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.”

leader change

Memphis leader of Teach for America stepping down this spring

PHOTO: Teach for America Memphis
From left: Athena Palmer, executive director of Teach for America Memphis, Ayo Akinmoladun and Barbara Rosser Hyde.

The leader of Memphis’ largest alternative teacher training program is stepping down at the end of the school year after nine years at the helm.

Athena Palmer was in the first cohort of 48 Teach for America recruits to Memphis in 2006 and took over as executive director in 2010. Over the next six months, Palmer will hand over the program to Nafeesha Mitchell, a 2009 member of Teach for America in Charlotte who worked her way up to assistant principal before returning to lead the national organization’s chapter there.

In an email to colleagues Thursday, Palmer said she doesn’t know yet where she’ll go next.

“Someone really smart once told me that knowing when to leave is just as hard as knowing when to stay committed,” she said. “As our current strategic plan comes to an end and with our region in an incredible place from which to innovate in the sector, it became clear to me that this was a great time to embrace the feeling I have for my next adventure.”

PHOTO: Teach for America
Athena Palmer

The competitive national program places mostly recent college graduates in schools that districts have a hard time staffing. Teach for America has welcomed about 1,200 teachers over the past 12 years in Memphis with a commitment to stay in the classroom for two years. This year, 263 teachers are in 108 traditional and charter schools, including the state’s Achievement School District. That’s fewer than in previous years, keeping in line with national trends.

The program has consistently received high marks from the Tennessee Department of Education in its annual teacher preparation report card, and has enjoyed wide support from local and national philanthropies. Teacher unions have been wary of the program’s influence because the teachers have little training before going into classrooms that can be difficult to manage.

About 500 alumni of the program are still in Memphis, according to recent numbers from the organization, including 100 school administrators, 300 teachers, and five in charter network or district leadership roles. Among them is Brad Leon, a member of the top cabinet for Shelby County Schools who was the first regional director for Teach for America in Memphis.

PHOTO: Teach for America
Nafeesha Mitchell

Under Palmer’s leadership, the teachers recruited have more closely matched the students they serve in race and economic background. This year, 42 percent of recruits were teachers of color, and 42 percent came from low-income families. In the organization’s first year in Memphis there were three teachers of color, or 6 percent. By comparison, about 93 percent of Shelby County Schools were composed of students of color that year and 59 percent lived in poverty.

Mitchell, who will take over in June, is a vice president on the national organization’s leadership and engagement team. She starts as deputy director immediately and will be in Memphis full time in January, according to a statement.

“Memphis is regarded around the country as one of the model Teach For America chapters,” she said. “Athena and her team have built something incredible here, and I’m thrilled to be able to expand on her work and push all of us even harder to reach our goal of true and lasting equity for all children in this great city.”

In the lead

The winners of Tuesday’s Detroit school board election include one incumbent and one new arrival

School board candidates Corletta Vaughn (L) and Deborah Hunter-Harvill, the incumbent, are in the lead with 87 percent of Detroit precincts reporting.

An incumbent Detroit school board member has retained her seat and will continue to help guide the state’s largest school district for another four years.

Deborah Hunter-Harvill, a former suburban school superintendent, will be joined on the board by Corletta J. Vaughn, the pastor of the Go Tell It Ministry Worldwide church in Detroit. The two were the top vote-getters among eight candidates seeking to fill two seats on the seven-member board.

Though the Detroit school board election was near the bottom of a full midterm election ballot, the vote comes at a crucial time for the 50,000-student district. Superintendent Nikolai Vitti will need the board’s support as he continues to overhaul the district’s curriculum and address serious challenges including the $500 million repair bill the district is facing as it tries to bring its aging buildings up to modern standards. 

With so many candidates vying for two seats on the board, name recognition was crucial. That gave Hunter-Harvill, the only incumbent in the race, a key advantage. She and Shannon Smith, a financial analyst, also outraised their opponents by thousands of dollars and spent their campaign coffers to buy billboards, yard signs, and mailers.

With 100 percent of Detroit precincts reporting early Wednesday morning, Hunter-Harville was the clear winner with 22.6 percent of the vote. Vaughn was second with 18.8 percent of the vote. Reverend David Murray and Smith were not far behind with 18.0 percent and 17.9 percent respectively. They were followed by Britney Sharp (13.6 percent), Terrell George (14.7 percent), and Natalya Henderson (12 percent).

Deborah Elaine Lemmons, a sister of current board member LaMar Lemmons, had 12.9 percent of the vote even though she let it be known that she had dropped out of the race a few weeks ago, citing health reasons. Candidate M. Murray was in last place with 5.7 percent of the vote.

At the polls, voters said they wanted to ensure that children in Detroit had the same opportunities as those in the suburbs.

“Access to education is the biggest thing,” said Jesus Hernandez, a 30-year-old resident of Southwest Detroit.

To learn more about the winning candidates, read their answers below to six questions about how they plan to guide the city district over their four-year terms: