The attack of the Walmartians: Part I: The Wild, Wild, World of Charter Schools – Let’s get Something Straight!

By Thomas J. Fiala

The unregulated world of charter schools is about to get another boost if the current ECAA is put into law.  We already know how most of our senators and congressional leaders feel about the ECAA, and in this case, charter school expansion and increased funding.   Many of us have had to engage supporters of charter schools who are always ready to point out that “not all charters are the same,” and of course, their claim that the charter schools they do endorse are taking the right approach to helping students who are being harmed by those nasty public schools.

Now I want to get this straight from the outset, before you read any farther.  I unabashedly support America’s democratic system of public education, regardless of whether a public school is governed by a locally elected school board or a school board appointed by a mayor.   Understand, however, that I do not support the process per se for any mayor appointing a school board.  This is a bad idea that is being shown again and again to be the wrong approach to meeting the educational needs of communities, large and small.  For example, if Chicago is not the poster child for using Rahm Emanuel’s  power to destroy public schools, while he sends his children to an elite private school, then I am certainly open to other contenders for the poster.   I like a city or any other type community having to elect their public school governing board.  This fact alone is going to be foundational in understanding my concerns about the charter onslaught that is increasingly pillaging our public schools across the nation.

First and foremost, charter schools are a scam for those individuals, wittingly or not, who support the neoliberal Friedmanomic educational notions of voucher and choice that circumvent the public school educational process, which has historically been a positive part of our democratic fabric and still needed today.   But let’s get down to the nitty gritty as to why charters are problematic in the very least, while an overwhelming number are simply despicable.  But first and foremost, I am not going to buy the corporate pro-charter line used by many charter start up supporters that goes like this:

Sure I support public schools, but until public schools solve all their problems, then I am going to proceed with creating my idea of what a charter school is supposed to look like!   I know charters have problems but so do public schools!

Now for those pro-charter folks using this line, I am going to school you a little – or maybe a lot!  First and foremost, the wonderful and courageous part about our public schools is that they nobly take on the challenges facing the United States.  These schools reflect the larger society, and all the wonderful aspects of that society – and all the ills of that society.  Our public schools DO NOT require a student and parent to sign a contract that has requirements and rules that if violated means that the student can rather easily be removed and then – of course – be sent back to the good old public school!  So, let me be straight with anyone reading this.  If your charter school requires a contract signed by a parent and child, and if that contract states that the child can be removed from the charter, which of course implies the child will head back to the regular public school, then that is one of the many reasons I think charters are just flat out wrong!

Let’s flip this around a little.  Would it be a good idea for public schools to be allowed to engage in this same practice?  Certainly, a student can be expelled from a regular public school.  However, the process is simply not the same, as we all know – and that WE includes charter supporters!   Public schools must not be easily used as a place for charter school castoffs!  This is particularly true when neoliberal charter supporters claim that competition is key to improving education.  That’s not competition.  That’s stacking the deck!

Let’s look at this issue in another way.  For example, it seems that America’s media certainly worries more about underinflated footballs  at the Super Bowl being competitively unfair than it does when it comes to unfair educational competition and America’s traditional public schools!  So charter supporters, become as noble as the public schools and do not use these contracts to avoid the complex challenges facing our public schools that go beyond the walls of the school!  What’s really amazing is that when looking at the big picture, overall, charters do not outperform the regular old public schools!  Of course, as we will see later, there’s plenty of cash in “them thar hills” when it comes to charter schools!

Another basic issue that cannot be tolerated in my opinion, is that charter school governing boards are not accountable to the public in the same way regular public schools are.  A group that gets together, then gets a school charter and appoints a governing board that is immune from public scrutiny – and then is at the public trough syphoning dollars away from the regular public schools – is not an example of democracy in action.  Certainly the neoliberal Milton Friedman would have defined this as democratic in nature – but I don’t!  If a school governing board takes public money – then the school governing board must be transparent and accessible in a public manner.  Not just accessible to the specific clientele that is part of the charter school of which this board governs!  This is an intolerable action!

Understand, all this CANNOT – I repeat CANNOT – be construed in any way as being an INNOVATIVE  educational approach to improving education!  And, of course, we always hear that this is what charters are supposed to be all about – INNOVATION free from the constraint placed on regular public school!   I believe that if a charter school does NOT address these two major ways of doing business — 1) contracts and 2) transparency and real public accountability while taking public money —  then the charter should not be allowed to exist.  I am not about to acquiesce to those who want to create, in effect, private schools with public money!  And I am NOT about to buy the claim that this is an example of educational INNOVATION!

So here we end part one of the Wild, Wild, World of Charters!  Stayed tuned for more regarding this particular attack on our democratic institution of public schools.

Part II: The Wild, Wild, World of Charter Schools – The Attack of the Walmartians!

Part III: The Wild, Wild, World of Charter Schools – The Plague of Corruption

Rick Hess Resurrects the “Blow Up Schools of Education” Mantra

In a recent posting on his Education Week blog “Straight Up,” Rick Hess resurrected Reid Lyon’s now tired assertion that in order to reform education. a good place to start is blowing up colleges of education.  Only now Rick Hess thinks he has a better idea — a better “path.”  Apparently, Hess spent some time with a few dozen education school deans.  He found them to be “smart people and willing to engage with dissenting voices.”  However, he has a different view of the faculty members who work within schools of education.  We, according to Hess, “as a rule … display strong biases on questions like accountability, use of monetary incentives, and school choice.”  And Hess went on to state in a tweet that education faculty members are not only biased, but guilty of venality.  Actually, that’s not only outrageous, but seems to contradict his own thesis.  Hess lauds the University of Arkansas’ “Walmart Department of Education Reform and School Privatization.”  While many education department faculty members seem to be biased against the current feeding frenzy of free market corporate education reformers (and, thus, lose out on the wealth that can be accumulated by casting their lot with the charter school operators, test publishers, and data producing machine makers), the University of Arkansas is not accused of venality for cashing in on the Walton family fortune.  The Walton family certainly did pay a lot to buy a policy department that would actively promote a free market education reform agenda — a whopping $300 million dollars, the largest “gift” in the history of public higher education!

I think it’s interesting that Rick Hess positions himself and other “think tank” scholars as the downtrodden and oppressed — losing the policy debate to the “tens of thousand of faculty in teacher-preparation programs at state colleges of education.”  As one of those faculty members in a  teacher preparation program, I think Hess is disingenuous in taking this position.  Or maybe he just hasn’t gotten the memo — you guys have won!  You got pretty much everything you wanted: education reformers wanted more accountability, “no excuse” policies, more data, more testing, and more school choice.  They wanted teachers to be held accountable for their students’ performance on tests. they wanted a debate on teacher tenure, and they wanted more non-traditional teacher preparation programs like Teach for America.

Education reformers started winning the policy debate a long time ago.  Republicans promoted your agenda. Democrats promoted your agenda.  And Obama placed the laurel wreath on the head of education reformers as the ultimate winner when he and Arne Duncan gifted you with RTTT.  Rick Hess, thou protesteth too much!  Oh, I know you have been very vocal in your criticism of the Common Core.  However, the Common Core was just one of the policies in the gift basket education reformers received from the federal government.  And now some free market education reformers want to keep everything else in the gift basket and give back the one thing they find distasteful.

Rick Hess states, “It’s a huge mistake to regard ed schools as implacably hostile. Ed schools are shifting assemblages of individuals, with views that are not preordained. Instead of writing off all the institutional heft that ed schools’ control, it’s time for reformers to get in the ring and work to ensure that some top colleges of education become places that can produce and host a healthy quotient of reform-minded thinkers.”  By reform-minded thinkers, it’s obvious that he is referring to free market, corporate, pro-choice education reform proponents.

Law schools, according to Hess, had to address the same “entrenchment” he now cites as a problem in schools of education.  The conservatives had to step in and rescue the law schools.  Hess is laudatory of Henry Manne who was recruited in 1985 by George Mason University to “build a law school from scratch.”  Manne, according to Hess, was free to “launch an Austrian-flavored program free from such constraints. While lacking a significant endowment, alumni network, or institutional brand, the new school soon enjoyed enormous success as a place of refuge for conservative scholars… .”

It is clear, that Hess’ better “path” for schools of education includes creating some supposed refuge for these conservative scholars.  First, why do conservatives need a refuge?  They seem to be doing quite well in the education policy arena.  Second, just what would a school of education that employs conservative thinkers among its faculty look like?  I think Hess is woefully unaware of what teacher preparation program faculty members actually do, in spite of the fact that he claims otherwise.  Increasingly, our jobs revolve around enacting policies that these conservative free market corporate reformers have been promoting over the years.  Regardless of our personal and professional education policy beliefs, we are committed to our students’ success and the success of the students they will teach.  In New York, where I work in a teacher preparation program, our education majors take numerous standardized tests to become licensed to teach after graduation.  There’s no lack of accountability here.  Education professors may question the quality of the Common Core, but we prepare our students to enter a profession dominated by the standards.  It doesn’t matter if we are conservative or liberal, Democrat or Republican.  If we are entrenched as Hess claims, it is not an entrenchment of our choice.  It’s an entrenchment foisted on us by “reform minded” policy makers, the kind that Rick Hess admires.

Hess may decry those who wish to “blow up” schools of education.  However, his attack is no less vehement.  He concludes his article by saying: “‘Blow up the ed schools’ is the disgruntled cry of the defeated. The goal shouldn’t be to silence other voices, but to break the monopoly and insist on a fair competition of ideas.”  There is no monopoly, Rick Hess.  There is no  public school monopoly and there is no monopoly among schools of education.  The reality is this: there are those in dominant positions of power who want to destroy the democratic institution of public schools through free market policies under the guise of “choice.”  On the other hand, there are those of us who are actively working to preserve the long honored and beneficial system of public education.  It shouldn’t be surprising that many of us proudly work in teacher preparation programs.

Public Schools as Public Freedom

By Thomas J. Fiala

I was just reading a review of Francis Fukuyama’s new book Political Order and Political Decay: From the Industrial Revolution to the Globalization of Democracy” published in 2014. The review appeared in the October 2014 issue of The Atlantic and was written by Michael Ignatieff, the Edward R. Murrow Professor of the Press, Politics, and Public Policy at Harvard’s Kennedy School. Recall it was Fukuyama who became famous in 1989 when he wrote an essay entitled “The End of History.” Ignatieff’s insightful and well written review of Fukuyama’s new book in the Atlantic is the reason I have already ordered my copy. More specifically, however, what did I find interesting in this review that made me “shell out the cash” for this book?

Ignatieff tells us that while Fukuyama believed that “history as we knew it had ended with the victory of liberal-democratic capitalism over Communism … Fukuyama wondered … whether citizens in the newly hegemonic West would lose spiritual and moral purpose now that the all-defining conflict with Communism was over.”

But what Ignatieff then says is what really made me think about capitalism and a free market approach to governance, and in particular how all this related to the current assault on America’s institution of democratic public schools. Again, quoting Ignatieff, “Capitalism did win in 1989– no credible alternative has emerged – but capitalism did not lead to liberal democracy.” (Interestingly enough 1989 was the first year of the governor’s conference on education that many would argue really opened the gates (no pun intended) for free market education reform initiatives.) Now here is where Ignatieff starts to pique my interest a little bit more! He states, “Market systems turned out to be politically promiscuous: they could share a bed with any number of political regimes, from Nordic democracies to Singaporean meritocracies. In Xi Jinping’s China or Vladimir Putin’s Russia, Western liberal democracy now faces a competitor Fukuyama did not anticipate: states that are capitalistic in economics, authoritarian in politics, and nationalist in ideology.” Now here is what really caught my attention and something I’ll have to think a great deal about as I read Fukuyama’s new book!!! Quoting Ignatieff again, “These new authoritarians are conducting an epoch-making historical experiment as to whether regimes that allow private freedoms can endure when they deny their citizens public freedoms.”

Now maybe I am way off when I say this – although I don’t think so – but to me America’s locally controlled public schools are an example of one of those public freedoms. Consider, for example, the last thought in The Origins of the Common Core: How the Free market Became Public Education Policy:Public schools are not government schools, nor are they corporate free market schools. Public schools belong to the public. Public schools are citizen schools, and it is now up to citizens to re-claim what is theirs!

Now supposedly Fukuyama still believes, according to Ignatieff that “history still has a democratic destiny … and the prospects for democracy globally remain good.” But now Ignatieff really gets me thinking about education reform in the United States and how we are going to help – or not be able to help – students living in poverty. He explains that “this assessment depends greatly on the global rise of the middle class.” As Harvard theorist Barrington Moore Jr. proclaimed, “No bourgeois, no democracy.”

I along with many who are reading this blog would agree with this statement. And if this is the case, then America is really in trouble considering that America’s middle class has been shrinking at an alarming rate since Reagan became elected president and Democratic presidents after Reagan often acted more like Republicans particularly when it came to adhering to free market ideas regarding education reform. It seems, particularly when it comes to the creation of education policy, this is an example of governmental and corporate mutualism. This way of governing is but an illusion of liberal democracy in action, and instead reflects a free market political authoritarianism that seeks to take decision-making, in the case of public schools, away from democratically elected school boards. I would argue that America’s public schools are an example of citizens’ public freedom. And when the federal government became allied with free market education reformers in a for-profit education government and corporate mutualistic love-fest, many citizens who understand the importance of public schools in America’s pluralistic democracy became irate! As Ignatieff explains, “… people become insulted when authoritarian systems of rule treat them as disobedient children.” Fukuyama observes that “there is a crisis of representation” leaving millions of Americans convinced that their politicians no longer speak for them.

When it comes to the current state of education reform in the United States, and the corporate free market assault on America’s democratic institution of public schools with the support of central government authoritarianism, clearly it is time for America’s citizenry to reclaim what is theirs – their locally controlled democratic public schools!

Ya know” – come to think of it – I am also going to read Michael Ignatieff’s Fire and Ashes: Success and Failure in Politics.” I think that both of these books seem like a wise purchase for all American citizens to further understand what is going on in America!

The United States is not Alone in Fighting Misguided Free Market Education Policies: Great Britain’s Struggle to Maintain Local Authority Over Their Schools

Unfortunately, Great Britain seems to be following the Friedmanomic playbook when it comes to education policy in spite of mounting evidence that these policies inevitably lead to an erosion in local control over schools, a devaluing of the teaching profession, and corruption by those who see education as a steady stream of profit for business entrepreneurs.  And, according to the The Guardian, this is in spite of the fact that British citizens do not overwhelmingly support free market education policies.  In an article entitled “Poll shows opposition to education reforms” (http://www.theguardian.com/politics/2014/apr/14/poll-opposition-education-reforms), Tom Clark and Rebecca Ratcliffe explain that “The biggest single structural change to English education … has been the rapid conversion of secondary schools into semi-independent academies.”  British academies are the U.S. equivalent to charter schools.  As in the United States, the invention of these schools was engineered by the liberal party, New Labour (Bill Clinton brought us federal government endorsement and funding for charter schools).  As Clark and Ratcliffe explain, the British brand of charter schools are “autonomous from local authorities while being funded through private contracts.”  Only 32% of the British citizens polled prefer the conversion of schools to academies.  According to the article’s authors, the “stampede to academy conversion” is being led by Conservative voters.

 

An attack on the teaching profession in Britain also seems to mirror the teacher hate that has become the norm in the U.S.  In 2012 academies were given the right to hire teachers who had not received formal training as professional educators.  This policy is aligned with Obama and Secretary of Education Duncan’s Race to the Top policies that favor Teach for America and other alternatively certified teachers. According to article authors, 63% of those polled felt that “teaching is a profession the requires dedicated training.”  Only 33% felt that “people with different career backgrounds should be welcomed into the classroom, to expand the teaching talent pool.”

 

As in the United States, corruption revolving around free market contracted schools is on the rise.  Guardian reporters Warwick Mansell and Daniel Boffey (http://www.theguardian.com/education/2014/aug/17/academies-run-superhead-advance-notice-ofsted-checks) revealed that academy schools run by Rachel de Souza received advanced notice before her schools were inspected by the Office for Standards in Education, Children’s Services and Skills.  Of course, this is highly possible since de Souza had previously been appointed as an inspector for this office.  And she used the advanced notice to warn students to watch their behavior over the coming week, get all the paperwork in order, and plant teachers who had never taught in one school before to teach model lessons.  These efforts earned de Souza’s academies the highest ratings by inspectors.

 

I urge British citizens to heed education policy in the U.S.  Micah Uetricht was absolutely correct when he wrote for The Guardian in 2013 an article entitled “Chicago is ground zero for disastrous ‘free market’ reforms of education” (http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2013/mar/27/chicago-teacher-strike-against-school-closures-and-privatization).   It will be a very long time before the U.S. is able to disentangle itself from the Friedmanomic education policies that are leaving our country’s federal education system in shambles.  The process of systemically reforming the U.S. education system to reflect the free market economics of Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher began in the 1980s.  Since then, every presidential administration in the U.S. continued with the same failed notion that free market ideologues are the best authorities to decide education policy.  In the U.S. we like to identify who are the good guys and who are the bad guys and treat them accordingly.  Sadly, what we’ve ended up with is the wild west of education policies and education reformers who envision education as a gold rush through privatization.  My book The Origins of the Common Core: How the Free Market Became Public Education Policy details the decades long campaign to privatize public schools in the U.S.    http://www.palgrave.com/page/detail/the-origins-of-the-common-core-deborah-duncan-owens/?isb=9781137482679

Governor Cuomo, a Friedmanomics Devotee

Diane Ravitch posted the following commentary on New York Governor Cuomo on her blog:  http://dianeravitch.net/2014/10/28/cuomo-promises-more-charter-schools-tougher-teacher-evaluations-after-election/.   Her posting references a New York Daily News article entitled “Cuomo will push new teacher evaluations, vows to bust school ‘monopoly’ if re-elected” http://www.nydailynews.com/news/politics/cuomo-vows-bust-school-monopoly-re-elected-article-1.1989478.  This is a clarion call to all public school supporters.  I, for one, appreciate Cuomo’s open declaration about where he stands on public schools, teachers, local school boards, and children in the state of New York.  He is touting the “company line” — or, rather, the “corporate line” — when it comes to education policy.

Right out of the Milton Friedman Friedmanonics free market playbook, Cuomo declares that public education is a monopoly!

Clearly, a vote for Cuomo for governor is a vote against public schools and a vote for corporate education reformers who envision RTTT as a way to make a lot of money in the education arena.  This is hard for me to write.  I am a Democrat.  However, I can never vote for someone who is promoting teacher hate and a disdain for locally controlled public schools.  It’s time to reclaim our public schools America!

Chester Finn Steps Down!

On August 1st, 2014,  Chester Finn will resign as leader of the Thomas B. Fordham Foundation.  He will be replaced by Michael Petrilli.  The Fordham Foundation has been a leader in the creation and promotion of the Common Core State Standards, other conservative education initiatives, and the assault on public schools.  This will not change under the leadership of Petrilli.  As a matter of fact, I think it is fair to say that Petrilli will be a stalwart proponent of the Common Core as well as other free market conservative education reform initiatives such as school vouchers, choice, and charters.  I also think it is fair to say that we can expect the promotion of education policies that further erode the local control over public schools.   On the other hand, Finn, in his farewell address, seems to admit that the privatization of public education is problematic, leading to the feeding frenzy we have seen by those who envision the education of children as a boon to entrepreneurial capitalists.  Finn acquiesced:   “I hail the entry into the ed-reform camp of entrepreneurs with all their energy, imagination, and venture capital, but I’ve seen too many examples of them settling for making their venture profitable for investors or shareholders (or themselves) rather than educationally profitable for the kids it serves. That’s not so very different from traditional adult interests within the public and nonprofit sectors battling to ensure their own jobs, income, and comfort rather than giving their pupils top priority. …”   Thanks at least for that, Dr. Finn.  Professional educators and public school supporters will continue to try to clean up the mess you helped make.   Read Dr. Chester Finn’s farewell address at: http://edexcellence.net/articles/education-reform-in-2014 See you on the flip side! Deborah Duncan Owens

Common Core Origins: A New Book on the Horizon

As a long time supporter of public schools, a former public school teacher, a teacher educator, and a believer in democracy and local school governance of public schools, I am pleased to announce that my book The Origins of the Common Core: How the Free Market Became Public Education Policy is on the horizon.  It is currently in production with Palgrave Macmillan, with a scheduled release date of January, 2015. While this is scholarly endeavor, it is also written from my heart.  I began researching the impact of free market policies on education fifteen years ago while working as an elementary teacher in Mississippi.  This research led me to Milton Friedman, who has been hailed as the “father of modern school reform” and is often credited with originating the idea of school vouchers and school choice — a concept that has morphed into the charter school movement.  Of course, within this book there is a great deal more  than a discussion about Friedman!

I will discuss further details about my book in future postings on this website as well as further research on this topic.  The goal of this book and website is to add to the efforts of those bloggers and authors who are valiantly defending America’s democratic institution of public schools, an institution that has historically served America well.  I hope my future contributions will help those millions of public school supporters in their quest to maintain the integrity of American public education.

I am providing a few short selections from the book’s forward, which I believe captures the spirit of The Origins of the Common Core: How the Free Market Became Public Education Policy:

“What Owens has been able to accomplish is an explanation of how … the free market became public school policy.  As Owens points out, within this process, America’s public school system has once again become a scapegoat for all that ails American society, while heralding all the ramifications of free market systemic education reform as the means of saving the U.S. from its supposed enemy – the public school system writ large. …

For those individuals on the political and ideological right or left who are militantly wedded to their ideas, however, this book will not provide safe haven.  This is because, as the book makes clear, both political parties have found common ground in a unified allegiance to a free market approach to systemic education reform that has created an educational sea of profit at the expense of America’s most important resource – its children. …

For those who see the numerous reform initiatives such as high stakes testing, charter schools, vouchers, value added measurement, student data collecting, and the disempowerment of citizens in decision-making when it comes to their public schools as the wrong approach to meeting the education challenges confronting the U.S., this is an empowering book. …” (by Thomas J. Fiala)