Detroit, Education — November 5, 2016 at 10:10 am

The Today Show’s Matt Lauer deceptively pitches Shinola partnership as providing scholarships to needy Detroit kids


Apparently Matt Lauer doesn’t know **** from Shinola when it comes to charter schools

I happened to be watching The Today Show yesterday morning (which I have only recently returned to watching after NBC fired Billy Bush), and looked up to see anchor Matt Lauer in a hair net and booties, standing in the Shinola watch assembly room in downtown Detroit. The focus of Mr. Lauer’s story was his new “partnership” involving Shinola and the Detroit Edison Public Academy, a “public charter school” in Detroit. Here are the heartwarming details:

Matt teamed up with Detroit-based lifestyle brand Shinola to create a five-piece collection for his TODAY’s Original product.

Matt takes us back to “a time of civility when people actually took out a piece of paper and a pen to say thank you.” The collection includes a boxed card set for handwritten notes, along with a 12-month planner, paperback journals, a leather passport wallet and nylon watch straps.

The products are inscribed with the number 20, representing Matt’s 20 year anniversary on TODAY on January 6, 2017.

Matt says he chose to partner with Shinola because the company’s products are modern and current, but still have a traditional twist. To this day, the first thing Matt does when he wakes up is open his leather-bound calendar and look at his agenda.

All of the proceeds from Matt’s TODAY’s Original collection will go to the Detroit Children’s fund to benefit the Detroit Edison Public School Academy.

In the segment from the show, Mr. Lauer went on to say that “the proceeds go to a great cause: scholarships (emphasis mine) for kids at the Detroit Edison Public School Academy,” followed by a sales pitch for viewers to buy his “personally-branded” watch straps, passport holders, and notebooks.

It’s at the 4:21 mark and again at 5:50 in this segment:

Now, I hate to be “that guy,” but Mr. Lauer clearly needs to be brought up to speed on some basic charter school facts.

Charter schools can’t legally charge tuition, so there’s really no such thing as “scholarships” for students to attend Detroit Edison Public Academy (DEPA). What Mr. Lauer is actually doing is making a personal financial donation to the Detroit Children’s Fund (DCF), “an affiliate charitable organization of the Skillman Foundation.” Now, while it is certainly Mr. Lauer’s right to steer the proceeds from his “leather-bound notebooks” wherever he chooses, let’s be clear about where his money is going.

The Skillman Foundation has a long history in Detroit of funding and supporting most of the movements and organizations that have contributed to the dire situation in which the city’s schools currently find themselves. Most notably, this includes the Education Achievement Authority (EAA), Gov. Rick Snyder’s move to wrest local control of the schools away from Detroit’s citizens and transfer the governing power for the city’s schools to a group of the area’s wealthiest and most elite CEOs and business executives.

Wayne State University professor Thomas Pedroni explains the tangled web of connections and relationships between the “players” in the dismantling of Detroit’s public schools over the last decade or more–with all strands leading back to Skillman:

Although Excellent Schools Detroit advertises itself to Detroit’s families as an objective source of school data compiled to help families in pinpointing and selecting quality schools for their children, the connections between ESD and the EAA suggest a closer relationship. The current Chair of both EAA administrative boards, Carol Goss, incubated and funded Excellent Schools Detroit in 2010 in her capacity as CEO and President of the Skillman Foundation. Goss, who also served as ESD Chair until December 31, 2013, serves on the three-member board of the Michigan Education Excellence Foundation, through which funds are funneled from the Broad Foundation, the Bloomberg Foundation, and others, to the EAA. Five current or recent ESD board members, including EAA Chancellor Covington and Goss, who served as ESD Chair until December 31, 2013, currently serve or have recently served on the EAA board.

It’s worth mentioning here that the current DCF Board includes the aforementioned Carol Goss, who previously served as Chair of two EAA boards, as well as Tonya Allen, CEO of Skillman, a major player in Detroit Public Schools (DPS) politics over the years; Jacques Panis, President of Shinola; Arn Tellem, VC of Palace Sports & Entertainment, owners of the Detroit Pistons; and, Kellie Ilitch, daughter-in-law of Mike Ilitch, owner of the Detroit Tigers and Red Wings

So, Matt Lauer is not providing “scholarships” for kids to go to DEPA so much as he’s lining the pocket of the Shinola/Skillman/DCF collaboration. In so doing, Lauer is merely contributing to the already inequitable allocation of resources in Detroit’s schools–an inequity that privileges charter schools over traditional public schools, and makes an already skewed playing field tilt even more strongly away from real public schools.

Why is this important? Because DEPA — like other charter schools in Detroit — has cannibalized public school enrollment from DPS. Between 2002 and 2016, DPS enrollment has plummeted from 156,000 to just 46,000 students, a nearly 70% decline. Much of this decline has been fueled by the explosion of charters in the city, and the often cut-throat methods these schools pursue to secure enrollment and fill seats. The phenomenon, known as charter “creaming,” works like this: competition for students between traditional public schools and charters exerts pressure on individual schools that results in targeting high-performing students as well as those who are least impacted by personal and social disadvantages. Many charter schools, especially those of the “for-profit” variety (of which Michigan leads the nation), are more focused on producing financial returns than on serving students, resulting in a preponderance of this type of behavior.

In order for a partnership to be valid and meaningful, it must provide a benefit to each partner. The “partnership” between Mr. Lauer, Shinola, and DEPA primarily benefits the foundations that have invested in the city’s charter schools, not Detroit’s children, families or the community in general. Funding and maintaining two parallel, separate, yet unequal school systems places untenable stresses on a city already desperate for resources and support. It’s an unsustainable business strategy, and one clearly focused more on corporate profits than on students or learning.

If Matt Lauer and Shinola really want to do something to “give back” to Detroit, they would demand that the city’s businesses and sports franchises pay their fair share in taxes, instead of extorting the city to provide obscene tax incentives and givebacks on arena construction and parking concessions. The Detroit Downtown Development Authority has already appropriated $250 million in tax dollars earmarked for schools to pay for a new practice facility and possible headquarters for the Detroit Pistons:

To finance the project, $450 million in bonds were issued, of which $250 million are being paid off using property and school taxes captured by the DDA. The authority is legally allowed to capture property and school taxes within what’s known as a tax increment financing (TIF) district to fund economic development in downtown Detroit.

And, Lauer and Shinola would insist that groups like the Skillman Foundation and the Detroit Children’s Fund use their considerable political influence and “clout” in Detroit to actually work for the improvement of educational equity and access for all of the city’s children–not just the “lottery winners” who attend DEPA.

[CC image credit: Roland Tanglao | Flickr]