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I approach this topic with caution because I was a founding board member of the Thomas B. Fordham Foundation and Institute. I was a close friend of Checker Finn, until I broke ranks and turned against the conservative activism in which TBF is a prominent actor. I don’t say bad things about Checker or Mike Petrilli. But I don’t agree with them, I think they are doing immeasurable damage to public education, and I regret that they lack the ability to be self-critical or reflective. When I was on the board, I strongly opposed the decision to accept funding from the Gates Foundation. I said it would compromise TBF’s independence. I was right. I opposed the board’s decision to become a charter authorizer in Ohio, where TBF is technically located. I thought that a think tank should not be a charter authorizer. That was well before I took issue with the whole conservative package of standards, testing, accountability, and choice.
Phelps raises a serious issue of “donor intent” and whether it was honored. The TBF Funds were intended by their owner to be used strictly for charitable purposes, Phelps writes, never to benefit any individual nor to influence legislation. When I was a member of the board, I was unaware of these restrictions. Mrs. Thelma Fordham Pruett’s lawyer was Checker Finn’s father. He was chairman of the board of the TBF foundation. He decided that the funds—about $35 Million—were not restricted, and he turned them over to his son, who became CEO of the new foundation and used the funds to promote a highly political agenda of education reform. The Fordham Institute has led the way in advancing privatization by charters and vouchers in Ohio. Nationally, it was and is a leading voice in promoting the Common Core standards. Gates paid millions of dollars to TBF both to evaluate the Common Core and to advocate for it.
This is a very troubling report.