Making profits off school turnarounds

June 2, 2014

Bob Simpson reports on the latest chapter in the resistance to Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel's assault on the city's neighborhood schools.

We have asked the Inspectors General for CPS and the U.S. Department of Education to examine the last votes to turn over three schools to the Academy of Urban School Leadership (AUSL) for turnaround to determine if there were any conflicts of interest among board members and AUSL; to analyze the relationship--if any--between political contributions to Mayor Emanuel from AUSL board members and the significant increase in the number of Chicago Public Schools turned over to AUSL on a no-bid basis...
-- Valerie Leonard, Chicago Citizens United to Preserve Public Education (CCUPPE)

IN THE wake of the latest Chicago school "turnarounds," a broad alliance of community groups called Chicago Citizens United to Preserve Public Education (CCUPPE) has come together to call for a moratorium on future "school actions" (the Chicago term for privatization efforts) and to reverse the decision to turn over Gresham, Dvorak and McNair to the private Academy of Urban School Leadership (AUSL). All three schools have predominately African American students living in low-income neighborhoods.

CCUPPE's Valerie Leonard (right) speaks at a press conference alongside CORE member Cathaline Gray Carter
CCUPPE's Valerie Leonard (right) speaks at a press conference alongside CORE member Cathaline Gray Carter (Bob Simpson | SW)

Despite widespread community opposition, all three of these schools were handed over to AUSL at an April 23 Board of Education meeting. At a May 27 press conference, Valerie Leonard of CCUPPE charged that since "two of the five board members present and voting during the April meeting have apparent conflicts of interest stemming from relationships with AUSL...the vote should be nullified."

Cathaline Gray Carter, a Chicago Public Schools (CPS) retiree and member of the Coalition of Rank and File Educators (CORE), discussed the current investigation by the Inspector General of the Chicago Public Schools (CPS) into the CCUPPE allegations. It is the job of the Inspector General's office to investigate "waste, fraud and financial mismanagement" within CPS. The Inspector General's Office has 60 days to come up with a report. CCUPPE confirms that the investigation has begun.

The Inspector General's Office of the Department of Education (DOE) will not comment on the complaint brought to them by CCUPPE, citing issues of investigative integrity. The agency said it will post results of any investigation on its website when the work is completed.

CCUPPE provided evidence about these apparent conflicts of interest. For example, David Vitale, who voted for the turnarounds, was Chairman of the Board of AUSL before assuming his current role as president of the Chicago Board of Education.

Then there is Board member Carlos Azcoitia, an employee of National Louis University, which trains AUSL personnel. Azcoita voted for the turnarounds, then adroitly abstained when the issue of AUSL administering them came up, presumably to avoid the appearance of a conflict of interest. Of course, he knew damned well that AUSL is only vendor in the process.

In addition, Valerie Leonard has noted that CPS Chief Administrative Officer Tim Cawley is the former managing director of AUSL. AUSL officials and their spouses have made $63,000 in campaign contributions to Rahm Emanuel from 2010 to 2014 in what some community activists charge is just another Chicago-style "pay-to-play" scheme.

IN A school "turnaround" or "reconstitution," everyone is fired, including the administration, faculty and support staff. People can apply to be hired back at the newly "reconstituted" school, but AUSL prefers younger, inexperienced teachers, many of whom leave the system within a year or two. This constant turnover is disruptive to the educational process.

The turnarounds have contributed to the sharp reduction of African American teachers and have been heavily criticized for destroying decades-long relationships between schools and their surrounding communities.

CPS provides five years of extra support for AUSL and charter schools and only one year of extra support for "welcoming" schools after causing major upheavals through massive closures. Welcoming schools receive students from the closed schools.

AUSL has been able to raise test scores in some schools, but its overall record is mediocre, which even the pro-establishment Chicago Tribune has noted.

In 2012, the respected educational research group Designs for Change published a report which showed how schools with a democratic culture of collaboration among the administration, the Local School Council and the unionized teachers far outperformed the top-down disruptive methods of AUSL--even though AUSL schools receive lavish financial assistance from CPS while the schools they replaced had to scramble for the most basic resources.

CCUPPE spokesperson Dwayne Truss announced the following recommendations:

1. Reverse the vote to reconstitute (turnaround) Gresham, Dvorak and McNair schools.

2. Review the Board's ethics policies to prevent a revolving-door arrangement between CPS and CPS vendors.

3. Abolish the reconstitution of schools as being expensive, disruptive and ineffective.

4. Develop a transparent and fair process to allow additional school improvement vendors to bid, especially given the "inside track" appearance of AUSL. Other bidders should include Strategic Learning Initiatives, which has a track record of success at empowering current stakeholders. CPS needs to support school improvement that is led internally by the schools and communities in question, whether or not an external vendor assists them.

5. Host public hearings by elected officials to investigate the CPS process for evaluating AUSL.

6. Do a thoughtful fiscal and performance analysis of AUSL.

7. Institute an immediate moratorium on all school actions, including closures and turnarounds, until each school hears from all interested vendors and/or school-submitted alternative plans. A Requests-for-Bids presentation session should be put in place for vendors and school committees to present their bids or alternative plans to a delegation made up of Board of Education representation, the Local School Council and school community members at large. The delegation would need to come to a consensus as to which option(s) to pursue for school improvement.

8. Commit to community/teacher-driven school improvement. Ultimately, we need an elected representative school board that is accountable to the citizens of Chicago.

CPS IS well aware that it has not crushed the resistance to school privatization by closing schools and favoring turnarounds or charters. Vernita Farmer, a community partner in Chicago's 24th Ward, spoke about the current situation at Gresham, one of the turnaround schools.

Farmer said that after a parent-community sit-in to protest the school action, the school's locks were changed, Principal Diedrus Brown is no longer allowed a set of keys, and she must be out of the building by 6 p.m. Farmer noted the increased security and the visible drop in student morale, which she believes could impact their test results.

It is clear that the measures have nothing to do with actual security, but to prevent further community efforts to reverse the turnaround.

At a May 17 commemoration of the 60th anniversary of the Brown v. Board of Education desegregation decision, speakers called school closures the new "separate and unequal" and announced the release of a new research report "Death by a Thousand Cuts: Racism, School Closures, and Public School Sabotage."

Over Memorial Day weekend, the Chicago's Bad Ass Moms (BAM) held the Neighborhood School Picnic to remember the 50 Chicago schools closed in 2013. The moms erected signs representing gravestones with the names of the schools and information about them, often with heartfelt quotes from students, parents and teachers.

With an election coming up, Rahm Emanuel's poll numbers are at an all-time low, and his school closings and turnarounds are part of the reason. Several aldermanic candidates are making his school actions a major issue.

The recommendations by CCUPPE will require a major change in the city's corporate-dominated political economy, yet education justice activists seem undaunted by the immensity of the task before them. In the words of CCUPPE's Valerie Leonard:

The current Board of Education is appointed by the Mayor and operates under the cloak of darkness with impunity. They have abdicated their fiduciary responsibilities of loyalty and care. They serve as rubber stamps to privatize local schools to the benefit of organizations that are aligned with the mayor, even if it means paying a premium for services whose effectiveness has been called into question. We need to end this culture...

First published at Daily Kos.

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