Tennessee - If you are wondering what it looks like when school privatizers are close to total victory, Tennessee is a prime example. Here, the forces that want to take public money and hand it over to private entities are on the verge of completing their conquest. Tennessee’s current legislative session features a range of attacks on public schools. Some of these would have immediate impacts, while others take a longer-term approach to fully privatizing K-12 education in the state. First, it is important to understand that groups backing privatization in the form of charter schools and vouchers are among the top spenders when it comes to lobbying state legislators. For example, the American Federation for Children—an organization founded and previously led by the family of Betsy DeVos, a school privatization advocate and former President Donald Trump’s Secretary of Education—spent $887,500.
Schools around the country have once again been forced to make tough decisions about returning to remote learning due to the explosion of new COVID-19 infections resulting from the highly contagious omicron variant. Despite a recent poll showing that 56% of parents support the suspension of in-person learning to slow the spread of the disease, a counter-narrative has emerged, pushed hard by the mainstream media, that pits teachers (and particularly teachers’ unions) against parents. Earlier this week, in fact, in New York Magazine, liberal pundit Jonathan Chait defended Nate Silver’s widely criticized argument that likened schools moving to remote learning during a deadly pandemic to the Iraq War and placed the blame on “The Democratic Party’s left-wing vanguard” and teachers’ unions.
Several years ago, Don Cohen, a former central labor council staffer from San Diego, appeared on a panel discussing the privatization threats faced by union members across the country. He and other speakers were addressing a conference of state, county, and municipal workers represented by the Communications Workers of America (CWA), a group which did not include any federal employees. When Cohen described propaganda campaigns that proponents of privatization conduct to pave the way for out-sourcing local government or state university jobs, audience members immediately recognized that kind of employer behavior and its adverse impact on them. However, when another speaker—a campaigner against privatization of services for veterans--did some quick polling on what CWA activists had heard or read about the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA), their attitude toward that federal agency was largely negative.
East Los Angeles is a community rich in culture and a strong history of activism. Our youth led the student walkouts in the ’60s fought against the Vietnam war during the Chicano Moratorium and have since filled the streets protesting the racist policies by the Trump administration. Still, we have been vastly left behind by our local, state, and federal leaders. Policies to protect our local environment, improve access to health care and make sure that our children are well educated have been inadequate. Charter schools swooped in claiming they could fill this void, but their promises were empty. Their presence brought discord, scandals, left our public education even more underfunded, and did not outperform our local schools.
In recent months, as schools closed to limit the spread of COVID-19, millions of students, teachers, and administrators have been forced to flip a switch and embrace distance learning. Many states have hinted that this situation could continue well into the next school year. Now, panic is spreading among public school advocates as key proponents of “disruptive” education models scramble to capitalize on the chaos. First came the news, in late April, that Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos, who has long been a political and financial supporter of school choice schemes, has been authorized by Congress to hand out $307 million in grant money to state departments of education—provided they use the funds to “reimagine” (read: privatize) K-12 schooling.
Taking time off from mismanaging a pandemic and turning lifesaving masks sent from all over the country into an art installation, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo declared yesterday that he would use the deadly COVID-19 virus as an opportunity to “revolutionize” the state’s school system, inviting Microsoft founder Bill Gates to implement his controversial ideas about education statewide. Gates is best known for one thing in education: charter schools.
Since mid-March, public school students in Minnesota have had to stay home because of the COVID-19 pandemic. Now, according to the state’s governor, Tim Walz, schools will remain closed until the end of this school year, with no guarantee that they will reopen in the fall for anything other than online teaching and learning. This hasn’t stopped the Minneapolis Public Schools from attempting to push forward with a dramatic restructuring plan, known as the Comprehensive District Design. Under this plan, nearly all of the city’s 34,000 public school students and teachers would be reassigned to new schools, beginning in the fall of 2021. The proposal includes the closure of several popular, long-standing magnet school programs, as well as the dismantling of existing community schools in favor of new school configurations.
COVID-19 has shuttered public schools across the nation, state governments are threatening to slash education budgets due to the economic collapse caused by the outbreak, and emergency aid provided by the federal government is far short of what is needed, according to a broad coalition of education groups. But the charter school industry may benefit from its unique status to seek public funding from multiple sources and expand these schools into many more communities traumatized by the pandemic and financial fallout. As school districts reported problems converting classroom learning into online instruction delivered to students’ homes, often due to lack of funding for internet-capable devices and Wi-Fi hotspots, charter school proponents are jumping in to take advantage of emergency aid.
Transparency and accountability have never been the strong suits of non-profit and for-profit charter schools. Unlike the nation’s public schools, all charter schools (about 7,100) are run by unelected individuals, and many, if not most, charter schools regularly violate open-meeting laws, are not subject to public records laws, and avoid audits. In these and other ways, non-profit and for-profit charter schools do not really want to be answerable to the public because they highly value their inherently private status, which is what allows them to cynically operate as pay-the-rich schemes under the veneer of high ideals.
In late September, headlines flickered across my Twitter timeline about a six-year-old black girl who was arrested at school for a temper tantrum. In outrage and confusion, I opened up the articles to understand how such a thing could happen. It turns out that, actually, two six-year-olds were arrested. Their mugshots were taken. Both were charged with misdemeanors. Meralyn Kirkland came forward to the media to identify her granddaughter, Kaia, as one of the two children arrested. Kaia has sleep apnea and didn’t get enough rest the night prior, the grandmother explained.
Despite the fact that the California Charter School Association’s (CCSA) confidential plan to steal facilities from public school students was uncovered months ago, their lackeys continue to insist that Nick Melvoin’s School Performance Framework (SPF) is the only way for parents to understand how to evaluate schools. Instead of demanding transparency with access to the raw data and information about the services that schools provide, they want bureaucrats to decide what information is important and present a ranking system that eliminates the ability of parents to make their own decisions.
There is no shortage of articles, books, reports, blogs, and websites that continually detail the perpetually scandalous and troubled nature of charter schools. Not a day goes by without a report on some sort of infamy, fraud, mismanagement, corruption, or failure in the unaccountable charter school sector. But even articles and reports that are critical of charter schools often lapse into confused logic and arguments, revealing that the thinking around charter schools remains muddled. This endless confusion and incoherence repeatedly conceals and renders forgettable the profound significance of the core feature of all charter schools: their inherently privatized nature.
Steadily mounting opposition to privately-operated nonprofit and for-profit charter schools is inevitable and becoming a bigger thorn in the side of nervous neoliberals, privatizers, and corporate school reformers. Terrified of discussion, investigation, and analysis, and hell-bent on privatizing schools, no matter the cost to society, on September 11, 2019, “Chiefs for Change” issued a letter righteously and arrogantly demanding that everyone blindly submit to the destructive neoliberal agenda of privatizing schools to further enrich major owners of capital.
A July 2019 “study” funded by the pro-privatization Walton Family Foundation, “Charter School Effects on School Segregation,” reports that charter schools intensify racial and ethnic segregation, but not by much and for reasons that are supposedly understandable and acceptable. The authors of the “study” want the public to believe that we should not be too concerned about the role of charter schools in increasing segregation. We are to believe that deregulated privately-operated charter schools are really not that bad.
When the Walton Family Foundation announced in 2013 that it was donating $20 million to Teach For America to recruit and train nearly 4,000 teachers for low-income schools, its press release did not reveal the unusual terms for the grant. Documents obtained by ProPublica show that the foundation, a staunch supporter of school choice and Teach For America’s largest private funder, was paying $4,000 for every teacher placed in a traditional public school — and $6,000 for every one placed in a charter school.