As one of the few reporters in the Commonwealth who has sounded alarms about charter schools and their nefarious corporate boosters since Mitt Romney was governor, I thought the fight was over long ago, and that those who think that tycoons should run schools had won. Like I wrote in a recent feature for Alternet titled “How Massachusetts Became Ground-Zero for Corporate Education Privatization”—intended to inform those outside of Mass about the subterfuge underway here for more than two decades—“among the nonstop headlines and op-eds touching all the various tangents of Boston’s current education debacle, one recurring theme is a blurring of political lines; when it comes to the charter school debate, the only color that seems to matter is green.”
Said ongoing charter ploy is among the sickest money grabs or power plays imaginable, and it’s coming to a head in Mass as voters face an onslaught of political advertising on both sides of an upcoming ballot question that, if passed, would significantly grow the charter network statewide at the expense of traditional schools. Charter institutions, which next year will drain roughly $135 million from those schools in Boston alone, have benefited endlessly from bipartisan backing—both here and elsewhere. As John Oliver, host of the prophetic HBO show “Last Week Tonight,” said in his latest excellent monologue, “Charter schools unite both sides of the aisle more quickly than when a wedding DJ plays ‘Hey Ya!’” But before getting to Oliver, it’s critical to show how these issues absolutely should not be covered.
Exhibit A: Yesterday’s Boston Globe article about contract negotiations between Boston Public Schools and the Boston Teachers Union. Titled “Teachers, city schools urged to overhaul policies,” the piece is a glaring example of pro-charter propaganda masquerading as objective journalism. Rather than simply quoting spokespeople from BPS and BTU and filling in the factual blanks, Globe reporter James Vaznis instead looked to an apparent outside observer, Samuel Tyler of the Boston Municipal Research Bureau (BMRB), to pitch in his two cents. According to Tyler, the warring factions should agree to “lengthen school days, overhaul the teacher evaluation and job-assignment systems, and replace guaranteed pay raises with merit increases”—all positions favored by charter school advocates.
There’s a major problem with giving Tyler this much power though, and it’s that he’s a shameless mouthpiece for the businesspeople aiming to shift more public dollars toward institutions that are not accountable to taxpayers. Though you’ll never read about Tyler’s longstanding role as a regional policy whore in their pages—this latest article simply calls his bureau “a government watchdog funded by businesses and nonprofits,” though fails to mention exactly who Tyler is watching for—it wouldn’t take the Globe’s award-winning Spotlight team to see that BMRB’s board of directors boasts members from such companies as State Street Corporation, Suffolk Construction, Fidelity Investments, Liberty Mutual Insurance, Citizens Bank, Boston Properties, and John Hancock, among others in the corporate class whose money drives the pro- side of the charter war.
While you have to get to the ninth paragraph of the aforementioned Globe piece to learn that BMRB “has been supportive of charter schools,” elsewhere major news outlets have caught on to the scam, and are helping turn the tide with bold coverage and headlines (which, I suppose to my discredit, I never thought would happen since most politicians, their Big Media echo chambers, and their wealthy corporate donors support privatization at some level or another). On the West Coast, the Los Angeles Times has vividly portrayed an LAUSD that’s suffering from money being siphoned off by charter programs; on the East Coast, even the neoliberal New York Times is good for occasional coverage along the lines of, “Condemnation of Charter Schools Exposes a Rift Over Black Students,” which appeared this past weekend.
Most important of the bunch, however, is Oliver, who took to HBO on Sunday with a researched 18-minute rant on charters and accountability. It’s the type of warning that government watchdogs—real government watchdogs, not Sam Tyler and his pinstriped posse of plutocratic power lunchers—have been warning folks about for years, only funnier. With a corporate-flanked measure to expand charters in Mass on the ballot in November, it’s about time that word got out, too. To quote Oliver, “The problem when it comes to letting the free market decide when it comes to kids is that kids change faster than the market. By the time it becomes obvious that a school is failing, futures may have been ruined.”
A Queens, NY native who came to New England in 2004 to earn his MA in journalism at Boston University, Chris Faraone is the editor and co-publisher of DigBoston and a co-founder of the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism. He has published several books including 99 Nights with the 99 Percent, and has written liner notes for hip-hop gods including Cypress Hill, Pete Rock, Nas, and various members of the Wu-Tang Clan.