Behind the Charter Schools Initiative

By Dick ConoboyOn Oct 19, 2012

Washington voters have wisely turned down three attempts to create charter schools in this state, once in 1996, once in 2000 and again in 2004. They should replicate these defeats in 2012 with Initiative 1240. (A summary of the initiative can be found here.) Charter schools, which now have crept into more than 40 states, are part of a larger effort to weaken and eventually destroy the public school systems throughout the U.S. and to privatize education for profit making enterprises. Tactics to achieve this include “starving the beast,” that is, slashing state budgets for education and imposing “standards” that guarantee failure by emphasizing and measuring rote learning. This provides fertile ground for the creation of charters “to save our children’s education.” The only comprehensive study on the overall effectiveness of charter schools was done three years ago by the Center for Research on Education Outcomes (CREDO) of Stanford University. (You can read the study here.) CREDO found that 17 percent of charter school students performed better than their public school counterparts, 46 percent no better and 37 percent worse. A 17% success rate is hardly a result on which charter school proponents should hang their hats.

I understand very well the frustrations of many parents of children in today’s public education establishments. There is great discussion to be had on repairing this system that has been consistently abused and shattered by state legislatures through budget cuts and the federal government through the cruelly and ironically named No Child Left Behind law. However, to claim that charter schools are the answer, when there is precious little in the way of support for that contention, is not defensible. Where then does the push for these schools actually originate?

In an October 15, 2012 article for AlterNet, Jeff Faux, the author of “The Servant Economy: Where America's Elite is Sending the Middle Class” contends, “It is well known, although rarely acknowledged in the press, that the reform movement has been financed and led by the corporate class. For over twenty years large business oriented foundations, such as Gates (Microsoft), Walton (Wal-Mart) and Broad (Sun Life) have poured billions into charter school start-ups, sympathetic academics and pundits, media campaigns (including Hollywood movies) and sophisticated nurturing of the careers of privatization promoters who now dominate the education policy debate from local school boards to the U.S. Department of Education.” You can read Faux’s article here.

A look at the donors to this campaign to pass this year’s version of an initiative on charter schools reveals the following: $3,000,000 from Bill Gates, $1,500,000 from Microsoft cofounder Paul Allen, nearly $500,000 from Mike and Jackie Bezos, the parents of founder Jeff Bezos; and $200,000 from Katherine Binder, chairwoman of EMFCO Holdings (a manufacturer of aircraft parts). Netflix co-founder Reed Hastings gave $100,000. Hastings, on the board of Microsoft Corp. is also an investor in DreamBox Learning, an educational game company. Democrats for Education Reform, a New York based political action committee, provided $50,000 to the Washington campaign. As of the date of this article, supporters of charter schools (largely corporate) have raised $9,400,000 while the opponents to the measure, in the form of People for Our Public Schools, have taken in only $280,000. As they say in these affairs, “Follow the money.”

For instance, let us take a closer look at Democrats for Education Reform (DFER). To that end, consider what Faux says further in his article: “In recent years, hedge fund operators, leverage-buy-out artists and investment bankers have joined the crusade. They finance schools, sit on the boards of their associations and the management companies that run them, and—most important—have made support of charter schools one of the criteria for campaign giving in the post-Citizens United era. Since most Republicans are already on board for privatization, the political pressure has been mostly directed at Democrats.” The board of DFER tells that story. You will note that of the seven board members listed below five are capital managers:

Kevin P. Chavous (chair) - Former Washington, DC, City Council member and chair of the Education Committee; Board Chair of Black Alliance for Educational Options (BAEO)

Boykin Curry - Eagle Capital; Co-Founder of Public Prep

Tony Davis - Co-founder and President of Anchorage Capital Group, LLC; Board Trustee for Achievement First Brooklyn charter schools

Charles Ledley - Highfields Capital Management; Board Member of the Tobin Project

Sara Mead - Bellwether Education Partners, Associate Partner; Former Director of Early Education Initiative at the New America Foundation

John Petry - Columbus Hill Capital Management; Co-founder of Harlem Success Academy Charter School in NYC

Whitney Tilson - Managing Partner, T2 Partners LLC and Tilson Mutual Funds; Board member of KIPP-NYC, National Alliance for Public Charter Schools and Council of Urban Professionals; Co-Founder of the Initiative for a Competitive Inner City and Rewarding Achievement (REACH)

Michael Hirsh quotes an interview by The New York Times’ business writer, Joe Nocera, with DFER’s Whitney Tilson, a hedge funder extraordinaire, who called charters “the perfect philanthropy for results-oriented business executives… Hedge funds are always looking for ways to turn a small amount of capital into a large amount of capital.” Need I say more? (You can read Hirsh’s full article on DFER here on the site of the American Federation of Teachers.)

Another objective of the charter school proponents is to create an alternative school system in which the normal rules do not apply, that is, rules regarding collective bargaining so that teachers have less and less a role in forming curricula or establishing working conditions. Outfits such as DFER advocate not only for “nonunion charter schools” but also for vouchers, merit pay, test-based teacher evaluations, and curbs on tenure. All of these tactics have the following in common: to break the system, to reduce teacher wages, to ensure compliant employees through job precariousness, and to develop exclusive schools that will eventually become unaffordable or otherwise unavailable for the poor and middle class alike and will thereby be relegated to non-charter establishments that remain under the local school board control with insufficient funds to do the job.

Tech companies such as Microsoft and Dream Box Learning (mentioned above) also have a lot to gain through the establishment of charter schools. Freed from much of the normal acquisition processes of the state, charter school managers will let many contracts for a plethora of services, not the least of which are educational tools in the way of computers and software. On-line learning proponents will also have their hands out as charter schools seek ways to replace teachers with programmed lessons and testing services. The fact that the Washington initiative calls for the establishment of non-profit charters is no protection from the wolves that will be baying and scraping at the doors of the charter schools’ acquisition chiefs looking to feed on the state funds that have been redirected to these establishment.

Is this what you want for the children of the state of Washington? Initiative 1240 should be defeated.

About Dick Conoboy

Writers • Member since Jan 26, 2008

Comments by Readers

Dick Conoboy

Oct 23, 2012

If I may comment on my own article, there is a piece today that appeared on the web today entitled:  “Can Public Education Survive in a Country Dominated by Privatizers?”  Here is an excerpt:  “Public education is under assault by a host of religious, economic, ideological and political fundamentalists. The most serious attack is being waged by advocates of neoliberalism, whose reform efforts focus narrowly on high-stakes testing, traditional texts and memorization drills. At the heart of this approach is an aggressive attempt to disinvest in public schools, replace them with charter schools, and remove state and federal governments completely from public education in order to allow education to be organized and administered by market-driven forces. ... Schools would “become simply another corporate asset bundled in credit default swaps,” valuable for their rate of exchange and trade value on the open market. ... It would be an understatement to suggest that there is something very wrong with American public education. For a start, this counter-revolution is giving rise to punitive evaluation schemes, harsh disciplinary measures, and the ongoing deskilling of many teachers that together are reducing many excellent educators to the debased status of technicians and security personnel. Additionally, as more and more wealth is distributed to the richest Americans and corporations, states are drained of resources and are shifting the burden of such deficits on to public schools and other vital public services. With 40 percent of wealth going to the top 1 percent, public services are drying up from lack of revenue and more and more young people find themselves locked out of the dream of getting a decent education or a job while being robbed of any hope for the future.”

You can read the entire article here:

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