Charter schools have been in the headlines over the past several news cycles, both positively and negatively, and as we move into an election I talked with Maribeth Calabro, head of the Providence Teachers Union, who put forward her case for why voters should cast a ballot for politicians that stand behind public schools, their students, and their teachers. “If we continue to invest in public education and public schools and public school teachers and not detract and take money away from public education and public schools, we will absolutely be able to service all students and make sure that all of our students are achieving at high levels.”
For years, charters have been a nationwide hot-button topic and this year was no exception. In August, Glen Ford of Black Agenda Report noted two important developments from within communities of color:
The NAACP and the Movement for Black Lives are both on the same page when it comes to charter schools. Both organizations called for a halt to the spread of charter schools, with the NAACP charging that charters are “as destructive to poor communities as predatory lending practices by banks.” The Movement for Black Lives demands an end to President Obama’s Race to the Top program, which coerces states to allow more charters.
Providence NAACP President Jim Vincent says “The NAACP is firmly in support of quality public education and so I think what we’re saying is that anything that diverts resources from public education needs to be really looked at. We’re not in favor of having a dual school system, we firmly believe there can be an excellent public school system and there needs to be some things in place to make that happen but we’re encouraged by the fact there has been some movement in terms of certain systems here in the state to improve and we think that could happen statewide. We’re mindful that 40% of the public school students of Rhode Island are people of color so there’s a big issue that needs to be really focused in on.”
Yet at the same time the push to expand charters remains strong. For example, Achievement First, located on Hartford Avenue, has recently submitted an application to expand its grade level offerings. One of the major reasons to allow for such is based on results of standardized tests in particular. It currently operates two elementary schools out of the former Perry Middle School building. Linda Borg at the Providence Journal wrote:
Achievement First Iluminar Mayoral Academy will be temporarily located in the former Perry Middle School, the same building as Achievement First Providence Mayoral Academy. The two schools will share a building for approximately two years until a permanent location is identified for the new school.
“Although test scores seem to be…what certain people who are not in education think is the end-all and be-all of what progress and achievement looks like in a child, we look at the whole child in public education and so there are markers that indicate success that aren’t measured by the PARCC assessment or the STAR assessment or the combination of the two or any other assessment for that matter. It’s a more holistic look at the whole child, social, emotional, education of a child and where they are academically and whether there’s growth over time. And one assessment and one snapshot in time does not to me indicate the success or failure of a child,” says Calabro. “While I’m sure that’s a nice little soundbite for him to hold his hat on, I think that he [Mayor Elorza] has faith in Chris Maher, our superintendent, and he’s going to have faith in public school teachers, so he needs to show us that he has that faith truly and stop the expansion of Achievement First. ” While the Achievement First location in Olneyville contributes to the ethnic demography of the student body, a cursory glance at these statistics is still a moment of pause for those who fully grasp what Vincent means when he says “dual school system”.
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Simultaneously, interesting developments tied to the public pension system in Rhode Island, directly connected to the charter school industry, have become notable. Dr. Shawgi Tell, whose research on charter schools is substantial, was involved in the production of a podcast in September addressing the history of charter schools nationwide. He explains that, while there is a prominent narrative about teachers creating at the grassroots level an alternative school model and then corporate America having moved in to utilize a well-intentioned progressive effort for their own devious purposes, that is simply historical fiction. This is part of a wide disinformation effort that intentionally not only confuses but lies to the public so to perpetuate a fundamental misunderstanding of the charter school industry. This industry functions as first and foremost a tool of a financial industry that wishes to privatize public assets, break a pillar of the American labor movement, and reduces the average income of public sector teachers, a longtime income standard that influences salary in the private sector’s various industries.
“It’s not surprising that [in 1988] Ray Budde’s 126 page blue print for charter schools begins with numerous quotes from A Nation at Risk [a Reagan-era neoliberal education policy report]. Ray Budde likes the content of the report. He resonates with it. He never once questions its premises or motivation. He never criticizes the report anywhere in its publication. He just takes things for granted. While Ray Budde had thought about charter schools long before 1988, it was not until the neoliberal agenda had been in motion for a few years that he and powerful actors in Minnesota and elsewhere could gain traction for this idea to restructure schools along neoliberal lines,” says Dr. Tell. The basic cornerstone of the charter school movement has always been fundamentally one tied to what economist Michael Hudson describes as the FIRE sector, a monopoly-like conglomeration of the Financial, Insurance, and Real Estate industries intending to first and foremost reduce their corporate taxes by entering and manipulating government and its administration of the social contract that emerged from the post-World War II American “guns and butter” social democratic welfare state. Charter schools and their supporters, willingly or not, are always operating in a way that serves the interests of the FIRE sector and not the general population.
One recent direct confrontation between the FIRE sector and the teachers unions came with a public feud between AFT president Randi Weingarten and the hedge fund industry. Zero Hedge reported on June 29:
About a decade ago, some liberals joined conservatives in pushing to expand charter schools. As the WSJ reports, those efforts received financial support from hedge fund managers including Dan Loeb, Paul Singer and Paul Tudor Jones, who together kicked in millions of dollars toward the effort… Enter Randi Weingarten. Weingarten was elected president of the American Federation of Teachers in 2008, and her aim was to restore public trust in public school teachers and their unions. Weingarten’s federation represents about two dozen teachers unions whose retirement funds have a total of $630 billion in assets, a large portion of the more than $1 trillion controlled by all teachers unions according to the WSJ… In early 2013, the union federation published a list of roughly three dozen Wall Street asset managers it says donated to organizations that support causes opposed by the union, and the federation wanted union pension funds to use the list as a reference guide when deciding where to invest (or not invest) their money. Said otherwise, if asset managers don’t support unions, the unions won’t invest with the funds… To signify the importance of Weingarten’s list, after KKR & Co. president Henry Kravis made the list in 2013, Weingarten received a call from Ken Mehlman, an executive at KKR. Mehlman said KKR had a record of supporting public pension plans, and Weingarten agreed – KKR was then taken off the list. Cliff Asness of AQR Capital Management went as far as hiring a friend of Weingarten and paying $25,000 to be a founding member of a group KKR was starting with Weingarten to promote retirement security. Asness was removed from the list… One hedge fund manager has been more combative however – Dan Loeb. The founder of Third Point is a donor to the Manhattan Institute and chairman of the Success Academy, which operates a network of charter schools in New York City. A bit more combative is an understatement – Loeb pushed back on Weingarten, and didn’t seem to care about the influence she had over where funds were directed… As part of the punishment, Loeb eventually lost $75 million from a Rhode Island pension fund.
“One of our other big gripes about charters is they call themselves public schools but they’re far from public schools. The Waltons do not invest in public schools, they invest in charters, and other people who have no knowledge of the inner workings of a public school system are inputting their say and their beliefs and their pedagogy into charterization at the expense of public schools. So I find it deplorable that these people would take this money and then call themselves public educational institutions because that is not in fact what they are,” says Calabro. The former State Treasurer who invested the pension in hedge funds, Gov. Gina Raimondo, is married to a major player in the charter industry, Andrew Moffit.
A further problem presented by charter schools is the fact that their disciplinary and student selection methods makes the scores from standardized tests lauded by Mayor Elorza highly dubious. An October 29, 2015 story from the New York Times headlined At a Success Academy Charter School, Singling Out Pupils Who Have ‘Got to Go’ revealed the following:
Success Academy, the high-performing charter school network in New York City, has long been dogged by accusations that its remarkable accomplishments are due, in part, to a practice of weeding out weak or difficult students. The network has always denied it. But documents obtained by The New York Times and interviews with 10 current and former Success employees at five schools suggest that some administrators in the network have singled out children they would like to see leave. At Success Academy Fort Greene, the same day that Ms. Ogundiran heard from the principal, her daughter’s name was one of 16 placed on a list drawn up at his direction and shared by school leaders. The heading on the list was “Got to Go.”… The current and former employees said they had observed similar practices at other Success schools. According to those employees, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to protect their jobs or their relationships with people still at the network, school leaders and network staff members explicitly talked about suspending students or calling parents into frequent meetings as ways to force parents to fall in line or prompt them to withdraw their children.
These sorts of practices under any circumstances would fundamentally problematize any sort of objectivity of a statistical analysis regarding testing scores. If a charter were to start the year with ten students and one was expelled, the analysis would not have the same type of data that a public school counterpart would because the expulsion would be intentional manipulation of the data. And while Achievement First only has provided statistics for suspended students due to misbehavior, it is unclear how many students have been withdrawn by parents due to behavioral or other problems.
“The financial impact of what happens with a charter school expansion to this size and degree would be so financially detrimental to our school district that we would never recuperate. If you use the example of 720 students in a charter school and its per pupil expenditure is $14,000, it’s over $10,000,000 per pupil expenditure that leaves our district. And the thing about per pupil expenditure is if those children do not survive or are not successful at that charter school and they come back, the funds don’t necessarily come back with them that year. So that creates a further disparity and we’re doing our very best to make the necessary changes and accommodations to service all students in a wide variety of ways from social, emotional, academic to physical and so I think that in order to have successful public schools, you need to believe in public school teachers and I know I believe in our teachers. Let’s see if the Mayor and others in the city do so as well,” says Calabro.