Image by Tak Toyoshima
I attended a social event last week with numerous reporters and political media folk, more than a few of whom made some kind of comment about my dislike of charter schools. My sentiments are something of an ongoing joke in those circles, and have been ever since I figured out about four years ago that I am incapable of faking any attempt to cover the issue objectively.
But back to those media friends. One chum (who prefers that his name be omitted from my writing) advised that I jazz up some of my investigative digging on the charter front. “How about a list?” he said. “People would probably like a flowchart or something along those lines. Talk to them just like you’re talking to me right now, like you do with other topics.”
A charter flowchart is in the works. For now, though, I’m starting with a sizzling compendium that might attract some readers from beyond my typical ed crowd of public school professionals and true progressives. Without further ado, here’s a spattering of sleazy charter school developments that you’re not likely to read about anyplace else. Told casually, roundup-style.
-About that current push for more, bigger, and better charters… Though it’s hard to imagine that Governor Perfect can do any wrong, it’s important to consider that Charlie Baker’s purple heart bipartisanship sows fertile soil which those who profit from school privatization can plunder—real estate investors, test administrators, consultants, consultants, and especially consultants. So far, Baker appointed a venture capitalist with no relevant ed experience to chair the state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education, while his testimony last week on behalf of legislation to “Improve and Expand Educational Opportunity and Charter Schools” showed far more interest in fertilizing alternatives than in repairing traditional infrastructure:
- Baker’s legislation would “add up to 12 new Commonwealth charter schools and/or expansions annually—outside of the current cap of 120—focusing the growth in districts that are performing in the bottom 25% of districts statewide.” The administration boldly claims their budgeting will “level the financial playing field between high income and low income communities” and deputizes these proposed new charters to “work on closing the education opportunity gap that had historically left too many kids behind.” That’s Baker’s baseline—that charters are inherently good, and capable of saving us.
- The governor then performed the increasingly common charter stat cherry-picking routine, in which he at once hails “our charter schools [as] the envy of the nation,” and notes that “despite all this positive progress, the difference in overall student achievement in underperforming school districts and the rest of the Commonwealth remains too high.” The problem? According to Baker, it’s that “37,000 children sit on waiting lists, trying to get into the Commonwealth’s very successful charter school network.”
- The governor then neglected to acknowledge the demoralizing experiences of countless special-needs students, English-language learners, and families of those children, many of whom have struggled in the kinds of failing Massachusetts charter schools that don’t get put on pedestals. “Charter school operators are often criticized,” said Baker, “unfairly I think, for not serving a full cross-section of students.”
- Finally, and most tellingly, Baker revealed that his own ego is on the line: “I served for several years on the board of the Phoenix Charter School network, which operates alternative high schools in Chelsea, Lawrence and Springfield.” The State House News Service noted this tendency to rely on anecdotal evidence and allies over actuality: “Baker, citing his previous work on the board of the Phoenix Academy Charter Network, said he rejected the notion that charters skim the best students from the pool, leaving traditional public schools to educate students in need of more services and attention.”
-This next one you may have glimpsed in the mainstream, as the scam involves a number of marquee charter boosters including Bill and Melinda Gates, and has garnered some big headlines in the past couple of years. Still, the plight of public schools in Newark marks a warning sign that people in Mass should study. I advise everyone to join me in reading the long version—Dale Russakoff’s new book, The Prize: Who’s in Charge of America’s Schools?—but Democracy Now! summarizes so much subterfuge sweetly:
Five years ago, Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg donated $100 million to fix the trouble-plagued schools of Newark, New Jersey. Joining forces with Republican Gov. Chris Christie and then-Democratic Mayor Cory Booker, the effort was billed as a model for education reform across the nation. But the story of what followed emerges as a cautionary tale. Tens of millions were spent on hiring outside consultants and expanding charter schools, leading to public school closures, teacher layoffs and an overall decline in student performance.
-As for the Gates Foundation’s tentacles in Massachusetts, they are plentiful, but for now I’ll remark on a tip that I received from out of state (as one of the few writers who cover charter shenanigans, I’ve become something of a “Dear Abby” in this niche). The reader asked for information about Education Resource Strategies—a Watertown nonprofit with strong links to Gates—and said the outfit is angling for a contract to advise their struggling district. I took a look at the vendor’s credentials and track record, and wrote the reader back the following:
You’re fucked. Among ERS board members—always a good place to start in checking if these operations are nefarious or altruistic—the nonprofit boasts an advisor partner from Bain Capital, as well as former Ted Kennedy advisor Ellen Guiney, who I recently reported has been instrumental in directing public education dollars to third-party service providers. I’m glad you wrote me though, because I now see that our own struggling school system has partnered with the same nonprofit for 8 out of the past 16 years, working with ERS in “several areas including professional development spending, comprehensive resource mapping and analysis, and supporting the creation of a district-wide strategy for turnaround schools.” As it turns out, the same consultants making money grabs in your neck of the woods have preached the education reform gospel for a decade from behind administrative lines in Boston. I appreciate your letter, and I’ll bring your concern to my readers in New England. Until I have time to write my own book about the influence of Gates and his ilk on education—in the Commonwealth, of course—I’m always happy to spread news about the outside players and consultants who are influencing policy and pedagogy leagues under the radar.