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 Leave No Child’s Behind: No Child Left Behind and the implications and impacts for and on charter Schools and state mandated testing

Written by Danny Weil
World News
Dec 20, 2009

    There is no national or federal charter school policy, although No Child Left Behind arguably advances the goals of charter school advocates.  Now that the California Senate is poised to give its approval to apply for Race for the Top monies made available through the Department of Education (some $700 million dollars), the issue of charter schools and state mandated testing loom.   For access to the Race to the Top funds require an adherence if not an actual outright tethering of both teachers and students to inauthentic testing.  Ironically or by design, the testing regime under NCLB now serves as a ‘rating agency’ for the “new private providers”, as the EMO’s and charter school entrepeneurs scramble to point at their increasing or decreasing mandated test scores on state mandated tests tied to NCLB.  They do this to gain bids for running the new wave — charter schools and Charter Management Organizations.  So, we see NCLB guiding and shepherding the new privatized managerial class in their takeover of public education.

         Not too distant changes in federal and state policy have served to paint a clear, yellow line for-charter schools and for-profit management of these school services that often enables the privatization of education under the auspices of ‘reform’.  Perhaps the biggest impetus to school privatization and the conceptual affirmation for the development of charter schools, of which the private management of charter schools comprises a large and growing segment, was the passage of No Child Left Behind (NCLB) in 2001.  The federal bill requires that:

    Under the No Child Left Behind (NCLB) law, if a school does not make its adequate yearly progress targets after four previous years of being “in need of improvement,” it must implement a fundamental restructuring plan. The restructuring options are as follows:
(1) turn the school operations over to the state,
(2) turn the operations over to a private company,
(3) reopen as a charter school, or
(4) reconstitute the school by replacing some or all of the teachers, staff and administrators. There is a fifth alternative of applying “any other” fundamental school restructuring, an option now receiving new attention (Mathis).

         This is important to the charter school movement, especially the charter school chains that seem to be emerging around the country for it calls specifically for all schools, charter or traditional public schools, state-wide, to make “adequate yearly progress” (AYP) as measured by scores on yearly state sponsored standardized exams given to students.  Never mind the argument that the tests themselves are flawed, do not test reasoning nor critical thinking and are simply rote reflections of faceless numerical statistics that test memorization and little else, these standardized exams are mandatorily given to public school students in each state on a regular basis and the results used for a host of public policies. 

Students are currently tested in third through eighth grades, although some states take their own initiatives and offer standardized exams as early as kindergarten or require the passing of an exam for promotion to the next grade level.

         Under NCLB, schools failing to make AYP and labeled “In Need of Improvement” suffer various penalties under the No Child Left Behind Act — penalties that range from having to pay for vouchers to send students to schools deemed more successful, to the dismissal of principals and staff, and/or to the wholesale surrender of individual schools to be run by private educational management organizations (EMOs).   Both Paul Peterson and Matthew Chingos, fellows at the conservative Hoover Institution at Stanford University, clarify the legal interpretation of the NCLB act in favor of EMOs:

    The federal law No Child Left Behind (NCLB) requires states to “restructure” any school that fails for six years running to make Adequate Yearly Progress (AYP) toward full proficiency on the part of all students by the year 2014. The law provides a number of restructuring options, including turning over the school’s management to a private for-profit or nonprofit entity (italics mine). Only a few school districts nationwide have sought help from either type of organization in the management of low-performing schools. ( For-Profit and Nonprofit Management in Philadelphia School By Paul E. Peterson and Matthew M. Chingos.

And Mathis continues:
an ever-increasing number of schools are being identified as “in need of improvement” under No Child Left Behind (NCLB), and of these, many are reaching the final stages of sanctions under that law. Education Week reports that the number of schools identified as needing improvement increased 28% between 2007 and 2008. The designation is applied when a school misses test score targets for two consecutive years, either for the total student population or for any sub-group (economically disadvantaged, racial and ethnic groups, students with disabilities, and students with limited English language proficiency, for example). While state rules vary, the sanctions are fundamentally based on reading and math tests in grades three through eight and in one grade in high school (ibid).
    The law even goes further mandating that under NCLB, as school districts receive federal funding they are required by law to hold 20 percent of those funds aside, anticipating that their school will fail to meet its Annual Yearly Progress formula.  Once that “failure” is certified by test scores, the district is then required to use those set-aside federal funds to pay supplemental education service (SES) providers or for-profit EMOs.  And this is where the privatization of education gains a further foothold and specifically effects the charter school movement.  From the point of view of Jack Jennings of the Center on Education Policy, with the passage of the act:

    Millions of dollars are being spent and nobody knows what’s happening (Diatribune and Daily Kos, March, 30, 2007)
Title: “Bush Profiteers Collect Billions From NCLB”
Author: Mandevilla

         So the Education and Secondary Education Act, that once promised equal access to public education to millions of American children, now amended and known as No Child Left Behind, instead now promises billions of dollars in profits to corporate clients, EMOs, privatized supplemental services and other for-profit entities through a dubious process of measuring student and school progress through standardized testing and assessment; a ‘lack of achievement’ is now a ‘source of profits’ for the educational industry.

    According to Mandevilla:
    NCLB—the Business Roundtable’s revision of Lyndon Johnson’s Education and Secondary Education Act (ESEA)—has created a “high stakes testing” system through which the private sector now finds a gigantic source of public funds they can siphon off into profitable business ventures, and it is not surprising that the result has been windfall profit for corporations eager for entry into the ‘new business’ of education. What was once a cottage industry has now, thanks to government policies and deregulation, has become a corporate giant (ibid).
    To serve as some examples, one private profit company, Ignite! Learning (owned by Neil Bush the brother of the former president George W. Bush), has placed products in forty US school districts, and K12 Inc., another for-profit company (the brain child of William Bennett, former Education Secretary under the senior Bush), offers a menu of services “as an option to traditional brick-and-mortar schools,” including computer-based “virtual academies”, some chartered, that have qualified for over $4 million in federal grants. Under NCLB, ‘supplemental educational services’ reap $2 billion annually.  

     So as we can see, the intent contained in the language of the bill actually serves to open the door for privatization and we see this especially as it pertains to the development and management of charter schools, as well as the EMOs that manage many of them.  We also see how the Act allows for private supplemental educational products and services (SES), which many companies provide charter schools by allowing states and districts to contract out the management of ‘low performing schools’ to EMOs –  a form of direct privatization while at the same time purchasing their ‘educational products’ from the same management companies.  And as the act iterates, this applies to “any school that fails for six years running to make AYP”; so this is construed to mean all charter schools as well.
    In fact, to clarify the fact that NCLB applies specifically to charter schools and not only to traditional public education or district schools, in July 2004, the Department of Education in a governmental report entitled ‘The Impact of the New Title I Requirements on Charter Schools,’ specifically noted in section D-1 of its non-regulatory guidance document:
    D-1.  Does NCLB give either States or authorizers the authority to reorganize a charter school’s management and enforce other corrective actions?  As with other public schools, charter schools that are unable to make AYP by the end of the second full school year after identification are placed under corrective action according to Section 1116(b)(7)(C) of ESEA. NCLB gives the appropriate entity under state law (see A-2) the responsibility to reorganize a charter school’s management or take other corrective actions, consistent with State charter law and the State’s accountability plan for its charter schools. State charter law would determine if this requires the charter school to modify its charter contract ( July 2004, the Department of Education in a governmental report entitled ‘The Impact of the New Title I Requirements on Charter Schools’ stated in section D-1
    The Act is very clear and as pointed out by educational reporter and public policy advocate, Stan Karp:
NCLB is part of a larger political and ideological effort to privatize social programs, reduce the public sector, and ultimately replace local control of institutions like schools with marketplace reforms that substitute commercial relations between customers for democratic relations between citizens (ReThinking Schools, The No Child Left Behind Hoax


    Karp’s fear is shared among with many other progressive educators: this  is the fear that the public will equate test scores with progress and then when consistently told that test scores simply are not high enough, public education will become further vilified to the point where the private sector, poised as it is to increase an already multi-billion dollar industry, will simply converge and cannibalize on the skeletal remains of what is left of public education, throwing charter school and district school management to EMOs and privatizing supplemental educational materials (SEM), a movement which is already well on the way (Weil, Vouchers).  One cannot help but see an analogy between the interest shown on the part of the private sector with their concentration on the for-profit management businesses as an antidote to ‘low performing schools’ and ‘low achievement students’ and the sub-prime loan market, where people’s economic situation and incomes were also deemed ‘low performing’ and their activities ‘less than achieving’.  Both business models offer and offered tremendous profits to private entrepreneurs by capitalizing on the needs of low performing segments of the population through  encouraging and profiting from new innovations such as charter schools; this is true be they low performing schools in one case and low performing credit scores and incomes in the other.  Karp also goes on to note that it is ironic that in the atmosphere of ‘anti-government and pro-privatization voices:

    One of the more amazing things about NCLB is how the most intrusive education law in the history of federal policy, which now has Washington mandating test score targets for every school in the country, could be passed by an Administration that regularly presents itself as a deregulating enemy of big government. NCLB represents a virtual nationalization of control over local schools, and its highly prescriptive and punitive sanctions are the kind of wrongheaded social engineering by Washington that political leaders like the President have supposedly railed against for years (ibid).

    Jonathan Kozol captures the progressive educational feeling well:

    In both these areas-testing services and the management of schools-the encroachment of the private sector on public education has been mightily assisted by provisions that the Bush Administration managed to insert into the No Child Left Behind Act. Among the various “sanctions” that this highly controversial law imposes upon low performing schools are two provisions that have opened up these schools to interventions by private corporations on a scale that we have never before seen in the United States.

    The first of these provisions stipulates that if a school receiving federal funds under what is known as “Title I,” the nation’s largest program of assistance for low-income students, fails to raise its test scores by a fixed percentage within three years, it must then use a portion of its funds to purchase what the government describes as “supplemental services.” These services must be provided outside of the normal school day and, among other options, by a so called third-party provider. Although such “services” are defined somewhat ambiguously, most low-income districts have interpreted the term to mean that they must force these schools to institute test-preparation regimens geared explicitly toward raising scores on state exams. Increasingly, too, schools have been pressured into contracts with private corporations that provide these services. Meanwhile, the test-prep companies are actively promoting their success in raising scores to principals who live in terror of the more alarming second stage of federal sanctions they will otherwise incur.

    If, despite their expensive test-prep programs, low-performing schools fail to pump up test scores fast enough to meet specific goals within five years, school boards are obliged to shut them down and dismiss their faculties and principals. Such schools will then be either operated directly by the state or reconstituted under an “alternative governance arrangement.” Although the provider of such “governance” might be a nonprofit corporation (one that operates a chain of semi-private charter schools, for instance), it is the profit-making firms, with their superb promotional machinery, that are best positioned to obtain these valuable contracts (Kozol, J. August 25, 2007 The Big Enchilada) by Jonathan Kozol Harper’s Magazine Notebook (August 2007)

         In fact it does seem ironic if not a bit hypocritical that so-called proponents of the ‘free market’ seem to be able to pass government legislation that allows for public subsidies for their business plans; the irony, or perhaps the tragedy, depending on how it is framed, lies in the use of the government for the institutionalization of private  gain. Speaking of specific provisions of the No Child Left Behind Act, which has been shown lends itself to school privatization, Karp is keenly aware of the implications of such a law:

    The privatization agenda in NCLB is reflected most clearly in the provisions for school transfers and supplemental services. A straightforward voucher program was taken out of the original proposal as part of the legislative compromise that got it passed. Instead we have provisions that require a district to spend up to 20% of its federal funds to support transfers from failing schools to schools that meet their AYP targets or that don’t receive Title I funds. And each state is supposed to prepare a list of approved supplemental tutorial providers for students who remain in schools needing improvement. Both the transfer and the tutorial provisions have lots of complications, but there will be three overall effects:

    1. The 20% figure will come nowhere near to covering the costs of providing transportation and tutorial services to all those eligible for them.
    2. There are nowhere near enough alternative school placements for the growing numbers of students eligible to transfer.
    3. The funds used to support individual tutorial services and transfers will reduce the funds available for whole school improvement in those same schools.
    What preoccupies Karp and what worries many educational public policy analysts is the fact that NCLB does not contain any provisions to invest in building new schools, be they charter or traditional public schools, in what are deemed failing districts, neither does the Act provide for constructing any new capacity in the receiving schools; nor does it provide any support for the schools that must receive students under NCLB and it is not drafted to provide for the influx of such students, especially ones with a history at risk difficulties or past educational struggles.  Doesn’t this seems odd, for certainly it can’t be argued that No Child Left Behind is designed to create ‘multi-income’ schools whereby the wealthier schools or districts are asked to open their doors to those less fortunate?  So although arguably a handful of parents may get some additional school choices under No Child Left Behind, such as sending their children to charter schools where and if open seats are available, there is no guarantee these children will profit at all since most charter schools have long waiting lists and admission is limited by yearly lotteries.  Perhaps the other irony lost is that many of our nation’s schools are funded by a state lottery while admission to charter schools is also governed by a similar lottery.
    With all this in mind, the main impact of NCLB, argue its critics, is to artificially manufacture a demand for school transfers that cannot be met by widely touted charter schools, nor by providing the for the for-profit management of district schools.  However, the Act does give the impetus to more charter school developments by promoting the creation of future charter school student populations by promoting standardized testing.  One of the ways proponents of these ideas concretize their pro-choice agenda, the argument goes, is by vilifying schools in the public conversation , think tanks and corporate media circles while making compliance with the Act a near impossibility through inadequate funding; this then has the desultory effect of creating transfers and management schemes that are simply not available to most parents and their children but that instead can be channeled into new private voucher schemes, charter schools or specifically for further impetus towards the for-profit managed charter school idea.

    Kozol, again is salient on this point:
    All of these schools, under the stipulations of No Child Left Behind, will soon  be ripe for picking by private corporations. Progressive citizens who say they believe in public education, as well as the erstwhile liberal Democratic leadership in the U.S. House and Senate, have failed to recognize and confront this looming crisis.

Meanwhile, the richly funded and well-oiled juggernaut of privatization continues to move forward, carving out increasingly large pieces of the public system. If those of us who profess to value public schools and the principle of democratic access they uphold cannot find the courage or the motivation to fight in their defense, we may soon wake up to find that they have been replaced by wholly owned subsidiaries of Me- Donald’s, Burger King, and Wal-Mart.

    Some $490 billion (4 percent of GNP) is spent on education yearly in the United States. It will be an act of social suicide if liberals blithely continue to dismiss the opportunities this vast amount of money represents for corporate predation (Ibid).
    Karp, Kozol and similar educational policy critics could be right.  In an interview with Time Magazine, Susan Neuman, professor of education at the University of Michigan and former Assistant Secretary of Education under Bush Administration Secretary Rod Paige, gave creedence to what Karp amd others have said all along when she publicly and mournfully regretted the Bush Administration’s use of humiliation and shame as a lever for school reform under No Child Left Behind.  Commenting in the Time article Neuman stated:
    Vilifying teachers and saying we are going to shame them was not the right approach ((,8599,1812758,00.htmlNo Child Left Behind:  Doomed to fail? June 8th, 2008 Claudia Wallis  Time Magazine online)
    Furthermore, according to Neuman, there were actually many personnel in the Bush Department of Education at the time who saw and supported NCLB as a Trojan horse for private choice, for-profit management of schools as well as the for-profit charter school agenda — a policy evidently designed to expose the failure of public education and ‘blow it up a bit,’ says Neuman. “There were a number of people pushing hard for market forces and privatization.”(ibid)  The way the act is applied, failure to meet NCLB’s inflexible goals meant schools would be publicly labeled as failures, she noted.  Labeling public schools as failures and then humiliating their staff and management ‘seems to soften them up’ and fits nicely with preparing them for outright privatization or management takeover by EMOs.  Neuman now says she sees this vilification strategy as a mistake.

    But was it a mistake or an ill-conceived and selfish business plan?
    Neuman is not the only one who regretted the No Child Left Behind Act and the movement it mobilized.  U.S. Senator Jim Jeffords echoed similar concerns about the bill and the vilification of public schools noting that NCLB “will let the private sector take over public education, something the Republicans have wanted for years.”  ( Graduate Center Advocate Tony Monchinski No Child Left Behind or the Privatization of Education?)

    Suffice it to say that private interests are circling public education like hawks for an opportunity for the next big financial bubble; the takeover of public education by market forces and the passage of the No Child Left Behind Act, which opened the door to privatization efforts, served as an impetus for the development and growth of the charter school movement, much of it spurred on by philanthro-capitalists not subjected to public scrutiny.  

    Now, with the Race to the Top policy by the Obama administration we are promised something even George Bush could not give us:  the institutionalization of a rigid, inauthentic testing regime designed to induce boredom and lethargy on behalf of students and teachers, and profits and scaled up opportunities for well heeled entrepeneurs and tycoons.  The Race to the Top will assure they never get left behind.


Minnesota, Home of the Charter School Bailed Out by Taxpayers


 Race to the Slop


The charter school saga gets more sordid and pernicious from city to city, day by day. The new fiasco involving taxpayer bailouts to Wall Street and the role of junk bonds in financing charter school ‘start-ups’ came to light in Minnesota in November of this year; Minnesota, ironically being the home of the first charter school law in the US in 1991.

Originally, charter school funding in Minnesota offered no extra money for start-up facilities to charter schools, just general aid payments per student.  Former state Senator Ember Reichgott Junge, who wrote the 1991 law, said the intent was to keep charter schools focused on education and out of the real estate business.  Of course many advocates of public schools in opposition to the new law had put a jaundiced eye on the whole mess from the beginning, arguing it was the first step towards the privatization of education.  Never mind, for business and charter support for a ‘lease aid program’ for charter school start-ups crystallized in 1998, after lawmakers discovered many new charter schools were operating in cheap retail storefronts that lawmakers said were unfit for young children (See “State charter schools program is 'out of control',” Tony Kennedy, Minneapolis Star-Tribune, November 29, 2009.  In their largesse, they would now begin a formal private sector partnership that would prove to be devastating for Minnesota schools and their citizens.

Charter Schools, owning property and the Minnesota Law
Minnesota state law prohibits charter schools from owning property.  Seedy politicians and Wall Street firms and their consultants and lawyers, found a legal loophole in the law allowing charter proponents to use millions of dollars in public money to build these schools even though the properties would remain in the hands of private non-profit corporations.  Yet another brilliant scam in the ongoing yarn of the American charter school and neo-liberal capitalism.

Here is how it worked.  The state has a lease aid program, which it created 11 years ago that it said would help stimulate ‘competition’ in public education by offering rental assistance to charter groups promoting alternatives to district schools.  The charter proponents argued the schools needed money for new facilities due to the fact that at their inception many charters sprang up in malls or strip malls, as they were not conversion charter schools.  How would they finance the construction of these new start-up charter schools?  By turning to Wall Street and the money-changers, of course.  According to the Star Tribune:

In the past decade, 18 charter schools have been built with $178 million in junk bonds, with financing costs on some projects chewing up nearly a quarter of the funds raised. Twelve more charter schools have taken steps to buy or build facilities, and the state projects annual spending on lease aid to reach $54 million in 2013, up from just $1.1 million in 1998 (State charter schools program is 'out of control'. Tony Kennedy, Star Tribune Last update: November 29, 2009.

In order to lure the investors they needed for new charter start-up buildings, the administration abandoned the small campus idea which stimulated the movement close to 20 years ago in favor of building large factory style schools that delight in mirroring the more conventional institutions that the families were fleeing from in the first place.  Again, never mind, for that is where construction money is to be made, in large concrete buildings, whether they house kids or stock goods.  With education reduced to simply a ‘commodity vehicle’ for junk bond lenders and developers the interests of students and families become secondary interests while the huge construction financing costs became paramount. 



Start-up financing
It all began in the year 2000 when American Express purchased $8.3 million dollars in bonds from the state.  They said the bonds would be used to convert an old Science Museum in Minnesota into a charter school.  It would be called, ironically, the Minnesota Business Academy and what a business it was, at least for some.  In tandem with the junk bonds the charter school also bled the city out of $1 million dollars in community development funds, from the city of St. Paul -- government funds paid for by taxpayers.  Not surprisingly, former Lt. Governor Joanne Benson, who headed the Minnesota Business Academy at the time, put the whole crisp multi-million dollar money making deal together.  American Express was delighted with the 8 per cent ‘vig’ it got from the deal and accepted the risk of default and non-payment as a part of the transaction.

It didn’t take more than one year for the school to begin teetering on the edge of financial failure.  Cost overruns and fundraising shortfalls forced the school to turnaround and borrow another $1.6 million from taxpayers.  To pay off its climbing debts, the school dreadfully needed capital in the form of students, bodies – 440 to be exact -- with each student representing more than one thousand dollars in annual lease payments.  Unfortunately, the grim recruitment plan backfired and total enrollment never got larger than 292 students in 2004, sending the school into a dizzying economic free fall right into the laps of the public.

Not to worry, the encrusted leaders and city officials approved another bond in 2005.  This time it allowed the school to reorganize its finances with American Express getting $ 6 million, while the city and the working people who comprise it and support it recovered the orts, little more than chicken scratch: a total of a mere $451,352.  The unsecured creditors were paid 10 cents on the dollar.  Ah, the priorities of capital.  As St. Paul City Council Member Lee Helgen, who voted against the bond, said so perspicaciously:
“The corporate folks got their dough .”

Meanwhile, since 2000, at least 64 public school buildings in the metro area closed because of declining enrollment. Charter schools are responsible for recruiting away some of those students while pushing more finance costs on to taxpayers.

The first charter school start-up (as they are known, as opposed to charter school conversions of existing state buildings) was built with lease aid money and it went to the Minnesota New Country School in Henderson.  The school originally occupied three abandoned storefronts, including a defunct bar, but this was now all about to change. With the help of neo-liberal government policies of deregulation and reregulation, and an analyst with the state Education Department, charter school promoters deregulated the state ban on ownership by forming an affiliated building company.  They then used this non-profit building company to borrow $1.4 million from a bank for the charter start-up construction project. Like subsequent projects, the loan is currently being repaid with lease aid funds financed through bonds passed by citizen voters who never had a clue the money would be illegitimately used and they would be left cash strapped in debt.

In the past decade, 18 charter schools in Minnesota have been built with $178 million in junk bonds, with financing costs and fees on some projects eating up nearly a quarter of the funds raised.  All for the kids and parental choice, remember?  Twelve more Minnesota charter schools have taken steps to buy or build facilities, and the state projects annual spending on lease aid to reach $54 million in 2013, up from just $1.1 million in 1998.  This is all great news for the entrepreneurs and Wall Street, as well as for the insiders, as we will see.  It is simply another example of the great charter school adventure known as school privatization, or as Arne Duncan, Obama’s  Secretary of Education would call it,  “The Race to the Top”, and no better can it be represented than right in the backyard of the state the was responsible for the first law allowing for charter schools.

Enter the Wall Street boys: leveraging disaster capitalism for profits
Wall Street jumped in with both feet as they and their charter school patrons discovered they no longer had to deal with rental properties if they were willing to create building companies overnight through the use of crafty lawyers and consultants and then use junk bonds to fund and finance them.  Junk bonds are high-cost debt bonds issued by borrowers considered to be at a much greater risk for default than regular bonds. Never mind, the bonds are repaid with lease aid money from taxpayers, remember?  This is money that comes from the government in the form of student FTE funds which Minnesota capped at 90 percent of property costs, or $1,200 per student, whichever number is lower. This year, Minnesota will distribute an estimated $42.4 million in lease aid funds, a figure that has doubled in just four years.



On average, it costs more to own land than to rent it (charter schools built or bought with junk bonds cost taxpayers an average of $13.50 a foot, or 17 percent more in lease aid payments than all charter facilities, according to Education Department records begging the question of why charter applicants would prefer to own buildings and start building companies rather than simply rent the buildings they need?).  The answer is simple: the humungous amounts of money to be made on the lending and construction deals for the private interests involved.  Here is a typical example of the havoc wrought by neo-liberal economic policies that slash and burn while allowing government collusion in transferring public funds to private coffers. 

Prairie Seeds Charter School in Brooklyn Park and the Faribault Public School District, both in Minnesota, each raised about $15 million through the sale of tax-exempt bonds to investors in March of 2009.  After paying underwriting expenses and other costs, the charter school project was left with only 78 percent of the proceeds of the bonds; the public school retained 96 percent.  The rest of the money went to the private fees of deal makers and Wall Street courtesans.  Records show the Prairie Seeds project generated $928,000 in fees and other underwriting costs, with $630,800 going to Dougherty & Co., the sales agent for the bonds. The Faribault deal generated $200,000 in fees.  All these fees to private firms in the name of helping kids and giving parents a “public choice” while over the next 30 years taxpayers are estimated to pay $32.4 million in lease aid to cover just the interest payments at Prairie Seeds alone, where the interest rate on most of the bonds is a whopping 9.25 percent.  That's five times more than the interest expense in Faribault Public Schools.  Wall Street must be exuberant, but what about the kids and the taxpayers?

State Education Department officials now say lawmakers should either forbid such junk-bond deals or rigorously regulate them, but where were they when they were authorized?  They were right there, nodding and winking the projects and deal making into existence.  I guess it is easier to ask for forgiveness than it is permission.

Insider Fees: “Top of the world Ma’”
Two years ago, when the Otsego City Council refused to finance a charter school start-up, the school promoters went 35 miles down the road to Falcon Heights, Minnesota where officials were persuaded to authorize the bond issue in exchange for a $45,000 "processing fee", a handsome payoff.  Of course as is standard in such financial wheeling and dealing, the city of Falcon Heights was indemnified against default. They merely acted as a government "conduit" or better said an “enabler” in an effort to give the bonds tax-exempt status so that the public would be enticed to buy them.  This of course is the role of government under the current economic regime of neo-liberalism, to provide lax regulation and an open ‘free’ market to the privatizers and profit maximizers.

At St. Croix Preparatory Academy, a K-12 charter school that opened in its new space this year near Stillwater, according to the Star Tribune, three insiders rewarded themselves with $140,000 in fees related to the $21.7 million bond deal that financed the facility.  Former computer software salesman Jon Gutierrez, who co-founded St. Croix Prep and serves as its executive director, took $25,000 in fees, on top of his annual salary of $110,000. His wife, Kelly Gutierrez, the school's chief financial officer, received $15,000 in fees.  Jim Markoe, a board member of both St. Croix Prep and the building company that enabled the financing said the insider payments were cleared by bond lawyers involved in the deal.  The lawyers did it, is the defense.  "Everybody has done everything morally, ethically and legally, and I'll stand by that until the day I die,'' Markoe said.



 Yet according to the report in the Star Tribune, the largest piece of the cash pie went to Carroll Davis-Johnson, chairperson of the school's building company.  She received $100,000, this although she served as a project manager on the new school.  The project's architect told school officials the payment to Johnson was "unnecessary."  Architect Ed Kodet, was another fortunate financial recipient, earning about $1 million on the school.  Evidently he was one of several construction experts overseeing the failed project. Add to all this fact that the general contractor had a full-time supervisor at the job site and the school had a four-person facilities committee to evaluate “progress” on construction and we’ve got a real public feeding trough.

Speaking with the Star Tribune, Davis-Johnson who also served on the school’s board of directors, stated she and Gutierrezes earned the money and deserved it “based on the huge number of hours” they worked.  Gutierrez said he had "no idea" how he received his management fee, even though he was present at the board meetings when it was authorized and approved. He abstained from the vote, which Davis-Johnson approved. Similarly, Davis-Johnson abstained from the vote on her bonus, which was approved by Gutierrez's wife, according to the Star Tribune..  A nice  business relationship all subsidized, condoned and neatly rolled up by the neo-liberal charter reform agenda.
Not according to Representative, Jim Abeler a Republican from Anoka:

“When district schools are closing, should we allow charter schools to build new buildings?  These are being built with 100 percent state moneys, but who is minding the store on using that money well?”

Good question. The champion for people’s rights, Jim Abeler himself couldn’t be held responsible could he? After all he was cleared in 2001 of legislative ethics charges for voting to boost lease aid even though he personally received the funds from a charter school he helped start. 

Neo-liberalism: socializing the costs while privatizing the profits
Unlike 26 other states that have imposed caps on charter school start-up expansion, Minnesota has no limits on the size of its program or on state support. There's nothing in any law that would return the facilities to the public once they are paid for.  This is true even if the schools were to fail. In fact, school backers can continue to obtain lease aid even after construction bonds are paid off.  Even though the state's top education official must sign off on new construction projects, few charter school start-ups are ever halted because of state interference.  That would be an anathema, blasphemous and counter to free market fundamentalism and scant oversight.  And as for taxpayers, their approval is also unnecessary. All a charter school needs to do is simply find a municipality willing to lend its name to a financial deal (as we saw above with Falcon Heights), even if that community is far removed from the school, and then: bango, bingo, bango the public money start to flow into private coffers.    

While junk-bond promoters always claim taxpayers will never be forced to cover the costs of a failed charter school built with state lease-aid funds, that's exactly what happened in St. Paul.  They call it “restructuring” now, when Wall Street can reorganize its business plans in face of catastrophe and the government is more than willing to help.  The recent restructuring lowered the St. Paul Minnesota Business Academy’s long term debt from $10.7 million to $6.6 million.  However, much to the chagrin of the parent and students, less than 12 months from the restructuring date the school went belly up and closed.  What great news for the new bondholders!  They now had downtown land paid for by taxpayers and improved buildings and equipment then valued at $7.4 million dollars.  So what did they do?  They sold the land and improvements for $3.5 million dollars to the Church of Scientology.  This is truly a race to the slop. 

Danny Weil is soon to publish "Charter Schools", dissecting neo-liberalism's plan for reforming education in America. He can be reached at



SR Issue 62, November–December 2008


Charter Schools and the Attack on Public




In a stock market prospectus uncovered by education author Jonathan Kozol, the Montgomery Securities group explains to Corporate America the lure of privatizing education. Kozol writes:

“The education industry,” according to these analysts, “represents, in our opinion, the final frontier of a number of sectors once under public control” that have either voluntarily opened or, they note in pointed terms, have “been forced” to open up to private enterprise. Indeed, they write, “the education industry represents the largest market opportunity” since health-care services were privatized during the 1970’s.... From the point of view of private profit, one of these analysts enthusiastically observes, “The K–12 market is the Big Enchilada.”1
The idea that our education system should serve the needs of the free market and even be run by private interests is not new. “Those parts of education,” wrote the economist Adam Smith in his famous 1776 work, The Wealth of Nations, “for the teaching of which there are not public institutions, are generally the best-taught.”2 More recently, Milton Friedman introduced the idea of market-driven education in his 1962 book Capitalism and Freedom. With the economic downturn of the early 1970s, Friedman’s ultra-right-wing free-market ideas would become guiding principles for the U.S. government and be forced onto states throughout the world. The push toward privatization and deregulation, two of the key tenets of what is known as neoliberalism, haven’t just privatized formerly public services; they have unabashedly channeled public money into private coffers. “Philanthropreneurs,”3 corporations, and ideologues are currently using charter schools to accomplish these goals in education.

Friedman chose as his last battle before dying in 2006 to use his clout to push for the privatization of New Orleans’ public schools.4 He advocated for vouchers—government-funded certificates permitting parents to send their child to the school of their choice—but those who support his ideas have switched tracks slightly, pushing now for charter schools.

A charter school is any school that is funded publicly but governed by institutions outside the public school system. A company, a non-governmental organization, a university, or any group of people who write a charter can become autonomous from a public school board and control the budget, curriculum, and select the group of students in a school. They receive public money, and, in exchange, they set out quantifiable results that they will achieve. One quarter of charter schools are run by for-profit operators (called EMOs, Educational Management Organizations), but most are run by nonprofit entities (usually grouped under CMOs, Charter Management Organizations.)5

Charter schools take many different forms—“independent” charter schools, those that are overseen only by the state board of education, and “dependent” charter schools, those that report directly to the local school board. In both cases there is little oversight. There is also a difference between freestanding, “start-up” charters that are created from scratch, and conversions, where a charter operator takes over all (or part) of a previously existing public school, building and all.

Credit for the concept of charter schools has been given, depending on the source, to Ray Budde, a professor at the University of Massachusetts, and Al Shanker, the conservative leader of the American Federation of Teachers. But the early pioneers of the “small schools” movement, which has been transformed to some extent into the charter movement, were progressives who believed—rightly—that bureaucracy and mandates were harming children. Most of the early small schools were intended to be “laboratories” that could create “best practices” and pressure all public schools to adopt the same. People like Deborah Meier, who helped to create Central Park East Elementary School in Harlem, believed that they could create better schools by winning a degree of autonomy from school districts. And in many cases they did. The impulse today to win autonomy from school-district bureaucracy, mind-numbing standardized curriculum, and stifling and militaristic climates is even stronger, since No Child Left Behind legislation has accelerated these trends.

But many of the original small schools have largely been dismantled. They have collapsed or been taken apart under the pressure of the enormous weight of standardization pushed since No Child Left Behind. Many have also been gobbled up by the corporate sector.

An important book by Michael and Susan Klonsky, early participants in Chicago’s small schools movement, Small Schools: Public School Reform Meets the Ownership Society, tells an important story. The Klonskys, longtime advocates of small and autonomous schools, chronicle in great detail how the concept of “autonomy”—which the pioneers had hoped would mean democracy—turned into privatization when it crashed into the slick and well-funded strategists of the “Ownership Society.”

The first decentralizing wave of Chicago school reform was decimated by the 1995 mayoral takeover that saw many of the leaders of the small schools movement recruited into the district administration, charter school organization, or the foundations. Others were encouraged to become charter school operators themselves—and did. Surviving small schools were pressured to give up many of their innovations and conform to standardized, and even scripted, modes of instruction and assessment.6


Still, because the noble intentions of some of the pioneers of the charter school movement (to create laboratories that prove what all educators know: that creativity, individual attention, and curricular relevance are the roots of good education) took shape so recently, and because there are some good charter schools, many progressives are disoriented in the current climate. Teachers who support the idea of public education, while recognizing the horrible state of some of our schools, aren’t sure what to do or what position to take when their unions fail to oppose charters, or worse, even endorse them. Some of the best books on the topic, like Keeping the Promise? The Debate Over Charter Schools, published by Rethinking Schools, provide a wealth of crucial information and perspectives for those concerned with education. While it argues that “school reform cannot be isolated from solving society’s larger injustices,” it is ambivalent about the impact of charter schools: “The question facing the charter school movement is whether it will fulfill its founding promise of reform that empowers the powerless, or whether it will become a vehicle to further enrich the powerful and stratify our schools.”7 Founding promises notwithstanding, an honest look at the balance of forces inside the charter movement makes a strong case for the latter. In another example, Small Schools: Public School Reform Meets the Ownership Society ends up supporting the supposedly pro-union charter school Green Dot.

Liberals who support the idea of charter schools give cover to politicians who champion privatization schemes. One of the main platforms for Barack Obama’s presidential campaign is support for charter schools. He told Teach for America, “I have been a big fan of public charter schools throughout my career. In the Illinois legislature, I was a leading advocate of public charters and helped pass legislation that authorized Chicago to create 15 new charter schools. I’ve said before that more resources alone will not improve our schools.”8 In a speech to the National Education Association this summer, Obama made two concrete policy suggestions about education—teacher bonuses based on students’ test scores, if the unions approve (merit pay by another name), and an increase in charter schools. Not surprisingly, Republican presidential candidate John McCain agreed totally, adding only that any obstacles to the expansion of charters should be wiped away. The candidates both recognize that charter schools can shift the blame for bad schools onto “bad management,” and can be used to justify the underfunding of public schools. They recognize that the dominant force within the charter school movement is that of corporate and nonprofit entrepreneurs. And so should we.

If we recognize the rapid acceleration of corporate-style charters, and admit that progressive forces are dwarfed by the billions of dollars invested in this movement by the private sector, we should try to group our forces around a completely different movement with a different vision rather than trying to recapture the charter movement (if it were ever ours).

Charter schools are, according to Kozol, a bridge toward vouchers:

In the long run, charter schools are being strategically used to pave the way for vouchers. The voucher advocates, who are very powerful and funded by right-wing foundations and families, recognize that the word “voucher” has been successfully discredited.... They have now shrewdly decided the best way to break down resistance to vouchers is by supporting charters, which represents a halfway step in the same direction. One of the intentions of this, by creating selective institutions, usually with extra forms of funding, is to discredit the entire public enterprise in America. We already have the privatization of the military, as we’ve seen with the private military contractors in Iraq; we’ve seen the privatization of the prison system. Well, the next step is the privatization of public schools. It’s a matter of ideology. In rare occasions, a charter school created by teachers in the public system and in collaboration with activist parents in the community have had at least short-term success.... They tend very quickly—even when they’re started by teachers with the best intentions—to enter into collaboration with the private sector.9
Who’s driving the charter school movement?

Today more than one million children attend some four thousand charter schools nationally.10# The Chicago Teachers Union has shrunk by 10 percent since the onset of Renaissance 2010, a program to break away one hundred schools from the Chicago Public School District. In Los Angeles 7 percent of children in public school, 45,000 students, attend charter schools.11 And that number is growing rapidly: in California, charter schools grew by 13.2 percent in 2006/07, increasing to 617 schools.12 Joel Klein, chancellor of schools in the New York public school system, has announced his intention that all of New York’s schools should be charters.13 Thirty percent of the students in Dayton, Ohio, attend charter schools.14 About 30 percent of the children in Washington, D.C., attend these schools, and 9 percent in Arizona. Georgia has sixty charter schools, double what it had in 2005. Florida has 334, and Texas 237.15

The different pace at which states and districts are becoming “charterized” depends on the differing state laws governing charters and the degree of centralization in these areas. For example, charter schools seem to be moving most quickly in areas where control of the school district is centralized in the hands of a mayor or has been put into receivership by the state. The pace is especially quick in areas where local politicians have an explicit pro-charter and free market agenda, in areas where people are more disenfranchised (like in Washington, D.C.) or in areas where a “shock” (to use Naomi Klein’s metaphor) has wiped the slate clean for charter laboratories (like in New Orleans).

In New Orleans, 57 percent of public school students attended charter schools at the end of 2007, and that percentage has probably increased. Before Hurricane Katrina, New Orleans Public School Board ran 123 schools. After the storm, they were taken over by the state of Louisiana and most were turned over to subcontractors. There is now a three-tier school district; select students attend publicly funded charters, others attend state-run schools (the Recovery School District) with a student-to-teacher ratio as high as 40:1 in some schools and no local school board to complain to, and still another group attends the least desirable Orleans Parish schools, where there is a security guard for every thirty-seven students.16

An important article by Bill Quigley describes this system and tells how Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings and the U.S. Department of Education had already put $20.9 million in special funds on the table for charter schools by September 30, 2005. (Another $20 million followed.)17 About two months later all 7,500 public school teachers and other school employees in New Orleans were fired and forced to reapply for their jobs, effectively busting the United Teachers of New Orleans. Over a year and a half later, as chronicled in the New Orleans Teachers Union Report No Experience Necessary: How the New Orleans School Takeover Experiment Devalues Experienced Teachers, well over three hundred students were still on wait-lists to gain admission to public schools. The shortages of classroom spaces in the public schools were so bad in 2007 that the NAACP filed suit on behalf of a wait-listed student.18 But the money was readily available, and the red tape not so thick, for privately run charters.

In one heroic case, parents, teachers, and students began squatting in Martin Luther King Jr. School in the Lower 9th Ward, in an attempt to force the reopening of the school. They were offered several million dollars if they would reopen—as a charter.19 In such cases, teachers and parents who decide to form charter schools don’t do so out of hostility to public schools, but out of necessity. In New Orleans in particular, this is a conscious design on the part of the charter movement.

Road to privatization?

This flood tide of charter schools leads some to believe that our school system may soon be wholly broken apart and effectively privatized; but what about the role of public education in supplying a steady stream of workers that have basic proficiencies in math and English necessary in the workplace?

Charter schools fit the needs of the establishment perfectly. Education is still compulsory and paid for by the state. Children are still controlled while their parents are at work, and this is still supported by our regressive tax structure. And charter schools are excellent teachers of free-market, “personal responsibility” ideology. The American Dream is promised to all those who strive to pull themselves up by the bootstraps. If you want your child to get ahead, make sure that he or she is one of the lucky few to get a seat in a charter school. For the rich, charters have added benefits; they are being used to dismantle the power of teachers’ unions, and they are excellent tools for channeling tax money into the pockets of enterprising individuals. This is true even when the charter schools are run by nonprofit companies. And no matter what the rhetoric dished out for public consumption, siphoning public money into private hands is the goal, as the statement by the Montgomery Securities group quoted above shows.

According to U.S. Census data, well over $800 billion is spent on education, public and private, at all levels in the United States each year.20 This makes it roughly the same size as the U.S. trade deficit with China. The private sector wants to get its hands on this money. Along with politicians, it is determined to break the power of the teachers’ unions and to attack one of the last bastions of decently paid American workers. The budget problems resulting from the current recession will provide them cover in doing this.

The Walton Family Foundation of Wal-Mart is the single biggest investor in charter schools in the United States, giving $50 million a year to support them.21 The Waltons specialize in giving money to opponents of public education. “Empowering parents to choose among competing schools,” said John Walton, son of Wal-Mart’s founder, “will catalyze improvement across the entire K–12 education system.”22 According to a National Committee for Responsive Philanthropy (NCRP) report, “Some critics argue that it is the beginning of the ‘Wal-Martization’ of education, and a move to for-profit schooling, from which the family could potentially financially benefit. John Walton owned 240,000 shares of Tesseract Group Inc. (formerly known as Education Alternatives Inc.), which is a for-profit company that develops/manages charter and private schools as well as public schools.”23 Wal-Mart is a notorious union-busting firm, famous for keeping its health-care costs down by discouraging unhealthy people from working at its stores, paying extremely low wages with poor benefits, and violating child labor laws. The company has reportedly looted more than $1 billion in economic development subsidies from state and local governments.24 Its so-called philanthropy seems also to be geared to the looting of public treasuries.

As for a coordinated effort, the private incursion into public schools is being pushed by a band of jackals grouped around Bill Gates and the $2 billion that his Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation have sunk into the education “reform” movement. The foundation funded a 2006 study by the New Commission on the Skills of the American Workforce called Tough Choices or Tough Times, “signed by a bipartisan collection of prominent politicians, businesspeople, and urban school superintendents,” which

called for a series of measures including: (a) replacing public schools with what the report called “contract schools,” which would be charter schools writ large; (b) eliminating nearly all the powers of local school boards—their role would be to write and sign the authorizing agreements for the contract schools; (c) eliminating teacher pensions and slashing health benefits; and (d) forcing all 10th graders to take a high school exit examination based on 12th grade skills, and terminating the education of those who failed (i.e., throwing millions of students out into the streets as they turn 16).25
In the beginning, the Gateses used their dollars and employees to push school districts such as Los Angeles to break up mega-high schools into “small learning communities.” But now they are advising superintendents to give up that project and go straight for independent charters. Gates’ $60 million project, “Ed in ’08: Strong American Schools,”26 will use the elections this year to influence politicians to accept their three mandates: standardization of curriculum nationally, merit pay for teachers, and more time in schools. The campaign’s money comes from Bill Gates and Eli Broad, a Los Angeles real estate magnate. Roy Romer, the former superintendent of the Los Angeles Unified School District, is its spokesman, and it counts among its supporters a diverse crowd—from Rod Paige, the former secretary of education, who once called teachers’ unions “terrorist organizations,” to Janet Murguia, president and CEO of the corporate-backed National Council of La Raza. It trumpets success stories, like its “Mission Possible: Greensboro, North Carolina,”27 where 383 teachers were paid bonuses in direct relation to their students’ test scores.

The movement also has regional boosters. In Los Angeles, Eli Broad, the billionaire who tried to engineer the mayoral takeover of Los Angeles schools, gave Steve Barr and his nonprofit Green Dot $10 million. Last spring Green Dot took over the 2,600-student Locke High School from the Los Angeles Unified School District and has a goal of expanding to forty-one schools throughout Los Angeles.28 Green Dot is supported by Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, who invited Green Dot executive Marshall Tuck onto his five-person educational advisory board. Villaraigosa is currently pushing for a $7 billion bond measure for the November ballot in Los Angeles, $450 million of which would be earmarked for charter schools if his friend (and former school board member) Caprice Young has her way.29 It’s not surprising that Green Dot’s ties with Democratic Party politicians are so strong, since founder Steve Barr cut his political teeth campaigning for Gary Hart, Bruce Babbitt, and Michael Dukakis.30

Globally, companies are being coached about how to get their hands on state money allocated for public services. An important new book called The Global Assault on Teachers and Their Unions: Stories for Resistance chronicles an international movement to privatize education.31 “Education corporations” are popping up in China on the ashes of public elementary schools. “City Academies” in England are being handed over to private sponsors. Reports shared among these policy-makers offer strategies for how to accomplish this deregulation. One such report is “The Politics of Education Reform: Bolstering the Supply and Demand: Overcoming Institutional Blocks,” published by the World Bank in 1999.32 (The institutional “blocks” are, of course, teachers’ organizations.)

There is no monolithic bloc of evil government and corporate forces marching along a single road map to privatization. Some charter schools were created on the genuine initiative of community members or teachers and parents. In some schools, like ones based specifically on antiracist curriculum, students are undoubtedly learning in a better atmosphere than they were before. But in Los Angeles, for example, while these represent only a handful of the 147 charters, dominated by EMOs and CMOs, they are used to blunt criticism of the dominant, corporate trend in the charter school movement.

There are a few pernicious assumptions shared by almost all charter operators, large and small, for-profit and nonprofit, dependent and independent, start-ups or conversions. The first assumption is that government education budgets will stay the same or continue to decrease. If it is given that public schools will be underfunded, the charter movement touts the belief that schools can succeed by having better management—less bureaucracy and corruption. The second shared assumption is that there is a role for the private sector in decision-making. Those who realize that money does make the difference in schools are attracted by the lucrative “partnership” contracts and money being dangled in front of charter schools by corporate interests. Others simply believe that private forces will be more efficient managers of schools than public school boards. And the corporate interests simply want to get their hands on the money. But all concede a role for private forces in running the schools. A third premise is that teachers’ right to collective representation and bargaining is an institutional “block” to progress, because teachers are in some way to blame for the abysmal state of the schools. We have to push back against these assumptions if we are to win quality education for all.

On what grounds do we object to charter schools?

While nonprofit charter schools are more pervasive than their for-profit counterparts, for the quarter of charters that are for-profit, the obvious problem is that the drive to make a profit will compromise educational quality. And for-profits and non-profits are under similar pressure to expand as quickly as possible.

Edison Schools Incorporated is one of the largest for-profit charter school companies. It ran twenty schools in Philadelphia alone until it was discredited this year. With board members like John Chubb of the Hoover Institution and Brookings Institution, it made a bald-faced attempt to turn millions of dollars in profits by controlling 157 schools. (Not very successfully, though; it was traded on the NASDAQ for four years but only showed one quarter of profitability.33) The most fundamental problem with a private model of education is that a company’s profits depend directly on cost-cutting. The cheaper the services they provide, just as in private prisons and hospitals, the more profit they turn. So there is always an incentive to do things on the cheap—poorly maintained physical plant and equipment, low pay for teachers and other staff, and larger class sizes mean bigger rates of return.

The dynamic works in fundamentally similar ways with nonprofit entities. The pressure to cut costs in order to have money left over for expansion forces nonprofit entities to act in a similar fashion to their for-profit cousins. Every nonprofit charter operator is under immense pressure right now to expand as quickly as possible and to measure success by how quickly they are able to replicate themselves. The newest mandate from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation is that we need to close thousands of broken inner-city schools and replace them with charters. There is fierce competition over who will get the contracts, especially among nonprofits. And nonprofits are, of course, allowed to pay their administrators very high salaries as well as keeping a small profit.

And then there is corruption. Celerity, a nonprofit charter school that made an attempt to co-locate on the campus of Wadsworth Elementary in Los Angeles, contracts out all its services to a for-profit firm, Nova, run by the same owner. This backdoor model—of a nonprofit funneling dollars to a separate, for-profit entity—is common. Kent Fischer explained it in the St. Petersburg Times:

The profit motive drives business…. More and more, it’s driving Florida school reform. The vehicle: charter schools. This was not the plan. These schools were to be “incubators of innovation,” free of the rules that govern traditional districts. Local school boards would decide who gets the charters, which spell out how a school will operate and what it will teach. To keep this deal, lawmakers specified that only nonprofit groups would get charters. But six years later, profit has become pivotal.... For-profit corporations create nonprofit foundations to obtain the charters, and then hire themselves to run the schools.34

Whether it’s technically legal, “contracting out” or direct corruption and profiteering, abounds. In their article “The Corporate Surge Against Public Schools,” Steven Miller and Jack Gerson cite many cases of such corruption. Brenda Belton, charter oversight chief for the D.C. Board of Education, admitted to arranging $650,000 in sweetheart contracts for herself and her friends, and C. Steven Cox, CEO of a large chain of charter schools in California, was indicted on 113 felony counts of misappropriating public funds.35

Charters don’t perform better.

As far as teaching American kids high-level skills to get them ready for the job market, data conflict (at best) as to whether charter schools fail more often than public schools do. The New York Times, in an editorial titled “Exploding the Charter School Myth,” uses statistics from the National Assessment of Educational Progress to argue that fourth-graders in freestanding charter schools showed worse performance than their public school counterparts in math and reading scores. (The data were different, however, for those students in charter schools affiliated with public school districts.) As the editorial argues, “the problem with failing public schools is that they often lack both resources and skilled, experienced teachers. While there are obvious exceptions, some charter schools embark on a path that simply re-creates the failures that they were developed to replace.”36

According to the important book Charter School Dustup: Examining the Evidence on Enrollment and Achievement,37 a study published in 2005 by scholars with the Economic Policy Institute and the Teachers’ College at Columbia University, “an analysis of California found that socioeconomically disadvantaged Asian-origin and Latino students in charter schools had composite test scores (literacy, mathematics, science, and social studies) that were about 4 to 5 percent lower than their counterparts in public primary schools.” Overall, in every state besides Arizona, they found charter schools’ performance is no higher than that of public schools in every demographic category. The comparisons were no better for low-income Black students.

The charter school movement cooks the books to try and prove otherwise. KIPP Schools, a nonprofit company that runs fifty-two schools nationwide and was formed in a partnership between ex–Teach for America (an anti-union organization) teachers and Donald Fisher, cofounder of Gap Inc., illustrates this point. It claims the highest test scores in the Bronx. But one comparison found that 42 percent of entering fourth-graders entering the KIPP school passed state reading tests, as compared to 25 percent for the surrounding public schools. They are starting with a group of students who already have better test scores.

In California, charter schools did worse than regular public schools at achieving their Adequate Yearly Progress goals, even though those goals are flawed because they are set by No Child Left Behind mandates.38 By a slightly better measure, “academic momentum,” which tries to measure improvements in schools, 24.8 percent of charter schools, and only 19.6 percent of public schools earned a “high” ranking. But by the same token, 26.3 percent of charter schools got a “poor” ranking, as compared to only 19.6 percent of public schools. The best charter schools seem to be improving slightly faster than California public schools, but a higher percentage of charter schools perform poorly. Perhaps charter schools aren’t the great equalizers that they claim to be.

When charters do succeed, it’s because they have lots of extra money. All schools should have access to these extra funds—especially the ones that need it most!

This is seen most acutely in New Orleans, where charter schools are in most cases genuinely better than the public schools because they receive a higher rate of funding. The charter schools funded by the Walton family, according to Liza Featherstone of the Nation, receive a higher per-pupil allotment than public schools.39 They are then used as a stick with which to beat public schools as though they were on a level playing field.

Additionally, at Granada Hills High School charter in Los Angeles, the governing board has been able to increase the amount of money flowing into the classrooms by cutting out the larger district bureaucracy to an extent. The fact that schools with more money can do better simply serves to make our point: that more money will make a better school. They all should have it, not a select few. If this means dramatically cutting bureaucracy everywhere, then that’s what we should stand for—not eviscerating public schooling.

The point is that public schools are of poor quality when they are underfunded; the poor quality is then used as an excuse for gutting public education even more. Using classic sharp business practices, the promoters of for-profit schooling are willing to pump some money into the charter schools in order to “prove” they are better, only to cut corners and boost profits once the charters have won the day.

Charters choose their students, which decreases the amount of power and due process that students and parents have. They are more likely to exclude English language learners and special education students. They pursue a different goal than fighting for quality education for all.

At KIPP schools, like many other charters, a condition of admission is that students’ parents have to spend a certain amount of volunteer time at the school. This automatically excludes children whose parents already spend the least time with them (due to working multiple jobs, lack of child care, or any number of difficult issues). While in some cases strictly competitive admissions cannot be used in charters receiving federal funds (although the rules are very flexible, as in New Orleans), these schools can select their students and transfer or expel students with less due process than they are afforded in regular schools.
This means, firstly, that charter schools select for students with the most resourceful parents, the children who already have a head start in the race. Miranda Restovic told the New Orleans Times-Picayune that she felt like she was applying to college when she tried to get her three-year-old into a charter school. “Although I am thrilled with the increased public school options, I am skeptical as to the (admissions) processes being friendly to all families,” Restovic said. “It’s really difficult if you don’t have the time to make constant inquiries and don’t have connections at the school to call and prod.”

A study of California charter schools by USC bears out Restovic’s observation. The parents of students The parents of students in California charter schools are more educated than their public school counterparts. Sixty percent of parents whose children attend charter schools had attended at least some college, as compared to 54 percent of parents of their public school counterparts. Forty percent of children in charter schools in California are on free or reduced lunch, as compared to the 50 percent average in California public schools overall.41

English language learners (ELL) are less likely to go to charter schools; in California, 16 percent of charter school students are ELL, as compared to 25 percent in other public schools.42 Charters, whether consciously or unconsciously, select for those students who are going to boost their test scores the most. Once English language learners get to charter schools, they may not be getting the services that they need: 44.9 percent of charter schools in the USC study ranked poorly for reclassification of students to Fluent English Proficient.43

Secondly, charters’ ability to select students fundamentally changes the dynamics of the relationship between parents and schools. Parents of struggling students, or those who disagree with the charter board, or who don’t fulfill obligations for the school are always under threat of transfer to another school. They don’t have the same potential power and due process that they do in a public school that their child is required to attend by law.

“Autonomy” for whom? Who calls the shots?

Green Dot, the Broad- (and Gates-?) funded nonprofit that runs twelve schools in Los Angeles, takes over schools by promising equality and evoking civil rights language like “grass-roots control.” For teachers, it promises more local control over curriculum. We want to get away, it argues to teachers hungry for such promises, from mandates and scripts. The problem is that this academic freedom is a lie. These schools are measured by the same standardized tests that all schools are, and they are well aware of it. There is no less—and arguably more—pressure for a charter to “teach to the test” since their raison d’être is that they can help students to “perform better.”

Green Dot promises more academic freedom and local control. A couple of paragraphs from Green Dot’s own website, however, illustrate the limitations of these promises.

While the Home Office provides Recommended Practices to schools, principals and teachers have ultimate autonomy to decide whether to follow those Recommended Practices or take different approaches….

Local control works in Green Dot’s school model because schools and all stake-holders within them are held accountable for student results. If students in a particular school or classroom are not performing up to expectations, then teachers and principals are held accountable and local control can be taken away. Green Dot’s accountability system defines quarterly and annual performance targets for each school and teacher as well as the period of time that a school or teacher can under-perform before Green Dot’s Education Team will intervene with supports and/or take away a school’s local control.44 [emphasis added]

In addition, Green Dot can, unlike regular public schools, refuse to admit new students if it is full.

In the agreement between Green Dot and the Asocia?cion de Maestros/NEA/AFT, the bargaining represen?tative of the teachers, it is made clear in no uncertain terms that “the Board maintains final authority over decisions regarding adminstrative decisions.” Unlike most charter school companies, Green Dot accepts unions. However, according to a New York Times report, “The union representing Green Dot teachers...has a 33-page contract that offers competitive salaries but no tenure, and it allows class schedule and other instructional flexibility outlawed by the 330-page contract governing most Los Angeles schools.”45

An NPR report describes the tremendous pressure put on teachers in a KIPP school.

Many of the teachers here are young; Feinberg is in her third year. Charter schools have the freedom to hire whom they want, and for this school, being young and enthusiastic counts for a lot. Feinberg knows that she and the school face tremendous pressure to improve the test scores of the city’s most challenging students. “But it’s great pressure, I mean it’s pressure that makes you work harder, that gives you a sense of urgency every day that they must learn these skills,” Feinberg says. “If you don’t produce the results that need to be produced, it’s very possible that you could lose your job.”46
The same report explains that during the nine-hour school days at KIPP academies, students practice “call and response” style learning; in other words, they are taught to “respond in unison” as the teacher snaps her fingers; a traditional rote method not particularly designed to encourage teacher or student creativity. The picture of conformity is reinforced by the fact that most charter school companies require their students to wear uniforms.

Schools will be better when teachers are paid more and the profession is more attractive. Teachers’ unions are a fundamental part of winning this; and the charter school movement is an attack on these unions.


It’s clear that the high-powered think tanks and business-driven efforts to promote charter schools are part of a package that includes eliminating teachers’ unions. In New York City, for example, right-wing foundations, with the support of billionaire Mayor Michael Bloomberg and his Department of Education chancellor Joel Klein, are working to keep unions out of the city’s charter schools. In November 2005 the Atlantic Legal Foundation—“a legal arm of the most stridently anti-union corporations and allied far-right interest groups”47—held a seminar in New York City at the prestigious Harvard Club to discuss “union prevention” in the city’s forty-seven charter schools.48 The conference’s opening session was entitled, “Leveling the Playing Field: What New York Charter School Leaders Need to Know About Union Organizing.” Among the scheduled speakers at a main panel were Caryl Cohen, a representative of New York’s Department of Education’s charter school arm, the New York City Center for Charter School Excellence, and Norman Atkins, one of the the founders and leaders of two charter school networks Chancellor Joel Klein has invited to New York. According to Atkins, the consensus of the panel was that “good charter schools organize themselves in ways that keep unions out.”49

“Local control” should include the right to teacher self-representation as well as an independent voice for parents and students. But most charters, even those that wear the progressive mantle, are hostile to this idea. An excellent example is the Los Angeles Leadership Academy run by Roger Lowenstein. It is a “social justice school” that encourages teachers to use lessons from movements for social change, and encourages students to attend antiwar demonstrations. The school recruits teachers who have been involved in community organizing and who are committed to progressive, antiracist pedagogy.

The teachers learned a lesson in social justice, though, when they tried to win the right to representation and collective bargaining by affiliating to the California Teachers Association. Roger Lowenstein hired high-paid anti-union law firms to keep the union out in what one veteran union organizer called “one of the toughest oppositions a teachers’ union has possibly ever faced.”50 Lowenstein argued to the Public Employee Relations Board that it should have no role in overseeing the union election or investigating unfair labor practices because the Leadership Academy is “not a public school.” If he was referring to the decision-making process—rather than the source of funding, which is, of course, public—he is absolutely right. Teachers quickly found out that the school’s advocacy for struggle, protest, and collectively “speaking truth to power” rang hollow when it came to their right to organize themselves.

The main source of poor school quality (and poor performance) is that public schools, at least in poor and working-class communities, are deliberately underfunded and resource starved, precisely in communities where more resources are needed for these schools to succeed; they are then expected to perform according to criteria that their lack of funding makes difficult for them to fulfill. The failure is then used to justify more public school cuts and the diversion of public funds into charter schools.


The next biggest factor in the quality of the school is the quality of teaching. This is directly related to the ability of teachers to shape the curriculum, the amount of collaborative planning time and individual tutoring time that they have, and their rate of pay and experience. All these things increase with the power of teachers’ unions. So if one accepts the idea that unions can play the role of fighting for better quality schools, more democratic accountability of schools, and better compensation for teachers, and that these are essential for good schools, then unions for teachers should be a community demand. This may not happen, however, until teachers’ unions prove through action that they support the needs and struggles of the parents and students in their communities. But teachers cannot have a serious voice in any process of school improvement unless they have the right to collective bargaining.

The slow destruction of union power that occurs when subcontracting creates lots of small workplaces—in place of large, highly unionized ones—has been a fact across many industries. “Whipsawing” is a term used to describe the effect on unions like the UAW when workers in smaller, spun-off shops get inferior contracts, and those contracts are used to pressure workers in bigger plants to accept similar concessions. The same could apply to the effect of charter schools in education.

Some suggest, then, that we have to seek out “pro-union” charter operators and make deals with them. But if we are speaking of privately run CMOs, then genuine power for their teachers would threaten the board’s hegemony in the schools. Some, like Green Dot, are willing to allow teachers a contract, and claim to be pro-union. But in their contract with the AMU/CTA/NEA teachers’ union, one can find few guarantees of any kind of real teacher voice (in the form of voting). According to the contract between Green Dot and the “union,” in effect until 2010,

It is understood and agreed that the Board retains all of its powers and authority to direct, manage and control to the full extent of the charter school law and the regulations of a 501.C3 California corporation. Input from the staff will be considered and decisions will be derived in a collaborative model; final decisions will rest with the Board. Included in, but not limited to, those duties are the right to: ...establish educational policies with regard to admitting students; ...determine the number of personnel and types of personnel needed; ...establish budget procedures and determine budgetary allocations; contract out work and take action on any matter in the event of an emergency.51
The Board will make all staffing decisions. By contrast, the United Teachers of Los Angeles contract with Los Angeles Unified District requires faculty votes on key aspects of running the school, like the schedule and certain discretionary budget items, and guarantees that class assignments will be chosen by the teachers, through seniority, and not arbitrarily by the administration.52 This vision of unionism, typified by SEIU (a representative of which sits on Green Dot’s board) is antithetical to real power or democracy for teachers. A large union cuts a deal with the employer, quickly begins to collect dues from members, and in exchange for “neutrality” on the part of the boss gives away key workplace rights. Green Dot specifically aims to hire younger, more inexperienced teachers and gives incentives for senior teachers to leave.

Many suspect Green Dot of signing somewhat toothless union contracts as a way of keeping more combative unions out. This wouldn’t be surprising given the presence of SEIU on their board of directors. SEIU is currently engaged in undermining the legitimate teachers’ union of Puerto Rico (the FMPR) in the wake of the strike that the FMPR led last spring. After the strike, the Puerto Rican government decertified the FMPR. SEIU helped the Asociacion de Maestros (coincidentally, the same name as the teachers’ union at Green Dot schools) to try to win representation of the Puerto Rican teachers. The FMPR was not allowed to contest them.53

Their strategy and ours

New York City schools chancellor Joel Klein has openly declared his wish to make all New York public schools charter schools. Rather than oppose the idea outright, then-United Federation of Teachers president Randi Weingarten chose to play ball on the chancellor’s field. In addition to inviting Steve Barr of Green Dot to New York to partner with the UFT in opening Green Dot schools, she also conceded that New York teachers would be willing to accept some form of merit pay. Merit pay hooks teacher bonuses (money that otherwise could be spent on salaries) to student test performance.

If this “appeasement” strategy was designed to convince Klein to stop blaming teachers for the problems in New York’s schools, it didn’t work. Shortly thereafter, Klein teamed up with civil rights figure Al Sharpton to launch the Education Equality Project, whose main goal is to remove the “block” that the teachers’ union supposedly creates to “reform.” Sharpton said, “But we cannot say that we’re going to close this achievement gap but protect ineffective teachers or principals or school chiefs or not challenge parents.”54 Perhaps if the teachers in New York had decided to build genuine alliances with New York parents—particularly in communities of color—to fight for access to more resources, against dictatorial mandates, and to define what “quality education” means from the ground up, then Sharpton wouldn’t have gotten any traction for blaming the teachers. A more convincing explanation for failure of Black students is gross underfunding and pervasive segregation.

Weingarten may also justify her actions on the basis that we have to make concessions to some charter schools—and so we may as well pick the “pro-union” ones. But rather than trying to play an appeasement game with charters, we should oppose them. The charter school movement may have to slow down under the weight of their own contradictions—they promise better scores but can’t deliver because their modus operandi rests on stripping teachers of their rights and, in many cases, maximizing profits. But another factor that will determine the pace of privatization is the amount and quality of struggle that we can wage, and the clarity with which we can wage it. And whether, in the process, we can begin to cooperate as parents, teachers, and students to formulate those demands that would begin to shape public education to meet the goals and vision that most people have for it.

A few examples illustrate the kind of struggles that might hold out hope for our side. In February 2008, 26,000 Puerto Rican teachers struck for more than a week against the colonial government’s plans for education. The strike had many demands—opposing Law 45 that outlaws public sector strikes on the island, just salaries for teachers, and the right to democratically choose their representation in collective bargaining. Among those demands, though, was one to stop the creep of charters into Puerto Rican education. At the conclusion of the strike, an agreement was signed by teachers’ union president Rafael Feliciano-Hernandez and the minister of education on the island guaranteeing to keep charter schools out. The agreement will be hard to enforce, but it established a precedent of teachers fighting the seemingly inevitable tide of privatization. (It’s also important to note that the Puerto Rican teachers’ resistance to charters began in 1993, which may explain why they’ve staved them off). Yet, as we can see from the above-mentioned joint attack from Puerto Rico’s governor and SEIU, the struggle is far from over.

The other examples are smaller in scope. In 2004, as many of Chicago public schools were threatened with mass closures, the Chicago Public Schools (CPS) system developed a plan to close Senn High School on the North Side and turn it into a Naval Academy charter school. The ominous move to establish military charter schools—spurred by the military’s shrinking pool of willing volunteers as the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan grind on—is not limited to Senn, nor to Chicago alone, as one 2008 report outlines:

Chicago has the most militarized public school system in the nation, with Cadet Corps for students in middle school, over 10,000 students participating in JROTC programs, over 1,000 students enrolled in one of the five, soon-to-be six autonomous military high schools, and hundreds more attending one of the nine military high schools that are called “schools within a school.” Chicago now has a Marine Military Academy, a Naval Academy, and three army high schools. When an air force high school opens next year, Chicago will be the only city in the nation to have academies representing all branches of the military. And Chicago is not the only city moving in this direction: the public school systems of other urban centers with largely Black and immigrant low-income students, including Philadelphia, Atlanta, and Oakland, are being similarly reformed—and deformed—through partnerships with the Department of Defense.55
According to Jesse Sharkey, a teacher at Senn,
In [some] ways, our school is a remarkable community resource, with plenty of morale. Our students come from 70 nationalities, speak 57 different languages and still maintain a sense of unity and mutual respect. Senn students have performed 70,000 hours of community service over the past five years and have been recognized with a national service award. Senn has also developed some of the city’s most successful academic programs for at-risk kids. So instead of waiting for the ax to fall, we began to fight back. We researched the effect that the military takeover would have on our school and community, and wrote fact sheets. We made flyers about our concerns and put up 3,500 of them, with another 500 in Spanish. We reached out and met with community organizations, launched a Web site, wrote press releases and organized to get people out to support us. On October 5, we brought about 700 people out to the CPS forum at our school. The mood in the room was electric. Students had been preparing all week—they had written speeches, drawn dozens of handmade signs and brought along many of their parents. When CPS officials tried to show us a slick promotional video about the Navy ROTC program, the room rebelled. The entire audience stood up and turned its back to the presentation.56

In the end, the Senn students, parents, and teachers won a partial victory. The school stayed open. However, in compliance with a December 2004 decision by the school board, one wing of their building was occupied by the Naval Academy. The charter fixed up their wing of the dilapidated building, including adding new air-conditioning, new computers, and science labs. The academy students, housed in the same building as “regular” Senn students, wear their own uniforms, have their own teachers, and operate by their own rules. The body of Senn was saved through the activism of its community—but one of its limbs has been infected by the viral creep of the charter movement working in conjunction with the military.

In a similar vein, teachers and parents in Los Angeles mounted a fight against charter takeover of school space in 2008. In California, Proposition 39 states that charter schools should be given access to space in public education buildings that is not being utilized. This seems like a strange concept in a city where tens of thousands of students go to “year-round” schools due to overcrowding, and trailer-like bungalows have taken over the recreation areas of most schools to create extra space. Nevertheless, forty charters completed applications to co-locate on Los Angeles United School District (LAUSD) campuses in the fall of 2008. They had receptive friends on the school board. However, in some notable cases, they were stymied. A group of more than seventy parents as well as teachers from Wadsworth Elementary spoke at and protested an LAUSD board meeting to keep Celerity Charter School off their campus—and won. Similar organizing happened at Logan Elementary, where a proposal to house middle-school children on an elementary school campus was being considered. In fact, according to an estimate by Crenshaw High School UTLA Chapter Chair Alex Caputo-Pearl, parents, students, and teachers at fifteen of the forty schools facing co-location with charters organized against them. At the time of writing, only sixteen of the forty applications for co-location had been accepted by LAUSD. The protests are widely seen as the reason why more charters were not accepted onto LAUSD campuses.

It appears that the charter school movement can be opposed, but it has to be fought school by school. In schools where there are parents, teachers, and students who understand the issues and can oppose charter takeover, charters can be stopped. These small struggles will not, however, stem the national tide until they are strong and viable enough to cohere into a powerful movement for a different vision of public education. The only way to challenge charter schools is to show that they are a stepping stone to privatization, that is, to the denial of publicly funded education as a basic right for all. Also, in their current status, in most instances, charters offer opportunities for private interests to profit by siphoning state funds. We must show that public education suffers not because it is public, but because it is poorly funded by states with other priorities, such as funding corporate handouts.

Here are some ideas for what we can do to begin to win the battle for public education:

1. Fight for resources

We cannot accept the logic that the amount of money available to schools is fixed, even in the current economic meltdown. At the state level, corporate tax rates are criminally low, and at the federal level, a tiny fraction of the money going to the war in Iraq would make giant strides toward fixing our schools. In every case the charter schools that do the best are the ones that receive extra money (usually from private foundations who want to see public schools replaced by charters). There is nothing complicated about the fact that more resources make better schools. If politicians didn’t believe this, they wouldn’t send their students to private schools that spend ten thousand or twenty thousand dollars more per student per year than our public schools do. Granted, only a massive struggle on the scale of the civil rights movement will force them to give us what we want for all children, not just their own. Students should not have to compete to get into the best schools while others are abandoned to horrible conditions in schools festering like wounds in already devastated neighborhoods. All schools need to be made better.

2. Wage an educational campaign against charters.

To date, none of the large teachers’ unions has launched a public relations battle against the charter takeover. Often the objection is that this is too politically difficult, since “the public supports charters.” This is not surprising, though, given that no national force has ever made the case against them. No doubt we’ll lose a battle that we choose not to fight.

3. Welcome charter schoolteachers into our unions but demand that they have all the key provisions of our contracts.

Charter schoolteachers aren’t the enemy. We welcome them into our unions, but must demand that they have all the key contract provisions that larger locals have. We should try to group them into larger bargaining units to avoid the fracturing of our power that happens when we are balkanized. We also can’t allow organizing to try to improve and democratize these charter schools to rob resources from our large public schools. If we wage these fights, charters can’t gain the traction that they need to continue their expansion. Teachers’ unions need to resist the temptation to fall into an organizing model that values representation at whatever cost—a model to which much of the rest of the labor movement has resorted. If we don’t have strong contracts that help to win better conditions for students and teachers and democratize the decision-making process in the schools, unions aren’t worth much.

4. Fight all mandates and corporate incursions into our schools.

Charter schools are just the extreme end of the whole spectrum of the corporate takeover of our schools. Already, schools that are wholly public are being forced into serving the military and business interests of this country. The tendrils of Corporate America reach deep into our schools via nepotistic contracts—from the $3 billion testing industry accelerated under No Child Left Behind, to McGraw-Hill and its Reading First program pushed through by the Bush administration. And as Jonathan Kozol chronicles in Shame of the Nation: The Restoration of Apartheid Schooling in America, teaching children obedience and corporate values (such as kindergartners being asked to role-play workplace managers) is, along with drill-and-kill methodologies, increasingly erasing all the best practices that came out of the educational reforms of the 60s, 70s, and 80s. We need to oppose mandates and all incursions of the private sector into the running of our schools.

New visions for the kind of schools that we want for our children will rise out of the struggles against the attacks that we are facing. This is fundamentally about fighting for democracy in the schools.

At Woodland Hills Academy, the parents and teachers at the school have appealed for (and won) a degree of autonomy from Los Angeles Unified School District, even though the school is not a charter. They have set up a Humanities Academy that makes financial and curricular decisions democratically. The school is known as a college- prep middle school, and has very good performance by all measures. The example of Woodland Hills Academy suggests that the things that are most tempting about some of the better charters—control over what is taught, escape from drill-and-kill mentality, and democratic decision-making—can be achieved inside the public school system as well, by teachers, parents, and students organizing.

In other areas, too, teachers’ unions have partnered with others to try to create innovative schools that attempt to wriggle out from under the grasp of mandates and bureacratic decisions. In Boston, the Pilot School project has done this, and in Los Angeles, Innovation Division schools are experimenting with more collaborative and autonomous decision-making within the schools.57

Teachers who are committed to social justice should put themselves in the camp of those who have fought through direct action for equal access to quality public education. Our role models should reach from the former slaves who forced the Freedmen’s Bureau to create the first public schools in the South and the students who pushed for integration of the public school system during the civil rights movement, to the undocumented students fighting for access to public universities in the United States today.

As long as we have a system built on inequality, the policy makers will attempt to use schools to institutionally and ideologically buttress the division between the haves and have-nots. They will mostly succeed. But in the struggles to come for genuine equality, access to schools to meet the needs of every single child, not a select few among those who live in poverty, will be a call and a slogan of our movements. For the vast majority, this means quality education in public schools. Those who join that fight will determine what the word “quality” means, and will have an opportunity to force these concessions from policy makers until people decide that concessions are not enough.

Sarah Knopp is a teacher in Los Angeles.



1 Jonathan Kozol, “The big enchilada,” Harper’s Magazine, August 2007.

2 Adam Smith, The Wealth of Nations (New York: Modern Library, 1937), 721.

3 Term coined by Steven Miller and Jack Gerson. Their article “The corporate surge against public schools” can be found at

4 See Milton Friedman, “The promise of vouchers,” Wall Street Journal, December 5, 2005.

5 Michael Klonsky and Susan Klonsky, Small Schools: Public School Reform Meets the Ownership Society (New York: Routledge, 2008), 93.

6 Ibid.

7 Leigh Dingerson, Barbara Miner, Bob Peterson, and Stephanie Walters, eds. Keeping the Promise? The Debate Over Charter Schools (Milwaukee: Rethinking Schools, 2008), xv.

8 Teach for America’s alumni magazine, One Day, allowed alumni to submit questions for Obama and McCain,

9 “Separate and unequal: America’s apartheid schools,” interview in ISR 45, Jan–Feb 2006.

10 American Federation of Teachers, “Charter schools,”

11 Howard Blume, “Ask a reporter,” Los Angeles Times, July 14, 2008.

12 “Charter schools indicators: A report from the Center on Educational Governance, University of Southern California,”, 3.

13 One has to wonder whether this is because he recently received the $1 million Eli Broad Excellence in Education award.

14 Bill Quigley, “A special report on Katrina and education: experimenting on someone else’s children; fighting for the right to learn in New Orleans,” CounterPunch, August 6, 2007,

15 Klonsky and Klonsky, Small Schools, 118; and Zein El-Amine and Lee Glazer, “‘Evolution’ or destruction? A look at Washington, D.C.,” in Keeping the Promise?, 53.

16 Leigh Dingerson, “Unlovely: How the market is failing the children of New Orleans,” Keeping the Promise?, 17.

17 Bill Quigley, “Fighting for the right to learn: the public education experiment in New Orleans two years after Katrina,” Black Agenda Report, August 8, 2007,

18 “No experience necessary: How the New Orleans school experiment devalues experienced teachers.” A joint report of the United Teachers New Orleans, Louisiana Federation of Teachers, and the American Federation of Teachers, June 2007. Available online at

19 “Privatization and the Katrina Solution,” Michael Molina interviewed by Gillian Russom and Sarah Knopp, Socialist Worker, May 28, 2008.

20 U.S. Census Bureau, “School expenditures, by type of control and level of instruction in constant (2003-2004) dollars, 1970-2004,”

21 Klonsky and Klonsky, Small Schools, 115.

22 Brian C. Hassell and Thomas Toch, “Big box: how the heirs of the Wal-Mart fortune have fueled the charter school movement,” November 7, 2006, Education Sector Connecting the Dots series, John Walton died in a plane crash in 2005.

23 Quoted in Bill Berkowitz, “Philanthropy the Wal-Mart way,” Media Transparency, October 12, 2005,

24 Joe Allen, “The horrible house of Walton,” Socialist Worker, December 2, 2005. See “Shopping for subsidies: how Wal-Mart uses taxpayer money to finance its never-ending growth,” Good Jobs First, May 2004; Amy Joyce, “Labor deal with Wal-Mart criticized,” Washington Post, November 1, 2005.

25 Steve Miller and Jack Gerson, “The corporate surge against public schools,”

26 See the Ed in ’08 site at

27 “Strong American schools: mission possible: Greensboro, North Carolina,” Ed in ’08,

28 Green Dot’s Board of Directors includes SEIU Local 1877’s president, Mike Garcia. SEIU has a very cozy relationship with those sections of Corporate America who have government contract services, and has a plan to “organize” charter schools, but they intend to do so by making deals with charter operators who will undermine some of the key elements of teachers’ power in collective bargaining.

29 Howard Blume, “Mayor pushes school bonds,” Los Angeles Times, June 19, 2008.

30 Howard Fine, “Unsentimental education,” Los Angeles Business Journal, June 4, 2007.

31 Mary Compton and Lois Weiner, eds., The Global Assault on Teachers and Their Unions: Stories for Resistance, (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2008).

32 “The politics of education reform: Bolstering supply and demand; Overcoming institutional blocks.” World Bank documents and reports.


33 Helen Huntley, “Legislators, teachers balk at deal for Edison Schools,” St. Petersburg Times, September 26, 2003,

34 Quoted in Klonsky and Klonsky, Small Schools, 108.

35 Miller and Gerson, “Corporate surge against public schools.”

36 Editorial, New York Times, August 27, 2006.

37 Martin Conroy, Rebecca Jacobsen, Lawrence Mishel, and Richard Rothstein. The Charter School Dustup: Examining Evidence on Enrollment and Achievement (Washington: Economic Policy Institute, 2005).

38 See “Charter schools indicators: a report,” 10.

39 Quoted in Klonsky and Klonsky, Small Schools, 145.

40 Sarah Carr, “Getting into New Orleans schools can be a tough task,” New Orleans Times-Picayune, May 17, 2008.

41 See “Charter schools indicators: a report,” 15.

42 Ibid., 16.

43 Ibid., 8.

44 See

45 Sam Dillon, “Maverick leads charge for charter schools,” New York Times, July 24, 2004.

46 Larry Abramson, “For charter schools, New Orleans is a citywide lab,” NPR, July 16, 2008.

47 Leo Casey, “Who’s afraid of teacher voice? Charter schools and union organizing,” November 17, 2005, Edwise,

48 Ibid.

49 Ibid.

50 Personal communication.

51 See “Agreement between Green Dot Public Schools, a California not-for-profit corporation and the Asociacion de Maestros Unidos/CTA/NEA effective through June 30, 2010.” An earlier version of the contract is available online at

52 Ibid.

53 Marazan, Cesar Rosado. “SEIU to Raid Union Representing 40,000 Teachers in Puerto Rico.” Labor Notes Online, www.?

54 Greg Toppo, “Sharpton, education plan may tear union ties,” USA Today June 11, 2008.

55 Therese Quinn, Erica Meiners, Bill Ayers, “Child soldiers,” ?January 8, 2008,

56 Jesse Sharkey, “Get the military out of our schools,” Socialist Worker, October 14, 2008.

57 See Dan French, “Boston’s pilot schools: an alternative to charter schools” in Keeping the Promise?, 67.



The charter school invasion of Harlem

New York City teachers Emily Giles and Bill Linville describe how the drive to spread charter schools affected one public school in Harlem--and how teachers, parents and the community are organizing an opposition.

September 14, 2009

P.S. 123 is one of New York City's "well developed" schools, according to Department of Education (DOE) standards.

Also called the Mahalia Jackson Elementary School, it was so successful that the DOE approved a proposal to add 7th grade classes for the 2009-2010 school year--and according to a teacher at P.S. 123, more than 600 students applied.

But P.S. 123 doesn't have the space to accommodate those students. Teachers at the school are dismayed at the loss of two science labs, the United Federation of Teachers (UFT) lounge, a parent room with computers for parent GED prep classes, half the library and the social studies room.

As a matter of fact, the "well developed" P.S. 123 lost an entire floor for this school year. Strangely enough, as the school was given DOE approval to grow, the very same DOE took away classrooms and program space.

That space was given to a charter school called the Harlem Success Academy II (HSA II), the second such academy founded by former City Councilwoman Eva Moskowitz, opened inside the P.S. 123 building one year ago.

Initially, HSA II was scheduled to move this school year to P.S. 194, another public school in the area that already houses a different charter school. But after a pushback from P.S. 194 teachers and parents, HSA II remains inside P.S. 123.

And not only is it staying--it's growing.

Like P.S. 123, HSA II submitted a proposal to add new grades and increase enrollment this year. Both schools were given permission to add classes, but HSA II gained space while P.S. 123 is losing it.

Thus, according to a P.S. 123 teacher, HSA II now has two science labs for 1st graders and Kindergarten students, while P.S. 123 science teachers are sharing one science lab for elementary and middle school science classes. And keep in mind, the teacher emphasized, that P.S. 123, and not HSA II, teaches science for grades that face high-stakes standardized tests.

What's most alarming about the P.S. 123 story is that it isn't unique. The same pattern of new charter schools moving into community public schools is happening across Harlem, where the charter school invasion is at its fiercest, and now across the city, where two dozen new charter schools opened across the city, and more are on the way.

What is unique about P.S. 123, however, is the way that teachers stood up to the activities of Eva Moskowitz and HSA--a struggle that gained momentum this summer and will continue into the new school year as HSA II continues to operate inside P.S. 123.
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MOSKOWITZ MADE the first move at the beginning of this summer. She hired private movers to come into P.S. 123 classrooms, pack up teachers' belongings and put them in the gymnasium, so HSA II could begin its takeover--all without even notifying P.S. 123 staff.

The movers came in and attempted to break into teachers' rooms, but many teachers stood their ground. "I told the other teachers to sit in front of their doors and don't move," one teacher said. "And don't let anybody touch you. If anybody touches you, it's on. You're not coming and breaking and entering with the person right there."

  inside PS123 as of early September2009

After New York City police and the DOE were called, the move was stopped. But on a walk-through of the school some days later, Manhattan Borough President Scott Stringer found "a whole lot of boxes that are unmarked--people's supplies and resources moved into spaces of the school," he said. "No marking of what classroom they came from, no teacher's name on the boxes. They were basically packed up and pushed out. That's what's all over the school."
When students returned to school last week on September 9, materials were still piled up in classrooms, thanks to HSA's dump and run--and the refusal of teachers to clean up after them. Meanwhile, say teachers, HSA II's hallways inside the building have new lighting, remodeled bathrooms (with potpourri!), and every classroom has brand-new air conditioners.
This arrogance provoked protests throughout the summer, and the first day of school was no exception. Beginning at 6:30 a.m., more than two dozen demonstrators gathered outside of the HSA II entrance to the building.

When Moscowitz showed up, she claimed to the media that the protesters were scaring the children--and even had children up outside the building (which they normally don't do) to make it look like the picket line was blocking their entrance.
As parents from P.S. 123 came to drop off their children, parent leaders gathered them together and spoke about the conditions inside the school. The parents tried to enter the building to see for themselves, but were prevented from doing so by the principal. Yet later in the morning, reporters from the right-wing New York Post showed up and claimed that the schools chancellor had given them permission to enter.

After the first week of classes, some of the effects of HSA II's growth at the expense of P.S. 123 began to emerge: a class that lost its room to HSA was meeting in the basement, but had to be relocated after the children and teachers were having difficulty breathing; the former library is now a combination of several classrooms, and students and teachers have difficulty hearing each other because there are no barriers between the classes; a special education class with 12 students and seven adults is crowded into a half-classroom with no closet space.
One parent told a reporter, "I feel like my child is being raped."
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THIS SUMMER saw a flurry of protests in Harlem in response to charter school takeovers and encroachments of public school buildings.

At P.S. 123, there were three rallies in July drawing between 30 and 50 people, among them parents, teachers and some students, along with community members and teachers from elsewhere in the city.

William Hargraves, a P.S. 123 parent, compared the situation to injustice of the fake separate-but-equal doctrine used to justify segregated schools under Jim Crow in the South. "We need to have charter schools governed with the same criteria that public schools are governed by," Hargraves said. "This is happening all over the city."
Annette Jimenez, leader of the Parent Association at P.S. 375 in East Harlem, said:

We're facing the same problem. The charter school that's in our building started with half of one of the floors in our schools. It moved on take a whole floor this year and next year...It will be servicing more children than we are now, and it's displacing most of our kids.

This is something that we need to stand up and fight now. This charter school system has come in to create a two-tier system for our schools and our students. Our children deserve the same treatment that the charter school students are getting. We see that their numbers aren't better than our numbers. We're going to continue to stand up and fight for this, and we're going to win.

On September 2, activists held a forum in Harlem called "The Truth About Charter Schools," which was attended by more than 100 people--around half of them parents of school kids. State Sen. Bill Perkins hosted the event, and speakers included William Hargraves; Brian Jones of the Grassroots Education Movement (GEM); and Akinlabi Mackall of the Coalition for Public Education.

Perkins opened up the forum by putting the issue of racism front and center. "They say that the charter schools are the prep schools for people of color," Perkins said. "That tells me we have a problem. Parents are in despair over what they don't have, and are hoping for something that is a satisfactory improvement. They're being forced to take action because of benign neglect. I think that's a political issue, and a civil rights issue."

Jones went through five myths about charter schools, exposing each as false. "If the charters are doing something innovative, then why aren't we doing that in the public schools?" he asked. "There's nothing in our union contract that stops us from teaching to smaller classes, from integrating the arts into the curriculum, or from using real science laboratories. If they're not doing anything innovative, then why are they pushing public schools out of their own buildings?"

Mackall talked about how charter schools are focused on the concerns of parents, but in a divisive way. "Who's addressing the problem of academic excellence forall of our children?" he said. "We need to be the parents of all of our children."

During the discussion, teachers from P.S. 123 and P.S. 241 and spoke passionately about how the expansion of charter schools inside public school buildings has caused horrible overcrowding and unsafe conditions for public school students.
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THE CHARTER school invasion and the protests against it have raised a number of questions about how to challenge the drive toward privatization.
The GEM members who helped organize the September 2 forum are mostly New York City public school teachers, who aim to work in coalition with parents and community members. GEM has taken a position explicitly against the expansion of charter schools. But other groups have been more equivocal.

The position of teachers union leaders has been to support charter schools that do the right thing--those that allow unions and that represent "public schools freed from bureaucratic micro-management to be educational laboratories," in the words of American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten, who came out of the UFT.

In fact, the UFT runs two of its own charter schools and has partnered with Green Dot to run a third--even though teachers at these schools aren't under the same contract agreement as public school teachers.

Essentially, the attitude here can be summed up as: "If you can't beat them, join them." According to Weingarten, "Charters have a place in public education, and unions are not impediments to their success, despite some claims to the contrary. We need to get past the politics of conflict by working together and making sure that all New York City public school children attend a quality public school."

The community organization ACORN took the lead at several protests in July, but its organizers have argued that parents and teachers shouldn't be against charter schools, but should ask only that charters find their own space outside of public school buildings. At a July 10 protest, ACORN organizers told members of GEM to take down anti-charter school signs at the July 10 protest.

Meanwhile, Scott Stringer, the Manhattan borough president, said at the protest, "Nobody was disrespectful to the charter school, or that faculty or those children. There really is an ability to create common ground and negotiation and transparency...We should have a cooling-out period until there's a real sit-down between P.S. 123, the charter school, the Board of Education, and area elected officials."

There's nothing in this statement about granting the use of public school space to privately run charter schools. Stringer is merely calling for "transparency" in the process. While this would certainly be a good first step, we need to demand that politicians oppose charter schools and instead favor adequately funding public schools.

What's happening at P.S. 123 and elsewhere in Harlem is nothing short of a hostile takeover, facilitated by an education system under the control of the mayor--with no room for input from the community, parents or teachers. As journalist Juan Gonzalez wrote of the takeover:
[There was] no parent or faculty meeting to gauge whether anyone wants the new school. No official vote of the local Community Education Council. Some young bureaucrat from the city Education Department's Office of Portfolio Development arrives one day with a bunch of maps under his arm, and promptly orders a new allocation of rooms. Boom. Done. All part of Klein's rush to create 100,000 new charter school seats over the next few years.
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WHY THE rush? Is it really, as so many advocates boast, because charter schools are freed from bureaucratic controls, allowing them to be, as former AFT President Albert Shanker put it, "incubators of good instructional practice"?

This idea is unsettling because it suggests that public schools are in some way not set up to be "incubators of good instructional practice." Shouldn't we strive to make changes that enable all public schools to be bastions of "good instructional practice"? Of course we should.

In practice, the bureaucratic freedoms allowed to charter schools have nothing to do with good instructional practice--they have to do with the bottom line. Charter school administrators are freed from constraints like employing only certified teachers, employing unionized teaching staff, abiding by DOE time limits for the school day and year, using DOE contracted unionized support staff--and, above all, serving all students.
So it's unclear how lifting restrictions on teacher certification and unionization facilitate "good instructional practice."

Instead, charter schools are often plagued with high teacher turnover because of the absence of union contracts, longer school days and higher teaching loads. A study released by the Education Policy Research Unit found that the national teacher turnover rate in public schools averages 11 percent--while the average charter school attrition rate is almost 25 percent. In Harlem, Moskowitz's own Harlem Success Academy I fired the principal three weeks before the 3rd grade ELA test.

Charter schools not only have a different population of teachers--they also serve a different demographic of students than public schools.

Data for the 2007-2008 school year showed that 14 percent of students in New York City public schools were English Language Learners--while only 4 percent were in charter schools. Around 15 percent of public school students had special needs, while only 5 percent did in charter schools.

The numbers speak for themselves--charter schools don't serve the same population of students as public schools. Yet the most systematic study of charter schools found that around four in five charter school students had test scores at the same level or worse than public school students.
The primary result of the charter movement thus far has not been to create "incubators of good instructional practice," but instead to develop a separate and unequal system of education.
Charter school operators claim they are just a part of the public school system, but this is only true in the sense that they take money and resources from the public education system. In addition to money that they receive from state, local and federal governments, charter schools receive grants from foundations, and one-quarter of all charter schools are run on a for-profit basis.

In the Harlem community, the response to charter schools is mixed. Public schools in Harlem are segregated, under-funded and overcrowded, leaving parents searching for other options. Parents see fresh, newly renovated, activity-packed charter schools and see an opportunity for their children.

The charter movement operates under the guise of promoting civil rights and preys on parents' dissatisfaction with public schools--but in fact, it's pushing a right-wing neoliberal agenda that is systematically destroying community public schools.

The fight at P.S. 123 is a start in the ongoing battle to stop separate and unequal from becoming reality in our public schools.
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