The Rev. John Thomas Decries Attack on Democracy in America’s Big City School Districts

The Rev. John Thomas, the retired President and General Minister of the United Church of Christ and now a professor and administrator at Chicago Theological Seminary, writes a blog on that institution’s website about issues of the day.  His prophetic post this week considers Democracy Under Attack in urban public education: “In 1785, John Adams wrote, ‘The whole people must take upon themselves the education of the whole people and be willing to bear the expenses of it.  There should not be a district of one mile square without a school in it, not founded by a charitable individual, but maintained at the public expense of the people themselves.’  In 1787 the Northwest Ordinance set aside one section of each township for a school.  Most of us grew up never calling into question these foundational principles of our American republic.  Today, these notions seem to be turned on their heads.  The whole people is barred from meaningful engagement in the education of the whole people, and the responsibility to bear the expense is increasingly scorned by those who view public dollars as a piggy bank for their private ventures.”

Thomas’ blog post couldn’t be more timely.  Just two days ago New York’s Alliance for Quality Education and several partner organizations released a report, Good for Kids or Good for Carl?, that begs for public scrutiny of the likely conflict of interest involving Carl Paladino, the Buffalo, New York real estate developer who ran unsuccessfully for governor of New York in 2010, and who subsequently has joined Buffalo’s board of education.  According to the Alliance for Quality Education, Paladino is making lots of money from the charter schools that benefit from his votes on the board of education. When questioned about this matter by the Buffalo News, Paladino defended his right to make a profit: “If I didn’t, I’d be a frigging idiot.”

The Alliance for Quality Education explains: “Carl Paladino is the chairman of Ellicott Development, one of the largest property developers focused on the Buffalo area.  Paladino’s companies are the leading charter school developers in Buffalo.  Ellicott Development has worked with the private operators of at least five Buffalo charter schools, either flipping property to the private operators of those schools or financing school construction through pricey ‘leaseback deals’…  As the preferred real estate developer for Buffalo’s charter schools, Paladino is well-positioned to secure more business for himself as a result of using his position on the school board to bring more privately run charter schools to Buffalo.”

The report accuses Paladino not only of profiting from his dual role as school board member and real estate developer but also of failing to honor his own promise to recuse himself from school board votes about the charter schools connected to his business.  “He has a conflict of interest.  Instead of recusing himself, Paladino actually is the most vocal proponent of charter schools on behalf of the majority of the school board.  He recently led the way when the majority members of the school board passed a resolution in support of immediate conversion of four public schools into privately-run charter schools and even offered an amendment that would set the stage to potentially convert all of Buffalo public schools into privately run charter schools.”

In his new blog post, the Rev. Thomas writes: “In city after city the story is the same. Control and management of our public schools is being systematically removed from parents, teachers, and ordinary citizens, and placed in the hands of mayors, their political allies in state legislatures and governor’s offices, their wealthy donors, the operators of charter schools, and politically well connected entrepreneurs and vendors eager to make money from contracts for things like technology or maintenance with the charters they themselves have invested in.”

Profits siphoned from tax dollars are a big part of this problem.  The story of Carl Paladino’s real estate ventures in Buffalo is only the latest in a long series of tales of business tycoons making money from the tax dollars flowing into poorly regulated charter schools.  Earlier this week this blog covered Baker Mitchell’s schools in North Carolina and the national charter management organization, Imagine Schools, that operates in 11 states and conducts a real estate profit scheme through SchoolHouse Finance, its own real estate subsidiary.  Then there is the enormous charter mess in Detroit that was exposed in a week-long investigation last summer by the Detroit Free Press.  And in Ohio, David Brennan of White Hat Management and William Lager of the Electronic Classroom of Tomorrow (ECOT)—who has made over $100 million since 2001 from the two privately held companies he owns that provide all services for ECOT—have been very openly purchasing public policy.

But graft, corruption, and influence peddling are only part of what the Rev. Thomas is describing.  His greater concern is the threat to urban public education as a democratic institution.  Rev. Thomas describes Philadelphia, where an appointed School Reform Commission recently abrogated the legal contract the School District of Philadelphia had established with its teachers union. “Local school boards are vanishing and the collective bargaining rights of teachers, one of the few remaining countervailing power bases available to challenge the privatization of our schools, are under assault.”  He writes about New York City where Eva Moskowitz, the Success Academy Charter School diva, has been able to turn “her wealthy friends loose on the governor and legislature” to ensure that New York City redirects public funds to pay for rent in the private market for her schools if there is no empty space that can be found to co-locate her schools into public school buildings themselves.  And he describes Chicago, where he has been watching as political maneuvering blocked “a non-binding referendum that would have provided the citizens of the city an opportunity to offer an opinion on whether Chicago should return to an elected school board.”  There are other examples.  There is Newark, New Jersey, where Governor Chris Christie declared, “And I don’t care about the community criticism.  We run the schools in Newark, not them,”  and where his appointed superintendent has imposed a massive choice plan on the school district while quashing public protests including the outcry of the mayor. There is New Orleans where the schools were seized by the state and charterized after the 2005 Hurricane Katrina, and there is Michigan, where Governor Rick Snyder has imposed state-appointed emergency managers with the power to abrogate union contracts, turn over school districts to charter management organizations, and even shut down whole school districts experiencing financial problems.

“We have always imagined our schools to be the formative institutions of our democracy,” writes the Rev. Thomas. “What happens to all of us when that is no longer the case?”  I urge you to read Rev.Thomas’ fine column.

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One thought on “The Rev. John Thomas Decries Attack on Democracy in America’s Big City School Districts

  1. Chris Christie’s snarly words describe succinctly the current state of affairs: “I don’t care about community criticism. We run the schools in Newark, not them.” What an admission of overthrowing one of our basic democratic institutions, the public schools, where policies are set by an elected school board made up of members of the community.

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