More on Arne Duncan’s Legacy

In her new book about Newark, New Jersey and the school reform paid for by Facebook CEO-philanthropist Mark Zuckerberg, Dale Russakoff captures the language of what we can call “corporatized” school reform.  Newark school reform was paid for by Zuckerberg’s $100 million grant, but the style couldn’t have happened without the movement promoted by Arne Duncan through I3 “innovation” money, School Improvement Grants and Race to the Top grants—a movement that has filled the public schools with consultants, many of them from the business schools and Eli Broad’s academy for superintendents, not from schools of education.  (This blog also posted an earlier piece on Arne Duncan’s legacy.)

Here is how Russakoff describes Cami Anderson’s “corporate reform,” leadership training sessions for school principals: “‘Every good and high performing coach and CEO has a game plan—a lean, focused, clear plan,’ she said… As part of this process, she said, principals should articulate something she called a BHAG (‘Bee-hag’). When no one appeared familiar with the term, Anderson explained that it stood for a Big Hairy Audacious Goal.  This, she said, was a clear and seemingly impossible objective around which everyone in a school could organize to achieve previously unthinkable progress. She credited the term to best-selling business author Jim Collins,whose many analyses of successful companies were treated as scripture across the school reform movement.  Several staff members said they felt that the district had been overtaken by a cadre of technocrats, most of them white and commuting from New York, whose vocabulary was rich in education reform buzz-words.  Besides ‘transformational’—never incremental—change, they also made it a priority to ‘move the needle,’ which meant to achieve measurable progress, usually in test scores.  To do this, they had to ‘pull the right levers,’ like allowing principals to choose their teachers.  They would ‘drill deep’ or ‘take a deep dive’ into complex issues.  They divided strategies into ‘buckets,’ such as the accountability bucket, the teacher-evaluation bucket.  They took liberties with parts of speech, changing nouns into verbs—as in, ‘Bucket those two ideas together’… Data had to be ‘robust.’  They worried about ‘optics,’ or how things would look to the public… Anderson shared the reform movement’s faith in business-style management and accountability.  The goal, she said, was to mobilize the bureaucracy around high performance rather than mere compliance with rules.” (The Prize, pp. 124-125)

The problem, of course, when it comes to the federal Department of Education is that one of the “levers” federal officials can push is compliance with rules, but Duncan’s department didn’t emphasize that, especially in the Office of Innovation and Improvement. Thanks to the Alliance to Reclaim Our Schools, we know that the U.S. Department of Education’s own Office of Inspector General blasted the Department for failure to oversee more than $3 billion in federal grants intended to start charter schools and expand the charter school sector.  And we discovered last week that the Department of Education, in its most recent batch of charter grants, just awarded $71 million to Ohio, the largest grant to any state, to expand charter schools, even though Ohio’s legislature was locked at the time in a well publicized struggle to pass what most people in the state—Republican and Democrat—have deemed minimal and long-needed charter regulation.

Sherman Dorn and Amanda Potterton have described Arne Duncan’s legacy as shaped by the “growing influence of a network of private actors on public education.”  “These reformers have largely consisted of private actors, including leaders of education nonprofits, charter school founders, and other nontraditional school leaders whose essential resources for reform come from the private wealth of major foundations….”

Reminding us of the power of Jim Shelton, brought straight to the Department of Education from the Gates Foundation to run the Department’s Office of Innovation, and Joanne Weiss, the COO at the NewSchools Venture Fund who became Arne Duncan’s chief of staff, Dorn and Potterton direct us to Sarah Reckhow’s book, Follow the Money: How Foundation Dollars Change Public School Politics, for a definition of the “Boardroom Progressives” who were welcomed to Arne Duncan’s policy table:  “The policy agenda of the Boardroom Progressives has largely been drawn from the two dominant streams of policy ideas in education reform since the 1990s: accountability and markets… Boardroom Progressives are impatient with public bureaucracies and have focused their efforts on creating a broad network of private and nonprofit alternatives for developing and running schools… The Boardroom Progressive movement involves a diverse set of actors—charter school leaders, urban superintendents, and nonprofit founders. Yet private wealth has been an essential resource for supporting many of these leaders and their initiatives…. including charter schools, advocacy organizations, education consulting and research organizations, and countless nonprofits.” (pp.2-3)

Dorn and Potterton define Duncan’s pivotal policy as Race to the Top: “Members of Duncan’s reform network were partly the genesis and potentially the beneficiary of a grant program, Race to the Top, that required applicants to expand opportunities for charter school creation, eliminate firewalls between student test scores and teacher evaluation, and commit to so-called ‘college and career-ready standards.’… Once Duncan’s department announced the Race to the Top program, the (Department of Education staff’s) network connections were critical to promoting it… (T)he network was critical to directly or indirectly building state capacity in the Race to the Top years… The Gates Foundation provided US$250.000 worth of application consulting services to states that agreed with the foundation’s eight-point set of criteria.”  Duncan “acted as a ‘gatekeeper’ by bringing a private network to the fore in education, and further opening public education to privatized influences.”

Aaron Pallas, the Teachers College education sociologist, comments on the significance of Race to the Top as the centerpiece of Arne Duncan’s legacy:  “Arne Duncan’s signature initiative was Race to the Top arguably the most effective piece of federal education policy in the nation’s history in its success at changing the behavior of the 50 states that were its target. Effective policy is not necessarily good policy, however, because good policy depends on a well-developed and plausible theory of action.  The competitive priorities in Race to the Top—improving teacher and principal effectiveness based on student performance, the adoption of common… curricular standards, turning around failing schools, and creating a climate for the expansion of high-quality charter schools—were based on a wish and a prayer, not a body of evidence demonstrating that these strategies could fundamentally alter the equity and excellence equations in American education.”

Pallas concludes: “Viewing the education policy landscape from 30,000 feet—a Secretary’s-eye view—may suggest that the implementation of Race to the Top and related reforms has gone smoothly.  The problem is compounded when the administration seems not to hear opposing views…. The view is quite different closer to the ground.  From five feet, the uneven and thoughtless implementation of statewide teacher evaluation systems and Common Core standards in many states has—however unintentionally—undermined the legitimacy of our public school system.”

Patricia McGuire, president of Trinity Washington University, credits Duncan’s policies with widespread scapegoating of teachers and demonizing colleges of education:  “Teachers have been at ground zero of Secretary Duncan’s education reform movement, and the teaching profession has suffered extraordinary criticism, curtailment and even contempt from Duncan and some of his acolytes in school reform.  Now there is evidence of teacher shortages all across the nation.  Is it any wonder?… At the same time, the administration has proposed an extraordinary array of complicated rules for teacher education programs that would have the effect of further limiting enrollment in schools of education while imposing significant new costs for data tracking.  Ironically, for an administration that claims to care about teacher quality, the reform movement has also encouraged abandoning formal graduate education for teacher licensure in favor of short-term job training by storefront providers. Go figure.”

Diane Ravitch pulls together several of these strands of criticism in her reflection on Arne Duncan’s legacy: “This era has not been good for students; nearly a quarter live in poverty, and fully 51% live in low-income families. This era has not been good for teachers, who feel disrespected and demeaned by governors, legislatures, and the U.S. Department of Education.  This era has not been good for parents, who see their local public schools lose resources to charter schools and see their children subjected to endless, intensive testing.  It will take years to recover from the damage that Arne Duncan’s policies have inflicted on public education.”

Here is an alternative way to think and talk about education, from a professor in one of those graduate schools of education—Mike Rose at UCLA.  His language is so old-fashioned, so real, and so very refreshing: “What if reform had begun with the assumption that at least some of the answers for improvement were in the public schools themselves, that significant unrealized capacity exists in the teaching force, that even poorly performing schools employ teachers who work to the point of exhaustion to benefit their students?”

Extra: Plain Dealer’s Brent Larkin Summarizes Ohio’s Corrupt Charter School Catastrophe

Brent Larkin, columnist and retired editorial director of the Cleveland Plain Dealer, summarizes the corruption underneath Ohio’s charter school tragedy.  He describes the impact of money in the politics of a state without checks and balances—where all three branches of government are controlled by one party.

Larkin credits the fine reporting of Patrick O’Donnell that has broken the story of corruption in Governor John Kasich’s Department of Education. He wonders if the story will affect Kasich’s prospects as a Presidential candidate.

Ohio is a state where even members of the supreme court depend on campaign donations to get elected—and where the big charter school czars, William Lager and David Brennan, are happy to oblige.

Lots of people are suggesting that, as we can’t get rid of charter schools, we have to ensure they are regulated.  Check out this article and follow Larkin’s links to learn why I am so skeptical of the idea that a lucrative privatized sector can be effectively regulated by a state legislature.

Beware These Three Governors, All Republican Presidential Contenders

Campbell Brown is the far-right, former CNN anchor who has become an advocate against teachers’ unions and due process protections for teachers.  She has now founded a so-called news site, The Seventy Four.  Reporters for Politico call it a “news advocacy site.” There are, of course, questions about objectivity in Campbell Brown’s venture, both in possible biases in the opinions expressed and in the selection of topics to cover.  For example, The Seventy Four has begun broadcasting debates on the topic of public education policy among the Republican candidates for president. Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders have, to my knowledge, not been invited.  The first of these debates, co-sponsored by The Seventy Four and the American Federation for Children—Betsy DeVos’ organization that promotes school vouchers, took place this week.  Not surprisingly, the candidates declared themselves devoted to far-right education doctrine, and the program was set up to affirm the far right opinions of the candidates who appeared.

It is my plan to concentrate more deeply on the race for President in a few months when November 2016 is closer.  In the meantime, however, it is important for those of us who share a concern about the future of public education to be very clear about the candidates who have significant records on public education.  Three of the Republican candidates—whose ideas have been covered in recent weeks in the mainstream media or in reports from organizations that support public education instead of privatization—brag about education “reforms” as the centerpiece of their records as governor.  This post will explore these three governors’ records to provide some balance to what you may have heard in the recent event staged by Campbell Brown and Betsy DeVos.

There is Ohio’s current governor, John Kasich.  In a recent piece at the Education Opportunity Network, Jeff Bryant covers Kasich: “Given the current crop of Republican governors bidding for the presidential nomination, it is difficult to pick which has been worse on education policy… But the effect Governor Kasich has had on public education policy in Ohio is especially atrocious.”  In her Washington Post column, Valerie Strauss summarizes Kasich’s record on education: “Kasich has pushed key tenets of corporate school reform: expanding charter schools… increasing the number of school vouchers… (implementing) performance pay for teachers… evaluating educators by student standardized test scores in math and reading…. Meanwhile, the Ohio Education Department in Kasich’s administration is in turmoil.  David Hansen, his administration’s chief for school choice and charter schools resigned… after admitting that he had unilaterally withheld failing scores of charter schools in state evaluations of the schools’ sponsor organizations so they wouldn’t look so bad… Under his watch, funding for traditional public schools—which enroll 90 percent of Ohio’s students—declined by some half a billion dollars, while funding for charter schools has increased at least 27 percent, with charters now receiving more public funds from the state per student than traditional public schools…. If Kasich’s goal for his reform efforts was to close the achievement gap, it hasn’t worked…. Ohio has the country’s ninth-largest reading gap between its highest-and lowest-performing schools, as well as the second-largest achievement gap in math, and the fourth largest gap in high school graduation rates.” This blog has covered Ohio education policy extensively in regular posts.

Of all the candidates, Jeb Bush has the most extensive and damaging record on public education, as he and his Foundation for Excellence in Education have radically expanded charter schools in Florida, expanded vouchers, promoted A-F rating systems for schools, and promoted privatized on-line academies and the expansion of contracting for school technology.  This blog has summarized Bush’s education record herehere and here.  Recently Business Insider confirmed Bush’s boast at the early August, Republican presidential debate: “As governor of the state of Florida, I created the first statewide voucher program in the country.”  Business Insider reports: “Bush… was not over-selling his accomplishment.  In 1999, under his gubernatorial oversight, Florida became the first state in the nation with a statewide voucher program.”  In an extensive recent report for Alternet, Jeff Bryant traces Bush’s expansion of charter schools across Florida, beginning in 1996 with the launch of Liberty City Charter School in one of Miami’s poorest neighborhoods.  Bryant traces charter school growth across Florida, a history replete with closures and the promotion of  charters tied to key legislators. Bryant concludes, “Since introducing Florida’s first charter school to Liberty City, Jeb Bush has come to refer to his education efforts in the state as ‘the Florida Miracle,’ and his education leadership will no doubt be trumpeted as one of his signature achievements during his presidential campaign.”  But, Bryant interviews Dwight Bullard, the current elected state representative of the district that includes Liberty City: “Bullard tags Bush for introducing a ‘plethora of bad ideas’ to Florida’s education system, including instituting a school grading system that perpetually traps schools serving the most struggling students with an ‘F’ label, and opening up communities to unproven charter schools that compete with neighborhood schools for funding. ‘What he started was something that would harm the most struggling schools.  Grading them, robbing them of resources, closing them down.  Doing undue harm to the exact people who need the help the most.'”

Finally there are Scott Walker‘s ties to ALEC.  Brian Murphy’s stunning article for Talking Points Memo not only exposes Walker’s record as governor of Wisconsin, but it is among the clearest exposes I’ve read of the American Legislative Exchange Council, the lobbying organization that the Internal Revenue Service continues to grant not-for-profit educational status, despite a long and courageous effort by Common Cause to get ALEC’s IRS status adjusted.  Murphy reports that Scott Walker has been one of the nation’s leaders importing ALEC’s model laws to his state, Wisconsin: “voter ID laws, so-called ‘right to work’ laws, attacks on private and public sector unions, attacks on clean air standards and sustainable energy, pro-charter school bills, attacks on college accreditation and teacher certification, laws proposing to centralize rule making on energy, pollution, power plants, state pension investments, tort reform… food labeling….”  These laws “seem to pop up in different state capitals seemingly simultaneously, with the identical legalese backed by the same talking points and even the same expert witnesses. ALEC is often the reason.”

Murphy explains just how the American Legislative Exchange Council works: “Commonly known as ALEC, the group is somewhat unique in American politics.  It boasts more than 2,000 members of state legislatures, the vast majority of whom are Republican.  And at its annual meetings and other sponsored retreats and events, it pairs those state lawmakers with lobbyists and executives from its roster of corporate members.  Together lawmakers and private interests jointly collaborate on subcommittees—ALEC calls them ‘task forces’—to set the group’s legislative agenda and draft portable ‘model’ bills that can then be taken… to legislators’ home states to be introduced as their own initiatives.  The private sector members of these task forces have veto power over each committee’s agenda and actions.  ALEC’s agenda, therefore, always prioritizes the interests and voices of its donors over elected lawmakers.  ALEC doesn’t publish a list of either its corporate members or its publicly-elected legislator-members.  It doesn’t allow members of the media to access its conferences.  And it doesn’t disclose its donor list.  Much of what we know about the group comes from periodic voluntary individual disclosures….  Operating as a 501(c)(3), the group claims to be an educational outfit that provides nonpartisan research to lawmakers for their ‘continuing education.’  Because it is allowed charity status under the tax code, ALEC’s donors can write off their membership dues and contributions.  Legislator members pay annual dues of $50, while according to leaked documents, corporate sponsors pay between $7,000 and $25,000 per year…  (I)t’s an organization that facilitates intimate and discreet lobbying opportunities where donors have access to a self-selecting set of willing accomplices drawn from the nation’s fifty state legislatures.”

Murphy’s article does not emphasize public school policy.  Murphy traces Walker’s promotion of ALEC legislation for privatization of prisons—the priorities of the Corrections Corporation of America and Wackenhut, and most notably his successful legislative initiatives to curtail public sector unions and eliminate “the ability of unionized public employees to bargain for wages or benefits.” “Walker has continued to spring ALEC-inspired legislation on Wisconsin’s citizens and lawmakers alike.  In March, Walker signed a so-called ‘Right to Work’ law that makes union dues voluntary for private sector workers in the state.”  He has also expanded charters and vouchers and, right in the budget, imposed a state takeover of the Milwaukee Public Schools.

Beware Scott Walker’s “Wisconsin Education Miracle”

I hope as an electorate we have learned our lesson about promised education miracles.  First we had the test-and-punish “Texas Miracle” embodied in the 2002 No Child Left Behind Act.  Then we got the “Chicago Miracle” of Race to the Top and Arne Duncan’s other competitive grant programs that have siphoned off part of the funds in the Title I Formula and brought “reforms” like closing public schools, opening charters, and evaluating teachers by their students’ standardized test scores.  Now Scott Walker is proposing to bring us the Wisconsin Miracle.  Please… no more education miracles.

This blog has recently covered Scott Walker’s education policies twice, here and here.

Why waste so much ink on the education policies of Wisconsin’s governor, Scott Walker?  Because Walker clearly intends to  transform his education record as governor of Wisconsin into a central part of his presidential campaign.  While he has not yet declared his candidacy, he is actively laying the ground work.  On Wednesday he published an op ed in the Des Moines Register, We Changed Broken Education System, in which he describes his Wisconsin “education miracle”: “Today, the requirements for seniority and tenure are gone.  Schools can hire based on merit and pay based on performance… Graduation rates are up.  Third grade reading scores are higher.  Wisconsin students now rank 2nd best in the country for ACT scores in states where more than half the students take the exam… Over the past four years, we expanded the number of charter schools, lifted the limits on virtual schools, and provided more help for families choosing to home school their children. We also dramatically expanded the 25-year-old Milwaukee Parental School Choice program to add more students, more schools and working class families.  Then, we expanded school choice across the state… Now, more than ever, we need to push big, bold reforms to improve our schools.  If we can do it in Wisconsin, there is no reason we can’t push positive education reforms across the country.”

Scott Bauer of the Associated Press responded to Walker’s op ed. Bauer describes Walker’s policies without the glow of Walker’s own spin: “Walker… inflamed teachers across Wisconsin four years ago when he pushed for a law that took away their collective bargaining rights, while also forcing them to pay more for health and pension benefits, as part of an effort to balance the state budget… Walker’s education policies have included expanding school choice efforts and cutting funding for public schools… Walker’s first state budget cut funding for public schools by $1.2 billion, the largest reduction in state history… Walker has also successfully expanded Wisconsin’s private school voucher program statewide after it debuted in Milwaukee.  Walker’s pending budget proposal would gradually remove the program’s enrollment caps and use tax dollars currently provided to public schools to pay for it.”

Education Week‘s primary federal education reporter, Alyson Klein examines Walker’s claims about rising student test scores and high school graduation: “(O)verall, Wisconsin trend lines in fourth grade reading on the National Assessment for Educational Progress (aka the Nation’s Report Card) have increased during Walker’s tenure but their rate of improvement, from an average score of 220 in 2009, before Walker came in to an average score of 221 in 2013, when he’d been in office for a few years, are almost identical… Graduation rates tell a similar story.  Wisconsin’s gradation rate is up, but the nation’s is up too.  And in fact, the Badger State is growing a little slower than the national average…. (I)t’s hard to say exactly how Walker’s policies have affected things.  After all, the students graduating from high school this year started their educations long before he was in office.”

In coverage of Scott Walker’s education policies in the Washington Post, Valerie Strauss quotes a press release from the Wisconsin Department of Education that describes changes currently being logrolled into the state budget to water down requirements for certification of school teachers: “The legislation being rolled into the biennial budget would require the Department of Public Instruction to license anyone with a bachelor’s degree in any subject to teach English, social studies, mathematics, and science.  The only requirement is that a public school or school district or a private choice school determines that the individual is proficient and has relevant experience in each subject they teach.”  Strauss continues: “That’s not all.  The proposal would require the education department to issue a teaching permit to people who have not—repeat have not—earned a bachelor’s degree, or potentially a high school diploma, to teach in any subject area, excluding the core subjects of mathematics, English, science, and social studies.  ‘The only requirement would be that the public school or district or private voucher school determines that the individual is proficient and has relevant experience in the subject they intend to teach.'”

Strauss quotes Tony Evers, who was elected Wisconsin State Superintendent of Public Instruction in April 2009 and re-elected in 2013: “I am troubled that the Joint Finance Committee spent its time and effort designing a plan that erodes the basic foundation of Wisconsin’s public school system.  If we want all students to achieve, we cannot continue to ask our public schools to do more with less.  The eventual outcome of that exercise will be two systems of public schools: those in local communities that can afford to provide a quality education through referendum and those that cannot.”

States with All-Republican Government Attack the Common Good

Today 24 states have one party Republican government—a Republican governor, house of representatives and state senate. For years now, state policy has become increasingly driven by the growth of far-right, one-party state government with the added impact of big money lobbying, far-right think tanks across the states, and the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC)—the membership organization that pairs member state legislators with member corporate lobbyists to create model laws that can be introduced in any state legislature.  The mainstream media is catching on to some of this activity, and in the past couple of weeks, there have been stunning reports of far-right activity dominating state governments.

Last week, in The Ultimate In School Choice or School as a Commodity?,  Lindsey Layton and Emma Brown, education reporters for the Washington Post, published an in-depth investigation of Nevada’s new school voucher law: “Starting next school year, any parent in Nevada can pull a child from the state’s public schools and take tax dollars with them, giving families the option to use public money to pay for private or parochial school or even for home schooling.  The new law, which the state’s Republican-controlled legislature passed with help from the education foundation created by former Florida governor Jeb Bush (R), is a breakthrough for conservatives, who call it the ultimate in school choice.  And they are working to spread it nationwide….  Nevada’s law is singular because all of the state’s 450,000 K-12 public school children—regardless of income—are eligible to take the money to whatever school they choose.” “In January, Republicans took control of the Nevada legislature and the governor’s mansion for the first time since 1929, generating the political momentum to enact the country’s most expansive voucher plan.”

Far-right foundations and think tanks are deeply involved in state politics these days. Layton and Brown quote Robert Enlow, who leads the (Milton) Friedman Foundation for Educational Choice, commenting on Nevada’s new voucher program, “What this will do is continue to spread ripples across the country…. This bill shows that you can actually politically get it done.”  Patricia Levesque is also quoted. Levesque now directs the Foundation for Excellence in Education, launched in Florida in 2008 by Jeb Bush (In preparation for his announcement as a presidential candidate Jeb Bush recently resigned from the Foundation for Excellence in Education.). Levesque describes Nevada’s new super-voucher program: “This is the wave of the future. In all aspects of our life, we look for ways to customize and give individuals more control over their path and destiny…. This is a fundamental shift in how we make decisions about education.”

Layton and Brown report that 27 states since 2006 have implemented types of school vouchers—vouchers, tuition tax credits, and education savings accounts.  Unlike Wisconsin and Ohio, which passed school voucher programs two decades ago, at least Nevada does require children to have been enrolled in a public school before they can qualify for a voucher.  Ohio and Wisconsin persist in awarding public vouchers to children who have always been enrolled in a parochial or private school.  Nevada is the first state to offer vouchers to all students; in most states vouchers are targeted for low-income students.

Wisconsin was an early voucher state, and its current far-right governor, Scott Walker, continues to lead the movement to attack the public: undermining public sector unions, expanding Wisconsin’s school voucher program, transforming the mission of the University of Wisconsin into job preparation, and recently trying to eliminate tenure for college professors in the state university system.  Yesterday the NY Times featured a major investigation into the money and power behind Walker’s far-right, anti-public agenda.  Walker is the nation’s ultimate symbol of the public employee who opposes government employees and government services.

Here is what Patrick Healy and Monica Davey point out in yesterday’s NY Times investigation: “Less than a week after he was elected governor of Wisconsin in 2010, Scott Walker went to Milwaukee at the invitation of his political patron, Michael W. Grebe.  Mr. Grebe was Mr. Walker’s campaign chairman.  He was also president of the Bradley Foundation, a leading source of ideas and financing for American conservatives.  And the bankers, industrialists and public intellectuals on the foundation’s board wanted to honor the state’s next governor over dinner…. While the Milwaukee-based Bradley foundation could not endorse candidates outright, it provided more than $2 million in grants to think tanks that implicitly championed Mr. Walker’s small-government platform, and $520,000 to Americans for Prosperity, a national group that held Tea Party rallies at which Mr. Walker spoke.”

The NY Times reporters continue: “More than any of his potential rivals for the White House, Mr. Walker, 47, is a product of a loose network of conservative donors, think tanks and talk radio hosts who have spent years preparing the road for a politician who could successfully present their arguments for small government to a broader constituency… The little-known governor-elect honored in Milwaukee has become something of a conservative hero, backed by wealthy donors like Charles G. and David H. Koch and revered as a leader brave enough to face down unions and their liberal supporters.” Back in 2001 and 2002,  The Lynde and Harry Bradley Foundation of Milwaukee was integral in financing the campaign that that created the original school vouchers in Milwaukee, including the launch of the Black Alliance for Educational Options (BAEO) to promote vouchers among Wisconsin’s communities of color.  The BAEO has been operating nationally since 2002.

Today, according to yesterday’s NY Times report, the Bradley Foundation supports far-right think tanks in Wisconsin that promote Scott Walker’s anti-government policies and that work with groups like the Kochs’ Americans for Prosperity and a wide network of far-right state think tanks.  In Wisconsin, “The Bradley Foundation gave to Americans for Prosperity but was more integral to financing two think tanks that… generated policy ideas and talking points that were picked up by Wisconsin’s powerful bench of right-wing talk radio hosts. In 2009, the foundation gave a $1 million grant to one of the think tanks, the Wisconsin Policy Research Institute, to recommend policy ideas for the next governor.  It also backed the MacIver Institute, providing one-third of its budget.”  At stinktanks.org you can learn about the Wisconsin Policy Research Institute and the MacIver Institute.

In their Washington Post investigation of Nevada vouchers Layton and Brown, quote the refreshing insight of Lily Eskelsen Garcia, president of the National Education Association.  She explains how state policy endorsed by the far-right is affecting public schools, the quintessential institution not of the 1 Percent, but instead of the rest of us: “I am terrified that there are more and more state legislators and state governors who have bought into this very dangerous idea that school is a commodity.  It’s not profitable for very good private schools to allow in children who are disabled, kids who don’t speak English, kids whose parents who are struggling to put food on the table.”  Bob Farrace of the National Association of Secondary School Principals is also quoted: “Funneling public funds to private schools means fewer teachers, fewer counselors, fewer supplemental services and, in general, fewer opportunities for the vast majority of kids who remain in public schools.  It really violates the public trust when policymakers place individual benefit before public good.”

Stunning Article Tracks Spread of Corporate Education Reform in Newark and NJ Suburb

Update: This post has been corrected.  The original confused Andy Smarick and Jonathan Schnur, both corporate school reformers, both creative disruptors, and both with connections to school reform in New Jersey.

If you want to develop a better understanding of so-called “corporate” school reform, Stan Karp’s article in the spring Rethinking Schools magazine is mandatory reading. Karp examines the catastrophic transformation of the schools in Newark, New Jersey and a subsequent attempt by corporate reformers to take over the schools in his hometown, suburban Montclair.  In A Tale of Two Districts, Karp traces the history of Newark’s destabililization under Mayor Cory Booker and Governor Chris Christie, but neither was there a way Montclair could insulate itself.  He suggests: “If public education is going to survive, its supporters will need to make common cause across the divides of race and class, city and suburb.”

Karp summarizes the history of corporate reform in New Jersey in crisp, packed paragraphs, beginning with the appointment of Christopher Cerf as Governor Chris Christie’s education commissioner. “Cerf was the former head of Edison Inc., once the nation’s largest private education management firm.  A registered Democrat who served in the Clinton administration, Cerf was a pioneer in opening up the $700 billion/year K-12 education market to commercial penetration.  He was deputy chancellor under New York City’s Joel Klein and a senior advisor to former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg; all three are charter members of the corporate ed reform club.  In public, Cerf regularly dismissed talk about ‘corporate ed reform’ as conspiratorial nonsense.  In private, however, he described school reform politics as ‘a knife fight in a dark room’ and embraced a brand of what corporate reformers proudly call ‘disruptive innovation’ that made him a perfect choice to be Christie’s education commissioner.  One of Cerf’s first tasks was to recruit a new state-appointed superintendent for NPS (Newark Public Schools).  He chose Cami Anderson, a former Teach for America (TFA) executive who had also worked at New Leaders for New Schools, a kind of TFA for principals….”

How has all this affected racial and economic segregation in New Jersey’s already highly segregated Essex County? Karp explores the implications of what has been the explosive growth of charter schools in Newark: “On top of the intense racial segregation that characterizes all Newark schools, the charters serve fewer of the English learners, special education students, and poorest students, who remain in district schools in ever-higher concentrations.  Of the 14,000 students in schools serving the highest-need populations, 93 percent are in district schools and just 7 percent are in charters.  Some of Newark’s highest profile charters are ‘no excuses’ schools with authoritarian cultures and appalling attrition rates.  Newark’s KIPP schools lose nearly 60 percent of African American boys between 5th and 12th grades, and Uncommon Schools lose about 75 percent…  As Andy Smarick, a former deputy commissioner in Christie’s DOE, now with the corporate think tank Bellwether, wrote: ‘The solution isn’t an improved traditional district; it’s an entirely different delivery system for public education systems of charter schools.'”

This blog has extensively tracked early protests in Newark against Cami Anderson and her One Newark plan, the election last year of Ras Baraka, a public school educator, as Newark’s new mayor, and continuing massive protests that have continued all year by Newark’s residents—especially the parents and students—who do not want to lose their neighborhood schools.  Karp fills in the details and implications of this history and summarizes: “If this sounds a lot like New Orleans, Detroit, Philadelphia, and other cities, it’s because it is…. especially efforts to disenfranchise communities of color and promote privatization.”

But, continues Karp, “If cities like Newark are the entry point for corporate reform, wealthier suburban districts are the next prize.” Montlair, Karp’s hometown, is a somewhat unusual suburb, which has struggled and succeeded to some degree at least to serve all students well in a racially integrated public school system at a time when there is little policy support for diversity.  Montclair is an upper middle income community that sends 90 percent of its public high school graduates to college. And it is also the home, according to Karp, of many who are active in the corporate reform movement including Chris Cerf himself and Jonathan Alter, a journalist, supporter of KIPP schools, and promoter of the film Waiting for Superman. “The town is also home to officials of Uncommon Schools, the Achievement First Network, Eva Moskowitz’s Success Academies and KIPP.”

And New  Jersey was once also home to Jonathan Schnur, who worked in the New Jersey Department of Education and was later the architect of Arne Duncan’s Race to the Top program.  Schnur had mentored Penny MacCormack in a superintendents’ training program, and, when Montclair needed a new superintendent, he endorsed her candidacy.  She was subsequently hired as Montclair’s new school superintendent, with an agenda, she said, to increase the use of students’ standardized test scores for evaluating teachers: “I will be using the data to hold educators accountable and make sure we get results.” The fact that Montclair has long had a school board appointed by the mayor made MacCormack’s hiring easier.  “In Montclair, there was no formal state takeover and no contested school board elections.  Instead, the long reach of corporate education reform had used influence peddling, backdoor connections, and a compliant appointed school board to install one of their own at the head of one of the state’s model districts.”

But Montclair also had powerful residents committed to defending the public schools.  Journalist (and professor at the Columbia University School of Journalism) LynNell Hancock wrote: “This is a Montclair I hardly recognize.  It’s not the children, the quality of the schools or the town’s democratic values that have changed.  It’s a paradigm shift in school leadership, a top-down technocratic approach that narrows its focus to ‘fixing’ schools by employing business strategies….”  The teachers union rose up and forced the board to listen to teachers testifying at board meetings.  In Montclair, unlike Newark, the protests paid off: “As we go to press, a stunning turn of events underscored again how corporate reform plays out differently across inequalities of power, race, and class.  Faced with growing opposition, MacCormack abruptly resigned to take an unspecified job with a ‘new educational services organization’ in New York City.”

Montclair’s residents have been powerful enough to pressure even an appointed school board and to insert expert voices in the press to push back the attack on their schools.  Newark’s citizens have been less successful.  Karp’s article is essential for filling in the gaps about how savvy and powerful corporate reformers are spreading disruption, privatization, and anti-teacher policies.  Near the end of his article, Karp describes budding efforts of suburbanites and Newark residents to work together to fight Christie’s corporate plans. I wish I had as much hope as Karp expresses that parents and activists across city and suburban school jurisdictions will be able and willing to frame the issues to define common cause.

POLITICO’s Stephanie Simon Investigates Pearson—Essential Reading

No Profit Left Behind, Stephanie Simon’s blockbuster POLITICO investigation of the publishing giant, Pearson, is essential reading for anyone who wants to understand how things work in American education these days.  Simon warns, “Pearson’s dominance does not always serve U.S. students or taxpayers well.”

This is a major investigation: “POLITICO examined hundreds of pages of contracts, business plans and email exchanges, as well as tax filings, lobbying reports and marketing materials, in the first comprehensive look at Pearson’s business practices in the United States.  The investigation found that public officials often commit to buying from Pearson because it’s familiar, even when there’s little proof its products and services are effective.”

From North Carolina’s bid-free purchase of a student data system that failed so catastrophically that North Carolina “had to pay Pearson millions extra to fix it,” to the Los Angeles iPad disaster that brought down school superintendent John Deasy, Pearson’s no-bid contracts have often been far more expensive than anyone anticipated because the products didn’t work as promised. Pearson was responsible for the curriculum that was to have been loaded on the iPads for every student in Los Angeles.  “Pearson alone stood to make an estimated $135 million over three years even though its curriculum was at that point at least a year away from completion.  And that was just the start: The district would also have to pay Pearson an estimated $60 million a year to keep using its curriculum after 2016….”  “A federal review of the Los Angeles Unified School District’s iPad deal found the district could have saved considerably by building its own custom curriculum from a variety of online resources rather than buying a costly off-the-shelf model from a major publisher.” The FBI continues to investigate how Deasy and Pearson came up with this deal.

Where did Pearson come from?  “The company that would play such an outsize role in American classrooms was founded in Yorkshire, England, in 1844 as a family-owned construction firm… Over the decades, Pearson PLC—now based in London—bought stakes in all manner of industries, including newspapers, amusement parks and even the Madame Tussauds wax museum.  It wouldn’t be until 1988 that the company took its first big step into the education world when it bought textbook publisher Addison-Wesley.”  “The British publishing giant Pearson had made few inroads in the United States… when it announced plans in the summer of 2000 to spend $2.5 billion on an American testing company…  The next year, Congress passed the No Child Left Behind Act, which mandated millions of new standardized tests for millions of kids in public schools… From that perch, the company expanded rapidly, seizing on many subsequent reform trends, from online learning to the Common Core standards adopted in more than 40 states.”

Simon traces how in fifteen years, Pearson has come to wield, “enormous influence over American education. It writes the textbooks and tests that drive instruction in public schools across the nation.  Its software grades student essays, tracks student behavior and diagnoses—and treats—attention deficit disorder.  The company administers teacher licensing exams and coaches teachers once they’re in classrooms.  It advises principals.  It operates a network of three dozen online public schools.  It co-owns the for-profit company that now administers the GED.”  “The state of Virginia recertified Pearson as an approved ‘school turnaround’ consultant in 2013 even though the company had, at best, mixed results with that line of work: Just one of the five Virginia schools that Pearson cited as references improved both its math and reading proficiency rates against the state averages.  Two schools lost ground in both math and reading and the other two had mixed results.  State officials said Pearson met all the criteria they required of consultants.”

And that’s just its K-12 business.  Much of Simon’s investigation explores the many products and services Pearson provides for America’s colleges and universities—particularly the company’s contracts for providing online courses.

According to Simon, 55 percent of Pearson’s global adjusted operating profits in 2013 came from its North American education division.  Is it fair to blame Pearson for providing what the burgeoning education marketplace seeks?  Not really, says Jonathan Zimmerman, an education historian at New York University: “The policies that Pearson is benefiting from may be wrongheaded in a million ways, but it strikes me as deeply unfair to blame Pearson for them.  When the federal government starts doing things like requiring all states to test all kids, there’s going to be gold in those hills.  The people we’ve elected have created a landscape that’s allowed Pearson to prosper.” Cathy Davidson of the Graduate Center at the City University of New York disagrees: “If you have an exclusive contract with a massive education system, is that really just earning a profit, or are you profiting at the public’s expense?  That’s the line many people, including myself, find very troubling.”

Chicago: Private Firms Cashing In on the Common Good

Rick Perlstein’s new piece, How to Sell Off a City, paints the landscape of the privatized metropolis.  Privatization is, of course, much broader—wars conducted by what used to be called Blackwater and by Kellogg, Brown & Root—prisons kept packed with folks on long sentences to build the profits of the Corrections Corporation of America —but Perlstein’s panorama is local.

“For over a decade now, Chicago has been the epicenter of the fashionable trend of ‘privatization’—the transfer of the ownership or operation of resources that belong to all of us, like schools, roads and government services, to companies that use them to turn a profit.  Chicago’s privatization mania began during Mayor Richard M. Daley’s administration, which ran from 1989 to 2011.  Under his successor, Rahm Emanuel, the trend has continued apace.  For Rahm’s investment banker buddies, the trend has been a boon.  For citizens?  Not so much.”

Chicago is a microcosm of our privatizing society.

  • Chicago was a big winner of a federal competitive “Hope VI” grant that “aimed to replace public-housing high-rises with mixed-income houses, duplexes and row houses built and managed by private firms.”  According to Perlstein, it hasn’t all quite worked out: “Meanwhile, the $1.6 billion Plan for Transformation drags on, six years past deadline and still 2,500 units from completion while thousands of families languish on the Chicago Housing Authority’s waitlist.”
  • There’s the deal that turned parking meters over to Chicago Parking Meters in an arrangement that, Perlstein’s sources estimate, has underpaid the city “by a factor of 10.”
  • Then there’s the deal by which the Chicago Skyway was leased for 99 years to an Australian firm. The city reaped $1.8 billion in immediate cash, but drivers using the road are now paying $4.50 in tolls, when it is estimated $2.50 would be the likely toll rate if the highway were still public.
  • Chicago Transit Authority now has a privatized Ventra “smart card” through an arrangement with a San Diego defense contractor, Cubic.  Cubic is making added profits because “the transit cards can double as debit cards.”  “But dig the customer fees… $1.50 every time customers withdraw cash from an ATM, $2.95 every time they add money to their online debit account… $2 for every call with a service representative…”  and so on.

Of course Chicago has also been one of the big laboratories for privatization of public education.  Perlstein reminds us that when President Barack Obama chose a member of the mayoral-appointed Chicago board of education, Penny Pritzker (the Hyatt Hotel heiress) to be Secretary of Commerce: “In June of 2013, Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel made a new appointment…. The appointee, Deborah H. Quazzo, is a founder of an investment firm called GSV Advisors, a business whose goal… is to drum up venture capital for ‘an education revolution in which public schools outsource to private vendors such critical tasks as teaching math, educating disabled students, even writing report cards.'”  Perlstein wonders, “Given the work her firm does in education, did she anticipate recusing herself from school board decisions that presented a conflict of interest?”  Instead, “Some of her companies that had preexisting contracts with CPS cut their prices after Quazzo joined the school board so their bills would fall under the threshold that would require review by district bureaucrats.  One of those bills came to precisely $24,999.  The threshold for review? $25,000, naturally.”

Then there has been the privatization of janitorial services for Chicago Public Schools, something principals have continued to decry as disastrous because, they have complained, the schools have become filthy.  Even as principals and teachers despaired about the conditions in their buildings, Aramark, the recipient of the $260 million, three year contract, laid off 470 school janitors, a 20 percent reduction.

Chicago has also been in the forefront of the movement to replace public schools, where teachers and other staff are protected by unions, with privately managed charters. “Of course, another thing that elites like about privatization is that it lets them lay off public employees—especially unionized ones.  In Chicago, privately run charter schools that replace traditional public schools are not covered by Chicago Teachers Union contracts, and most are not unionized…”  “All told, since 2009, the city has cut 5,000 jobs, in addition to laying off 1,700 public-school employees.”

Perlstein concludes: “Most privatization deals fail every public policy test.  There’s little record of successful competition between concessionaires to deliver service more efficiently. The very logic is faulty, because most government services are what economists call a ‘natural monopoly’—which turns out to be what makes it so attractive to capitalists in the first place: ‘Infrastructure is ultra-low-risk because competition is limited by a host of forces that make it difficult to build, say, a rival toll road,’ as Businessweek explained way back in 2007. ‘With captive customers, the cash flows are virtually guaranteed.'”

Perlstein quotes one Illinois politician, captivated by the seduction of the the rhetoric of competition, who commented: “The developers were thinking in market terms and operating under the rules of the marketplace.  But at the same time, we had government supporting and subsidizing those efforts.”  “The fan,” writes Perlstein, “was Barack Obama, then a young state senator.”

New Yorker Profiles Jeb: School Privatizer, De-Regulator, Promoter of Competition

Alec MacGillis’ in depth report, Testing Time: Jeb Bush’s Educational Experiment, in The New Yorker this week, doesn’t really add to the facts Lindsay Layton recounted in the Washington Post earlier this month.  Layton described Jeb Bush’s education legacy as governor of Florida and founder and chair of the non-profit Foundation for Excellence in Education: “issuing A-to-F report cards for schools, using taxpayer vouchers for tuition at private schools, expanding charter schools, requiring third-graders to pass a reading test… encouraging online and virtual charter schools,” and (she quotes Jeb’s own words), “fighting government-run, unionized, politicized monopolies… that trap good teachers, administrators and struggling students in a system that nobody can escape.”

But you won’t be reading MacGillis’ new profile for the facts, which have been well established by now.  MacGillis’s focus is to connect Jeb’s public work as Florida’s governor with the many non-profit and for-profit endeavors he has launched since he left office.  Jeb Bush has after all made education a centerpiece of his work for many years now.  While “Bush is being viewed as a moderate in the emerging Presidential field,” MacGillis describes the analysis of an adviser to former President George W. Bush: “Jeb is more introverted and more ideological than both his father, George H.W. Bush, whose policies are driven more by personal associations than by doctrine, and his brother whose conservatism is more instinctual than considered. It was Jeb who signed the nation’s first ‘Stand Your Ground’ self-defense law, and fought to keep Terri Schiavo on life support.”  This is the backdrop against which MacGillis traces Bush’s long record as a school privatizer, testing enthusiast, and proponent of disruptive—often on-line—innovation.

Jeb Bush is quoted as bragging, “Florida has the largest, most vibrant charter-school movement in the country.”  MacGillis continues, “By 2006, Jeb’s last year in office, there were more than three hundred charter schools (for-profit and nonprofit) in Florida, with more than a hundred thousand students, most of them in big metropolitan areas such as Miami and Tampa. But the state made only sporadic efforts to track their performance. The 1996 law called for annual statewide reports on the schools, but none were produced until November of 2006.  Test scores in lower grades were found to be slightly higher than at traditional pubic schools, and slightly lower in the higher grades. The reading test-score gap between black students and white students in elementary grades decreased at about the same rate as in traditional schools but in the charter high schools the gap widened.  However, direct comparisons were difficult, because the charters took about twenty percent fewer low-income and special-needs students.  It was even harder to track the impact of vouchers, because the private and parochial schools that accepted them were not required to administer state tests.  As Bush saw it, some schools and companies were inferior, but that situation would sort itself out over time.”

Bush’s Foundation for Excellence in Education, launched in 2008 after he left public office, is described as what ed tech companies like Rupert Murdoch and Joel Klein’s Amplify and Pearson, the testing and publishing giant, have come to count on as “an ideal platform to promote a range of ideas and products to state officials.”  Patricia Levesque, the Foundation’s director, has used her influence to connect state commissioners of education who are part of the Foundation’s Chiefs for Change with leaders of corporations promoting on-line education, curricula and software and to make the Chiefs for Change into sales people for these products in other states.  We learn of Bush’s business connections to Voyager, the company that created the ill-fated Reading First—the phonics-based reading curriculum adopted by the U. S. Department of Education under No Child Left Behind, one of the earliest mandates of the law that was eliminated because Reading First did not seem to be teaching children across the country to read.  In 2011, Bush got financially involved—reaping an annual salary of $60,000—with Academic Partnerships, a company whose aim was to “persuade public colleges to attract more students by outsourcing to the firm their master’s-degree programs in fields such as  business and education.”  MacGillis also traces Bush’s long and stalwart support for the Common Core Standards.

The Foundation for Excellence in Education is known for its lavish summits.  Here is MacGillis’s description of the most recent, just last November: “In the corridors, hundreds of state legislators, education commissioners, activists, and Bush aides mingled with education-industry executives and lobbyists. Campbell Brown, the former CNN anchor, who is now an anti-teachers’-union activist, walked through the hall with a cup of coffee in each hand. Joel Klein was there to pitch Amplify’s latest products, including a tablet app that features the actor Chadwick Boseman reading from the autobiography of Frederick Douglass. The ‘donor meetings’ between the state commissioners and company executives were held all afternoon in a conference room. Later, attendees drifted to the hotel bar, where they waited to hear Condoleezza Rice speak at a banquet that evening. Tony Bennett (former Indiana Chief for Change) walked through the lobby.  After he lost his bid for reelection in Indiana he briefly served as Florida’s education commissioner, but resigned after the Associated Press reported that he had tweaked the rating of an Indiana charter school founded by a major G.O.P. Donor. (An inspector general later cleared him of any legal violation.) He was consulting for the test-prep company ACT Aspire, which is co-owned by Pearson. ‘In this incredible land of opportunity,’ Bennett said, ‘why shouldn’t someone who served his country get to serve in another way?'”

MacGillis tells the story, rich in detail, of Jeb Bush’s commitment to standards-based accountability, privatization, free markets, competition, de-regulation, and on-line instruction.  There is a lot here about making money and promoting business partners—the   story of an aggressive business tycoon—but nothing about teachers or children or what education ought to be about or what needed to happen to improve the public schools of Florida.  MacGillis’s profile surely will help fix the image of Jeb Bush as the presidential candidate with a long term commitment to free-market ideology and making money through the enterprise of education.

This blog recently covered Jeb Bush work in education here and here.

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.