May 19, 2011

The Charter School Movement and the Corporate Takeover of Education in America

When the Corporate Takeover of Education is Complete, School Employees Will See Reductions in Wages and Benefits and the Elimination of Pensions Just Like Their Private Sector Counterparts (the Charter School Movement is Really About Funding Privately-controlled Schools with Public Money)

Some parents of students at McKinley elementary in Compton, Calif., are fed up. It's a tough town and the school is one of the worst in the state -- ranked in the bottom 10 percent. Sixty-two percent of McKinley parents signed a petition forcing the school district to make it a charter school -- publicly funded but privately run. It's the first use of California's so-called "Parent Trigger Law" where a majority of parents can demand a school shut down, change staff, or become a charter [the parent trigger was created by the organization Parent Revolution, which is not a parent group but was founded by charter school operators, backed financially by billionaires and corporate interests]. However, some parents now say they were tricked or intimidated into signing the petition. If enough of them withdraw their signatures, this whole trigger effort could backfire. Yet, those calling for reform say they're the ones being threatened -- told their kids will be kicked out of school or parents could be deported. These parents are getting support from Michelle Rhee, former head of Washington, DC's schools and the darling of the reform movement. - Fed Up With Failing School, Parents Take Over, CBS News, December 25, 2010

Globalists are Moving at Lightning Speed to Convert Public Schools (and Catholic Schools) to Charter Schools

There has been much public praise for the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation’s efforts to reform public education. However, few scholars have engaged substantively and critically with the organization’s work. While the Gates Foundation is the single largest supporter by far of "choice" initiatives particularly with regard to charter school formation, it is pushing public school privatization through a wide array of initiatives and in conjunction with a number of other foundations. What are the implications for a public system as control over educational policy and priority is concentrated under one of the richest people on the planet in ways that foster de-unionization and teacher de-skilling while homogenizing school models and curriculum? The Gates Foundation and the Future of US "Public" Schools addresses this crucial, unanswered question while investigating the relationships between the Gates Foundation and other think tanks, government, and corporate institutions. - How Bill Gates Plans On Privatizing us Public Schools, The Frustrated Teacher, November 22, 2010

Return of the One-Room Schoolhouse

The American Spectator
March 29, 2011

Even among the nation's woeful traditional big-city school districts, Detroit Public Schools is a particular abomination. Between falling into state receivership for the second time in the past 12 years, facing $327 million in budget deficits for the next four years, wrangling with scandals such as the travails of literacy-bereft now-former school board president Otis Mathis (who resigned last year after the district's superintendent complained that he had engaged in lewd acts during meetings), and constant news about its failure to educate its students, the Motor City district has secured its place as the Superfund site of education.

So it wasn't a surprise when Detroit's state-appointed czar, Robert Bobb , announced on March 12 that the district would slash its deficit -- and eliminate as much as $99 million in costs from operating its bureaucracy -- by getting rid of 29 percent of the 142 dropout factories and failure mills. But instead of just shutting down the 41 schools (as the district originally planned to do) it would convert them into charter schools, handing off instruction, curriculum, and operations to nonprofits, parents groups, and others interested in running schools.

While Detroit's move is certainly driven by cost-cutting, the district is conceding to the reality that the school district model -- with its expensive central bureaucracy, woeful inefficiency, and lengthy record of academic failure -- no longer works either for children or taxpayers. With states and districts facing $260 billion in budget shortfalls over the next two years (and $1.4 trillion in pension deficits and unfunded teacher retirement liabilities in the long haul), charter-like ways of operating schools have become more appealing than ever.

Just outside of Atlanta, the suburban Fulton County school district is taking advantage of a Georgia state law and beginning to convert itself into a charter system. Under the contractual status, the district would be free from traditional degree- and seniority-based pay scales and be allowed to use such innovations as teacher performance pay plans; in turn, school operations move from the central bureaucracies to school-based councils run by adults, teachers and principals. Six other school systems in the Peach State have already converted into charter school systems, and others will likely do follow suit.

In tiny Elkton, Oregon, a town better known as a hotspot for bass-fishing than for school innovation, the one-school district there has taken advantage of a state loophole and fully converted itself into a charter. This has allowed the district to attract students from nearby traditional school systems, creating a form of competition that hadn't previously existed. In the three years since it converted to a charter, Elkton's enrollment increased by 54 percent. Eleven other rural districts in the Beaver State have abandoned the traditional district model in the past eight years; three more have already applied to do so this year.

Then there is New Orleans, which has become the nation's model for school reform. Right after the devastation of Hurricane Katrina in 2005, Louisiana state officials moved to take over 107 of the Crescent City's failing public schools from the faltering traditional school district and began aggressively launching new charter schools. Since then, the traditional district model has been all but abandoned, with both the state-controlled Recovery School District and the old Orleans Parish system operating just 26 of the city's 84 schools; charters account for 70 percent of all New Orleans school enrollment. And even the schools under state control have become de facto charters and, under a plan approved by the state in December, will remain so even after they return to Orleans Parish oversight.

Certainly, traditional school districts still educate the overwhelming majority of the nation's students -- and if the National Education Association, the American Federation of Teachers, and other defenders of traditional public education have their say, it will remain that way. As in the private sector, the advantages of size -- including greater purchasing power -- means that there will always be some large school operators of some sort; even big names within the charter school movement, such as KIPP (which runs 99 schools throughout the nation), Aspire (30 schools in California), and Green Dot Public Schools (17 in California and New York), have enrollments as sizable as some mid-sized traditional districts.

But with just 69 percent of the nation's students ever graduating from high school, big-city districts such as Cleveland and Los Angeles failing to reach even those low graduation rates, and one out of every three fourth-graders reading at levels of functional illiteracy, any thought that big districts equals better student achievement is clearly mistaken. Size (and corresponding big-spending) doesn't turn out to equal efficiency or achievement either. Just 17 percent of the top-spending districts in Florida were among the top third of districts in student achievement, according to a report released in January by the Center for American Progress.

State laws that govern how school districts manage spending and labor -- including collective bargaining rules that were at the heart of the battles last month between unions and governors such as Wisconsin's Scott Walker -- are part of the problem. Detroit, for example, must negotiate with 10 different unions, including locals of the AFT, the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, and the International Brotherhood of Teamsters.

Decades of dealmaking between districts, states and the NEA and AFT have also saddled school systems with teacher pay plans -- including defined-benefit pensions and near-free healthcare -- that have become too expensive to bear; in Jersey City, N.J., for example, the district there spent 184 percent more on teacher benefits in 2007-2008 than it did a decade earlier. These burdens, along with federal regulations such as "supplement-not-supplant" (which requires districts to essentially use Title 1 dollars to fund field trips to prove that they aren't shortchanging students instead of programs that might actually improve their performance), add to taxpayer burdens without improving graduation rates.

The other problem lies with the unwillingness of districts to move to into the 21st century. The refusal to ditch antiquated academic, financial, and management information systems -- even as the federal government has begun embracing the use of MySQL databases and Drupal content management systems -- and the failure to use outsourcing as a way to wring out efficiencies are two examples. Just 69 percent of school buses are kept in operation throughout the school year, according to a 2010 study by Michael Casserly of the Council of the Great City Schools. The contracts districts strike with NEA and AFT locals, along with the bloat in central bureaucracies, also restrict the ability of school principals to actually run schools. School budgets often run in the millions -- usually in the form of teacher salaries -- yet the average principal only controls $60,000 of it, according to education policy analyst (and former Clinton administration honcho) Andrew Rotherham.

But technological advancements offer opportunities to run schools differently. Online learning, for example, offers schools a chance to provide more students with good-to-great teachers -- especially in areas in which districts struggle to staff such as math and science; it's sensible especially given that even poor kids have Internet access. As seen in Detroit, more districts (and states) recognize that they need to adapt charter-like approaches to running schools. New York City took an important (albeit costly) step four years ago when it handed principals the authority to remove laggard teachers from their classrooms.

But cutting down bureaucracies and handing over decisions to schools can only be the start. The need to reform how the nation recruits and train teachers -- which, along with woeful reading and math curricula, is the main reason for the low quality of the nation's schools -- remains paramount. While charter schools have had greater success in improving student achievement than traditional districts, the fact that they still draw from the same university schools of education as traditional district counterparts still means there are many runts in the proverbial litter.

While President Barack Obama's Race to the Top effort has helped force states to ditch laws that restrict the ability of districts to subject teachers to private sector-style performance management, the threat of future restrictions (and the ability of the NEA and AFT to use their lobbying and campaign clout to stop reforms) remains in place. And more districts will be forced to embrace smaller bureaucracies (or out of business), once families are given wider arrays of options through school choice and parent trigger laws that can take schools out of district control. The threat of parent power (along with pressure from school reformers such as Green Dot founder Steve Barr) is why the gargantuan Los Angeles Unified School District is spinning off 186 of its schools into private hands and will authorize 200 charter schools by the 2011-2012 school year.

Given the woes of America's schools and their high costs, returning to the one-room schoolhouse would be better than bloated school bureaucracies.

D.C. Public Charter Schools Since Enrollment Trend SY1998-SY2011

Since the early 1990s, 40 states and the District of Columbia have passed charter school laws, allowing educators and nonprofit organizations to start new public schools. Today 5,453 charter schools are serving more than 1.7 million students during the 2010-2011 school year. - Seton Partners, Catholic Schools Become Charter Schools

In 2010 about 38% of Washington, D.C. 65,099 public school students attended 60 charter schools. Currently, there are 108 charter schools in DC.

Charter schools are independently-operated public schools which receive public funds based upon the number of students enrolled. They receive an allocation based on a per pupil formula developed by the Mayor and the DC City Council. They also receive a per pupil facilities allotment, based on the per pupil DCPS capital budget. Public charter schools must comply with the provisions of the No Child Left Behind Act by hiring qualified teachers and teaching students so that they perform well on standardized tests. In exchange for an unusually high level of accountability, charter schools are granted greater autonomy than traditional public schools. They have control over all aspects of the educational program, staff, faculty, and 100% of their budget. [Source]

Based on the belief that America's public schools should meet standards of excellence and be held accountable, parents and teachers are lining up to choose innovative public schools – charter schools – that are able to meet the individual needs of our children. Charter Schools are one part of a five-part cure for fixing public education detailed in Mandate for Change, and a critical component in American schools' Race to the Top. [Source]

District of Columbia Public School Performance

No Child Left Behind - Adequate Yearly Progress (AYP)

This table provides the count of schools that met the AYP targets for each year, by school type.

Under NCLB, every year the federal government looks at whether the students’ schools have “Adequate Yearly Progress,” or AYP. AYP is the term that the No Child Left Behind law uses to demonstrate a school’s progress towards reaching the national goal of 100% student proficiency in Reading and Mathematics in all schools by the year 2014.

Every DC Public School has been assigned an NCLB status based upon its performance on the DC CAS. Every year a school does not meet AYP for every group of students the government is tracking (black students, white students, Hispanic students, students who receive Free or Reduced Lunch, etc.), it is “flagged” with a status that requires more attention to that school. If a school does not meet AYP for five years in a row, it enters “restructuring” status requiring a significant school turnaround.

School Grade Type SY06-07 SY07-08 SY 08-09 (preliminary)
Elementary Schools Meeting AYP 27 36 28
Middle Schools Meeting AYP 1 2 2
High Schools Meeting AYP 3 4 4

National Charter School and Enrollment Statistics 2010

Charter School Salaries Lower

The average public school teacher salary in Northwest Allen County Schools, Southwest Allen County Schools and Fort Wayne Community Schools was $49,987, while the average teacher salary in Fort Wayne’s three charter schools was $28,584.

Averages included salaries of all teachers, aside from temporary substitutes, and did not factor in wages from East Allen County Schools because of how the district organizes its data.

Charter school leaders said budget constraints make it difficult to match traditional public school salaries. Nevertheless, they said, teachers are drawn to charters out of an appreciation of their mission, a love for the kids they serve, and a desire for autonomy not granted in traditional public school environments.

Critics of charter school wages, however, said teachers deserve more money for their work.

Charter schools are public schools that are free from many of the regulations that govern traditional public schools; most do not have teachers unions.

Indiana is likely to have more charter schools in coming years now that both the Indiana Senate and House have passed bills allowing dozens more entities to sponsor charters. Currently, only the mayor of Indianapolis, six public universities and school districts are able to do so.

According to a 2010 study by Vanderbilt University, charter schools tend to have higher teacher turnover rates than traditional schools. They also tend to have less-experienced, and therefore lower-paid, teachers.

Locally, teachers at FWCS had 14 years of experience on average, compared to five years or less at the city’s charter schools. Those numbers are from the 2008-09 school year, the latest available on the Indiana Department of Education’s website.

Supporters contend that charter schools allow for more innovative teaching techniques and give administrators more freedom to reward and fire teachers based on their performance. Allen County has three charter schools: Imagine Schools on Broadway, Imagine MASTer Academy and Timothy L. Johnson Academy.

Russ Simnick, president of the Indiana Public Charter Schools Association, said charter schools aren’t able to offer high salaries because of the way their budgets are structured.

While public school districts have separate funds and can raise property taxes to pay for transportation and capital projects, he said, charter schools must rely solely on their general fund budgets. Paying employee salaries, he said, takes up a major portion of that fund.

“Sometimes decisions have to be made to fix something in the building, like a roof, and that comes out of the same pool of money that salaries come from,” he said.

Peaks vary widely

According to The Journal Gazette’s analysis, the highest-paid traditional public school teacher in Allen County made about $49,000 more in 2010 than the highest-paid charter school teacher.

Wayne High School teacher Gregg Taylor was the highest-paid, earning $90,924, while Timothy L. Johnson teacher and curriculum coach Carrie Drudge, who earned $41,635, was the highest-paid teacher in a charter school.

FWCS teachers have a base salary cap of $63,055, but they can earn more if they are involved in coaching or other activities and have obtained additional credit hours of education beyond a master’s degree.

That’s the case with Taylor, who is a club adviser, coach and department head, and receives extra pay for college courses and working with students at home.

“For a guy like me, I’ve got to work the extra stuff to get the money,” he said, adding that he enjoys all of his work.

Drudge, who has been with Timothy L. Johnson since its start nine years ago, said she never fretted about her compensation, even when she first joined the school and earned a salary in the low $30,000s.

“I don’t work here for my paycheck. I work here for my kids,” said Drudge, 36. “I’m getting paid to do what I love, so I think that I’m more than fairly compensated.”

Simnick said responses like Drudge’s are common among charter school teachers and leaders. Teachers are drawn to charters because they have more freedom in getting students to learn and because they love the mission of the school, he said.

“I’ve never heard a teacher complain about pay,” he said.

Indiana State Teachers Association President Nate Schnellenberger, however, thinks teachers have a right to complain. Without the protections of unions, he said, charter school teachers are often underpaid – a trend that leads to high turnover rates.

“No one goes into teaching to become rich,” he said. “At the same time, (teachers) should be able to expect a reasonable salary and benefit structure that allows them to focus on their profession and not have to work another job to pay the bills.”

Turnover not issue

The Vanderbilt study, which used data from the National Center for Education Statistics 2003-04 Schools and Staffing Survey, found that 47 percent of charter teachers who left their schools on their own accord did so because they were frustrated by their working conditions.

Western Michigan University professor Gary Miron, who evaluated charter school pay scales and attrition rates in six states, said it’s possible charter school teachers use their charter school experience as a steppingstone to move to public school districts where they earn higher salaries and benefits.

Simnick and other charter school advocates, however, argue that relatively high turnover rates might reflect the fact that charter school leaders are empowered to dismiss poor teachers.

Timothy L. Johnson school leader Steve Bollier said high teacher turnover hasn’t been a problem in his school. He tries to keep his teaching staff content, he said, by talking openly about budget concerns and trying to create a positive work environment.

“You want to create a work environment where people want to come to work,” he said. “So we go out of our way to create an atmosphere where people feel engaged, empowered and (have) a sense of connection to the mission. There’s a similar feeling here of people who go into the Peace Corps and those types of services.”

In general, The Journal Gazette’s analysis found that local charter school leaders’ salaries more closely mirrored the salaries of area principals than those of area superintendents.

Bollier, who in 2010 oversaw a school of about 230 students, was the top charter school earner, making $97,500 – about $97,000 less than FWCS Superintendent Wendy Robinson.

Imagine MASTer Academy Principal Jim Huth, who oversaw about 766 students, was right behind Bollier, earning $91,250 in 2010.

“A lot of these people are the founders of the school,” Simnick said. “If you are doing something you love, pay isn’t the main factor.”

Teachers Won’t Get Tenure, But Charter Schools Will

Retirement is usually packaged with salaries. If the district is controlling salaries, retirement and benefits usually follow. If separated, then the charter school is left to deal with benefit and retirement packages for all its employees. Teachers who work in charter schools do so at their own risk; they are not guaranteed the ability to make contributions to current retirement funds. Charter schools in most states, however, have the option of using the state teachers' pension system. - The Charter School Roadmap, September 1998

Orlando Sentinel
March, 28 2011

Teachers in Florida will have no job security under the merit pay bill that Gov. Rick Scott signed into law last week, but charter schools can get 15 year guaranteed contracts under legislation in the works.

And both will have to do a really good job to earn their contracts – teachers for one year and charters for 15.

The House Education Innovation committee this afternoon approved changes to charter school law that would allow for creation of high-performing charter school systems. A charter operation with three or more successful schools could set up others around the state without jumping through as many hoops with local school boards as charter applicants do now.

A school board would have to present “clear and convincing evidence” that an applicant should be denied, a measure that opponents said is much too high and would give the charter operations free rein to come in anywhere and set up a school. District school boards, as now, still would be left holding the bag to clean up a mess if anything goes wrong with the charter. Think Imani charter school in Orlando,where kids didn’t have books or computers this year and finances are scrambled.

But what really ticks off Chris Ott is the favoritism shown charters over teachers.

Ott, a kindergarten teacher from Alachua County, took a day of his spring break to drive to Tallahassee and testify before the committee today that the proposal is unfair. Highly effective charters get 15 years contracts so they can plan their lives and build schools facilities, committee members pushing the bill said. Highly effective teachers will get one year contracts- and presumably apartment leases for same.

A version of the bill giving charters more rights comes before a Senate committee Wednesday.

Behind the Conservative Curtain: Pseudo Grassroots Organizations Front for Corporate/Government Takeover (Excerpt)

Charter Schools, Character Education & the Eugenics Internationale

In order for the corporations to take control of the education system, the way in which all schools are governed must be changed. Both the binding state education laws and legislative oversight of the public school system must be eliminated.

In the language of the boiler plate charter school laws written for the various states (with help from RAND), charter schools are not bound by the state’s so-called burdensome education laws (except for civil rights and health laws).

For the corporate takeover of public schools to be complete, one more transition must occur––– removing the states’ legislative authority.

The Washington A+ Commission was set up in 1999 by legislative authority. The A+ Commission runs Washington state's Accountability System, which is steadily enlarging its list of “powers and duties” including: changing education laws, performing strategic interventions, and even implementing entire take-overs of school districts. The work of the A+ Commission is about the implementation of GOALS 2000 (achieving the completion of the Carnegie/Business Roundtable blueprint for education) under an accountability system “just beyond reach of public authority.” Mirror-images of the A+ Commission will some day create an interlocking network between the states.

Licking his wounds after the failure of his charter school initiative, Jim Spady issued a statement to his loyal followers:

Dear Friends,

I'm sorry to report to you that Washington's bid, to become the 30th state in the nation to pass a charter school law, died today in the Senate Ways & Means Committee…

The last-minute hope of charter school supporters was that Seattle Public School Superintendent John Stanford (a former Army General who last year stated that he wanted to “convert all of Seattle's 100 schools to charters”) would join the Governor in publicly supporting the bipartisan compromise….

Until then, we can still cheer on our friends in the 29 states that have already authorized charter schools. Knowing that almost 200,000 kids are living the charter school dream in other states helps everyone “keep the dream alive” in WA.

Thanks again!

Jim Spady

The Corporate Takeover of Our Schools Continues

"The education industry represents, in our opinion, the final frontier of a number of sectors once under public control... represents the largest market opportunity... the K-12 market is the Big Enchilada." – Montgomery Securities prospectus quoted in Jonathan Kozol’s The Big Enchilada
February 11, 2011

If we ever needed more evidence that the entire charter-voucher charade is about market share and money making, Expand a Proven Finance Solution for All Charter Schools, by Ricardo Mireles, the well heeled Executive Director of Academia Avance, provides us with clear insight.

In the piece Mr. Mireles, without any regard to the fact that he's discussing public money, advocates "sell[ing] our state receivables to private companies." Let's bear in mind that the state receivables that Mireles refers to is our tax dollars. The last thing the public needs is unelected boards of privatized charter schools gambling with our hard earned tax dollars in cockamamy schemes smacking of the exotic mortgage derivatives market that crashed the economy and made a handful of Wall Street plutocrats even more rich.

By and large, nearly all charter schools (charter schools are schools that take public money, but are run by private entities including corporations), get huge grants from ideologically biased foundations like that of the neoliberal Broad/Gates/Walton Triumvirate. When charters cite studies by far-right think tanks that they tend to get slightly less public funding than public schools, they invariably leave out the fact that they more than make up for such minor shortfalls with a deluge of plutocrat funds to spend with little or no oversight.

No wonder hedge fund managers like the vile Whitney Tilson espouse charter-vouchers schools like they’re the next bubble to profit from. Here’s what the predatory parasite of Tilson Funds had to say in regards to the extremely lucrative charter-voucher industry he helped create:
"Hedge funds are always looking for ways to turn a small amount of capital into a large amount of capital. A wealthy hedge fund manager can spend more than $1 million financing a charter school start-up. But once it is up and running, it qualifies for state funding, just like a public school... It is extremely leveraged philanthropy," Mr. Tilson said. — Joel Klein’s Lesson Plan
Curiously Mireles says "CCSA is a great advocate." He doesn't say what they advocate, but we all know CCSA's advocacy story. Here's a few reminders:
At first I was intrigued as to why Mireles would be pushing a very risky, but lucrative financial shell game. Turns our Mireles is somewhat exceptional in the highly paid charter-voucher CEO world. He only pays himself $65,327 according to his 2009 990 Part VII A, while most charter executives help themselves to lavish six figure salaries. So it isn't surprising he's on board with AIG style dupe-the-public financing. Such schemes give him a chance to further increase his fortunes at the public's expense via clever investing. We can all be sure that companies like Charter School Capital (CSC), discussed in Mireles' article, will be investment vehicles for all the vultures looking to profit off the privatization of public education.

Charter schools are notorious for gross malfeasance and financial mismanagement. Charter School Scandals is probably the best resource for viewing the scope of this endemic and ever growing problem. The site introduces itself with the following:
A compilation of news articles about charter schools which have been charged with, or are highly suspected of, tampering with admissions, grades, attendance and testing; misusing local, state, and federal funds; engaging in nepotism and conflicts of interest; engaging in complicated and shady real estate deals; and/or have been engaging in other questionable, unethical, borderline-legal, or illegal activities. This is also a record of charter school instability and other unsavory tidbits.

We don’t need to look too far for charter schools scandals though, it turns out that “[f]ormer employees and parents accuse[d] Ricardo Mireles of improprieties because of financial pressure at Academia Avance.” This is detailed in a Howard Blume piece “Critics assail director of L.A. charter.” The article details how Mireless, a Coro Fellow, was embroiled in a major scandal at his school. Why Los Angeles Unified School District renewed Academia Avance’s charter defies comprehension. Mireles must have gotten his financial advice from the notorious Mike Piscal of ICEF ignominy.

Privately managed charter schools are so rife with malfeasance, that the very birthplace of charter schools — Minnesota — recently placed a moratorium on them. This is because it was found that “75% [of charter schools] had a least one irregularity noted in their financial audit.” Rest assured, whenever you put public money into private hands, corporate charlatans will find a way to pocket it. All the while saying that they are doing it for the kids, and that theirs is a kids centered agenda.

I’ve got a better idea: If corporate charter-voucher schools were obligated, like public schools, to educate every child, we would see the proliferation of charters disappear almost overnight. Take the profitability out of the equation, and charter schools would return to their original mission.

To join the fight-back against corporate charters and the privatization of public schools, join your local chapters of Coalition for Educational Justice (CEJ) and Parents Across America (PAA). Together, collectively, we can stop the privatization of public education by demanding people before profits.

How Content Standards Enable Corporate Takeover of Public Education

Public education is under assault form both sides of the aisle, with the Bush-era No Child Left Behind and President Obama's Race to the Top. Schools have gone from “community-based, educator-initiated local efforts to spur alternative approaches for a small number of students, to nationally funded efforts by foundations, investors and educational management companies to create a parallel, more privatized system. - Stan Karp, Director of the Secondary Reform Project for New Jersey’s Education Law Center

We are giving away our schools and now we want to get rid of transparency… so we can do whatever we want in the dark of night. - Marguerite P. LaMotte in response to Yolie Flores Corporate Charter Choice Resolution

Open Left
March 28, 2010

Somewhere on Wall Street there is a frustrated investment banker. He's run model after model and he can't understand it. No matter what he tries, he's just not seeing the kind of numbers his high high-flying clients expect.

Instead of generating markets where more people are either buying more stuff or buying more expensive stuff, the fundamentals of the American economy just don't grow anymore. Population growth is treading water. Disposable income for most people is on a sharp decline. And globalism and the Internet have reduced everything to a commodity, so prices are driven into the dirt.

If only there were a way to break into a whole new market. A market where demand is certain, but competition is weak, and pricing can be highly controlled. Kind of like what those guys in the defense business have been enjoying.

Take public schools, for instance. It's almost 6% of our economy that is mostly off-limits to big business. Sure, you can get a contract here and there. But what about something going nation wide! Now that could yield double-digit growth right away. Maybe 20% or more!

The infrastructure has already been built. R&D is minimal. We've all been to school. We're not talking rocket science here. And everyone pushes education in a bad economy.

Once you get around the unions, teachers are a dime a dozen. Heck, some will practically volunteer for the job. And I'm sure we can get foundation money for the start-ups. After all, "it's for the kids."

Only problem is that each school and district is so different from one another. Everything is geared to the local population, and what works for one school doesn't necessarily work for another. That makes every deal a one-off with no economies of scale to work to your advantage. If only there were a way to get some standardization across the board.

Maybe our guys on the Hill can help us out with that . . .

jeffbinnc :: How Content Standards Enable Corporate Takeover of Public Education
If the above hypothetical sounds too far fetched to you, consider the story of Neil Bush and Ignite Learning.

When George H.W. Bush was elected in 1988, he vowed to be the "education president." A Nation at Risk had been published five years earlier, providing school bashers with the perfect propaganda piece to wale away at public education. The economy was sliding into recession, and Americans were being warned that they were in danger of "falling behind" in the global economic competition because of our "broken" schools.

The combination of a recessionary economy and the outspoken rage against American public schools combined to push forward an agenda for education reform. America, we were told, was being ill served by its locally controlled school governance that tended toward diverse approaches to curriculum and instruction to meet local needs. And in order for the US to "keep pace" in a rapidly changing world, schools desperately needed "standardization."

From Wikipedia:

"In 1989, an education summit involving all fifty state governors and President George H. W. Bush resulted in the adoption of national education goals for the year 2000; the goals included content standards."
With the influence of Diane Ravitch, the Assistant Secretary of Education, from 1991-1993, the content standards movement took the driver's seat in education policy, where it has remained throughout the past 20 years, peaking in 2001 with the passing of the No Child Left Behind legislation during the younger George Bush's presidency. NCLB became the perfect trigger for national standards as it enforced them by requiring all public schools to gear their programs toward having students score well on standardized tests.

Meanwhile, back in the Bush I presidency, Neil Bush, the fourth of the six Bush children, got into deep water in a savings and loan scandal. Like many other big-time investors, he was hard pressed to re-build and find new profit centers in a recessionary economy. But by the time the '90's rolled around, Neil was on to a new venture, and he was in the process of raising $23 million from U.S. investors to start a company called Ignite Learning. The business plan for Ignite Learning was to offer "standards-based" computer software learning centers, called Curriculum On Wheels (COWs), that had "demonstrated success in improving the test scores of economically disadvantaged children." And by the time NCLB rolled-out, Ignite was ready to rumble.

Very quickly, Ignite placed its COWs in at least 40 U.S. school districts. According to the Los Angeles Times,

"At least 13 U.S. school districts used federal funds available through the president's signature education reform, the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001, to buy Ignite's portable learning centers at $3,800 apiece."
Among the contracts were school districts in Florida where Neil's brother Jeb was governor. Neil Bush insists that Ignite's success is not due to any "interface with any agency of the federal government." But who needs "interface" when you have family? Just look at the cast of characters that's influenced the company's rise to success (emphasis, mine):
  • "Most of Ignite's business has been obtained through sole-source contracts without competitive bidding.
  • The Washington Times Foundation, backed by the Rev. Sun Myung Moon, head of the South Korea-based Unification Church, has peppered classrooms throughout Virginia with Ignite's COWs under a $1-million grant.
  • Oil companies and Middle East interests with long political ties to the Bush family have made similar bequests
  • Barbara Bush has enthusiastically supported Ignite. In January 2004, she and Neil Bush were guests of honor at a $1,000-a-table fundraiser in Oklahoma City organized by a foundation supporting the Western Heights School District. Proceeds were earmarked for the purchase of Ignite products.
  • The former first lady spurred controversy recently when she contributed to a Hurricane Katrina relief foundation for storm victims who had relocated to Texas. Her donation carried one stipulation: It had to be used by local schools for purchases of COWs.
  • Texas accounts for 75% of Ignite's business."

So what have standards-driven COWs (I can barely write that without laughing) actually achieved in the classroom? Well if you're looking for genuine learning, not so much. The only "results" Ignite reports on its website are a series of "testimonial" videos, some of which are thoroughly discredited in the LAT article. But if you're looking for ROI, there's lots of good "results." According to watchdog group CREW, "some school districts spent hundreds of thousands of dollars in federal money" on COWs, including a $1,000 annual licensing and upkeep fee.

But the connection of content standards to corporate corruption of public education doesn't need to be based solely on the basis of Neil Bush and Ignite Learning.

Ex Secretary of Education Bill Bennet has also had his turn at the trough when he "teamed with a Virginia company backed by the education firm Knowledge Universe that is Michael Milikin's money to start up his home / cyber learning for-profit school which is also commodisizing [sic] educational products. Bill managed to cut a deal with the X [sic] Governor Ridge of Pennsylvania to be allowed into the state and because of his political connections has managed to secure business relationships with several other states."

So is there a genuine case for standards-driven education? Not much. As Alfie Kohn points out, the push for content standards has always been "driven more by political than educational considerations." (emphasis mine)

"To politicians, corporate CEOs, or companies that produce standardized tests, this prescription may seem to make sense. (Notice that this is exactly the cast of characters leading the initiative for national standards.) But if you spend your days with real kids in real classrooms, you're more likely to find yourself wondering how much longer those kids -- and the institution of public education -- can survive this accountability fad.

Are all kids entitled to a great education? Of course. But that doesn't mean all kids should get the same education. High standards don't require common standards. Uniformity is not the same thing as excellence - or equity. (In fact, one-size-fits-all demands may offer the illusion of fairness, setting back the cause of genuine equity.) To acknowledge these simple truths is to watch the rationale for national standards - or uniform state standards - collapse into a heap of intellectual rubble."

It's true that many nations whose students score well on international tests have content standards to guide their schools. But many of those countries, particularly in Asia, are reconsidering that. As Yong Zhao writes: (emphasis mine)

"The U.S. has been trying hard to implement what China has been trying to be rid of. An increasing number of states and the federal government have begun to dictate what students should learn, when they should learn it, and how their learning is measured through state-mandated curriculum standards, high school exit exams, and the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB). There are calls for even more centralization and standardization through national standards and national testing, as well as through rewarding or measuring schools and teachers based on test scores.

I find this trend in American education perplexing. If China, a developing country aspiring to move into an innovative society, has been working to emulate U.S. education, why does America want to abandon it? Furthermore, why does America want to adopt practices that China and many other countries have been so eager to give up? But most vexing is why Americans, who hold individual rights and liberty in the highest regard, would allow the government to dictate what their children should learn, when they should learn it, and how they are evaluated?"

Despite the lack of solid evidence for nationalizing our curriculum, President Barak Obama and his Secretary of Education Arne Duncan have made "common core standards" a cornerstone of education policy. According to Education Week,

"President Obama recently proposed that Title I funding for disadvantaged students be tied to whether states have adopted the Common Core State Standards. And . . . in order to get the most bang for their buck in Race to the Top applications, states have to promise to adopt the common standards."

And once again, lining up behind the administration's push for standardization is the usual combination of business-related cronies, including corporate-trained school leaders, charter schools entrepreneurs, and billionaire-backed foundations. Only this time, adding to the powerful leverage of content standards and testing, the Obama administration is also pushing charter schools, widespread layoffs of teachers, and the shuttering of public schools.

As I noted in a QuickHit on OpenLeft earlier this week, you can draw a straight line from mass layoffs of teachers that recently occurred in Albany, NY directly to Wall Street investors:

"The mass layoffs are a direct result of Governor David Patterson's successful effort to lift the caps on charter schools in order to qualify for Race to the Top Funds. This allowed rightwing foundations and billionaires on Wall St. to pour, according to this report, "tens of millions of dollars" into the charter school movement in the Albany region." (Oh, and it's just coincidental that these deep-pocketed donors also gave money to Patterson's election fund.)

The main charter recipient was the Bright Choice chain of charter schools, whose president, according to EdWise, is an outspoken rightwing advocate and foe of teachers unions.

Other recipients, again according to EdWise, are 'for profit charter management firms Victory Schools and National Heritage Academies'"

Some could argue that we need national standards in order to keep religious, rightwing zealots rewriting curriculum at a local level to fit their philosophy, as a conservative Texas school board recently did. But isn't it dangerous and naive to assume that these sorts of conservative factions would not have the same level of influence at the national level? And does anyone really think that a curriculum designed and paid for by big business is going to be impartial to topics that are antithetical to corporate capitalism and the goals of getting children "career-ready" rather than truly educated?

Rather than a one-size-fits-all approach to educating the nation's children -- an approach that enables big businesses to connect the dots from standards, to testing, to charter schools and private takeover of public education -- it's time for politicians to listen to educators and look for systemic ideas for improving education in the classrooms of real teachers. Good teaching is not a "product" that can be packaged and rolled out nation wide. Our kids are not "consumers." And the drive for profit is not analogous to bequeathing the gift of lifelong learning to all children everywhere.

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