Walmart Heirs Invest Heavily to Promote Charter Schools

Twas the night before Christmas, and if you were reading the newspaper, you may have noticed some coverage of school privatization.  In case you missed it, please read Sally Ho’s article for the Associated Press on the Walton family’s financial investment in promoting charter schools in African American communities.

Ho describes how the Waltons have been investing to swing a contentious debate about the implications of growing school privatization: “Charter schools, which are publicly funded and privately operated, are often located in urban areas with large black populations, intended as alternatives to struggling city schools.  Black enrollment in charters has doubled over the course of a decade, to more than 760,000 students as of 2015-16… but the rise also has been marked by concerns about racial segregation, inconsistent student outcomes, and the hollowing-out of neighborhood public schools.  While some black leaders see charters as a safer, better alternative in their communities, a deep rift of opinion was exposed by a 2016 call for a moratorium on charters by the NAACP, a longtime skeptic that expressed concerns about school privatization, transparency and accountability issues. The Black Lives Matter movement is also among those that have demanded charter school growth be curbed.”

Ho reports that pro-charter Walton money has flowed to organizations like the United Negro College Fund for scholarships for students who want to pursue education “reform,” to the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation to sponsor events, and to 100 Black Men of America and the National Urban League for support of charter schools.  Walton money also paid for a luncheon at a conference of the National Association of Black Journalists, a luncheon featuring a panel of Walton pro-charter grantees.

Walton money has underwritten local efforts as well, including transporting three busloads of charter school supporters from Memphis to protest at a Cincinnati meeting of the NAACP, where the agenda focused on the NAACP’s 2016 resolution to press for a moratorium on new charter schools.

At the local level this year the Waltons are also bankrolling political candidates. The Chicago Sun-Times followed up the day after Christmas with an in-depth report on Walton money being invested in the 2019 election for Chicago’s mayor and aldermen. Reporter Lynn Sweet explains: “The children and grandchildren of Helen and Sam Walton, founders of the Walton Family Foundation and Walmart, are donors to the nonprofit Illinois Network of Charter Schools and its two allied political action committees…. the INCS Action PAC and the INCS Action Independent Committee, which is an independent expenditure PAC.  An independent expenditure PAC can raise unlimited amounts of money from donors. However, the money cannot be given directly to a candidate. An independent expenditure PAC runs its own campaign to support or oppose a contender.”

At a time when charter school support in Chicago seems to have plateaued, Sweet reports that the Waltons are investing to try to stop the slippage: “Because the stakes in the February Chicago election are so high, the INCS political arm, mainly through independent expenditures, is raising political cash to bolster pro-charter school candidates.” “The publicly funded, privately operated charter school movement in Chicago may be at a crossroads, fighting to not lose political ground and retain enrollments in a period of slowing growth. A charter school champion, the anti-public union Gov. Bruce Rauner lost his re-election bid; another supporter, Mayor Rahm Emanuel, is stepping down, and the race to replace him is wide open, with the powerful Chicago Teachers Union backing Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle. The CTU organized at the 15 schools in the Acero-managed charter network in Chicago and earlier in December successfully led the first strike ever in the U.S. against a charter school operator.”

In Chicago, charter school promoters have been facing increasing pushback from advocates who seek to stabilize and improve the Chicago Public Schools. Roosevelt University economists have documented how the expansion of charter schools has financially undermined the city’s public school district. Advocates, including those who mounted a 34 day hunger strike in 2015 to reopen Dyett High School, have established that the expansion of charters was a major factor five years ago in the closure of 50 traditional public schools. The Consortium on School Research at the University of Chicago released a study on widespread community mourning following the 2013 public school closures, and Eve Ewing, a University of Chicago sociologist, just published a ground-breaking and very moving book about the loss of public school institutions on Chicago’s South Side.

Jitu Brown, an organizer at Chicago’s Kenwood-Oakland Community Organization and now the Executive Director of the national Journey4Justice Alliance, comments on charters and school privatization in a forward to a major Journey4Justice report,  Failing Brown v. Board, published in May 2018:  “In education, America does everything but equity. Alternative schools, charter schools, contract schools, online schools, credit recovery—schools run by private operators in the basement of churches, abandoned warehouses, storefronts; everything but ensuring that every child has a quality Pre-K through 12th grade system of education within safe walking distance of their homes.”

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Charter Grants from Arne Duncan Destabilize Under-Resourced Public Districts

There is growing evidence that we have a big problem with public money flowing to poorly regulated charter schools—schools that do a poor job of educating students and that find all sorts of ways to rip off the public and suck in tax dollars that are desperately needed by the public school districts in which they are located. But there is a bigger problem.  In school districts that are not growing demographically—the big cities where charters are expanding—the rapid growth of new charters is destabilizing the public schools.  Research continues to demonstrate that charter schools attract parents who are active choosers and children who do not present really expensive education challenges.  Charters are known to serve fewer English language learners and fewer students whose special education needs are complex—fewer autistic, blind, deaf, and multiply-handicapped children, and fewer homeless children and those who are living below 50 percent of the federal poverty level.  Traditional public school districts are being turned into school districts of last resort as they are expected to serve the children left behind by school choice while money is divided with more and more charter schools.

At the end of September, the U.S. Department of Education awarded over $157 million to seven states, the District of Columbia, and eleven charter school projects across the country for the expansion of charter schools.  The outrageous granting of $71 million to Ohio even as the state was locked in a political battle about establishing even the most minimal oversight of charter schools has been questioned in the press. But what about the other grants?

This week Linda Lutton, the education reporter at WBEZ Chicago, questions the five-year charter grant of $8,412,500 to the Noble Network of Charter Schools in Chicago.  She describes the astute reaction of Jesse Sharkey, Vice President of the Chicago Teachers Union: “Our neighborhood schools have a hard time just delivering a basic education program.  But at the same time there’s federal dollars and private dollars mixing together to privatize schools… It’s like we’re going on a privatization bender in our schools.  And we’re gonna wake up in the gutter and discover that we have sold off the asset of our public education system, and our schools are being run by private operators that don’t have our values.”

Michael Masch, the former school finance chief of the School District of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, offered a very similar analysis recently to the Philadelphia Inquirer.  The reporter describes Masch’s worry about the the consequences for the public school district when charters are quickly expanded: “Masch expressed concern that the boom in charter expansion could reach a point of implosion, as the demand to finance new (charter) school buildings is derived mainly by the transfer of students out of traditional district schools. ‘There are no new students coming into the Philadelphia school district and yet we’re building all these new schools. At some point, you’re going to have to start closing schools.’ Masch also said that because charters get guaranteed funding based on the number of students they will enroll, their budgets stayed relatively stable while the district made deep cuts in response to a shortage of state education dollars.  As a result, construction of new district school buildings has ground to a halt. ‘Whether it’s a plan or a strategy or an unintended consequence, the reality is that you have brand-new buildings for charters while district schools are falling apart.  You’re starving one system to fund another.’”

Precisely how does the expansion of charters threaten the public schools in cities where charter networks are rapidly growing?  Lutton describes Chicago, where a district phase-out process leads to the closure of public schools: “Several Chicago high schools this year have freshman classes of just 20, 25, or 30 kids—that’s the entire freshman class.  There are more than two dozen district-run high schools—including neighborhood high schools Fenger, Harper, Hirsch, Manley, Richards, Robeson, and Tilden—with fewer than 400 students total.  A half dozen high schools have fewer than 200 students.  The under-enrollment problems have ballooned as the city has continued to open new high schools—part of its school improvement efforts—even though high school enrollment has been essentially flat.  Since 2004, the population of high school students has grown less than 2 percent, while the number of high schools has grown 58 percent—and that’s not including dozens of alternative schools the city has added.”

Community members and parents in Chicago’s Bronzeville neighborhood mounted a 103 day hunger strike late this summer to preserve a neighborhood public high school at Dyett, a school that would be open to any student in the neighborhood.  After Noble Network Charters received the recent grant from the U.S. Department of Education, Patrick Brosnan, executive director in Chicago’s Brighten Park Neighborhood Council discussed with Lutton what he believes is happening in Chicago’s neighborhoods when charter networks expand: “Brosnan’s group has opposed the new Noble campus proposed for 47th and California for fear it will mean fewer students and thus less funding at nearby Kelly High School, which has seen its population cut by one-third and its budget slashed by $4 million in recent years, as five new schools have opened nearby. ‘It’s basically up for grabs.  They get to make these decisions and make these plans, and there’s really no public discussion about this… I mean, there would be a tremendous impact on existing schools.'”

Michael Milkie, the founder of Noble Network of Charters, has a very different point of view: “This grant can really help us start on that next phase… 20, 30, 40 high schools…. I foresee a day where—I hope—where a majority of the students are educated in either Noble campuses or campuses like that at the high school level.”

What’s going on here?  Over a year ago, Robin Lake, the Director of the Center on Reinventing Public Education at the University of Washington, creator of the “portfolio school reform model”—that actively supports school choice and whose strategy projects delivering a good choice of school for every child in all neighborhoods and encouraging city school districts to launch charter schools and expand school choice—went to Detroit to see how all this is working.  Last winter, Lake published a scathing analysis in Education Next:  “Whose job is it to fix the problems facing parents in Detroit?  Our interviews with leaders in the city suggest that no one knows the answer.  It is not the state, which defers oversight to local education agencies and charter authorizers.  It is not DPS (Detroit Public Schools), which views charters as a threat to its survival.  It is not charter school authorizers, who are only responsible for ensuring that the schools they sponsor comply with the state’s charter-school law.  It is not the mayor, who thus far sees education as beyond his purview.  And it is not the schools themselves, which only want to fill their seats and serve the children they enroll.  No one in Detroit is responsible for ensuring that all neighborhoods and students have high-quality options or that parents have the information and resources they need to choose a school.  ‘It’s a free-for-all,’ one observer said. ‘We have all these crummy schools around, and nobody can figure out how to get quality back under control….’”

Just perhaps, depending on how the politics play out, there is hope for some containment in Chicago.  Lutton reports: “Chicago’s Board of Education will still have to approve the eight new schools Noble wants to open.  And the hurdles to that have never been higher.  The district is in a financial crisis.  Forty-two aldermen have called for a freeze on charter schools… But the network has the mayor and the governor on its side, along with tens of millions of dollars in projected philanthropic donations.”

One would wish that the U.S. Department of Education, which is making these multi-million dollar grants for charter school expansion, would do something about regulating the schools being launched with federal money.  Last spring the Alliance to Reclaim Our Schools wrote a letter to Secretary of Education Arne Duncan demanding a moratorium on the expansion of charter schools until the federal government establishes some regulation.  The Alliance noted a 2012 report from the Department’s own Office of Inspector General that documented the need for far more federal oversight.

During the Senate debate in July on the reauthorization of the federal education law, No Child Left Behind, Ohio Senator Sherrod Brown introduced an amendment to provide some oversight of federal investment in the expansion of at least the for-profit charter schools.  Brown declared: “There’s no sector that misspends tax dollars more than these for-profit charter schools.”  “I’m curious that the people that complain about waste, fraud and abuse in government are now standing up to defend these for-profit charters.”

Retaliation Against Charter School Teachers for Joining a Union?

Urban Prep, the Chicago charter schools for boys, just fired 17 teachers who had been active leaders in an effort by teachers at Urban Prep’s charter schools to join a union—the Chicago Alliance of Charter Teachers and Staff, known as Chicago ACTS or ChiACTS.  The teachers, students at Urban Prep schools and their parents, and members of the clergy in Chicago have been actively protesting the school’s alleged retaliation for a vote by a majority of teachers at Urban Prep schools to be represented by a union.

According to In These Times, “On June 19, during their biannual semester-end interviews, 17 teachers were informed by school staff that they would not be returning to Chicago’s Urban Prep Academy come fall.  The terminations came just weeks after 61 percent of Urban Prep’s teachers voted to form a union; activists say the firings were a blatant act of anti-union retaliation.”

Catalyst Chicago interviewed Matthias Muschal, recently terminated as an English teacher at Urban Prep’s Bronzeville campus: “Muschal says he was told his dismissal was due to insubordination—specifically because he threw a pizza party for student-athletes and their families without notifying administration.  But he believes the real motive was his active participation in union organizing—Muschal, a six-year veteran at Urban Prep was one of two teachers from the charter network who spoke out in favor of a union drive at a press conference in City Hall in February.”

Catalyst confirms that, “ChiACTS has filed unfair labor practice charges with the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) over the firings at Urban Prep…”   The Chicago Sun Times explains: “A majority of teachers earlier this month voted in favor of being represented by a union.  Although there is not yet a contract, the teachers are being represented by the charter school union, which is asking the Urban Prep board to accept the results and enter into a contract.”  The fired teachers are some of the Urban Prep teachers with the longest tenure—six or eight years—and parents have protested that by firing experienced teachers, the school is denying their sons the stability they desperately need.

Progress Illinois, a publication of the Service Employees International Union, addresses some of the legal issues in the recent firings, quoting Brian Harris, president of Chicago ACTS Local 4343: “On June 3, when 60 percent of the teachers at Urban Prep voted to form a union, they created a situation where the employer legally cannot make significant changes to working conditions without consulting with the union, without negotiating.  Certainly, firing 15 percent of their staff is a significant change in working conditions.  This is the law.  They cannot do that.  And they certainly cannot do it to punish people for forming a union.”

Representatives of Arise Chicago, an organization of Chicago clergy, protested with the fired teachers last week.  The Rev. John Thomas, a board member of Arise Chicago and the former President and General Minister of the United Church of Christ, spoke at the protest: “As a publicly-funded charter school, Urban Prep has a responsibility to explain to the people of Chicago why we should not assume that this is simply an act of intimidation and retaliation.” Clergy from Arise Chicago delivered to the chair of Urban Prep’s board a letter, signed by 40 religious leaders, demanding a meeting.

In the summer issue of The American Prospect, featuring an article on efforts of charter school teachers across the country to unionize, reporter Rachel Cohen interviews the operator of another group of charter schools in Chicago, this time in the Pilsen neighborhood.  Juan Salgado believes having his teachers represented by a union has been, so far, beneficial in every way for his schools: “I sat down with Juan Salgado, the president and CEO of Instituto Del Progreso Latino, a nonprofit educational organization in Pilsen, a predominantly Latino neighborhood in Chicago, to learn what it’s been like for him to oversee two charters that have unionized with AFT (the American Federation of Teachers). Salgado believes that unions have been tremendous assets for his schools, particularly around some of the more fraught questions of wages and benefits. Can such issues be resolved ‘without a union?’ he asks.  ‘Yeah. But can we move forward to actually run a school? Probably not.’  The mutual buy-in at the end of the negotiating process, Salgado said, created a better spirit at his schools… ‘Unions ask a lot of questions! And that’s OK,’ he says.  ‘Critical questioning causes reflection and makes sure you have very good answers.  And they demand transparency, and transparency is important.  It’s a value that we should all have.'”