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.

It Is Spring and Big-Money Conferences on School “Reform” Bloom

I  was educated in the public schools of small town Havre, Montana, and my children were educated in the public schools of inner-ring suburban Cleveland Heights, Ohio.  I am a strong believer in public education—publicly funded, universally available, required to accept all children who present themselves at the door, and accountable to the public. A public system seems to me the optimal way to balance the needs of each particular child and family with the need to create a system that secures the rights and addresses the needs of all children. While public education is not a utopia, I believe it has fewer structural flaws, from the point of view of the common good, than privatized alternatives.

How quaint seem my attitudes this month when the money blooming around privatizing public schools is far more lush than the flowers of spring.   Privatization—privately managed charters, vouchers,  all the private contracting that creates and services all the standardized testing, and the education technology sector—is rapidly expanding.  There is money to be made and power to be wielded.

Two national conferences in the next couple of weeks demonstrate the impact of money in education this spring.  Beginning yesterday, the Arizona State University and Global Silicon Valley Education Innovation Summit is meeting in Scottsdale, Arizona.  Diane Ravitch quotes the sponsors of the conference:  “Our founders have spent the past two decades focused on the Megatrends that are disrupting the $4 trillion global education market along with the innovators who are transforming the industry.”

The long list of speakers includes a who’s who of supporters of “corporate” education reform: Margaret Spellings (George Bush’s Secretary of Education), Penny Pritzker (portfolio school reform supporter in Chicago before she became Secretary of Commerce), Jim Shelton (formerly director of education at the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, now Assistant Secretary of Education), Jeb Bush (former Florida Governor and through his Foundation for Excellence in Education a proponent of awarding schools and school districts A-F grades), Christopher Cerf (now with Rupert Murdoch’s Amplify ed tech company, formerly Governor Chris Christie’s New Jersey commissioner of education), and Reed Hastings (CEO of Netflix and vocal supporter of the elimination of elected boards of education).  The 49 sponsors of the conference include publishers, test designers and data processors like Pearson, McGraw Hill Education, and Houghton, Mifflin, Harcourt; for-profit universities like Apollo, DeVry, and Kaplan; tech companies like Microsoft, and philanthropies like the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. Over 100 companies are slated to present their wares.

Maggie Severns at Politico describes the reason for the conference: “Capital flows into companies serving the K-12 and higher education markets jumped to $650 million last near—nearly double the $331 million invested in those spheres in 2009.”

Or if you want a different kind of education “reform” experience, you can make your way to an Adirondack Camp at Lake Placid, New York on May 4-6 to “reform, relax, retreat.”  Your host will be the Honorable Andrew Cuomo, New York’s charter-friendly governor.  Hofstra professor Alan Singer describes what is to be called Camp Philos in this fascinating piece at Huffington Post. The fee for normal participants is $1,000, but VIPs can pay $2,500 for the three day event being sponsored by Education Reform Now, which Singer describes as closely but unofficially tied to Democrats for Education Reform, the pro-charter, hedge fund-supported, pro-privatization national PAC.

This event isn’t about making money from education; instead it is about using money to shape education policy.  The sponsors are the people who, for example, used their money to ensure that Governor Cuomo blocked New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio’s attempt to reign in the Success Academy charter school network of powerful Eva Moskowitz.  Singer notes that Education Reform Now has made campaign gifts to Cuomo since 2010 that add up to $65,000.  “The Education Reform Now Board of Directors,” writes Singer, “reads like a list of hedge fund royalty.”  Board members head up Highfields Capital Management, Cornwall Capital, Bain & Company, Sessa Capital, Gotham Capital, Covey Capital, Maverick Capital, Charter Bridge Capital… and the list goes on.

M. Night Shyamalan, the film maker, is also a sponsor.  According to Singer, Shyamalan “attended elite private schools as a youth, decided he is an education expert and wrote a book about saving public schools after filming in a Philadelphia public high school.”  Shyamalan’s preferred genre, however, is not the public education documentary;  Singer lists Shyamalan’s Hollywood horror films: After Earth, Devil, The Happening, The Village, and The Sixth Sense.

Singer concludes: “According to the online agenda, break-out sessions include discussions on ‘The Next Big Thing: Groundbreaking Approaches to Teacher Preparation,’ ‘Up, Down, and Sideways: Building an Effective School Reform Coalition,’ ‘Tight-Lose Options for Ensuring All Kids Have Access to a Great Education,’ and ‘Collaborative Models for Changing State and Local Teacher Policies.’ But really only one topic will be discussed — How to promote and profit from the privatization of public education in the United States.”

Duncan Offers No Way to Regulate Bad Charters Like Ohio’s ECOT

In June of 2010, I was part of a group that met with Education Secretary Arne Duncan. Some of us challenged Secretary Duncan about the fact that to apply for grant funding from his Race to the Top competition, states had to get their legislatures to pass laws to remove any caps on the authorization of new charter schools.  Duncan replied, “Good charters are part of the solution. Bad charters are part of the problem.”  But Secretary Duncan did not suggest any ways that he thought the federal government ought to regulate or oversee the bad charters.

The problem of the bad charters remains. A case in point is Ohio’s Electronic Classroom of Tomorrow (ECOT).  ECOT’s on-line students score abysmally below students in  the majority of the state’s traditional school districts and other charter schools.  ECOT’s five-year graduation rate is 37.8 percent, far below other school districts.  And the massive investment of tax dollars is being turned into profit for its CEO/owner/operator, William Lager.

These facts are documented by Ohio’s Plunderbund  blog in a searing indictment of ECOT and William Lager, one of Ohio’s largest political contributors.  According to Plunderbund, from 2010 to 2013, Lager made over $700,000 in political contributions to Ohio’s legislators.

Plunderbund explains that, “William Lager is connected to ECOT in three different ways.  First, he is the school’s CEO…. Second, William lager is also the CEO of Altair Learning Management Company….  And third, William Lager is the CEO of IQ Innovations….”

Altair manages personnel and human resources, instruction, purchasing, strategic planning, public relations, financial reporting… equipment and facilities.  In 2012, Altair’s management fee was $3,157,964.  IQ Innovations provides curriculum services.  In 2012, ECOT paid IQ Innovations $12,631,856.  “In total, that means that Lager’s school, ECOT, is paying Lager’s other two companies Altair and IQ Innovations, over $15.7 million annually.”

Now, ECOT has won an Ohio competitive innovation grant beyond the state’s per-pupil allocation for each of its 13,836 on-line students.  ECOT applied for one of Ohio’s new Straight A Fund innovation grants and was just awarded “their full request of an additional $2,951,755.” Plunderbund  provides details from the budget of the proposed project that will be largely managed by IQ Innovation Services . “ECOT is being given an additional $2,951,755 by the state (legislature), of which $2,725.250, or a whopping 92%  is going directly into Lager’s IQ Innovations company. That means that next year, William Lager, as CEO of ECOT, will be funneling over $18.5 million dollars in state funding directly to his own private companies.”