Joel Klein

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Joel Klein: ‘something of an educational superstar’, according to Michael Gove; pictured centre between Murdochs Jr and Sr

Joel Klein has been a key figure in market-based education reform in America.

As Chancellor of the New York City Department of Education from 2002 to 2010, he introduced reforms that dramatically increased the number of new charter schools in the city.

He subsequently led News Corp's move into digital education. In January 2016 he went to work for Oscar, a US health insurance start-up with a focus on technology.[1]

The lobbying campaign behind Klein's NYC school reforms

Excerpt from A Quiet Word: Lobbying, Crony Capitalism and broken Politics in Britain[2]

A decade ago, Tony Blair's school reformer, Michael Barber arrived in the US to assist in the reform of New York City’s schools, the largest government-funded school system in the country. Hot-footing it from Downing Street in 2005 as a McKinsey consultant, Barber was one of a handful of advisers drafted in by the City’s mayor, Michael Bloomberg, and his schools chancellor and central school reform figure, Joel Klein.

Together they set out to make the city a ‘laboratory for educational experimentation’, one that would be closely watched across the US. The transformation of New York’s schools was described as entire system reform.

One of the central changes undertaken by Klein was a dramatic increase in the number of independent charter schools in the city. (Charters are the US's equivalent of the UK's academy schools: state-funded, but independently run).

He was, though, all too aware of the resistance such a move would face. Lined up to oppose him were America’s powerful teaching unions, a sizeable proportion of New York’s residents, and some vocal commentators like Diane Ravitch, a former assistant Secretary of Education under George Bush Sr. Klein had a fight on his hands.

What follows is the abbreviated story of how he and his fellow reformers won.

Enlisting the reformers (and their money)

In 2005 Klein put out a call to arms to corporate America. CEOs, he said, must become vocal advocates for schools reform. The business community needed to step up or America’s position in the world was going to be ‘significantly in peril’, he warned. Klein’s call was answered by a group of America’s big-money philanthropists, dubbed the Billionaires’ Boys Club. One central player was a friend of Mayor Bloomberg, Microsoft’s founder and chair, Bill Gates.

Gates has long been an evangelist for school reform and one of its biggest funders. He sincerely believes that business and market principles can make US schools perform better, and in technology as a means for improving standards. Through his foundation, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, which is worth $34bn, he has ploughed billions of dollars into US school reform programmes, or ‘experiments in education,’ as he puts it. He has pumped money, for example, into independent charter schools, which he sees as the ‘innovators’ driving this revolution.

Gates pledged his support for Klein’s cause. He was joined by other philanthropists in the billionaires’ club, including the investor Eli Broad, the Walton family of Wal-Mart fame and the computer magnate Michael Dell. Over the next few years they collectively invested millions in filling New York with charter schools.

Alongside the charter school operators looking to expand in the city, some of whom received cash from the billionaires’ fund, another supportive community also pledged its commitment to reform: New York’s hedge fund managers, many of whom also became charter school sponsors. These financiers were, in Klein’s words, the ‘army of foot soldiers for the movement’. Education reform became known as the ‘hot cause’ for Wall Street types.

This was the core of the reform lobby in the war over New York’s schools: the reform-minded politicians and their officials, like Klein, the billionaires’ club with their unlimited resources, the charter school operators and the financiers. Now let us turn to their lobbying.

Lobbyists make the case

First, reformers needed to win the argument. The case for reform needed to be framed and crafted in such a way that large numbers of people would not just support their plans, but would be driven to organise around charter schooling and be prepared to challenge its opponents.

‘We need to hit on fear and anger,’ the lobbyist Rick Berman advised a gathering of wealthy philanthropists interested in school reform. ‘And how you get the fear and anger is by reframing the problem,’ he said. Berman, who has a history of creating front groups, attacking unions and working for the tobacco industry, told the reformers that rather than intellectualise the education debate, they needed to trigger an emotional reaction in people. ‘Emotions will stay with people longer than concepts,’ he said. So, rather than a rational debate on the merits of their plans, reformers needed to motivate supporters by tapping into their fears for their children’s future and provoking anger at those opposed to reform.

Gathering the third parties to spread the message

Next, the education reform lobby funded third party groups to push for change. These third party lobby groups – the middle managers of the reform movement – have played a dual role in the battle for America’s schools. They have helped to carry the message – carefully crafted and honed with this emotional punch – to politicians, the media and the public.

Some have also been key in fronting attacks on the lobby’s opposition. Lobbyists need not just to push their case, but to undermine that of their opponents. This was true in the battle over schools, with the unions bearing the brunt of attacks.

School reform lobby groups have talked openly of their underhand methods to beat their union counterparts. Tactics include employing all the best available lobbyists in a state just to prevent the unions from hiring them. They have also advised on spreading the unions thin with decoy legislation directed at teachers, allowing pro-reform laws to fly under the radar. Reformers needed to ‘play offense’ and stop giving the opposition time to organise, advised one education reform lobbyist at a Gates-sponsored get-together of education philanthropists.

Third party groups for the reformers also played a significant role in the battle over New York’s schools. Three central organisations represent the core activities of the reformers’ lobbying.

Media front

The campaign group, Education Reform Now, was set up to campaign for the reformers’ agenda, including pushing for more charter schools, and to act as a counterforce to the state’s two major teachers’ unions and their combined membership of 900,000. The group is tight-lipped about its donors, but members of the billionaires’ club, Walton and Broad, are among them. As is typical of these lobby groups, its board includes some heavy-hitting charter school sponsors from the hedge fund world.

Education Reform Now could be seen as representing the media wing of the lobby. The advocacy group has worked hard to win New Yorkers to its side. In just two years from 2010 it spent more than $10m on campaigning, primarily attacking teachers’ rights and pushing for more charters. Three-quarters of the money went on TV and internet advertising campaigns to match the media spend of the unions. The public did not see its wealthy backers though. The lobby group used selected school teachers who opposed their union’s position to front their campaigns.

Political front

Education Reform Now has a sibling lobby group, Democrats for Education Reform. This organisation represents the reformers’ political fund. It is an entity known as a political action committee, or PAC. PACs are a significant feature of US politics. They raise and spend money to support the election of political candidates. While teaching unions are also huge spenders in US elections, their options are narrowing. Democrats for Education Reform’s mission has been to win the Democratic Party over to the reformers’ cause. It also lobbies for more charters. In the New York State elections of 2010, it financed only pro-charter candidates. Democrats for Education Reform is backed by, among others, the founders of hedge funds, and its board is again a sea of Wall Street financiers.

Practical front

Then there is the practical wing of the lobby, the organisations driving actual change on the ground. The New York City Charter School Center is a kind of one-stop-shop for all things charter which lobbies for and provides practical help to pro-charter supporters. It was formed in 2004 by what are described as a group of philanthropists who were galvanised by Klein’s reforms. Gates and the other billionaires are donors to the group and its board includes charter school operators. (The UK’s New Schools Network is modeled on it and the NYC Centre’s James Merriman became an advisor to NSN).

Let battle (against the unions) commence

By 2010 these third party lobby groups were positioning themselves to go all out in their battle to reshape New York’s school system. City legislators were looking to pass a new law that would more than double the amount of charter schools allowed in the city. It was the ‘fight of our life’, as one charter supporter put it.

With a multimillion-dollar war chest, Education Reform Now embarked on a TV and radio ad campaign aimed at winning support for the new law. The funds also paid for phone banks and door-to-door canvassers to urge voters to lobby for the bill. The unions hit back with a campaign attacking the hedge-funders’ attack on teachers and public schools.

Klein played a central role in the campaign. ‘We need to mobilize,’ Klein wrote to a fellow reformer at the start of 2010. A tight-knit group went about the task that included Joe Williams of Democrats for Reform; a representative of Education Reform Now; James Merriman of the NYC Charter School Center, charter school operators, and Klein, the official.

A cache of emails released under Freedom of Information law shows Klein and his officials coordinating the effort with the lobbyists, which included bringing in the money, although Klein denied being directly involved in fund-raising, and seeding the media with pro-charter voices.

Klein was coming under pressure from the charter school operators to bear down on the opposition. One reformer-cum-charter school boss, Eva Moskowitz, emailed that this was their ‘last chance to be SUPERAGGRESSIVE in standard of excellence’, advising Klein to go all out in attacking the unions: ‘Blame ’em. Every hour of the day. Pr offensive,’ she urged.[3]

On one occasion, Klein and several charter school lobbyists took part in a conference call with a large foundation to secure funds for Education Reform Now’s campaign. After the call Klein emailed one of the lobby group’s consultants: ‘You were terrific,’ he wrote. ‘Perfect pitch, perfect message.’ Another participant emailed: ‘Who’s the heavy breather on the call? Normally, I’d ask them to mute their phone but I don’t want to alienate any donors.’ ‘Some overweight billionaire,’ Klein replied.

The emails also reveal Klein’s officials collaborating with the lobbyists to place material in the media to support their campaign. This included recruiting third parties, like an influential New York pastor in Brooklyn, to write articles supporting the charter school bill. The pastor’s appeared, with input from officials, in the Murdoch-owned New York Post.

The emails reveal a shocking closeness and, as many have argued, an inappropriate alliance of interests between public officials and lobbyists. The New York City Parents Union described the arrangement as corrupt. ‘The first thing I noticed was the chummy exchanges,’ says Diane Ravitch, who is singled out in the correspondence for her opposition to charters as ‘moronic’, ‘idiotic’ and a ‘deranged crackpot’. ‘The public officials who are paid to protect and support the public schools of New York City are working hand-in-glove to advance the interests of the privately managed charters, not the public schools,’ she said.

Lobbying success

Klein got his bill through and the number of charter schools in New York was set to shoot up. It was a long slog and not always a pleasant one, Merriman wrote, but ‘the end product . . . moves us forward and lets the chancellor [Klein] and the ed reform community continue its work’. Klein quit as schools chancellor just months later. In the New Year he became chair of the lobby group Education Reform Now.

In spring 2011 Klein shifted seats to chair yet another pro-reform lobby group, StudentsFirstNY, which later joined forces with Democrats for Education Reform. For its first year, StudentsFirstNY was run by the official who helped write New York’s charter school law. It is the state arm of a US-wide campaign group led by Klein’s equivalent in Washington, its former schools chancellor and a strident education reformer, Michelle Rhee. It is known to have received funds from the billionaires’ club.

As this illustrates, the education reform movement draws from a small but powerful well.

... and onto flogging edtech for News Corp

On leaving public office, at the end of the summer of 2010, Klein was hired by Rupert Murdoch and picked to lead his budding education division, Amplify. Murdoch and Klein had become close and reportedly talked frequently about the state of America’s public schools. Was he in the loop, for example, over the 2010 New York charter expansion law? Klein was advised by one of his officials: ‘It may be good for you to call Murdoch and tell him why this is a good bill.’

Murdoch started his digital education business with the purchase of education software company, Wireless Generation. It had previously held an $80m contract with Klein’s department for a big data project that tracked student’s test scores, which was seen by many as a failure.

Having succeeded in his goal of making New York a ‘laboratory for educational experimentation’, Klein’s next big task was to flog education technology on behalf of Murdoch. The ‘digital revolution in education’ is coming, he said in an interview in Murdoch’s Sunday Times. Klein urged the UK to ‘go faster’ in its adoption and predicted that in ten years’ time, instead of going to school every day, children may spend more time at home, logging into virtual schools.

Five years later, though, Amplify was on the rocks, unable to sell enough of its tablets pre-loaded with digital curriculum and testing software. Murdoch sold the business in September 2015 to its management team backed by private investors. Klein stepped down as CEO, but remains on the board.[4]

Political connections (UK)

Joel Klein is friendly with former education secretary and the UK's one-time reformer-in-chief, Michael Gove. Gove described Klein as ‘something of an educational superstar’. Klein returned the compliment, calling Gove a ‘hero and a friend’.

One of their meetings, accompanied by more than ten other people, occurred just before the announcement of Klein’s job with Murdoch in September 2010. Among those present was Fraser Nelson, editor of the Spectator, board member of the Centre for Policy Studies and a vocal reform lobbyist, who with his fellow Spectator writer.

On another occasion in early 2011 Klein was Gove’s guest in Britain. Klein was due to speak at the Free Schools Conference alongside Gove.[5] The three day trip was devoted to discussions on US education policy.

Klein has also been an influence on the UK's New Schools Network, which is the vehicle for getting free schools moving in England. The impetus for NSN was a fact-finding trip to New York by Rachel Wolf. Wolf’s mission for the Conservative Party in 2008 was to study city’s charter school reforms. She took inspiration from Joel Klein and was keen to learn from his experience, asking for advice on ‘convincing’ arguments to persuade the public and journalists of the case for privately run schools. Klein declined an offer from Wolf to be on the Network’s council. Instead James Merriman of the New York Charter School Center became an adviser to his British counterparts.

Phone hacking investigation

Rupert Murdoch announced on 6 July 2011 that he had appointed Klein to "provide important oversight and guidance" as his company "fully cooperate with the police in all investigations" into the phone hacking scandal which had engulfed News Corporation subsidiary News International.[6]

External Resources


  1. Joel Klein, Ex-New York Schools Chancellor, to Join Health Insurance Start-Up, New York Times, 14 January 2016
  2. Tamasin Cave and Andy Rowell, A Quiet Word: Lobbying, Crony Capitalism and broken Politics in Britain, Vintage, 2015. The printed text is fully referenced.
  3. Email from Eva Moskowitz to Joel Klein, 20 December 2009, released by the NY Education Department
  4. News Corp. Sells Amplify Education Unit to Management Team, Bloomberg Business, 30 september 2015
  5. Hundreds of teachers, charities and parents gather for first ever Free Schools conference, Department for Education, 28 January 2011.
  6. Peter Hutchison, Phone hacking: Rupert Murdoch brings in Joel Klein to oversee investigation,, 7 July 2011.