Subject: [SocialistWorker.org] Using "civil rights" to sell charter schools
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Column: Brian Jones
======== USING "CIVIL RIGHTS" TO SELL CHARTER SCHOOLS ========================
Corporate forces are driving the "school reform" agenda under the guise of
pressing for racial justice.
April 30, 2009 | Issue 696
WHO'S BEHIND the charter school movement? Increasingly, the answer is: big
money. The owners of Wal-Mart, the Walton family, are the single biggest
contributors. Bill Gates follows close behind. Not exactly the types known
for their staunch commitment to economic equality or civil rights.
Yet New York/ Daily News/ columnist Juan Gonzales revealed that Rev. Al
Sharpton's organization, the National Action Network, received half a million
dollars from a hedge fund to lend its name and energies to the Education
Equality Project (EEP) . The EEP boasts supporters such as billionaire New
York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, New York City Schools Chancellor Joel
Klein, and--wait a minute, what's he doing there?--Newt Gingrich.
Yes, this is the new civil rights "movement"--a movement of the powerful,
deep-pocketed, private-jet types, assembled to roll up their tailored silk
sleeves to fight for equality in education.
Their Web site  cries out against the inequality of our current education
system--displaying statistics about the education gap, and notably, makes a
point of speaking plainly about the racial disparities in the statistics
about graduation rates, reading levels, and rates of incarceration.
Before we answer the obvious question--what's their angle?--we need to
acknowledge that the "civil rights/social justice" message has worked
brilliantly for the charter school movement. Charter schools are making
converts of students and parents all over Harlem, where I am a teacher in a
traditional public school.
Charter schools, where they haven't erected gleaming new buildings, have
infiltrated existing school buildings and are slowly taking over, floor by
floor. They are no longer a drop in the bucket--they are a serious threat to
public education. There are 70 traditional public schools in Harlem, and as
of this year, there are 24 charter schools (and counting). Where they aren't
directly competing with public schools for space, they're draining Harlem's
public schools of the most active parents and their children.
Those of us who think that charter schools are /not/ the answer have our work
cut out for us.
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WHAT'S REALLY winning over parents and students to charter schools? At a
recent charter school rally in Harlem (yes, charter schools mobilize parents
for rallies), one parent testified that it was the small class sizes and
extra attention her child received that made a big difference.
A parent at a recent charter school fair in Harlem was quoted in the /New
York Times/ as favoring charter schools because of the wide range of
enrichment programs they offer: "You've got to have baseball, chess,
cheerleading, drama, debate, poetry and music--oh God, music--like cello and
violin... I like charter schools because they don't just have children
bubbling in tests; they give them time to unwind."
Smaller class sizes? Arts and sports? Less test prep and more time to unwind?
Why can't we have those things in the public schools? Why can't /all/
children experience that kind of education?
On April 23, 5,000 parents waited in line to enter their children in the
lottery for only 475 available seats at four Harlem Success Academy Charter
schools. Is this the future we want? Education by lottery?
Nicole Lloyd-Abdou, a Harlem public school parent was in that line, but
eventually walked away in frustration. "The whole idea of a lottery was a
little disturbing to me," she told me. "They said it was going to be about
choice, now it's going in a different direction--it's not about choices, it's
Yes, say the privatizers. They believe that schools benefit from market
competition. Well, if ever there were a moment that called for hesitation
before handing our children over to the "invisible hand" of the free market,
the post-subprime mortgage meltdown we're currently living through would be
But the banks aren't the only example. Think about what's happened to health
care. In order to have the "best health care in the world," we've erected a
market that rewards those who provide the least amount of care for the
highest price. Do we want the same profit motive logic applied to education?
Sure, money is flowing to a few charter schools now. /Someone/ is paying for
the glossy brochures in every parent's mailbox, and the violins, and the new
buildings. But this money is part of a short-term strategy to win supporters.
As the saying goes, you've got to spend money to make money. Make no mistake,
the long-term goal is not to spend more per pupil, but less.
Harlem Success Academy admits as much on its Web site . Under the section
oriented to donors, they write:
>You can tell a lot about an organization's priorities by how they spend
>their money. We could spend $30,000 per child and run a fantastic school. We
>could raise millions and build a gorgeous new facility with all of the bells
>At Harlem Success, we take a different approach. In order to meet our
>ambitious expansion goals, we hold ourselves to strict spending guidelines.
>We believe our schools can do more--for less. We aim to provide an excellent
>education for the same or lower per-pupil rate than the New York City public
>schools. Part of it involves thinking smarter.
If you think about who is able to donate large sums to charter schools, and
the fact that /their/ children mostly go to private schools or better-funded
suburban schools, this statement about spending is really stomach-turning.
You could read the Web site message as reassurance to potential donors that
the kids in Harlem won't get as much in per-pupil funding as /their/ kids do.
As of 2005, per-pupil spending in the New York City suburbs was as much as
twice what it was in the city. Wealthier kids need all the "bells and
whistles" (and less "thinking smarter"), apparently. But kids in Harlem
And it seems their "strict" spending guidelines include a healthy advertising
budget. In addition to receiving glossy brochures by mail, Ms. Lloyd-Abdou
was robo-called. "I got two phone calls every other day for about two weeks,"
she told me. "It was a recorded message. I don't give anyone my number."
Once, a live young man got her on the phone and pestered, "We've been trying
to reach you. Are you coming to the lottery? Couldn't your husband or another
family member attend? Are you sure you couldn't get /anyone/ to come? Is that
a yes?" Smarter thinking indeed.
There's more. According to the big money behind the charter school movement,
the teacher's unions are protecting bad teachers and are standing in the way
of reform. Never mind that for years, teachers have been advocating for
smaller classes, arts and enrichment, and less test preparation.
But there is a grain of truth here: teacher's unions do stand in the way--of
privatization. Education is one of the last of the giant public programs in
America that is heavily unionized. That's why you won't see the notoriously
anti-union Walton family writing checks for public schools as they do now for
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SHOULD PARENTS care if their kids' teachers are unionized? Well, yes, if they
want their kid to have an experienced teacher.
A recent study  found that teachers in charter schools are 230 percent
more likely to leave the profession than their public school counterparts. A
2004 U.S. Department of Education study  found that charter schools are
less likely to have teachers that meet the state certification standards. I
suppose relying on a revolving staff of younger (read "cheaper") teachers is
what they mean by "smarter thinking."
I just pulled Jonathan Kozol's excellent book, /The Shame of the Nation: The
Restoration of Apartheid Schooling in America/ off the shelf. It reminds me
of another thing that sticks in my craw about the charter school
"movement"--the race question. Everything--from the charter school Web sites,
to the rallies, to the glossy brochures--cry out against racial inequality
and evoke the civil rights movement.
But the whole project is based on a rejection of one of the key goals of the
civil rights movement: desegregating the schools. For all their talk of the
race gap, why is there no discussion about mixing the predominantly kids of
color from the city with the predominantly white kids in the suburbs? What
about /Brown v. Board of Education/?
In his introduction to /Shame of the Nation/, Kozol writes of Black public
school administrators who are pained by the fact that their schools are still
so segregated, and by the fact that they are put in a position that requires
them "to set aside the promises of /Brown/.
Perhaps--while never stating it or even thinking of it clearly--these
administrators are being forced to settle for the promise made more than a
century ago in /Plessy v. Ferguson/, the 1896 Supreme Court ruling in which
"separate but equal" was accepted as a tolerable rationale for the
perpetuation of a dual racial system in American society."
In this context, there's something a little more than sinister about
billionaires using the iconography of the civil rights movement to set up
"separate but equal" schools in the inner cities, masking the goal of
privatization behind a call for racial justice.
As if it weren't enough to have deep pockets on their side, the charter
schools also have Barack Obama as their leading advocate. As I ride to and
from work on Harlem's crosstown busses, large buttons pinned to the lapels of
school children are a constant reminder that Obama "hearts" charter schools.
This is a serious blow to those of us who are trying to defend the idea of
public education. "I'm disappointed in Obama," Regina Gutierrez, a Harlem
public school teacher told me. "I voted for him assuming that he fully
supported public education, not private or semi-private education. He said he
was /not/ in favor of privatizing the schools, but now all he's doing is
supporting charter schools."
Obama sends his children to the Sidwell Friends School, which charges $28,442
a year for each of his two daughters to attend its Lower School (Pre-K
through 4th grade).
That money buys a "relaxed and informal" environment "with a balance between
freedom and discipline," according to the school's Web site . It buys a
teacher-student ratio of one to 10 in the lower grades, and one to 16 in the
fourth grade. By the end of the second grade, kids are expected to have
mastered the basics of digital photography and Adobe Photoshop, and begin
writing computer programs. By the end of fourth grade they've learned to edit
video using iMovie. This May alone, Sidwell students will put on a choral
concert, a play and a dance ensemble performance.
Obama doesn't have to go through a lottery to get his kids that kind of
education. He's already won life's lottery, so he has the money to buy it
outright. We need a grassroots movement of parents and teachers to tell Obama
that we "heart" the same kind of programs /his/ kids are getting, and that we
need /public/ education (not a private, competitive system) that makes them
available to /all/ kids.
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Columnist: Brian Jones
Brian Jones is a teacher, actor and activist in New York City. He is featured
in the new film /The Inconvenient Truth Behind Waiting for Superman/ , and
his commentary and writing has appeared on MSNBC.com , the Huffington Post
, GritTV  and the International Socialist Review . Jones has also
lent his voice to several audiobooks, including Howard Zinn's one-man play
/Marx in Soho/ , Wallace Shawn's /Essays/  and Noam Chomsky's /Hopes
and Prospects/ .
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What you can do
The newly formed Grassroots Education Movement to Defend Public Education is
inviting New York City teachers, parents, students and community members to a
May 4 public forum on *Charter Schools: The Solution to the Crisis in Public
*May 4, 5:30 p.m.*
Pace University, Student Union, 1 Pace Plaza (look for signs). For more info,
contact firstname.lastname@example.org , or call 718-601-4901.
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