2 min read
If you want to know why "public-private partnerships" that have been all the rage lately (especially at the White House) may not be a panacea, look no further than this article in last week's Washington Post.

According to the paper, "Washington DC's Office of Campaign Finance will investigate a complaint, filed by an outspoken critic of Schools Chancellor Michelle A. Rhee and Mayor Adrian M. Fenty, alleging that Rhee violated the law by soliciting donations from private foundations that reserved the right to pull their funding if there was a change in the school system's leadership."

During the past two years of tense negotiations between education-reform superstar Michelle Rhee and the regressive union that controls the DC schools, Rhee pulled out all of the stops, getting the Walton, Broad, Arnold and Robertson foundations to pledge $64.5 million toward funding a 20% raise for teachers. In return, Rhee got a voluntary merit pay system (which would include rewarding teachers for teaching in the worst schools) as well as more authority to get rid of bad teachers. The philanthropic support was a smart way to break the education deadlock.

The foundations rightly told Rhee and her colleagues that they had no interest in pouring money down the drain, which is to say, if there were a leadership change (read: the unions got the upper hand again in the public school bureaucracy) she should count them out. That's some strong due diligence. I wouldn't expect anything less from Eli Broad and his philanthropic colleagues.

So what's the problem? Well, apparently Robert Brannum, the president of the DC Federation of Civic Associations believes that the foundation's making their support contingent on Rhee's leadership constituted a personal financial benefit to her. Brannum, who has been an outspoken critic of Rhee, is not exactly acting in good faith here. He clearly doesn't like the intrusion of these reform-minded foundations and he doesn't like Rhee's attitudes either. He has referred to her as "petulant" and a "reckless tyrant."

The idea that she contrived this deal for personal financial gain is a little absurd. Michelle Rhee doesn't need this job and she could probably be making a lot more money doing something else.

But there is an interesting question here. Which is to what extent private foundations can make their donations to government entities dependent on which politician is on top. You know, some foundation says they'll only enter a partnership with the National Endowment for the Arts as long as Democrats retain control over it? The legal answer is complicated and the DC schools seem to have shifted money around so as not to raise too many red flags. But I think the waters can get murky.