State School Takeovers Steal Democracy, Ignore Poverty

The takeover of the public schools in New Orleans followed a natural catastrophe, the destruction of the city by Hurricane Katrina and the failure of the levies.  The mass charterization of the city’s schools is said by its proponents to have improved education for the children who have returned, but the takeover remains controversial. What is less controversial is the impact of the imposition of the Recovery School District on democratic ownership and governance.  I will always remember the words of a New Orleans mother who cried out at a national meeting, “They stole our public schools and they stole our democracy all while we were out of town.”

Politicians are rather cavalier about state school takeovers and the imposition of “achievement school districts” and “recovery school districts” when the families served by the schools are poor.  While New Jersey‘s governor Chris Christie would be unlikely to dismiss the role of the local school board in Montclair or Princeton, he didn’t hesitate to disdain the citizens of Newark when he proclaimed on television, “And I don’t care about the community criticism.  We run the schools in Newark, not them.”

Tennessee‘s Achievement School District, created to seize the lowest-scoring 5 percent of that state’s schools, has been managing schools in Nashville and Memphis for some years without stunning success, despite the rhetoric on its website that says the state takeover is designed to “bust barriers” and “catapult” the low scoring schools “straight into the top 25 percent.”  Chris Barbic ran the Tennessee Achievement School District from May 2011 until late July, when he resigned after test scores had hardly risen and none of the schools reached the top 25 percent.

And in Michigan, Governor Rick Snyder issued an executive order in mid-March to transfer the state body that has been overseeing the state takeover of low-scoring schools from the Department of Education to the Department of Technology, Management and Budget, a department directly under Snyder’s control.  His executive order declared, “Despite not achieving satisfactory outcomes, the current structure has neither implemented the rigorous supports and processes needed to create positive academic outcomes nor placed (sic) any of the identified low achieving schools.” Snyder was condemning the state takeover initiative he himself created several years ago.

Poor and mediocre results from a variety of top-down state takeover arrangements have not discouraged ideologues who believe low test scores in extremely poor communities are the result of inefficiency that can be improved from on-high.

In January, the state of Arkansas took over the public schools in Little RockBarclay Key, a history professor at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock and a pubic school parent writes: “(O)n January 28, 2015, the state board of education voted 5-4 to take over the entire LRSD (Little Rock School District) on the pretense that six of our forty-eight schools were in ‘academic distress.'”   Key adds that the four school board members voting for the state takeover have direct ties to “foundations that are purposefully undermining our public schools”—the Walton Family Foundation, the Winthrop Rockefeller Foundation, and Arkansans for Education Reform.

In New York in April, according to Capital Confidential, “the legislature and governor created a new section of State Education Law pertaining to school receivership.  In June, the Board of Regents approved new regulations to implement the provisions of the law.”  The new state plan will directly affect 20 “persistently struggling” schools and eventually a total of 144 that have been identified as “struggling,”   The “persistently struggling” schools will be assigned to an “inside receiver,” most likely the superintendent of their school district, but the receiver will now have the capacity to lengthen the school day or school year, re-negotiate the union contract, change the budget and curriculum, or to convert the school to a charter or a full-service community school.  If schools do not improve within a year, they will be taken over by an outside receiver.

In early July, when Scott Walker finally signed the state budget in Wisconsin, tucked into the budget bill was the takeover of the Milwaukee School District.  Rob Peterson, founder of Rethinking Schools magazine and former president of the Milwaukee Teachers’ Education Association, explains: “In Milwaukee, the state’s largest district and home to predominantly African-American and Latino students, the budget includes a ‘takeover’ plan that increases privatization and decreases oversight by the elected school board of the Milwaukee Public Schools.  The plan empowers the Milwaukee County Executive to appoint a ‘commissioner’ who will have parallel power with the MPS school board. The commissioner can privatize up to three of the city’s schools the first two years, and up to five every year thereafter.”

In Ohio at the end of June, without prior warning in the middle of a a committee hearing, Ohio Senator Peggy Lehner, chair of Ohio’s Senate Education Committee, introduced a 66 page amendment to establish state takeover of the Youngstown schools by an emergency manager—and takeover in the future of any school district with three years’ of “F” ratings—rendering the elected school board meaningless and abrogating the union contract.  She attached her amendment to a very popular bill designed to support expansion of the number of full-service, wraparound community learning centers in Ohio.  Within hours the bill had passed the Senate, moved to the House for concurrence, and been sent to the Governor for signature.

And in Georgia, Governor Nathan Deal considers his greatest achievement the establishment of a statewide “Opportunity School District,” designed, according to the Atlanta Journal Constitution, to “give the state the power to seize control of failing schools, convert them into charters or shut them down.”  In Georgia, unlike the other states named in this post, a majority of the voters must approve the measure in 2016 before it will take effect.  It has, however, already begun to affect the state’s education politics.  The designer of the Opportunity School District plan, Erin Hames—Governor Deal’s top education policy adviser—just resigned from her state position to sign a no-bid contract with the Atlanta Public Schools to advise the school district on how to avoid the very policy she created—the state takeover of 27 low-scoring schools.

Myra Blackmon, columnist for the Athens Banner-Herald, commented on this convoluted situation in Sunday’s paper: “Recently, we learned that Erin Hames, Gov. Nathan Deal’s education minion, is leaving her job.  In her new role, she’ll be paid $96,000 a year by the Atlanta Public School system to help it avoid becoming a victim of the Opportunity School District plan which Hames developed and rammed through the state legislature… But it gets worse.  Hames’ new consulting company filed its corporate papers on August 5, just four business days before the Atlanta Board of Education’s August 11 vote on her no-bid contract… This is how the self-selected ‘education reformers’ operate.  Their motive is profit and personal advancement.  They love the idea of schools run by private organizations….  It defies the values of local control in favor of centralized, easily managed power—all the while claiming ‘it’s for the children.'”

State school takeovers, whatever their form, fail to address what research has long confirmed is a primary factor that affects school achievement: poverty and especially concentrated neighborhood poverty.  Here is the analysis of Paul Jargowsky, a Rutgers University social scientist, about the demographic trend in the very type of school district being targeted with state takeover of low-scoring public schools: “Nationwide, the number of high-poverty neighborhoods and the population living in them has risen at an alarming pace… In the 2005-09 ACS data, before the financial crisis took hold, high-poverty census tracts increased by nearly one-third, to 3,310…. by 2009-13, an additional 1,100 tracts had poverty rates of 40 percent or more, bringing the total to 4,412. The overall increase in high-poverty census tracts since 2000 was 76 percent… The total population of these high-poverty neighborhoods has also grown… (S)ince the 2000 low, the number of persons living in neighborhoods where the poverty rate is 40 percent or more has grown by 91 percent… One of the primary concerns about high-poverty neighborhoods is the potential impact on child and adolescent development.  Indeed, William Julius Wilson stressed the lack of positive role models within the social milieu of urban ghettos.  High-poverty neighborhoods produce high-poverty schools, and both the school and neighborhood contexts affect student achievement.”

State school takeovers have no impact whatsoever on concentrated poverty.  They do steal democracy and local control, however, in poor communities.

Nonprofit Charters Turn Taxes into Profits for Board Members

Yesterday the Economic Policy Institute published a stunning new report that examines Rocketship Charter Schools and the financial backers tied to the success of the Rocketship chain of schools.  The report’s author is political economist Gordon Lafer, who examines Rocketship Charter Schools in the context of Wisconsin, where corporate lobbies such as the Wisconsin Policy Research Institute, a member of the far-right State Policy Network, working together with the American Legislative Exchange Council, have supported recent legislative efforts to privatize public schools in Milwaukee.   While these advocates did not succeed in the recently concluded Wisconsin legislative session, Lafer warns, “Nevertheless, the more ambitious proposals will likely remain at the core of Wisconsin’s debates over education policy, and legislative leaders have made clear their desire to revisit them in next year’s session.”

Why should efforts to privatize schools in Wisconsin matter to you and me?  The corporate lobbies and investors working to privatize public schools are active in your state and mine just as they are in Wisconsin.  Vouchers, for example, began in Milwaukee over 20 years ago.

Lafer’s focus in the new report is the Rocketship chain of charter schools, launched originally in California by promoters who intend to expand into Wisconsin and other states.  The Rocketship charter chain uses “‘blended learning,” which substitutes computers for teachers for part of each day, thereby permitting far larger classes.  According to Lafer, “The profit margins of ‘blended learning’ schools—which split students’ days between in-person and online instruction—aren’t as high as those of entirely virtual schools, but they may be the next best thing. For this reason, investment banks, hedge funds, and venture capital firms have increasingly looked to ‘blended learning’ as a preferred model for urban school districts.”  Rocketship’s philosophy incorporates four principles: replacing teachers with computers for part of the day, relying on young and inexpensive teachers, narrowing the curriculum to math and reading, and focusing on preparing students for standardized tests.

This is a rather long, in-depth report about school privatization in Wisconsin, not only the influence of ALEC and the Wisconsin Policy Research Institute, but also the role of the business community including the Metropolitan Milwaukee Association of Commerce.  Most fascinating to me, however, is Lafer’s documentation of the power behind the development of Rocketship’s “blended learning” model and the not-for-profit’s plans for rapid expansion.  “While Rocketship has realized significant financial growth over its short lifetime—from 2010 through 2013, the company’s assets increased by over 600 percent, from $2.2 million to $15.8 million—the schools’ academic achievements, even by their own measures, have not followed the same trajectory.”  Rocketship charters’ standardized test scores “show significant declines in academic performance,” which is perhaps why Rocketship continues to adjust its approach to “blended learning” while Rocketship has never suggested eliminating the on-line curriculum altogether.  According to Lafer, Rocketship’s promotion of large classes (a ratio of fifty students per teacher at one point), whose disadvantages are supposedly offset through on-line learning, enables the company to spend far more on administration than traditional public schools.  Rocketship has been investing a sizeable part of its administrative costs into future growth and expansion.

Another prime reason for Rocketship’s commitment to on-line learning is the charter network’s business partnership with its own for-profit providers of curricula.  “Rocketship Education is a nonprofit company.  However, its operational model blurs the distinction between for-profit and nonprofit businesses.  At the heart of what makes Rocketship different from other schools is online instruction—often conducted using licensed software applications supplied by for-profit vendors.”  Reed Hastings, CEO of Netflix, and venture-capitalist John Doerr both sit on Rocketship’s Board, but they are at the same time primary investors in DreamBox Learning, a for-profit company that provides the math curriculum used by Rocketship.  “Thus, Hastings and Doerr help fund the nonprofit Rocketship chain, which contracts with a for-profit company they partially own…,”  although it is impossible to learn the size of Doerr and Hastings’ profits because DreamBox is privately held. That the DreamBox math curriculum has been rated by the U.S. Department of Education as producing “no discernible effects on mathematics achievement for elementary school students,” has not undermined Rocketship’s loyalty to DreamBox.

Rocketship also buys the services of Zeal software, a for-profit company founded by Rocketship’s (now retired) founder, John Danner.  Lafer concludes: “As with DreamBox, then, Rocketship’s relationship with Zeal features a nonprofit school serving as a testing ground and customer base for personally and financially connected for-profit companies.  Rocketship’s use of both DreamBox and Zeal software would likely be prohibited as illegal conflicts of interest if they took place in a public school system.  If a board member proposed that a school contract with a vendor with whom he or she had a personal financial relationship, this would be rejected out of hand.  But Rocketship is not bound to uphold the same standard of ethics demanded of public officials, and it does not.”

While public regulation is missing in the charter sector, it is important to remember, however, that the dollars filling the coffers of DreamBox and Zeal are from taxes.