Rhee’s policies live on

March 29, 2012

Brian Tierney looks at the corporate school reform agenda in Washington, D.C.

IN 2010, Washington D.C. residents ousted the much-maligned former Mayor Adrian Fenty, in what was largely considered to be a referendum against his notorious union-busting Schools Chancellor Michelle Rhee. Fenty's replacement, Vincent Gray, opposed Rhee's reforms while Gray served on the City Council.

But as mayor, Gray has done little to reverse the damage that Rhee inflicted on D.C. schools. In fact, the mayor--along with Deputy Mayor for Education De'Shawn Wright and the current Chancellor Kaya Henderson--has mostly continued Rhee's policies and is now poised to make things much worse.

Last August, Gray commissioned an Illinois financial institution to conduct an analysis on D.C. public schools. The study was funded by the Walton Family Foundation, the charity run by the owners of Wal-Mart. The results were exactly what could be expected from the corporate billionaires who have been at the forefront of union-busting education "reform."

The Illinois Facilities Fund (IFF) report released in January puts 38 D.C. schools at risk of closure or "turnaround," sparking an uproar among teachers, students and parents.

Washington, D.C., Mayor Vincent Gray
Washington, D.C., Mayor Vincent Gray (Jennifer Cogswell)

Community groups, including Empower D.C. and Occupy activists, are in the midst of launching a campaign against this latest attack on public education. Protests, mic checks at budget hearings and other actions are being planned for the spring.

Since the Washington Teachers Union (WTU) is roiled by internal scandals and an aimless leadership, an aggressive community-wide fightback is the only hope for stopping Gray, Wright, and Henderson.

THE STAKES in this struggle are high: The fingerprints of the politically connected charter school industry are all over the IFF report.

The report was released by Deputy Mayor Wright, who, in his previous job, worked as an education adviser to Newark Mayor Cory Booker in New Jersey. He was also a founding partner of the Newark Charter School Fund, an organization that accepted as much as $22 million from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and the Walton Family Foundation.

Hosanna Mahaley, D.C.'s State Superintendent of Education, provided the IFF with performance data from 2007 through 2011. Mahaley first cut her teeth as an education reformer while working as chief of staff for Arne Duncan--now U.S. Secretary of Education--when Duncan served as CEO of Chicago Public Schools. Mahaley managed that city's Renaissance 2010 campaign, a program that shut down dozens of Chicago schools in mostly Black neighborhoods, and replaced many with charter schools and military academies.

As for the IFF itself, the non-profit chiefly operates as a lender and real estate consultant to charter operators. Since its founding 20 years ago, the group has made over $57 million from loans to charter schools. IFF also provided consulting for Chicago's Renaissance project.

Given this background, it's no wonder the IFF's report on D.C. schools recommends turning over closed schools to charter operators.

With the goal of "increasing the number of performing seats," the IFF recommendations rely almost exclusively on student test scores to conduct a "supply and demand" analysis of D.C. schools. Its assessment of "performing seats" is measured by proficiency averages in the 2011 D.C. Comprehensive Assessment System (DC-CAS) tests.

IFF predicted the proficiency of schools over the next five years by extrapolating from DC-CAS data over the past five years. Schools were then ranked based on the mean of 2011 scores and the projected scores for 2016.

From this arbitrary arithmetic, IFF divides D.C. schools into four tiers. It recommends filling Tier 1 schools, closing or turning around Tier 4 schools, investing in Tier 2 schools and monitoring Tier 3 schools. Not surprisingly, out of 38 Tier 3 and 4 schools threatened with closure or turnaround, 26 are in Wards 7 and 8, the poorest areas of D.C., where more than 90 percent of residents are African American.

"The neighborhoods in which these schools sit are also suffering from a general lack of access to resources, which perpetuates the system which keeps people of color fighting for basic survival," said Daniel del Pielago, Education Organizer with Empower DC.

The report recommends that city officials "undertake a cost/benefit analysis to determine whether to turn around or close Tier 4 DCPS [D.C. public schools] schools." It adds, "To retain building capacity, coordinate the closure of DCPS schools with [the Public Charter School Board]. As necessary, authorize a charter school within the same building or in the immediate vicinity before school closure."

IFF's analysis was made possible by a $100,000 grant from the Walton Foundation, which was requested by Wright. And it's not the first time the Waltons have intervened in D.C. schools.

Since 2010, the Walton Foundation has been the financier of merit-pay bonuses under the IMPACT evaluation system introduced by Rhee. Hundreds of teachers have been fired as a result of the $4 million evaluation scheme, which rates teachers using a "value-added" model based on standardized testing and classroom observations. Teachers with high performance ratings under IMPACT have been awarded bonuses as high as $25,000 – complements of the Waltons.

This is exactly the kind of competition in education that the foundation celebrates on its website. And at the same time that the Waltons are pushing their school privatization agenda in D.C., their retail juggernaut is preparing to break ground in the district. Despite widespread community opposition, Wal-Mart is planning to open six stores in the city.

"To me, this shows the disinvestment the city has in mind for the people living in these communities," said del Pielago. "In many of these neighborhoods we've seen the loss of affordable housing and these school closures are another way of forcing people out of neighborhoods where we can very clearly see developers taking over."

TURNING A profit by turning over public schools is at the heart of the so-called school reformers' agenda. And if D.C. residents are suspicious of the motives behind the IFF report, it's because the recommendations sound all too familiar to a city that already has the highest concentration of charter schools outside of New Orleans.

As organizations like Empower DC point out, the IFF proposals do not include anything that hasn't already been attempted in D.C. Dozens of schools were closed by Michelle Rhee to make way for charter takeovers. But the overall quality of education in D.C. has not improved.

And like those that came before it, this new proposal for school closures is, at its core, racist. Not only does it disproportionately target African American neighborhoods, but the low-income communities in the crosshairs of the proposed closings are wondering how they are supposed to transport their children who are relocated to schools outside of their community.

On a more systemic level, D.C. residents are concerned about how young people of color who are shut out of an increasingly apartheid system of education then become fodder for the criminal justice system.

"We are concerned about what happens to folks who don't have these resources or schools. Many of our young people, especially young Black males, get tracked directly into the prison system," said del Pielago.

And the IFF report not only serves to further the assault on public education in D.C., but also to expand longstanding gentrification policies designed to push people of color and the poor out of the city.

"We see this as another way our city's government is forcing longtime D.C. residents out," the organization says. "In the cases of recently closed schools such as Bruce-Monroe [Elementary School], and River Terrace Elementary which is slated for closure, the main driver is real estate and access to land ripe for development."

This may be all the more reason for city officials to uproot public schools and the communities they support by forcing teachers and students to follow a business model for learning.

"Let's be completely candid here," Wright said when the report was commissioned. "We have to right-size the [school system]...And if that ruffles feathers, then so be it."

Despite Mayor Gray's promises that he would break from Fenty and Rhee's tough talk and listen to the concerns of teachers and the community, education polices under Gray have mirrored the anti-teacher hostility that made Rhee so famous.

One significant reason for this continuity is that Gray retained Kaya Henderson as his chancellor of DCPS. As Rhee's Deputy Chancellor, Henderson temporarily stepped in as chancellor following Rhee's resignation in 2010.

Like her predecessor, Henderson came out of Teach for America, the anti-union teacher training program that recruits and molds young educators with little training, pushing more experienced teachers out of schools and producing high turnover rates. Henderson served as executive director for Teach for America in D.C. for several years and, as Rhee's protégé, she led the development of the IMPACT evaluation system.

While community groups are mobilizing parents and students against the latest round of school closures, the state of the teachers' union has left many DCPS educators feeling demoralized.

WTU PRESIDENT Nathan Saunders called the IFF report "an assault on public education and a serious threat to the thousands of public school teachers that shoulder the responsibility of educating children every day in the District of Columbia."

But by and large, D.C. teachers feel betrayed by the man who campaigned fiercely against former union president George Parker for not standing up against Rhee's attacks.

"It seems like Nathan Saunders is content making a new website, getting a new building and perhaps testifying about the [IFF] issue, but there is no organizing, no real meetings, no reaching out to the base, and no real attempt to fight back against Kaya Henderson," said Laura Fuchs, who teaches social studies at H.D. Woodson Senior High School.

Not only has Saunders – who once cast himself as a reform candidate – continued WTU's tepid response to anti-teacher policies, he has also resorted to similar attacks that his predecessor used against him to silence opposition within the union.

Saunders served as vice president of the union under the previous administration until Parker suspended him from his full-time union position in 2010. But as president, Saunders did essentially the same thing to his vice president, Candi Peterson, last summer. Peterson has been a relentless opponent of the corporate school reform agenda in D.C. for years. She helped Saunders campaign to replace Parker, only to find herself abruptly suspended after a dispute with Saunders, whom she contends collaborated with Chancellor Henderson to get rid of her.

In this context, with their union weak and ineffective, many teachers feel disempowered in the face of the latest school closures.

For its part, Empower DC and other groups have been holding meetings with parents and other community members in order to strategize and fight back.

On February 11, Empower DC supporters attended Mayor Gray's One Citizen Summit to raise concerns about the school closings and talk to other residents about how these policy recommendations are part of an equation for the displacement of low-income students in the district.

They were threatened with arrest for attempting to distribute information at the event, but not before they delivered this message to Gray: "We hold you accountable to save our schools and communities. We reject the flawed findings of the IFF report and its recommendations to close or turn around DC's public schools. We demand a moratorium on school closures until a valid community-led process is developed for evaluating our schools."

More than 40 people gathered on March 10 for a meeting organized by Empower DC and, in addition to petitions and letter-signing, the group is planning to testify and hold protests at upcoming budget hearings.

Sequnely Gray, an organizer with Empower D.C. who fought for years against the closure of Bruce-Monroe, said that it was time to stop playing nice with Mayor Gray and the chancellor. She argued that it was time for the community to be more aggressive.

Others at the meeting echoed this sentiment, taking inspiration from the struggle happening in other cities. They specifically referred to the example of parents in Chicago who occupied Piccolo elementary school, which that city wants to shut down. Activists in D.C. are looking to team up with Occupy and other groups to build a widespread campaign against the city's latest plot against public schools.

But the question of how to pressure the WTU to take a more combative stance remains, at best, a challenge.

"We need to speak out. We need to hit back at Gray and the council and elections. We need to crash these [budget] meetings and we need to get angry and get Henderson out," said Fuchs.

Ultimately, stopping anti-teacher and anti-poor school "reforms" in D.C. will require a sustained movement – one that brings together parents, teachers and students in a militant struggle to defend public education.

Heather Kangas contributed to this report.

Further Reading

From the archives