If you have enough money, you get to create education policy

When a society sees children as fodder for profit instead of tomorrow’s citizens to be educated, privatization has surely gotten out of hand. Shortcomings in education, a product of larger societal deficiencies, would best be addressed in a systemic manner, but instead we get hedge-fund managers leading attacks on those favorite scapegoats of the Right, teachers.

The latest exhibit comes to us from New York City, where new Mayor Bill De Blasio is under sustained attack for applying the most gentle tap to the brakes in the runaway train of charter-school approval. What crime did Mayor De Blasio commit that has brought thunderous denunciation onto his head? He approved only 39 of 49 charter-school applications that had been rubber-stamped late in 2013 in the waning days of the administration of the previous mayor, financial industry billionaire Michael Bloomberg.

Brooklyn Bridge

Brooklyn Bridge

New York City already has nearly 200 charter schools. These are controversial not simply because public money is directed from public schools to private, for-profit companies, but because the charter schools take space away public schools and pay no rent. Yep, private operators use public space for free while public school students lose facilities.

One of the largest operators of charter schools in New York is Harlem Success Academy, which operates 18 of them — all located in public school buildings. Juan Gonzalez, a columnist for the New York Daily News, reported on the experience of the Mickey Mantle public school for special-education students when the academy arrived:

“ ‘We lost our library and a bunch of classrooms that [first] year,’ [special-education teacher Lynn] Manuell says. The following year, as Harlem Success increased its enrollment, Mickey Mantle was ordered to give up more space. ‘We lost our technology room, our music room, our art room and we had to start sharing the cafeteria, the gym and playground,’ Manuell says. … A fellow teacher conducts four periods a week of gym in a regular classroom because so little time has been allotted in the main gym to the Mickey Mantle pupils.”

Those with less get less so those with more get more

The chief executive officer of Harlem Success is Eva Moskowitz, who drew a salary of $488,000 in 2011. Her ability to pay for the public facilities she uses is demonstrated by a teacher who writes on education issues, Mercedes Schneider:

“Since 2006, Eva Moskowitz has been running a small charter empire that has at least $50 million in government per-pupil funding, at least $30.9 million in total, end-of-year assets, and the support of hedge fund millionaires. Why is it, then, that her Success Academies have never paid a dime in rent for the public school space occupied by her charter schools?”

A good question. Ms. Moskowitz, a former city council member, justifies her charter-school empire by saying that her students get higher test scores than the citywide average. But as a private school, her academies can pick and choose their students, notes education researcher Diane Ravitch:

“The media do not know that her schools do not serve the same demographic as the children in the public schools. She enrolls fewer children with special needs and fewer English language learners. Her schools have a high suspension and attrition rate.

Her logic seems to be that since she gets high test scores (note the above sentence as one does tend to get high scores by keeping out low-scoring students), she deserves to get whatever space she wants, rent-free. By that logic, the city should give extra privileges to students with high scores, and should take away space and privileges and programs from those with low scores.”

Maybe they aren’t better after all

Better results on standardized tests is a primary argument proponents of charter schools routinely make. The corporate media accepts these claims without investigation, yet the facts tell a different story. At best, charter schools have roughly comparable results; those that show better results are in the minority.

A widely cited 2009 study by Stanford University’s Center for Research on Education Outcomes found that 83 percent of charter schools studied in 16 U.S. states had results that were either worse or not significantly different than public school results. A second study by the center in 2013, covering 26 states and New York City, found that 75 percent of charter schools had results that were not significantly different or were worse than public school results.

The Rand Corporation, hardly an entity hostile to business interests, reached substantially similar conclusions in its study of California charter schools:

“Regarding student achievement, results are mixed. Students in charter schools generally have comparable or slightly lower test scores than students in conventional public schools, but there is variation among the types of charter schools. With respect to governance, only a small proportion of chartering authorities are collecting accountability information such as student grades, promotion rates, and dropout rates.”

Halfway across the country, in Milwaukee, a report released in December 2012 by the Forward Institute found that the higher scores of the city’s charter schools in comparison to public schools “is explained by their bias selection of low truancy students.” Overall, however, this report found that charter schools have had a negative impact on student poverty because “schools with higher poverty enrollment levels have experienced per-pupil funding cuts more than two times the cuts in the most affluent districts.” The report’s sobering conclusion is this:

“[W]hen controlling for school and community factors, charter schools in Milwaukee do not offer a better educational outcome for students.”

Just as in New York, you can “achieve” better results if you can pick and choose your students, and provide more resources.

This offensive against public education is not new. When I was a student myself in 1970s New Jersey and an adult still living there in the following decade, the incessant ideology was that Catholic schools were better than public schools. The Catholic schools also could rid themselves of less desirable students, and the thesis wasn’t true anyway. When a ranking of area high schools was undertaken, the two public high schools in my home town were ranked first and second, while the Catholic schools ranked well down the pack. I was fortunate to grow up in a town that put money into its school system.

Turning schools into drill halls

Charter schools place a heavy emphasis on standardized testing. Yet even if it were true that charter schools could deliver consistently higher scoring on them, it is questionable at best whether such tests are actually evidence of student learning.

A National Research Council report in 2011 found that “The available evidence does not give strong support for the use of test-based incentives to improve education.” That shouldn’t be a controversial statement — turning schools into drill halls so students can regurgitate material to pass a test is not a substitute for leveraging teachers’ professional skills to encourage creative learning. The council’s report states:

“The tests that are typically used to measure performance in education fall short of providing a complete measure of desired educational outcomes in many ways. This is important because the use of incentives for performance on tests is likely to reduce emphasis on the outcomes that are not measured by the test.

The academic tests used with test-based incentives obviously do not directly measure performance in untested subjects and grade levels or development of such characteristics as curiosity and persistence. However, those tests also fall short in measuring performance in the tested subject and grade in important ways. … [S]cores on the tests used with incentives may give an inflated picture of learning with respect to the full range of the content standards.”

Here we have an important clue. Corporate titans want employees with strong technical skills without the ability to think independently. In U.S. universities, there is a heavy emphasis on business and business-friendly courses while liberal arts are under sustained attack. The charter-school movement is very well funded and promoted by industrialists and financiers — this is not altruism based on supposed concern for student learning, but rather an attempt to take over education to suit their narrow economic interests.

The billionaires who drive education policy

On the national level in the United States, by far the three biggest funders are the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, the Eli and Edythe Broad Foundation and the Walton Family Foundation. Microsoft founder Bill Gates became wealthy producing software that doesn’t work well because he can exploit a monopoly he was accidentally handed; Eli Broad became wealthy building suburban houses, taking advantage of the many government subsidies that enabled the suburbs; and the Waltons benefit enormously from Wal-Mart’s leading role in forcing manufacturers to re-locate to China because that is the only way they can meet Wal-Mart’s demand for low prices.

What possible qualification do such people have to dictate education policy?

Nonetheless, they have driven policy across the country, even at the federal level. The Obama administration’s “Race to the Top” competition for education funding, the intellectual product of the three foundations, induced states to change laws and favor charters to get the money, according to a detailed report by Joanne Barkan in Dissent. The Gates Foundation even supplied consultants to states to help them win Race to the Top money. That is merely one of numerous examples, Ms. Barkan writes:

“A few billion dollars in private foundation money, strategically invested every year for a decade, has sufficed to define the national debate on education; sustain a crusade for a set of mostly ill-conceived reforms; and determine public policy at the local, state, and national levels.”

Hedge-fund millionaires are bankrolling much of the push for charter schools on the local level in Chicago and New York. Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel (“Mayor 1%”) sought to crush the teachers’ union and drastically increase the use of charter schools as part of his neoliberal agenda when his hard-line tactics induced the teachers to go on strike in September 2012.

He failed because the union worked with the community ahead of time to explain the stakes, and to prepare parents for the possibility that the teachers would be forced to go on strike. When the inevitable attacks came in the predictable form — “the teachers are greedy” “the teachers only care about getting more of your tax money” — they did not have the usual impact. Mayor Emanuel had clearly expected the community to be on his side; instead the people were with the teachers.

Providing muscle for Mayor Emanuel were hedge-fund managers running an organization called “Education Reform Now,” an advocate for charter schools that paid for a series of automated telephone calls to Chicago parents during the three-day period in June when the teachers were voting to authorize a strike, and for a barrage of television commercials attacking the teachers during the strike.

Hedge-fund money talks, politicians snap to attention

And that brings us back to New York. Hedge-fund managers are major backers of charter schools there; they are heavily represented on the boards of the Harlem Success Academy and its individual schools. They are also financial backers of New York state Governor Andrew Cuomo, himself a promoter of charter schools and corporate agendas in general who spoke at rally organized by Eva Moskowitz on March 4.

That was an event in which Ms. Moskowitz closed her schools and bused her students to the rally, which merited no comment in the corporate media. Just ask yourself: What would the reaction have been had public schools closed for political purposes, particularly if done so with union backing. Everyone would have to wear earplugs the screaming denunciations would be so loud.

The fact that charter schools tend to be non-unionized with less experienced teachers making less money and possessing less job security should not be left out of the picture.

Governor Cuomo has racked up considerable contributions from financiers seeking to control education, according to a Chalkbeat New York report:

“Cuomo’s reelection bid has so far received nearly $400,000 from a cadre of wealthy supporters of Eva Moskowitz’s Success Academy Charter School network, according to an updated tally of newly-released campaign filings. Some money has even come from Moskowitz’s political action committee, Great Public Schools, which has given $65,000 to Cuomo since 2011. … By one tally of the 2014 filings, Cuomo racked up at least $800,000 in donations from 27 bankers, real estate executives, business executives, philanthropists and advocacy groups who have flocked to charter schools and other education causes in recent years.”

Although recently disbanded when watchdogs began requesting its donors be made public, the governor had set up a “Committee to Save New York,” a group of wealthy business leaders and real estate barons that spent $17 million promoting government austerity, cuts to pensions and tax cuts for the rich.

Education advocates in New York City — those concerned with students and not profits — have pinned their hopes on Mayor De Blasio, who promised that he would charge charter schools rent. So far, however, he seems to have gotten cold feet. He has yet to announce a plan, and now says he wants to charge them on a sliding scale rather than a standard rate. The New York City Independent Budget Office has calculated that the city would generate $92 million by charging a flat rate of $2,320 per student.

Millionaire hedge-fund managers and other wealthy backers are opposed, helping to orchestrate ferocious attacks in the corporate media, particularly by the city’s tabloids. The New York Times reports that charter advocates “warn that such a move would alienate donors amid worries that their contributions would end up in the city treasury.” Everybody, through paying taxes, sharing responsibility for the most basic of social services — educating children — should be the most minimum duty for anyplace that considers itself civilized.

That little tidbit about “alienation” speaks volumes about the inequality that has become so pervasive and reveals the real agenda here — educating some children so that they become corporate drones and throwing away other children as excess humanity without value. Why doesn’t this sicken more of us?

Chicago pushes back against the war on teachers — and neoliberalism

The Chicago teachers returning to work today earned a victory — not for themselves, but for two important ideas. The first is that dignity and security are not unreasonable for those of us who have to go to work every day. The second is that the job of schools is to build the citizens of tomorrow, not line the pockets of corporate executives and investors.

We can’t understand the reasons behind the “war on teachers” without examining both of these ideas.

An additional message from the Chicago Public Schools teachers’ strike is that democracy and community involvement are indispensable. At almost every demonstration the chant “the people united will never be defeated” is heard, and here we have an example where a significant majority at least were united. The corporate executives salivating over their potential profits, the funders of the charter-school movement seeking more takeovers and, most of all, the willful mayor who expected to steamroll over the teachers each had their agenda stalled.

Not that those powerful people were defeated, nor that the teachers won a total victory. The new contract is a negotiated settlement, with both sides getting something. That is what a “negotiation” is — a compromise by two parties. A “negotiation” is not a dictation imposed by the more powerful party, which seems to be a point of confusion for Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel. But the very concept of democracy seems to be not well understood by Mayor Emanuel.

Undoubtedly, there was much disappointment on the part of parents that teachers did not call off their strike and return to work on September 17, as was widely anticipated. There was considerable disappointment on the part of the teachers. The principal of democracy was deemed too important to dispense with, and the Chicago teachers’ union deserves praise on this point. The union delegates entrusted with ending the strike believed they should actually read the proposed contract before voting, and that they should discuss the contract with the rank-and-file teachers who will have to live with it. Quelle horreur!

A Chicago teacher, Rita Stephanie, who has contributed daily strike updates to the Kasama Project web site, stressed the democracy of the union:

“In a televised news conference at 6:05 p.m. [union leader Karen] Lewis said that the House of Delegates wanted to exercise their right to review the contract. She said that the union is a democratic organization and that she supported the right of members to review the language of the contract. Schools will not open Monday and members have overwhelmingly decided to continue the strike. When questioned by reporters she said that a key issue was TRUST. Union members do not trust the school board or the mayor to have their interests at heart. This would be an understatement! Union delegates say that their strength lies in the strike.”

The teachers’ union would not have been able to exercise this democratic process if they had not worked with the community ahead of time to explain the stakes, and to prepare parents for the possibility that they would be forced to go on strike. When the inevitable attacks came in the predictable form — “the teachers are greedy” “the teachers only care about getting more of your tax money” — they did not have the usual impact. Mayor Emanuel had clearly expected the community to be on his side; instead the people have been with the teachers. The mayor’s response? Stamp his feet, attack, go to court to force an end to the strike. His reaction says much about the mayor and his complete adoption of corporate ideology. When you give an order, it is to be obeyed!

It wasn’t obeyed — schools are not corporations. Professional educators believe they should have a hand in shaping the education system. Imagine that. Teachers just might know something about education that the hedge-fund managers running television commercials in Chicago don’t. What if people in other professions start getting the idea that they, too, should have a hand in decision-making in the workplace?

Let’s back up here a moment. What do hedge-fund managers have to do with schools? Two hedge-fund managers (who have way more money than the teachers, or you, but likely pay a lower tax rate) run an outfit called “Education Reform Now.” This group, an advocate for charter schools, paid for a series of automated telephone calls to parents during the three-day period in June when the teachers were voting to authorize a strike, and for television commercials attacking the teachers.

Charter schools are the key here. An increasingly stressed component of the neoliberal agenda is privatization of public schools. Public schools are shuttered, and replaced by private charter schools. Sometimes the charter schools are given part of the facilities of a still-existing public school, which is given second-class treatment in its own building. Unionized teachers are fired, and nonunion teachers paid much less are hired in the charter schools. The charter schools are given money diverted from the public schools but without the accountability or requirement to follow existing contracts. Some of the money goes to pay huge salaries to the executives of the charter-school companies and for profits.

The movement for charter schools is not a movement for reforming education, as promoters claim, but rather is naked union-busting. It is a bold attempt to force down wages, parallel with the decline of wages in the private sector.

The hedge-fund managers attacking Chicago teachers used the standard neoliberal line of attack: Those people have something you don’t! That’s unfair! Let’s take it away from them! Chicago teachers are mostly African-American and mostly women. Perhaps Mayor Emanuel and his millionaire backers thought they would be likely to fold. Surely the mayor and his backers, believing their own propaganda, believed they would be easy targets. Down to the similarity of the tactics, their agenda is a straight continuation of the Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker’s offensive to take away collective-bargaining rights from government workers and to demonize them.

If some workers earn a good wage and can look forward to a reasonable pension, shouldn’t the question to be asked be “Why shouldn’t I have that, too?” Shouldn’t the answer be to organize to gain it rather than seek to take something away from somebody else?

The charter-school movement has its eyes set on many cities other than Chicago. In New York, where a billionaire from the financial industry stepped directly into the mayor’s office thanks to his lavish spending, charter schools are heavily promoted. These are promoted as alternatives that spend less and get better results, but that is not so.

Brooke Parker, writing in the Brooklyn community newspaper WG, reports:

“While charter schools receive slightly less per pupil from the city than public schools, the city’s Independent Budget Office concluded that when you factor in that they don’t pay for their use of space, utilities, janitorial services, or school safety agents, charter schools generally spend over $700 more per pupil in public funds each year, and that’s not including the substantial private money they receive. And all those public dollars are spent while charter schools, in general, don’t perform any better than public schools. So much for the idea that charter schools are less wasteful.”

Kicking out experienced teachers and replacing them with freshly minted teachers also doesn’t seem the best strategy for improving classroom performance. But often this is what charter schools do — because they can pay new teachers less than experienced teachers. This is one of the “innovations” adopted from the private sector.

Three sets of billionaires are the primary forces behind charter schools: Microsoft founder Bill Gates, businessman Eli Broad and Wal-Mart heirs the Walton family. Gates become fabulously wealthy through exploiting something he had no hand in creating, the computer, which took off thanks to the government invention of the Internet. Broad first became rich building suburban houses, taking advantage of the many government subsidies that enabled the suburbs. The Waltons benefit from Wal-Mart’s leading role in forcing manufacturers to re-locate to China to meet the company’s standards for low costs.

A Dissent article by Joanne Barkan explained who funds the charter-school movement, then exploded the myth that they perform better:

“Stanford University’s 2009 study of charter schools—the most comprehensive ever done—concluded that 83 percent of them perform either worse or no better than traditional public schools; a 2010 Vanderbilt University study showed definitively that merit pay for teachers does not produce higher test scores for students; a National Research Council report confirmed multiple studies that show standardized test scores do not measure student learning adequately. Gates and Broad helped to shape and fund two of the nation’s most extensive and aggressive school reform programs—in Chicago and New York City—but neither has produced credible improvement in student performance after years of experimentation.”

The rate of poverty, as numerous studies have shown, is the leading indicator of student performance. Gaps in social development and cognitive functions begin before children are old enough to go to school. But to confront the vast inequalities of capitalist societies is verboten — better to blame everything on teachers. And so we come to another component of the corporate charter-school agenda: Judging teachers almost exclusively on standardized tests. Doing so deflects attention from underlying social issues (issues that are much bigger than schools by themselves) and enforces a specific agenda in education: To mold children to be proficient in narrow technical skills without the ability to think originally.

A world of corporate drones. Such a world might be fine for corporate elites wishing for a compliant future workforce, but is no benefit to the students themselves. Teachers in Chicago and elsewhere who push back against heavy reliance on test scores are reasonably protecting themselves against a rigid system that takes no account of social and other issues that are intertwined with student performance, but they are also striking a blow for a more complete, more rounded education — one in which the liberal arts and other topics are employed to teach students how to think rather than imposing a narrow education in which pre-selected answers are simply regurgitated.

It is unconscionable to claim that teachers, or teacher unions, don’t care about students or education. Surely there are scattered individuals who should not be in the classroom — but there is no profession or human endeavor without some people who are poor performers. Such people can be weeded out without tarring entire groups. As Rita Stephanie, the Chicago teacher quoted above, wrote:

“The interests are complex and if the problems of education were easily solved it would have been done already. All morning on the picket line we talked about the problems of poverty. The teachers on my picket line wanted to talk about the big problem of poverty. We still need to teach our babies, but society needs to take responsibility for the problem of poverty.”

Chicago teachers were on the front lines this month: Holding the line against the attacks on public education and the need for a holistic approach on the one hand, and holding the line against the attacks on working people and their ability to earn a good wage and pension on the other hand. A strike, particularly one that is defensive as this one, can’t succeed without significant community support. Even then the odds are often long: industrialists, financiers and the governments over which they have decisive influence possess huge power and a willingness to use it.

There is no choice but to struggle, for there is no other route to a better world. Wars on teachers, wars on women or wars on working people promoted by elite interests should no longer be tolerated. Instead, let’s learn from the experience of the Chicago teachers’ strike to build communities. Democracy is hard work but it is better than bowing and scraping.