial operations and their organizational sustainability,'' said Garth Harries, chief executive of the Department of Education's Office of New Schools.
Why is that an odd summation? Because Gootman pays so little attention to the major way a charter school “can go wrong.” Yes, a charter can be in an ill-suited building, and a charter school can bungle its money. But uh-oh! Charter schools can also go wrong because they have lousy educational programs—because their founders don’t have a clue about how to educate children. You’d think this would be the major way to evaluate the work of a school like ReadNet—but Gootman shows remarkably little interest in this most basic function. Surely, New York isn’t licensing charter schools to find new ways to refurbish buildings; surely, New York is mainly looking for novel ways to help kids learn to read. And how has ReadNet performed on this front? Has ReadNet Bronx Charter “gone wrong” in this matter? Gootman gives us little idea. We get to hear, again and again, about the founder’s good intentions (see below). But did that founder have a good plan for teaching her students? Has that plan helped ReadNet’s children learn to read—helped its 79 kindergarten and first-grade kids, for example? Gootman rushes past these questions in a remarkably cavalier way. We’re exposed to a lot of boo-hoo-hooing about the heartbreaks felt by ReadNet’s adults. But once again, we see little interest in the actual learning of all those ReadNet kids.

Let’s review the history here. The ReadNet school was started in 2001 by Robin Hubbard, described by Gootman as “an Upper East Side architect known for her charm, enthusiasm and prominent friends like Representative Carolyn B. Maloney, a New York Democrat, and Kenneth T. Jackson, editor of ‘The Encyclopedia of New York City.’” Hubbard had lots of “prominent friends”—but did she have an educational plan? Did she have a clue about teaching? Midway through her 1800-word article, Gootman finally offers a brief review of the educational ideas behind the project. As we say, the review is brief—and it’s extremely vague:

GOOTMAN: Ms. Hubbard teamed up with Stephen R. Greenwald, the president of Audrey Cohen College, a small college mostly for working adults, to establish what they hoped would be a ''paragon of quality education'' in Mott Haven, a gritty neighborhood with some of the city's worst schools.

The school was a charter pioneer in New York. According to a thick application that the State Board of Regents approved in 2001, it would use a curriculum developed by the ReadNet Foundation, which Ms. Hubbard had started several years earlier, after helping her own son struggle with learning problems. There would be computers in every classroom, an array of dance and arts programs, and a partnership with Columbia University's history department, one of whose most illustrious professors, Dr. Jackson, was listed as a board member.

Earlier, Gootman wrote that ReadNet was supposed to be “a small charter school with a focus on reading and computers.” But since every elementary school will presumably have a “focus on reading,” that description told us very little—and no, we don’t get much more here. According to Gootman, the school planned to use “a curriculum developed by the ReadNet Foundation”—a curriculum she makes no attempt to describe. Beyond that, we’re told there would be computers in every class and an array of arts and dance programs—and a partnership with the Columbia history department, a puzzling notion for a school which would apparently focus on children in the earliest grades. (Numbers which Gootman sprinkles throughout suggest that more than half of ReadNet’s children are in kindergarten or the first grade.) No, it isn’t clear how Hubbard planned to use Columbia professors to teach her first-graders—and Gootman never tries to explain it. And uh-oh! As it turns out (though Gootman writes imprecisely), the folks in Columbia’s history department seem only dimly aware of this “plan:”
GOOTMAN (continuing directly): But a spokesman for the university said recently that it had no record of any official commitment to the school. In a telephone interview, Dr. Jackson said he did not recall serving as a trustee and had never visited the school, although he praised Ms. Hubbard and called her a friend.

''I remember saying, 'What are you doing this for? You're knocking your head against bureaucracies and everything else.' '' Dr. Jackson said. ''Probably in her enthusiasm, she may have gotten a little bit in over her head.”

Ugh. According to Gootman, a Hubbard spokesman “maintained that Dr. Jackson was on the school board from June 2001 until December 2003, although he was not an active board member.” As Gootman continues, she quotes this spokesman: ''There was a strong hope to have a connection with Columbia and it became clear after '04 that it wasn't going to work.” Again, one comment: Ugh.

Did Hubbard ever have a viable plan for the education of ReadNet’s students? And oh yeah—is such a plan in effect today? Gootman shows little sign of trying to figure that out, although the indications are dreary (more tomorrow). She invests her time on weepy stories about the heartbreaks of a charter school’s closing. But confronted with the obvious indications that Hubbard was (at best) a total incompetent, she just keeps saying how sincere Hubbard was—and she makes no effort to figure out it she ever had an educational plan that should have allowed ReadNet’s existence.

So let’s see. Hubbard began by enrolling kids before she had a building. To this day, she can’t explain where her money went. ($3 million came from the public.) And though she told the state of New York in 2001 that Columbia would be involved in her program, we now learn, through Gootman’s intriguing but vague reporting, that Columbia may not have known much about this. Sifting through this, you’d think a reporter might start to get the smell of educational fraud. But Gootman takes a different approach. Repetitively, she praises Hubbard for her good intentions— “for her charm, enthusiasm and prominent friends.” And she closes with a state official boo-hooing about Hubbard’s passion—about how much Hubbard cared:

GOOTMAN: Shelia Evans-Tranumn, the associate state education commissioner, praised Ms. Hubbard's passion, saying that Ms. Hubbard cared so much about ReadNet's children that some conversations ended with both women in tears.

''Growing a school into academic excellence is not as easy as it looks,'' Dr. Evans-Tranumn said. ''It is a very difficult thing to do, and sometimes even with the best intentions, things don't work out.”

Hubbard “had the best intentions,” we’re endlessly told. But Gootman’s report seems to make one thing clear—in matters of such great importance, “good intentions” aren’t nearly enough. Our question: Did Robin Hubbard “care so much about ReadNet's children” that she actually pruduced a real plan for their futures? The indications suggest she did not—but Gootman agrees not to notice.

''I have this incredible spirit of hope, but it's not always the most cautious way to be,'' Hubbard says at one point in this report. But guess what? A founder’s “incredible spirit of hope” doesn’t justify starting a school. But so what? Gootman shows almost no interest in figuring out whether ReadNet ever head an educational plan—nor does she seem to have made any effort to see what is happening in its classrooms today. Instead, she invites us to weep and boo-hoo-hoo about the heartbreak of poor Robin Hubbard. Sorry. As we watch Hubbard weep, we ask ourselves an obvious question: Should the Readnet Bronx Charter School have gotten that charter? And oh yes: Does the mayor plan to run his future charters in this irresponsible way?

TOMORROW—PART 4: Is this how the mayor plans to run future charters? And will the Times keep reporting the issue in this lazy way?

SHE REALLY CARED: Was there ever an educational plan for this school? We’ll wonder about that a bit more tomorrow. Meanwhile, here’s what happened when ReadNet finally opened—one year late, you’ll recall:

GOOTMAN: The school had to cast about for space, and ended up spending hundreds of thousands of dollars to lease and refurbish a building. Children who had signed up to attend ReadNet in September 2002 were told that it would not open until the following school year.

Even then, the building was not ready in time. In September 2003, ReadNet opened temporarily on the fifth floor of Public School 277, down the street.

There was so much huffing, puffing and prodding involved in getting the school's 79 kindergartners and first-graders up the stairs, said Cary Goodman, the school's director at the time, that they did not come down for recess or lunch. Also, he said, there was no way to use the ReadNet software.

''In August there were no computers, in September there were no computers, in October there were no computers,'' Dr. Goodman said.

More turmoil followed...

Even though it opened its doors a year late, the school still lacked its famous computers! But Gootman, despite reporting this chaos, builds her report around Hubbard’s good intentions. Sardonically, we’ll suggest you recall one fact—Hubbard has “prominent friends.”