Don Nielson

Don Nielson recently had yet another op ed published by the Seattle Times, a newspaper which has provided many wealthy (white) men with a platform and microphone to share their opinions with the rest of us on public education. This time Mr. Nielson wanted to state that a lack of adequate funding for public schools is not the problem, it’s having an elected school board among other things.

What came to my attention, thanks to my co-editor’s sleuthing, was the fact that the same Don Nielson is also a Senior Fellow at the Discovery Institute and “chair of the Institute’s program on public education reform.”

discovery instituteThat wouldn’t be too shocking except for two items. First, Don Nielson has had a great influence over Seattle Public Schools in the past and continues to try and influence the public conversation now, and also because the Discovery Institute’s Center for Science and Culture is “dedicated to the reinvigoration of traditional Western principles and institutions and the worldview from which they issued” and is “the institutional hub for scientists, educators, and inquiring minds who think that nature supplies compelling evidence of intelligent design. We support research, sponsor educational programs, defend free speech, and produce articles, books, and multimedia content.” And here’s another good one:Discovery Institute has a special concern for the role that science and technology play in our culture and how they can advance free markets, illuminate public policy and support the theistic foundations of the West.”

With all this in mind, let me take you back a bit.

In 2010 I wrote the first in a series of posts titled “The Battle for Seattle” which provides a history of the Broad Foundation in Seattle and the attempt at a corporate takeover of the district.

To follow is an excerpt from Part One: Don Nielson and the Broad Foundation to provide some context:

Secretary of Education Arne Duncan with Eli Broad at President Obama's first Inaugural Ball
Secretary of Education Arne Duncan with Eli Broad at President Obama’s first Inaugural Ball

Someone asked me recently to describe the presence of the Broad Foundation in Seattle. At first I thought that would be an easy task because it all started with our superintendent, Dr. Goodloe-Johnson, right?

Well, not really. It started several years before she arrived on the scene here in Seattle and it started with two people, Don Nielson and Joseph Olchefske.

The Broad Foundation’s goal is to privatize our public school system by way of charter schools. Eli Broad has become influential over the years, beginning in 1999, in transforming school districts around the country to his vision of what education should be. As Mr. Broad makes clear in a recent post on the Huffington Post, he does not see the need for educators to necessarily be a part of our public school system; rather people with a background in business, law or the military would make far better choices to run our schools. That viewpoint is fine to have as long as it is not forced on an unsuspecting public but unfortunately it has been with at best mixed results.

The people of the state of Washington have voted against charter schools being in our state twice so far but there is an effort for that to change with the next legislative session which begins in January, 2011. That campaign began a long time ago and in a rather surreptitious manner

I will begin with Don Nielson, a person who has been on the scene as well as behind the scenes in Seattle since 1992.

Mr. Nielson began his foray into education after retiring as CEO of Hazelton Labs, a business that he had successfully developed over the years. Don Nielson received his MBA from Harvard Business School and has since been active as an alumnus with the Seattle Harvard Business School Alumni Association. He is also a member of the Board of Advisers with the University of Washington’s School of Education where he had received his BA.

Upon his retirement, he traveled around the country, looking at different schools and school districts and decided upon his return to Seattle that he would become actively involved in education by running for school board director. His bid was successful and he began his first term as a director on the Seattle school board in 1992.

Don Nielson became President of the Seattle school board in 2001. He handled running the school board like running a business. As a previous board member said to me, “If you were chosen to be on the board by Don Nielsen, you would be sent back east for this corporate training.” That training was done by the Broad Foundation.

According to one board member who had gone through the “corporate training” when asked why the board was not more receptive to parent input, she said that at the Broad training they were told that as board members they would get thousands and thousands of ideas from the public but the only ideas they should pursue were those from “professionals” at national conferences and at Broad meetings.

Mr. Nielson was also part of the faculty of The Broad Center for Superintendents.

See The Lines of Influence in Education Reform.

Mr. Nielson’s business, Teach First, recently merged with editure which focuses on online virtual schools and colleges with testing and assessment services and tutoring centers. They also provide educational software and e-learning tools and stand to make a lot of money with the standardization of curriculum and the testing that is based on that curriculum.

Since this post was published in 2010, Don Nielson has had a few op-ed’s published in the Seattle Times. He has stated that class size doesn’t matter, the Supreme Court decision that charter schools are not “common schools” was a mistake and that teachers should not go on strike.

So next time you read yet another op ed by Mr. Nielson, consider the source.

Dora Taylor