Image by Tak Toyoshima
Two years ago at the annual Left Forum in Lower Manhattan, filmmaker Michael Moore said something that blew the camouflage beret off of my noggin.
Here’s a guy who’s spent significant time around curmudgeonly progressives pushing micropolitical fetishes, and he said the issue he is most often asked to address in a movie is the dismantling of public schools.
“It’s the number one thing people ask me to make a film about,” Moore said to a teacher in the audience who asked him to assist her cause. “Hands down, wherever I go.”
The most successful documentary maker of all time, Moore touched on past efforts to capture the inadequacy of American education on film. “Waiting for Superman was such a disappointment,” he said, referring to the 2010 pro-charter school propaganda flick. “There were a lot of people hoping for it to be something other than what it was.”
As for whether he’s considering the call to action: “I still don’t know how I would make that movie, but I’m running out of time,” Moore told the audience in 2013. “I’ve been grappling with that and with Israel and Palestine.”
I don’t believe that Moore intended to equate the disagreement between charter advocates and their opponents to the Palestine-Israel conflict. Nevertheless, tensions between arch pedagogical enemies have run high, and in Massachusetts the scene will only get uglier under Republican Governor Charlie Baker, who in December tapped James Peyser of the NewsSchools Venture Fund as his secretary of education. A former official with the ultra-conservative Pioneer Institute, which has advocated thoroughly for charter expansion at the expense of public institutions, Peyser is a natural enemy of traditional instructors, his ties to education profiteers and venture capital robust.
Someone needs to summon Michael Moore immediately; he may be the last hope for public ed in the commonwealth. Sad maybe, but also increasingly true as the showdown unfolds between those determined to operate schools like businesses and those who still believe they should be run like, uh, schools, but with sufficient funding. Currently, students and teachers are judged harshly despite a glaring lack of resources; fewer than one in six students in Boston, for example, has full-time access to computers in class.
Here in the Hub, where it was just announced that a “handful” of schools may close due to budget shortfalls, the situation is especially depressing for those who wish that bank execs would stick to banking. Indeed, there’s no better example of the corporate fix than what happened at the Dearborn Middle School in Roxbury, where parents and community members fought for and successfully secured more than $70 million in state funding to build a STEM (science, technology, engineering, mathematics) academy from the ground-up. Though initially thrilled about the first new neighborhood school in more than a decade, local families became outraged last year when Boston Public Schools suddenly announced a new arrangement. As noted in a previous Dig story on the matter, BPS Interim Superintendent John McDonough moved to hand the Dearborn over to BPE, a nonprofit that runs the Dudley Street Neighborhood Charter School. The plan was fast-tracked behind closed doors, likely thanks to BPE’s politically wired board members, a gang that includes two Bank of America executives, John Fish of Suffolk Construction and the Boston 2024 Olympics, Reverend Gregory Groover of Charles Street AME Church and the Boston School Committee, and John Barros, the Hub’s current chief of economic development.
Last September, after community outrage boiled over in response to the unwelcome takeover, Mayor Marty Walsh stepped in to halt conversion of the Dearborn from public to charter. But McDonough found another way to pass the reins. Instead of handing the Dearborn over in full, the superintendent solicited applications for a third-party operator. To no one’s surprise, BPE was first in line. McDonough argued that such an extreme measure was needed to rescue the Dearborn, which has struggled by some academic standards but improved on others (particularly considering how many students they serve for whom English is a second language). Despite any claims to progress on the part of the school though, in the end, BPS proceeded with just two applications: one from BPE, and another from a Pennsylvania outfit that has never run a school in Massachusetts. BPE prevailed, and has been invited to re-shape the Dearborn.
Outside of Boston, a similar seizure is underway at Bentley Elementary in Salem. That hostile grab began in 2011, when the K-5 school was sacked with a bad rating. Desperate for some donor-approved charter action on her turf, Mayor Kim Driscoll asked the Salem Partnership, a nonprofit economic development group comprised of business and political leaders, to assemble a transformation advisory board. Bentley teachers agreed to a three-year turnaround schedule that gave said board room to maneuver in a few areas, like hiring, but by early last year other forces entered the fray.
Meet the Boston-based Empower Schools, led in part by venture capitalist and one-time Massachusetts gubernatorial candidate Christopher Gabrieli. In March of last year, Gabrieli presented a new plan for the Bentley to the Salem School Committee that was radically different from what teachers had agreed on. Speaking on behalf of Empower and the Newton-based Blueprint Schools Network, the latter a charter operation best known for famous board members like Freakonomics author Dr. Steven Levitt, Gabrieli put forth a proposal that would dump the school’s entire staff and spur other dramatic changes.
As tends to happen when charter groups aligned with money and power want something, Gabrieli got his wish. It didn’t hurt that former Boston City Councilor John Connolly, rebounding in the charter economy after his failed mayoral bid, spoke in support of the takeover, or that operators like Empower are apparently embraced by state officials under any circumstances. In December, the Boston Globe asked Massachusetts Education Commissioner Mitchell Chester about the weak results of such operating relationships; the newspaper’s study found that despite devoting “more than $1 million in federal school-improvement grants to support the partnerships,” “all have failed to achieve dramatic, across-the-board gains in MCAS scores so far.” In spite of those findings, Chester told reporters, “I’m not ready to judge success or failure based on this first-year experience.” Nevertheless, later this month his department will decide whether to transfer Bentley to Blueprint once and for all. Take a guess about how the prospects look on that front.
I am hardly the first outraged individual hoping somebody with clout and influence is listening, and I’m certain there are myriad others with similar sentiments simmering. But since so many reporters and pols on both sides of the aisle have pushed corporate ed reform with no regard for the overall state of American education, I’m happy to throw down the gauntlet, at least in my backyard. Public school teachers in Massachusetts, you are facing extinction. There’s no Michael Moore documentary coming; rather, at this point, the scenario is more like science fiction. If you don’t stand up for yourselves soon, the invasion of the student body snatchers will continue unabated.