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Richard Phelps’ Deep Dive Into the Thomas B. Fordham Foundation/Institute, and More

September 18, 2018

On September 16, 2018, researcher and consultant Richard Phelps sent me an email; in the subject line, he wrote, “your work is cited, referenced, and mentioned throughout.”

The body of the email included a single link, Common Core Collaborators: Six Organizational Portraits, which leads to the following five reports:

Since my research is referenced and I am “cited, referenced, and mentioned throughout” Phelps’ work, I am too close to his reports to formally review them. However, I wish to feature one in particular in the remainder of this post: The report in which Phelps examines the Thomas B. Fordham Foundation and Institute.


The Fordham Institute (TBF) is a propaganda outlet for ed reform, including school choice and the Common Core, and a fine example of how a few well-positioned, unaccountable, and otherwise unqualified individuals have achieved the veneer of expertise regarding American education, also garnering for themselves amazing salaries from the cushy employment of promoting their propaganda as expertise.

Phelps offers much useful information about TBF in his 30-page report, much more than I am able to highlight in this blog post.  Still, what I feature here is important for the study of the exploitative potential of ed reform.

Let’s jump in. (Note that in my block quotes, I omit end notes for ease of readability.)

Below is much of Phelps’ TBF intro:

According to a recent publicly available filing with the Internal Revenue Service, the Thomas B. Fordham Foundation is “the nation’s leader in advancing educational excellence for every child through quality research, analysis, and commentary, as well as on-the-ground action and advocacy in Ohio.” The mission statement for the legally separate but commonly owned Thomas B. Fordham Institute uses exactly the same words. Moreover, the two organizations share the same board of trustees. All of which would lead one to believe that the two entities—foundation and institute—should be considered two parts of the same whole.

But, the perhaps confusing bifurcation of the Fordham organization only begins the proliferation of organizations run by a network of movers and shakers. To the untrained eye, there may appear to be separate organizations with different missions, points of view, and staffs. To the more patient observer, the same cast of characters cycles through the offices, web pages, and publications of a legally and financially related network of organizations. And, the Fordham principals can be found at the center of the web, deciding who (and who does not) gets to belong in the education reform establishment.

Fordham’s website mission statement reads

“… our primary role—both nationally and in our home state of Ohio—is
to frame the debate, occasionally in unconventional ways, and to
identify problems that are ignored or glossed over by the

Notice it does not read, “foster a debate”, “inform the debate”, or “promote
a debate”. The active verb is “frame” or, in some documents, “shape.”

“Influence” seems to be a recurring, overarching theme in the work of the
Fordham organizations. Which prompts the question: for what purpose? Is
the influence used to make the world a better place for all, or just for those
wielding the influence? Is the influence a means to an end, or an end in

In “History and Governance,” Phelps offers some eye-opening facts regarding TBF former president, Chester (“Checker”) Finn’s self-elected “free hand” in running TBF:

Until 1995, the Foundation’s Board of Trustees consisted of (a perhaps naively trusting) [TBF creator] Ms. [Thelma Fordham] Pruett and the family lawyers, two members of the Finn family (Checker Finn’s father and grandfather). Ms. Pruett ran the foundation on a day-to-day basis from its founding until her death, 36 years later. At that point, according to Checker Finn, “because Thelma gave no clear guidance” regarding how to spend the foundation’s money, the foundation board, now comprised entirely of Finns, decided that they “had a free hand.” …

Scott Pullins, a writer for an Ohio online publication clearly suspicious of
Checker Finn and Fordham’s Ohio activities, dug up the original incorporation papers from 1959…. It includes statements such as:

Applying [the funds] exclusively to religious, charitable, scientific,
literary, or educational purposes or activities

No part of the net earnings of which inures to the benefit of any
private shareholder or individual

No substantial part of the activities of which is carrying on
propaganda, or otherwise attempting, to influence legislation

The members of this corporation shall not have any interest in the
property or earnings of this corporation in their individual or private
capacity, and prior to any dissolution of this corporation, all of its
property shall be applied and used and entirely consumed for the
purposes hereinbefore provided.

…Funds from the Thomas B. Fordham estate, under the supervision of Checker Finn, have been used frequently “to influence legislation”. As for the “inures to the benefit of any private shareholder or individual” one might wonder how the charitable Ms.
Pruett might regard the current quarter-million dollar compensation packages for Checker Finn and current Fordham president Michael Petrilli, and their unusual investments in rather sketchy partnerships in offshore tax havens. …

Assuming that, at this point, the Finns have “gotten away with it”, the more
relevant point now is that Chester A. Finn, Jr., arguably our country’s most
influential voice in US education reform, came by his influence purely by chance. The Fordham Foundation origin story might just as well involve his winning the Powerball Lottery or discovering a long-lost chest full of doubloons buried in his back yard.

The happenstance of Finn’s personal fortune might have suggested resisting any tendency toward a presumption of superiority in thought and deed, or any grand schemes to remake others’ lives against their will. No one elected him. His spending decisions have rarely been subject to any sort of public review. Moreover, unlike most foundation founders, he did nothing whatsoever to earn the funds he now selectively distributes to others. Finally, only rarely does Fordham pay to evaluate the programs upon which it bestows funds. And, on the rare occasions when it does, the evaluators chosen tend to be in-group reliables.

As for TBF’s involvements in Ohio, some excerpts:

…$35,000 of Fordham money went to Philips Exeter Academy, arguably the most prestigious and most amply endowed secondary institution in North America, for the “Finn Family Fund.” (Though Fordham money was donated, the donation was attributed to the Finns.) Checker Finn is a 1962 Exeter graduate. Another $50,000 went to Chaminade Julienne, a private school in Dayton. Fordham Trustee and Secretary Thomas A. Holton, Esq. served on its board. The Fordham organizations appear to have also paid Holton and his firm three-quarters of a million dollars or more directly in legal fees.

Other Fordham donations went to the University of Dayton ($230,000) and Parents Advancing Choice in Education ($1.2 million); Holton served on their boards, too. Holton, by the way, worked at the same law firm that had employed Checker Finn’s father and grandfather, the firm responsible for honoring Thelma Fordham Pruett’s wishes. Upon the retirement of another trustee from the Fordham Board, David Ponitz, and his fulltime position as president of Sinclair Community College, Fordham donated $25,000 to the Sinclair Community College Foundation.  …

By 2017, the Gates Foundation had transferred at least $12 million directly to Fordham.

In a related article, Pullins’ colleague Conner Brown describes closed-door negotiations from which one of Fordham’s own former staffers, Paulo DeMaria, was chosen as Ohio’s state superintendent. He remains there today. Notably, DeMaria neglected to mention his Fordham connection in his Ohio Department of Education bio, even though (as of July 26, 2017) the Fordham website sill listed him as staff. The new Ohio Education CEO, however, revealed his long association with the Common Core/Gates Foundation front organization, Education First. …

Fordham’s political triumph in Ohio, ironically, coincided with a steep decline
in its contributions to within-state causes….

And about the shift in the money coming to and going from TBF, centered on the Common Core golden goose:

Parallel to the decline in Ohio giving, Fordham’s outgoing contributions generally have declined over time. Over $1 million was distributed annually through 2004. By 2015, only $261,200 was given away.

The Fordham organizations seemed to undergo a major change in behavior and focus around 2004–2005, at the start of Checker Finn’s second decade at Fordham’s helm. While the amount of contributions going out declined, the amount of contributions coming in rose….

Fordham’s transformation from primarily donor to primarily grantee was set by 2005 with $2 million from …guess who? Prior to 2007, most Fordham funds emanating from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation—about $2.6 million—were directed toward Ohio programs…. From 2008 on, however, virtually all of Gates $10 million Fordham largesse paid for Common Core activity. Checker Finn, who had strongly opposed President Bill Clinton’s much milder attempt at a national evaluation system several years earlier, signed on with the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation specifically to promote the Common Core.

Once Fordham had tapped the Gates money spigot, other donor funds gushed in. The Fordham organizations accepted $200,000 in contributions or grants in 2002. By 2015, they were pulling in $4.7 million, most of it Common-Core related. …

Fordham became a giant Common Core advocacy grant-processing
machine. The tail now wags the dog.

And back to TBF leadership Looking Out for Number One:

About the same time that the Thomas B. Fordham organizations pivoted roles from primarily grant giver to primarily grant receiver, they found new places to stash (hide?) cash, in hedge funds and offshore tax havens…. Money formerly invested in ordinary US stocks and bonds now went to obscure holding companies…. Tax write-offs are just one incentive for investing in “distressed” firms and overseas shell companies. Your everyday stock and bond mutual fund typically does not offer such exotic financial instruments as the multimillion dollar interest rate swaps in which Fordham has participated for several years.

Hedge funds fees can be expensive, however. Fordham’s move to hedge funds started soon after Michael W. Kelly, a Wall Street expert in private fund management, joined the Fordham board. Fordham’s annual investment fees escalated from around $30,000 in the period 2008–2010 to $328,046 in 2014.

From Phelps’ section, “Education Reform Is Us,” info about some familiar ed reform “TBF spinoff” orgs:

From the beginning of the Finn-era Fordham Foundation, the beneficiaries receiving the largest proportion of outgoing funds represented steady customers and staunch political allies—organizations that Fordham worked with directly and continuously. In some cases they are spinoffs—entities that Fordham helped create and with which it continues regular working relationships. They include the National Council on Teacher Quality (NCTQ), the Philanthropy Roundtable, the now defunct Keys to Improving Dayton Schools (KIDS), and the publication Education Next, which Fordham personnel help edit and publish and which, in turn, frequently publishes the musings of Fordham staff.

And about that TBF-proclaimed “humility”:

In years of observing Fordham’s behavior I haven’t noticed much of the “humility, and … willingness to change our minds—and admit when we are wrong” claimed on its website. More common has been a proclivity to suppress dissent, shun or ridicule those who disagree, and promote their in-group as the only legitimate spokespersons for the “other side” along a wide range of education policy issues.

Checker Finn waxes nostalgic about the early days of Fordham’s predecessor, the Education Excellence Network, and Diane Ravitch’s key, co-founding role in both. But, now that she openly disagrees with them on some issues, Fordham President Michael Petrilli insults her as a “kook”, and her long-standing relationship with the Brookings Institution is revoked on an absurd technicality. An Education Next essay insults her personally and generally ridicules as an inferior intellect.

Agree with TBF and its positions; be characterized as  “thoughtful,” “serious,”
“sober,” and “principled.” Disagree, and, well:

Robert Pondiscio is “Senior Fellow and Vice President for External Affairs” at the Thomas B. Fordham Institute. His Education Next essay, “Lessons on Common Core: Critical books offer more folly than wisdom,” typifies Fordham’s “humble” approach. Pondiscio “reviews” six books written in opposition to the Common Core Initiative. Throughout the essay, he liberally portrays himself as a cool, measured, reasonable fellow, with the public—“parents and taxpayers alike who simply want a decent education for their kids”—on his side. The Common Core-critical book authors, meanwhile, are “carping”, “spleen venting,” “fear mongering”, and “conspiratorially minded” “excitable enemies.”

Pondiscio’s essay is short on substance and long on selective and colorful prejudicial quotations, adjectives and adverbs. He characterizes Mercedes Schneider’s exhaustively researched Common Core Dilemma, for example, as “riddled with scare quotes and sarcasm.” Other descriptors employed for Common Core opponents include “bombast”, “overreach”, “dark mutterings”, “hyperbole”, “obsession”, “paranoia”, “folly”, “frets”, “paranoid conspiracy theories”, and “overreach.”

Individuals Pondiscio agrees with, however, are “thoughtful”, “serious”, “sober”, and “principled.” …

Pondiscio eases up a bit on his own “overheated” rhetoric for one book—the
Pioneer Institute’s Drilling Through the Core. Perhaps not surprisingly, Drilling happens to be the only one among the six books written by authors one might legitimately characterize as elite—people Pondiscio might suppose he may need to work with sometime in the future—including a few individuals sometimes found inside his education reform tent, such as Stanford’s Williamson Evers.

Early on in his Education Next essay, and frequently in other venues, Pondiscio prominently brandishes his classroom teaching experience to establish his bona fides as a front-line educator. Moreover, on its website, the Fordham organizations proclaim

… we see much wisdom in “subsidiarity”— the doctrine that important
matters ought to be handled by the competent authority that’s closest
to the action, which in education usually means parents, teachers, and

But teachers wrote the other five books Pondiscio reviewed, and he ridicules them mercilessly as ignorant rubes lacking the understanding that might qualify them to engage in a debate he believes to be beyond their intellectual reach.

One more thought:

Cronyism, Corruption, and Conflicts of Interest

Also unfortunately typical of Fordham essays on causes it is richly paid to promote: never once does Pondiscio mention his conflict of interest, nor those of Fordham.

Well. Enough from this “competent authority closest to the action.”

Do read the rest of Phelps’ TBF report (I hopped right over TBF’s Ohio charter school involvements), and feel free to peruse his four other reports linked above.


TBF President Michael Petrilli


Want to read about the history of charter schools and vouchers?

School Choice: The End of Public Education? 

school choice cover  (Click image to enlarge)

Schneider is a southern Louisiana native, career teacher, trained researcher, and author of two other books: A Chronicle of Echoes: Who’s Who In the Implosion of American Public Education and Common Core Dilemma: Who Owns Our Schools?. You should buy these books. They’re great. No, really.

both books

Don’t care to buy from Amazon? Purchase my books from Powell’s City of Books instead.

  1. LisaM permalink

    And good old Checker Finn got appointed to MSDE by his good buddy Gov Hogan. We are tied to Common Core and PARCC. It was a campaign ploy for votes as Hogan openly voiced his distaste for reform and promised to rid our state of Pearson/PARCC and the Common Core 4 yrs ago…..then reneged on his campaign promises and accused the teacher’s union of thuggery. Next up, he appoints Finn and we get every single reform put out by the “stink tank” of TBF. I don’t know why the rich people in this state don’t revolt for what is happening in our schools. We are nothing but test prep mills with hight test scores and neurotic kids and parents.

  2. Linda permalink

    A former VP of education from the Laura and John Arnold Foundation is on the Fordham Board. She’s currently CEO of Magnolia charter schools which Fordham identifies as “public”. Prior to her tenure with Magnolia, Magnolia employed 97 foreign workers. Most of them were Turkish nationals working as teachers. (Oct. 12, 2016, L.A. Times)

  3. Linda permalink

    Fordham Institute gave an award to Hanushek. Paint me surprised. Wikipedia lists Hanushek’s wife as Stanford CREDO’s Director, Margaret Macke Raymond.

  4. Linda permalink

    Hacked e-mails, allegedly from the DNC/Podesto, showed us that Randi volunteered to be CAP’s attack dog against the nurses union who supported Bernie. CAP posted a paper this month with 3 citations from a researcher who is (a) executive editor of Education Next (2) a grant recipient of a more than a million dollars from Arnold, the Waltons and Lumina and (3) an employee of the Gates, Arnold and Pete Peterson-funded Urban Institute. CAP’s paper was selling the idea of expenditures for curriculum materials because, “Research shows instructional materials can have an impact equal to or greater than the impact of teacher quality”. The 2012 research cited as backing that claim, was derived from a source that wasn’t identified. If scrutinized, IMO, the claim wouldn’t hold up.
    It’s time to rid the Dem party of the influence of CAP and Podesto. If Randi wants to play servant to CAP, the AFT should be rid of her.

  5. Dear Ms. Schneider: The full name is

    The Fordham Institute for the Paying of Big Bucks to Officers of the Fordham Institute

    There’s an infinitely looping version of that, but, space, you know.

Trackbacks & Pingbacks

  1. Mercedes Schneider: Conflicts of Interest, Common Core, Gates Foundation, and the Thomas B. Fordham Institute | Diane Ravitch's blog
  2. Mercedes Schneider Discusses Richard Phelps’ Critical History of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute | Diane Ravitch's blog
  3. Laura Chapman: Aaron Churchill, Minister of Misinformation for Privatization in Ohio | Diane Ravitch's blog

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