PPS: Planning a Privatization Scheme?

Around here, the acronym PPS usually means “Pittsburgh Public Schools,” but now it might mean “Planning a Privatization Scheme.” The district has hired two consulting companies to help it craft an education plan that addresses equity issues for students and its looming financial crisis. But it turns out those two companies – Bellwether and FSG – support privatization of public schools. Hello? Who invited them to the party?

Actually, the PPS administration did, and then received approval from the Pittsburgh school board to pay them $2.4 million for their advice. The money is coming from local foundations as well as the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, which has been pouring money into teacher evaluation systems across the country, including the one here in our city. In fact, the funders made sure that the contract stipulates, “A commitment that on-going current programs, for example but not limited to … Empowering Effective Teachers, will continue to be implemented while the planning process is in progress.” [PPS Board January 2013 Legislative Session]

Remember, there is nothing wrong with teacher evaluation per se. However, the current national obsession with evaluation starts with the faulty assumptions that we have a crisis of bad teaching in our schools (while ignoring the very real crises of poverty, budget cuts, equity, and more); that we must weed out “low performing” teachers; and that we can identify “bad” teachers based on the test scores of their students. [For more on the serious problems of this obsession, please see “The VAM Sham”.]

But concerns with the teacher evaluation system aside, the Pittsburgh school board voted to approve the contract with FSG (with Bellwether as a subcontractor) without asking a single question about the philosophy of these two companies. Only board members Mr. Mark Brentley and Dr. Regina Holley voted “no” after inquiring if there weren’t local organizations that could do this consulting work, keeping all those dollars in the regional economy (an important point). But what’s worse than sending those dollars out of state, is that we will be spending $2.4 million on a plan formulated by people who actually believe we ought to be handing our public schools over to private companies.

Let’s start with Bellwether Education Partners. Mary K. Wells, a co-founder and managing partner at Bellwether, told the Post-Gazette that the group does not necessarily advocate charterizing public schools. “We’re for high-performing schools that serve all kids really well. I think we’re quite agnostic around whether that is the traditional public school setting or the charter school setting.” [Post-Gazette, 2-19-13] Yet Bellwether’s small group of five partners includes Andy Smarick, who just published a new book, The Urban School District of the Future, that “argues that the traditional urban school district is irreparably broken, and that … it must be replaced.” Smarick, who helped start a charter school in Annapolis, Maryland, believes that, “Vastly better results can be realized through the creation of a new type of organization that properly manages a city’s portfolio of schools using the revolutionary principles of chartering.” [Bellwether: Can Chartering Replace the Urban District]

Seriously? This is their starting point. That Pittsburgh’s schools are beyond hope and our only way out is to hand them over to charter operators. Education historian Diane Ravitch responded to the premise of Smarick’s book saying, “Suffice it to say that his arguments begin with the assumption that the schools and the system are broken, whereas I have concluded that the schools are struggling to educate children who have been harmed by poverty and societal neglect. … If poverty is the cause of low academic performance, as it appears to be on every standardized test and in every nation, then we might see better results by reducing poverty than by opening charter schools.” She points out that Smarick, like most corporate-style “reformers” has spent no time as an educator. Ravitch continues:

Smarick doesn’t like public education. He likes privately managed charter schools getting public money. Given his limited experience, I wonder whether he has ever spent any time in good urban public schools. I doubt it. Nothing that I have seen from his pen acknowledges that charters experience failure on the same scale as public schools. Nothing acknowledges that urban charters get no different results from public schools unless they somehow manage to minimize the number of students with disabilities and students who are English language learners and to exclude the students with behavioral and academic problems. If this is the case, then what exactly would be accomplished by dismantling urban public education and handing it over to entrepreneurs? [DianeRavitch, 10-23-12]

Back in September, Diane Ravtich also went head to head with another Bellwether partner, Andrew Rotherham, on Diane Rehm’s national public radio show. Rotherman and two other conservatives blamed unions for all problems in schools and claimed that even in “right-to-work” states (which severely curtail unions), unions are too powerful. While Ravitch explained why the Chicago public teachers were striking to defend the education of their students, Rotherman was publicly rooting for the Chicago mayor to defeat the union. [DianeRavitch, 9-12-12]

These are the people who founded Bellwether. They were management consultants and investors (Ms. Wells herself worked at Bain & Company) and they have MBAs, not education credentials. Bellwether’s own client list reads like a who’s-who of charter schools and corporate reformers. So I’m not particularly inclined to take their word for it when they tell us that they are “agnostic” as to whether charter schools are the path of Pittsburgh’s future.

Brad Bernatek, the FSG director working with the Pittsburgh public schools, also claims that his company is “fairly agnostic” on privatization. [Post-Gazette, 2-19-13] But the FSG website makes it very clear that they believe in school choice – often code for charters, vouchers, and tax credit programs in the corporate “reform” lexicon – saying that their expertise is in “Unleashing the potential of technology and ensuring that a range of high-quality school options exist to meet the needs of all students.” In the fall, Bernatek authored a report on “blended learning” as the future of education, looking at how schools – especially charter schools – are combining cyber learning with traditional classrooms. [Blended Learning in Practice: Case Studies from Leading Schools]

Last week the district asked me to meet with Mr. Bernatek to share my vision for the future of Pittsburgh’s public schools. I talked about the things our grassroots movement has been fighting for: art, music, library, science, history, and languages for all our students. Our teachers back in the classroom and smaller class sizes. A restoration of our tutoring programs, nurses and social workers in every school, parent engagement specialists, and community-based wrap-around services that address poverty and whole neighborhood needs. I want to see our district and our school board take a public stand and boldly insist that state legislators deliver adequate, equitable, and sustainable funding for all our students. And I want them to start talking about public education as a public good that must be cherished and promoted.

But I don’t see any of our priorities reflected in the process FSG/Bellwether will be using to work with Pittsburgh public schools. They have established an advisory group that will split into six subcommittees to look at: “finance and budget analysis; student outcomes and effectiveness; organization and human capital; information technology and operations; stakeholder engagement and communication; and the types of available schools and the external landscape.” [Post-Gazette, 2-19-13]

Where is a rich curriculum for our kids? Where are teachers? The only subcommittee that even mentions students is “student outcomes and effectiveness,” which sounds like more emphasis on the testing, evaluation, and measurement that’s turning our children into data points and is not about real learning. When I told Bernatek that we want an end to the punitive culture of high-stakes-testing, he admitted to me, in the interest of full disclosure (for which I give him credit), that when he worked for the Seattle school district as director of research, evaluation, and testing he helped to select the very test that teachers there are now refusing to administer to their students. (For more on that test and the Seattle opt-out movement that is spreading like wildfire, please see the series of posts under our Opt-Out Movement category.)

Does all this mean Bernatek and his team will recommend more testing, charterizing our public schools, or blended cyber-learning as the answer to Pittsburgh’s challenges? I don’t know. But I do know that the district and school board ought to have asked a lot more questions before hiring these two companies. This information is all available on the web (many thanks to Yinzercator Pam Harbin for the internet sleuthing for this story). Which leads me to suspect that the district knew full well just who they were dealing with. And that raises a lot more questions. Is PPS really Planning a Privatization Scheme?

Kids or Booze

Wednesday morning we asked, “How low can he go?” We were thinking about Governor Corbett’s rock-bottom poll numbers as well as his attempt to unfairly tie public school funding to the teacher’s pension issue. By Wednesday afternoon, we had the answer to that question: “Apparently, lower.”

In an announcement right here in Pittsburgh, Gov. Corbett tried a new approach to his goal of privatizing liquor stores. This time he proposed tying the sale of the state system to education funding. The plan estimates collecting around $1billion in revenue from the sale of licenses and auctioning off wine and spirit retails stores over four years. [Post-Gazette, 1-30-13] Ironically, this is precisely the amount that Gov. Corbett and the legislature cut from public education in 2011, then locked in again in the 2012 budget, compounding the damage. Mike Crossey, President of the Pennsylvania State Education Association, responded to the plan saying, “It’s nice that the governor has acknowledged that he created a school funding crisis, but our students shouldn’t have to count on liquor being available on every corner in order to have properly funded schools.” [PSEA, 1-30-13]

This morning the Post-Gazette editorial board disagreed, giving full support to Corbett’s plan, saying, “The suggestion that the governor is improperly linking liquor sales and education is off base — these grants would be on top of basic educational subsidies and not instead of anything currently provided by the state.” [Post-Gazette editorial, 2-1-13] Actually, linking booze and kids is definitely off base, and here’s why:

First, this proposal only provides funding for four years. This is not a sustainable model. As we here in the grassroots have been saying, Pennsylvania’s students deserve adequate, equitable, and sustainable public funding for their schools. A one-time sale of public assets does not provide ongoing and reliable funding for our schools and the Governor knows it.

Furthermore, for the Post-Gazette to suggest that these funds would be “on top of” regular state subsidies actually misses the point that the current subsidies are inadequate and inequitably distributed. Those historic budget cuts hit our poorest students the hardest, and this plan to pass out funds to some schools through Block Grants does nothing to create equity in our funding structures. Will the governor use this one-time influx of cash to justify his refusal to address the ongoing budget crisis, of his own making, in public education?

There are many other reasonable concerns with plans to privatize the state liquor system that deserve discussion, including the loss of jobs and potential impact on underage drinking. Gov. Corbett’s plan also calls for an “unlimited” expansion of beer and wine licenses, a policy that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has found actually leads to substantially increased consumption and alcohol related problems. [Community Preventive Services Task Force, 2007] Are we going to have liquor stores on the corner of every neighborhood at the same time we are closing even more neighborhood schools? That sounds like a recipe for further destabilizing our communities and merits careful consideration. And we need to think about the race and class implications of this issue.

Governor Corbett’s proposal feels like a calculated attempt to build on the public’s general enthusiasm for reform of the state liquor system. Let’s face it, middle class folks want greater accessibility and choice; they want two-buck-chuck at Trader Joes; they want to be able to ship a bottle of California wine back home when they’re on vacation. Working-class and poor people might want some of these things, too, but it will be their neighborhoods (largely urban and often African-American) that, once again, bear the burden of government policy – in this case with the dramatically increased density of liquor sellers. We have policy choices and this is not an all-or-nothing scenario. In hitching our schools to the popular issue of alcohol sales reform, Governor Corbett is setting up another false choice: first it was kids or teachers in the pension debate, now it’s kids or booze.

Saying that our state is one of the strictest in the nation when it comes to alcohol sales, Gov. Corbett declared, “You people in Pennsylvania do not deserve to be treated like that in the 21st century.” [Post-Gazette, 1-30-13] His odd, lecturing tone – “you people in Pennsylvania” – rhetorically separated him from the people of Pennsylvania (“we” would be inclusive and demonstrate that he understands we are all affected by policy decisions). But Gov. Corbett was right about one thing: our children don’t deserve to be treated like this in the 21st century.

Maybe our governor needs to come back to Pittsburgh and sit down over a boilermaker (that’s a shot-in-a-beer — a steelworkers’ post-shift local specialty), to talk about how we are going to adequately, equitably, and sustainably fund our public schools. I’d raise a glass to that.

When Foundations Go Bad

Money talks. And sometimes money buys contracts with companies that have an agenda to privatize our public schools. That appears to be the case with Philadelphia’s prominent William Penn Foundation: last week parents in that city accused the venerable foundation of contracting with the Boston Consulting Group (BCG) to develop a plan to close dozens of public schools while opening many more charter schools. They charge the foundation and consulting company with essentially acting as lobbyists to influence policy decisions in the School District of Philadelphia. Here’s why we should care in the rest of Pennsylvania when good foundations go bad.

Parents United for Public Education – a fantastic group of Philadelphia public education advocates that organized back in 2006 (Yinzercation’s big sister) – filed a complaint with the City Ethics Board requesting a formal investigation of BCG’s behavior. Joining Parents United in the complaint was the Philadelphia Home and School Council and the Philadelphia chapter of the NAACP. The groups had requested a legal analysis by the Public Interest Law Center of Philadelphia before making their decision to file the charges, saying, “Just a week before the District is expected to announce dozens of school closings which will throw our city into turmoil, we believe the public deserves to know the full influence of private money and access on decisions that impact us all.” [Parents United, 12-6-12]

It turns out that the William Penn Foundation signed a contract with BCG explicitly stating that the group would recommend expanding charter schools, target 60 public schools for closure, and influence labor negotiations. [The Notebook, 7-9-12] Philadelphia has a state-imposed “School Reform Commission” (SRC) and could be the poster-child for what a state-privatization plan does to a city. [For details, see “This is What Privatization Looks Like.”] Parents United discovered that the Boston Consulting Group’s contract actually specified that it would influence the SRC before an important vote it made back in May. That’s when the commission decided that, despite the District’s severe financial crisis, it would approve adding 5,416 new seats in charter schools across the city (expanding charters from 25% to 40% of the entire District) at an eye-popping cost of $139 million over the next five years. [The Notebook, 7-19-12]

The William Penn Foundation clearly got what it paid for with the Boston Consulting Group. With unprecedented access to key decision-makers as well as data from the District, the BCG has been acting as a lobbyist on behalf of the privatization agenda, able to push their plans behind closed doors. As Parents United points out, “No such access has ever been afforded to parents and community members who had to settle for limited information and public meetings.” [Parents United, 12-6-12]

And it gets worse. The foundation solicited private donors to help fund the BCG contract and then kept their identities a secret by funneling the dollars through a separate agency. Those donors include individuals and groups affiliated with charter organizations. [The Notebook, 6-6-12] As Parents United explains, this lack of transparency matters, “because under this shrouded arrangement, the public can’t know whether the work BCG did was for the District’s benefit or for the benefit of its donors. From our viewpoint as parents, this is not philanthropy. It’s something dramatically different….” [Parents United, 12-6-12]

What’s more, this kind of thing is going on all over the country, with big-money foundations investing their philanthropic resources in corporate-style education reform. These include the Broad Foundation (which has trained a large number of urban school superintendents, including Pittsburgh’s own current and immediate past leader, in corporate-style management practices) as well as the Gates Foundation (which has given Pittsburgh Public Schools $40 million for teacher evaluation efforts). I agree with Parents United that, “what we’re seeing across the country is an unprecedented level of private money shaping public policy under the guise of philanthropy. Too often that agenda has centered around a radical dismantling of public education, increased privatization, and disruptive reform that has sent many districts spiraling into chaos and sustained turmoil.” [Parents United, 12-6-12]

If there’s any good news here, it’s that the Philadelphia grassroots movement for public education is making a real difference. Just one week after Parents United sent its letter of intent to file an ethics complaint, the William Penn Foundation board met; one week later, the foundation’s president, Jeremy Nowak, publicly announced his resignation. Nowak had been widely regarded as the guiding force behind the foundation’s turn towards school privatization. Parents United co-founder Helen Gym, noted that, “William Penn, under [Nowak’s] stewardship, went from being this beloved Philadelphia foundation to being a controversial and very conservative promoter of a very special kind of reform agenda.” [Philadelphia Inquirer, 11-30-12]

The lessons for us here on the other side of the state? We must pay attention to the role of large foundations, which are increasingly entering the “education reform” business with little more than an ill-formed notion that school privatization will cure what ails us. Southwest Pennsylvania is also home to many venerable foundations with a proud history of supporting children, families, and education. It’s time for these foundations to partner with our community – in full transparency and with parent participation – to tackle the serious equity, policy, and resource issues confronting our schools. Foundations can absolutely be a force for public education and for the public good. How about it Pittsburgh Foundation, Heinz Endowments, Grable and others – are you ready to be vocal advocates for our public schools?

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Help grow our grassroots movement for public education: join other volunteer parents, students, educators, and concerned community members by subscribing to Yinzercation. Enter your email address and hit the “Sign me up” button to get these pieces delivered directly to your inbox and encourage your networks to do the same. Really. Can you get five of your friends to subscribe? Working together we can win this fight for our schools.

Waiver No Favor

So Pennsylvania just joined 44 other states in the country that have already applied for a waiver from No Child Left Behind. It’s about time, you might say. But before you go getting excited that our state has suddenly become pro-public-education, let’s stop and take a look at what this really means. It turns out a waiver is no favor for Pennsylvania.

First, we have to remember what No Child Left Behind (NCLB) is all about. While some educators appreciate the way it renewed focus on the lowest achieving students and the racial achievement gap, the act had many other consequences. NCLB established a system of failure and blame, accusing teachers of poor performance when their students did not do well on the tests, and then labeling schools as failures when their students struggled.

NCLB effectively created “teaching to the test” and “canned curricula” giving teachers less and less control over their classrooms, while students spend more and more time preparing for tests and practicing test-taking skills. Students are certainly learning how to take standardized tests, but not actual content. [For details, see “Testing and More Testing.”] The massive increase in school time spent on test preparation inevitably detracts from time on other learning tasks and the laser focus on reading and math tests has drastically narrowed our school curricula: we’ve lost music, art, library, history, science, languages, and more in the quest for higher standardized test scores in these two single areas. And schools that fail to make Adequate Yearly Progress (AYP) using these test scores are threatened with punitive sanctions, including loss of funding, transfer to a private charter school operator, or complete closure.

High-stakes-testing has therefore set the stage for a plague of cheating scandals as desperate students, teachers, school districts, and even states try to game the system. (See how this has made Pennsylvania’s own Secretary of Education “A Liar and a Cheat” and how the feds just slapped down his latest scheme in “Talking Turkey About Charters.”) NCLB set the unrealistic target of 100% proficiency for all U.S. students in reading and math by 2014, and as that deadline has approached and the proficiency bar has moved ever higher, more schools have “failed.” What’s more, our kids are expected to score proficient on tests that are normed – which by definition follow a bell curve, with half of the test takers always scoring above the mean, and half scoring below. Education historian Diane Ravitch points out:

“No matter how hard you try, a bell curve is still a bell curve. There is no district in the nation where 100% of the children are proficient. The children who are most advantaged cluster in the top half; those who are least advantaged cluster in the bottom half. This is true of the SAT, the ACT, state tests, federal tests, and international tests. And, if you step back, you must wonder why the standardized tests–whose flaws, inaccuracies, and statistical vagaries are well known–have become the measure of all education. No private school in the nation is subjecting its children to this mad scramble to live up to the demands of Pearson and McGraw Hill’s psychometricians.” [“Waiver Madness,” DianeRavitch.net, 9-28-12]

In Pennsylvania, the number of districts making AYP fell from 94% in 2011 to 61% this year. So you would think applying for a waiver would be a good thing, freeing us from the ridiculous binds of this federal act that expects all our children to be proficient a short 18 months from now, and will ultimately wind up “failing” every single school district in the nation. Ah but wait. In exchange for a waiver from this insanity, states must agree to new mandates that are at least if not more harmful than NCLB itself.

This fall, the state of Vermont actually withdrew its request for an NCLB waiver, stating “it has become clear that the USED [U.S. Department of Education] is interested in simply replacing one punitive, prescriptive model of accountability with another.” Under a waiver, Vermont would still have been required to use a single high-stakes standardized test (like Pennsylvania’s PSSAs or Keystone Exams) and then would also have to use those test results for the bulk of a teacher’s evaluation. The state called these “heavy handed methods,” and had been negotiating for flexibility with USED, but determined, “the term ‘flexibility’ is a misnomer.” [Diane Ravitch.net, 10-19-12]

In naming the entire state to her Honor Roll of public education advocates, Diane Ravitch noted that Vermont’s commissioner told the feds, “We cannot continue to expend energy requesting a detailed accountability system that looks less and less like what we want for Vermont. We do not have confidence that the requirements we are being asked to meet is the formula for success.” What’s more, the state refused to lower its cutoff scores as most other states have done to try to get more of their students over the AYP threshold. As a result, while Vermont’s students score consistently well on national exams (such as the NAEP), more than 70% of its schools are not making AYP. [“An Entire State Joins the Honor Roll,” Diane Ravitch.net, 10-19-12]

While Vermont’s withdrawal of its waiver request reflects a clearly reasoned stand on the harm being done to our schools in the name of NCLB and testing, our state’s long holdout was anything but. Pennsylvania Secretary of Education Ron Tomalis said his “overriding concern” in not applying for the waiver until now, was that the waiver would force the state to change the way it performs standardized testing and that any few federal laws could then render those changes obsolete. Based on his conversations with U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, Sec. Tomalis now feels there will be no new federal legislation and appears more than willing to go along with making changes to our testing system to please NCLB waiver requirements. [Post-Gazette, 11-28-12]

What’s more, Tomalis had already applied for a two-year freeze on student testing targets, but the USED turned him down. So rather than taking a principled stand like Vermont, Pennsylvania is going along with the vast majority of other states in the country, ready to do what the USED tells them to do. And this is where it gets dangerous.

For instance, in New Jersey, the waiver requirements imposed on that state have created yet a new labeling and blame system: the Garden State will now make a list of 75 “priority” and 183 “focus” schools that will receive mandated interventions, including possible closure or conversion to charter schools. Forty-five parent groups and civil rights groups have petitioned U.S. Secretary Duncan to stop the process, which will affect the poorest schools with the highest percentage of African American and Latino students. The coalition noted that the state has also classified 122 “reward” schools, which will receive financial bonuses, and are located in the wealthiest districts in the state. They concluded, “The blatant economic and racial inequity built into this classification system harks back to the days when such segregation and inequity were policy objectives for our State.” [Save Our Schools NJ, 10-15-12]

And if imposing new, damaging systems on our states was not bad enough, consider the fact that the entire waiver process itself is illegal. U.S. Secretary Arne Duncan is blatantly circumventing federal law in issuing these waivers. As Diane Ravitch points out, “It is not the prerogative of any federal official–not even a cabinet member–to decide to disregard a federal law … If the law stinks, as NCLB does, revise it. That’s the way our legal system works. Once the precedent is set, any future cabinet member may decide to change the laws to suit his or her fancy.” [“NCLB Waivers and Junk Science in New York,” DianeRavitch.net, 8-31-12]

The bottom line is, waiver or no waiver, the high-stakes-testing culture of failure and blame being foisted upon our kids and our schools is a national travesty. In 2014 we are supposed to have 100% of our students proficient in reading and math. What we will actually have is 100% of our schools failing to make AYP. And under all these waiver systems, we will have even more of our poorest, African American, and Latino schools targeted for closure or handed over to private charter school operators. This is the state experimenting with our most struggling kids through school privatization, disrupting lives and communities. It’s insanity and it’s time to stop the madness.

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Help grow our grassroots movement for public education: join other volunteer parents, students, educators, and concerned community members by subscribing to Yinzercation. Enter your email address and hit the “Sign me up” button to get these pieces delivered directly to your inbox and encourage your networks to do the same. Really. Can you get five of your friends to subscribe? Working together we can win this fight for our schools.

Charters are Cash Cows

Charter schools are cash cows feeding at the public trough. Oh, there are a few good ones here and there, to be sure. But if there was ever any doubt that charter schools have become Big Business, take a look at the list of the largest campaign contributors in Pennsylvania. Three of the top ten on a new “Power Players” report are throwing hundreds of thousands of dollars into state politics to gain favorable legislation for charter schools and we need to be asking why. [Public Source, Power Players report]

Weighing in at #5 is Van Gureghian, who founded Charter School Management Inc. back in 1999 to run a school in Chester, PA, a struggling former industrial town near Philadelphia. Today Gureghian’s company operates 150 charter schools in nine states, and that first school now has half of the district’s student enrollment and is the state’s largest charter school. Gureghian was Gov. Corbett’s single largest campaign donor and served on his education transition team. This is the same guy who is fighting the state’s Right to Know laws to keep from disclosing his salary – which is public knowledge for other public school administrators – while he recently bought two Florida beachfront lots for $28.9 million. He and his wife, another Charter School Management Inc. employee, plan to build a 20,000 square foot “French-inspired Monte Carlo estate.” [Palm Beach Daily News, 2011-11-18; Also see “Soaking the Public”]

At #8 and #10 on the list are Joel Greenberg and Arthur Dantchik. Public Source, which put together the report, notes that these two “act as one when making political contributions,” and that if we “consider them as a contributing team, you must include Jeff Yass,” who would be #11 on this list. Greenberg, Dantchik, and Yass went to college together and are founding partners of Susquehanna International Group, a financial broker-dealer in Philadelphia.

Greenberg is on the board of American Federation for Children, a national group with mega-billionaire backers supporting state vouchers for private school students. Dantchik is on the board of the Institute for Justice, a law firm that promotes school choice and Yass is on the board of the Cato Institute, a think tank dedicated to limited government and free markets. [Public Source, Power Players report] In 2010, these three men started Students First PAC to channel millions of their dollars, plus those from out of state donors, into races of pro-voucher candidates. (For more on the American Federation for Children and the Students First PAC, see “It’s All About the Money, Money, Money”.)

For those of you keeping track, that makes four of Pennsylvania’s biggest campaign donors so far this year with school privatization at the top of their to-do lists. Why? Lest you think these men are dabbling in education for the sake of students, take a closer look at the Big Business of charter schools. Back in August, CNBC interviewed the CEO of a major investment company who clearly explained why charter schools are such a great moneymaker. David Brain heads Entertainment Properties Trust, which owns movie theaters, destination recreation sites, and charter schools in 34 states.

When the interviewer asked why people should add charter schools to their investment portfolios, he replied:

“Well I think it’s a very stable business, very recession-resistant. It’s a very high-demand product. There’s 400,000 kids on waiting lists for charter schools … the industry’s growing about 12-14% a year. So it’s a high-growth, very stable, recession-resistant business. It’s a public payer, the state is the payer … if you do business with states with solid treasuries, then it’s a very solid business.”

The anchor also asked if he could buy one type of real estate asset right now, what would it be, and Brain answered:

“Well, probably the charter school business. We said it’s our highest growth and most appealing sector right now of the portfolio. It’s the most high in demand, it’s the most recession-resistant. And a great opportunity set with 500 schools starting every year. It’s a two and a half billion dollar opportunity set in rough measure annually.” [CNBC, 8-15-12]

Brain also told a nice whopper when the anchor asked him if there was any investment risk due to some public backlash against using taxpayer money to pay for charter schools. He claimed, “Most of the studies have charter schools at even or better than district public education.” Actually, most of the studies have shown the opposite: charter schools consistently rank at even or worse – sometimes much worse – than traditional public schools. For example, the Center for Research on Education Outcomes (CREDO) at Stanford University found that students in every single Pennsylvania cyber charter school performed “significantly worse” in reading and math than their peers in conventional public schools. [Stanford/CREDO report summary, 2011] That’s a 100% failure rate. (See “Dueling Rallies” for complete details on charter school performance research.)

With such dismal results, investors really ought to be asking why Gov. Corbett’s administration keeps approving new charter school applications. Cyber charters in particular are charging taxpayers far more per student than it actually costs to educate them – to the tune of one million dollars per day sucked from our public coffers into the pockets of charter school operators. (See “One Million Per Day”) Pennsylvania already has 16 cyber charter schools – including four approved just this past summer – giving us one of the highest concentrations in the country. Yet the Department of Education just scheduled hearings on eight new cyber charter school applications. [Post-Gazette, 10-22-12]

Gary Miron, an education professor at Western Michigan University who studies charter schools, told the Post-Gazette, “Pennsylvania, as far as I know, has the most lucrative funding for virtual schools. It’s very favorable. It doesn’t surprise me more companies and entities want to come there for virtual schooling.” [Post-Gazette, 10-22-12]

Indeed. This is not about doing what is best for students. Charter schools have become investment opportunities for the wealthy and their portfolio managers, businesses that must be protected with favorable legislation bought by strategic campaign contributions. As these charter school operators feed at the public trough, they strip our public schools of desperately needed resources. It’s time to fight back. Public education is a public good, not a cash cow.

Where are the Real Republicans?

Real Republicans don’t vote to take away local control. Real Republicans don’t try to concentrate power in the hands of the state and with small groups of political appointees. Real Republicans don’t thumb their noses at public accountability. Yet this is exactly what Governor Corbett and the legislature are trying to do with the latest charter school “reform” bill that goes before the Senate Rules Committee today. [Senate Bill 1115]

This deeply flawed bill was Gov. Corbett’s latest attempt to ram through a statewide authorizer, which would take control away from local, democratically elected school board representatives and permit only a state commission of political appointees the right to open new charter schools and to supervise them. [See “Real Charter Reform” and “Now That’s More Like It” for details.] It now appears that the governor’s office and legislative leaders have agreed to set aside the authorizer portion of the bill so they can focus on other pieces of the legislation. That is a partial victory for our grassroots movement, which has made a big noise about this issue. But a spokesman for Senate Republicans said there is still “broad support for a statewide authorizer among Senate Republicans.” A spokesman for House Republicans said views were more “far-ranging” in that chamber. [Post-Gazette, 10-15-12] We know this issue will be coming back.

Meanwhile, the bill retains equally terrible measures that should have all citizens up in arms, liberal, moderate, and conservative alike. Perhaps most egregious, SB 1115 will exempt charter school operators from Pennsylvania’s Right to Know law. We taxpayers are supporting charter and cyber charter schools to the tune of $1 billion. As the Delco Times editorial board wrote yesterday, “Given the growing influence – and cost – of charter schools, you would think the public would want to know as much as we possibly can about their operation and their financial dealings, given the increasing amount of public dollars flowing into their coffers.” They also noted, “Make no mistake, the charter school explosion in Pennsylvania has become a big business, a very lucrative business.” [Delco Times, 10-14-12] Since when do good Republicans want less accountability for taxpayer dollars?

Let’s remember charter school management corporation owner Vahan Gureghian, who was Governor Corbett’s single largest individual campaign donor and a member of his Education Transition Team. In the first ten years after Gureghian started his charter operation in 1999, he had already collected $60.6 MILLION from the public coffers. While salary data for public school administrators is public information, we don’t know what Gureghian is paid – or his wife, who is general counsel for their company. The Philadelphia Inquirer originally filed a right-to-know request all the way back in 2006 asking for salary figures: the Commonwealth Court ruled they had to disclose that information, but the Gureghians have appealed and six years later the case is still bouncing around. [Philadelphia Inquirer, 2009-06-11] Meanwhile, last fall Mr. and Mrs. Gureghian bought two Florida beachfront lots for $28.9 million where they plan to build a 20,000 square foot “French-inspired Monte Carlo estate.” [Palm Beach Daily News, 2011-11-18]

And on this side of the state, PA Cyber Charter School is under federal investigation for what appear to be far ranging financial misdeeds. Just Friday, the Post-Gazette reported that the school’s founder, Nick Trombetta, bought a Florida condo for $933,000, and then sold it “to a business created by one of the school’s former executives for just $10.” [Post-Gazette, 10-12-12] These are the people raking in millions and millions of public dollars, yet fighting tooth and nail to keep their business dealings away from public scrutiny. When was the last time your local school administrator bought a Florida condo for close to a million dollars? Why should the public not have the same access to the financial records of charter school operators as they do to traditional schools? What happened to Republicans’ fiscal conservatism?

The proposed bill also contains a measure that would allow the state to pay charter schools directly. While this seems benign, the Keystone State Education Coalition (KSEC) points out that this would effectively “deny local school districts any ability to monitor the validity of charges and payments of taxpayer funds before they are paid.” [KSEC, 10-15-12] In other words, this is another way to remove local control from democratically elected school boards who represent the interests of their communities and taxpayers. Conscientious Republicans value real oversight.

And last but not least, SB1115 would create a statewide charter funding advisory commission. Again, boring sounding bureaucratic details – until you realize that three quarters of the members of the commissions would be charter school and cyber charter operators in addition to the Governor’s political appointees. KSEC notes that, “Of 17 members, only 3 would represent school districts.” [KSEC, 10-15-12] Where’s the accountability to taxpayers in that plan?

The real Republicans I know would not be in favor of SB1115. It’s far from fiscally conservative, eliminates accountability and oversight, and strips away local control. In fact, this bill is fairly radical and it’s time our legislators see it for what it is. They also need to know that here in the grassroots we are paying attention to those details. Would Pennsylvania’s real Republicans please stand up?

Won’t Be Silent

The new film, “Won’t Back Down,” is a thinly-veiled propaganda piece produced by ultra-right ideologues bent on privatizing one of our most cherished public goods. It’s a blatant attempt to inject “parent trigger laws” into the national conversation on education, laws pretending to give parents and teachers control over struggling schools that in reality strip away local control and hand schools over to private corporations. But you wouldn’t have known any of that from the panel discussion after a private screening of the movie held Wednesday night.

Hosted by A+Schools along with the Pittsburgh Public School district and the Pittsburgh Federation of Teachers, the film screening played to a packed theater of parents, teachers, and community members. Perhaps sensing the mood of the audience, we were told not to boo during opening remarks by Randy Testa (Vice President of Education at Walden Media which produced the film) who was inexplicably invited to this event. Despite essentially having a two-hour infomercial to tell his story, complete with Hollywood stars and a tear-jerking soundtrack, Testa was also infuriatingly given the majority of microphone time.

We were also told not to boo during the movie or panel discussion: presumably sniffling during the correct dramatic moments or cheering would have been acceptable. But this audience was not cheering. And at several points when characters spouted particularly egregious misinformation, there was loud groaning and a few shouts of “liars!” when folks could not contain their anger any longer. Yet our voices were silenced again when the Pennsylvania Interfaith Impact Network (PIIN) moderated the panel “discussion” by selecting only a few written questions solicited from the audience.

And so we did not get to talk about who made this movie and why. We did not hear about the private corporate interests behind parent trigger laws or how they have been used to trick parents into signing over their schools, only to have all control taken away from them. While one question did ask about the film in the context of our recent devastating state budget cuts, none of the panelists took the opportunity to connect the consequences of those cuts – and years of inequitable and chronic under-funding of public schools – to the real problems facing our District. And so we did not hear about how struggling schools like the one portrayed in the film actually get to be that way in the first place.

Instead, the audience was left with shallow platitudes – “we can all agree that kids come first.” Yeah, we love kids. I think we can all agree. And “we need to put students before grownups,” which makes my head explode every time I hear it, since it’s actually a pat little phrase used to silence teachers and parents trying to speak up for students. Worse, the audience was told we simply need parents and teachers to “work together” and all our problems will go away. As if we don’t have incredible parents and teachers working together right now, doing amazing things. (I point you to the Manchester Miracle library project, if you need a quick example of what this grassroots movement is doing this very minute: “A Picture is Worth 1,000 Books.”)

After the event, organizers even handed out a slick little “pocket guide for doing what’s best for kids in school” produced by Walden Media and the Harvard Graduate School of Education. Its 17 pages are full of photos from the movie along with suggestions for how to hold better parent-teacher conferences. Give me a break. Obviously, parent-teacher communication is important – and for some families, that’s a starting point to meaningful engagement with their schools – but that’s not what this is about. Oh wait: there it is on page 16 under “Know Your Rights”: Walden Media and Harvard helpfully remind us that “Parent Trigger laws have been enacted or considered in 20 states and are endorsed by the U.S. Conference of Mayors. These laws allow parents to reconfigure or shut down a school in which 51 percent or more of the families agree and are dissatisfied with the school’s performance.”

We have hundreds of new blog subscribers following our Manchester library work that went viral, so let’s quickly recap what this movie and these “parent tricker” laws are really about. The film was produced by Rupert Murdoch’s 20th Century Fox (we are well aware of their conservative credentials) and Walden Media, which is owned by Philip Anschutz. Anschutz co-produced that last anti-teacher and anti-public school film, “Waiting for Superman.” He’s an oil billionaire with ultra-right politics, making huge contributions to groups that teach creationism in our schools, promote hatred and fight against gay rights, oppose environmental regulations, and work to eliminate unions. [Parents Across America alert, 8-12] Anschutz also funds ALEC, which is behind much of the blatantly corporate legislation being introduced in our state legislatures, including trigger laws. [For more on ALEC, see “There’s Nothing Smart About ALEC.”]

Parent trigger laws allow parents to vote – by a simple 51% majority by signing a petition – to essentially shut down a public school. School districts are then forced to either fire all the teaching staff at that school, close the school altogether, or privatize it and turn it over to a charter school operator. The idea for parent-trigger laws was hatched by a California organization called Parent Revolution, which was founded by – surprise, surprise – a charter school operator. Walden Media’s snazzy little pocket guide lists Parent Revolution as one of their recommended “Resources” for parents (along with edreform.com, a blatantly radical-corporate-reform site promoting school privatization, vouchers, etc.).

Parent Revolution got major funding from the Gates and Broad Foundations as well as the Waltons (of Walmart fame and huge supporters of school privatization) to push the law in California. The group sent agents into Compton to get parents to sign a petition to charterize their elementary school, but some of those parents later said they had been purposefully misled. Parent Revolution then sent its operatives into Adelanto, CA and tried to get parents to sign two different petitions: one calling for smaller class sizes and other reforms, and the other calling to hand the school over to a charter operator. But after the group only submitted the charter petition, nearly 100 parents asked to have their names removed and a judge refused, insisting that the conversion to a charter school would proceed. [For more on the film and parent trigger laws, see Save Our Schools, another national grassroots organization like ours.]

These “Parent-Tricker” laws are fundamentally anti-democratic. They permit a small group of parents to essentially hand over a public asset to private owners. Public schools do not exist just for the parents and families who happen to currently be using them. That’s what we mean when we say public education is a public good: public schools serve the broader public interest by educating future citizens. They also exist for tomorrow’s students who have yet to step foot in the door. Parents have every right to fight to make education the best it can be for their children, but they cannot do it by converting public goods into private assets. Closing down public schools and handing them over to private charter companies destroys a public good, forever (while enriching those corporations at tax-payer expense).

The law is not even about real parent engagement: all parents are doing is signing a petition, and then real control is taken away from them. Yet parents have real control over their schools right now. Most fundamentally, we elect school board members to represent us. We can also speak up at school board meetings. We can work with our school districts. We can work with our principals and teachers.

We need to be having a real conversation about who is behind parent trigger laws and other privatization schemes. We need to be talking about Pennsylvania’s massive budget cuts and legislation that Gov. Corbett is trying to ram through at this very moment to benefit his wealthy charter-school-owning friends that will drain more resources from our public schools and eliminate local control by democratically elected school boards. (See “Real Charter Reform.”) These are the critical issues of funding, equity, and public education as a public good that we must all be speaking about. And, no, we won’t be silent.

You’re Invited to a Private Screening

Are you in an ethical quandary about seeing the new “Won’t Back Down” movie? Perhaps you are angry about the film’s parent-trigger agenda and that it’s set in Pittsburgh claiming to be inspired by true events – that never actually happened here – but you still want to see the movie so you can be fully informed without contributing to these ultra-right filmmakers’ box office receipts? [See “We Won’t Back Down, Either” for the gory details about who made this movie and why.] Here’s the solution to your dilemma:

The Pittsburgh Public School district, the Pittsburgh Federation of Teachers, and A+ Schools are hosting a private screening of “Won’t Back Down” on Wednesday, October 3, 2012 at 6:00 PM. The viewing will take place at South Side Works Cinema. Seating is limited and will be reserved on a first come basis with parents and teachers given priority. RSVP HERE

There will be a brief panel discussion after the film moderated by the Rev. John Welch from PIIN (PA Interfaith Impact Network SW), who is also Vice President for Student Services and Dean of Students at the Pittsburgh Theological Seminary. Panelists will include:

  • Nina Esposito-Visgitis, President, Pittsburgh Federation of Teachers
  • Carey Harris, Executive Director, A+ Schools
  • Dr. Linda Lane, Superintendent, Pittsburgh Public Schools
  • Randy Testa, Vice President of Education and Professional Development, Walden Media

For the life of me, I can’t figure out why we would give anyone from Walden Media 12 seconds of our time, especially since the entire previous two hours of the movie will be “their” message – complete with tear-jerking sound track and a feel-good story. Heck, who doesn’t want to root for the single mom who sticks up for her kid’s educational needs? Who doesn’t love a good story about a white woman and a black woman coming together and beating the big bad system? We all love a good underdog tale.

But Philip Anschutz and his Walden Media are not interested in what real parent engagement looks like in our public schools. They are selling privatization – turning over our public schools to private corporations in the name of corporate-style “reform.” There’s a reason the parent-trigger law is becoming known as the parent-tricker law: in California where it was first introduced, the law fooled many parents into thinking they were taking (more) control of their local schools. But scores of parents there cried foul after realizing the way outside operatives had been sent into their communities and lied to them. Closing down public schools and handing them over to private charter companies destroys a public good, forever (while enriching those corporations at tax-payer expense).

Walden Media’s Randy Testa, who has taught third grade and has an Ed.D. from the Harvard Graduate School of Education, has made it clear that these movies are designed as propaganda. In an interview earlier this year, he explained, “We have also recently made Walden’s tacit commitment to education more explicit. We co-produced the recent documentary about education, “Waiting for ‘Superman’” and we have a film coming out this fall, a drama not a documentary, called “Won’t Back Down” about two mothers –one a teacher—who come together to change their local school. … A good story gets people talking –and maybe even doing.” [Ploughshares Literary Magazine, 2-24-12]

Indeed. There’s mighty power in pop-culture, and Walden Media knows it. I hope Linda Lane, Nina Esposito-Visgitis, and Carey Harris come out swinging in defense of public education on October 3rd. We need to make sure people are “talking and maybe even doing” alright, just as Testa says – talking and doing something about this slick effort to sell school privatization, that tells lies about Pittsburgh, and attempts to introduce parent-tricker laws here in Pennsylvania. Let’s all be there on October 3rd to demonstrate what meaningful parent engagement in our schools looks like and that we here in the grassroots intend to keep fighting for public education as a public good.

We Won’t Back Down, Either

Have you heard the buzz around “Won’t Back Down,” a major new Hollywood movie opening here in three weeks? It’s time for that buzz to start sounding like a swarm of angry bees coming from anyone who cares about our public schools. Here’s why.

The film, which was shot here in Pittsburgh and also set in our fair city, claims to be “inspired by real events.” Starring Maggie Gyllenhaal, Viola Davis, and Holly Hunter, it tells a stirring tale of parents fighting for their kids against downright cruel teachers and uncaring school administrators while also vilifying teachers’ unions. But there is absolutely no evidence that anything like the events depicted in the movie ever occurred in Pittsburgh. In fact, “Won’t Back Down” is very clearly an attempt to promote school privatization and ALEC-backed parent trigger laws, which have not even been on the radar screen here in Southwest Pennsylvania. [For more on ALEC, see “There’s Nothing Smart About ALEC.”]

The movie was produced by Rupert Murdoch’s 20th Century Fox and Walden Media, which is owned by Philip Anschutz. Anschutz co-produced that last anti-teacher and anti-public school film, “Waiting for Superman.” He’s an oil billionaire with ultra-right politics, making contributions to groups that teach creationism in our schools and oppose gay rights. Parents Across America, a grassroots organization like ours fighting for public education on the national level, notes that, “Anschutz has also donated to Americans for Prosperity, founded by the Koch brothers, which opposes environmental regulations and union rights, and to the political career of Gov. Scott Walker of Wisconsin.” [Parents Across America alert, 8-12]

Randi Weingarten, President of the American Federation of Teachers (whom I had the honor of marching with when she was in town for Monday’s Labor Day Parade), points out that, “Anschutz’s business partner is on record saying that he intends to use Walden Media … as way for him to promote their values.” In a piece last week in the Washington Post, Weingarten explains those values are “crystal clear”: Anschutz funds ALEC and a host of organizations that “operate against the public interest in favor of corporate interests, and all of them actively oppose collective bargaining rights and other benefits for workers. Anschutz has also invested millions in anti-gay and extreme religious-right organizations such as the Promise Keepers, whose founder declared that ‘homosexuality is an abomination against almighty God,’ and organizations affiliated with Focus on the Family.” [Washington Post, 8-28-12]

These guys didn’t just go into filmmaking for the fun of it. They have a clear agenda. And this time they are pushing parent-trigger laws. These laws allow parents to vote – by a simple 51% majority by signing a petition – to essentially shut down a public school. School districts are then forced to either fire all the teaching staff at that school, close the school altogether, or privatize it and turn it over to a charter school operator. The idea for parent-trigger laws was hatched by a California organization called Parent Revolution, which was founded by – surprise, surprise – a charter school operator.

Parent Revolution got major funding from the Gates and Broad Foundations as well as the Waltons (of Walmart fame and huge supporters of school privatization) to push the law in California. The group sent agents into Compton to get parents to sign a petition to charterize their elementary school, but some of those parents later said they had been purposefully misled. Parent Revolution then sent its operatives into Adelanto, CA and tried to get parents to sign two different petitions: one calling for smaller class sizes and other reforms, and the other calling to hand the school over to a charter operator. But after the group only submitted the charter petition, nearly 100 parents asked to have their names removed and a judge refused, insisting that the conversion to a charter school would proceed. [For more on the film and parent trigger laws, see Save Our Schools, another national grassroots organization like ours.]

These “Parent-Tricker” laws are fundamentally anti-democratic. They permit a small group of parents to essentially hand over a public asset to private owners. Public schools do not exist just for the parents and families who happen to currently be using them. That’s what we mean when we say public education is a public good: public schools serve the broader public interest by educating future citizens. They also exist for tomorrow’s students who have yet to step foot in the door. Parents have every right to fight to make education the best it can be for their children, but they cannot do it by converting public goods into private assets.

Ironically, I have to point out that these anti-public good school privatizers got public tax-payer dollars to make their film. Yes, that’s right: we here in Pennsylvania extend a nice fat tax-credit to film companies to induce them to make their films in places like Pittsburgh. [See Pittsburgh Film Office, tax credit information.] Those are tax dollars we don’t see in state revenue and can’t use to support our public schools. Perhaps we need (some) tax credit programs, but it’s all about priorities: maybe we shouldn’t be giving our money to film makers who turn around and tell blatant lies about Pittsburgh, our schools, and our teachers while undermining public confidence in a crucial public resource.

But that’s just what this film is doing. And the filmmakers have had plenty of help spreading their message. Three weeks ago, CBS aired a concert called Teachers Rock, funded by Walmart, as a promotion for “Won’t Back Down,” with stars including Carrie Underwood, Meryl Streep, Jennifer Garner, Matthew Morrison, Foo Fighters’ Dave Grohl, Usher, and Maroon 5’s Adam Levine. [Business Wire, 7-24-12] And as I lamented yesterday in my open letter to President Obama’s senior education policy advisor, the Democrats stepped right in line with Republicans, both showing the film at their national conventions these past two weeks. [See “Dear Mr. Rodriguez…”]

You can be sure we’ll be hearing lots more about parent-trigger laws here in Pennsylvania, too. Proponents have already popped up in Harrisburg: back in June during the budget debates, House Bill 2352 wound up defeated, but it would have created a parent trigger law. [Keystone State Education Coalition, 6-27-12] Remember, this is where grassroots activism will make the difference: this past spring, Florida parent groups fought back against proposed parent trigger legislation and won after an intense battle. [Miami Herald, 3-9-12]

When the film opens across the country on September 28th, we will have an opportunity to weigh in on the conversation and many eyes will be on Pittsburgh. Let’s be ready! We will need to write letters to the editor, op-ed pieces, and engage our social networks to expose the real agenda behind “Won’t Back Down.” We’ll need to attend showings and discussions (stay tuned for more on those). We’ll need to let the country know what authentic parent engagement looks like, why we are fighting for public schools as a public good, and that we won’t back down.

Dear Mr. Rodriguez …

An Open Letter to Roberto Rodriguez, Special Assistant to the President for Education Policy

Dear Mr. Rodriguez:

As you will no doubt recall, last week when I was invited to the White House as one of 40 education leaders from Pennsylvania I stood before you and pleaded for an end to the national narrative of “failing public schools.” I am writing to let you know about the national conversation that that meeting has sparked – and the overwhelming sense of disappointment, despair and frustration it has evoked. You asked for a dialogue and feedback, so please allow me to tell you what people are saying.

First, many people want to know how it is that the White House, the Department of Education, Democratic leaders, and many on the political left have bought hook, line and sinker into this rhetoric about public education – once a pillar of our democracy – overlooking the actual experience of education professionals and despite mountains of educational research. (This is exactly what “At the Chalkface,” a national talk radio program, spoke with me about this past weekend.) The toxic failing-public-schools narrative is not only based on a false notion that American students are falling farther and farther behind our international peers, but it blames supposedly overpaid, uncaring teachers and bureaucratic school administrators for the very real problems that do exist in our country.

Yet we know that middle class students from well-funded schools perform at the top on international tests. We know that student achievement has actually gone up, not down over the past thirty-five years. And we know that the trenchant problem of racial disparity in our schools has far more to do with poverty and inequitable funding at the local and state level than with bad teaching or unions.

People want to know why, then, this administration seems blind to the consequences of adopting President Bush’s signature No Child Left Behind (NCLB) policy, which set schools up to fail, stigmatized them, and then undermined public confidence in public education. They ask why our national leaders ignore the clear evidence that NCLB has wrecked havoc on our schools, creating a culture of high-stakes testing, teaching to the test, cheating scandals, drastically narrowed focus to just reading and math, all the while preventing desperately needed debate about real issues such as meaningful curriculum reform.

The piece I wrote about our conversation last week, “The Elephant at the White House,” was picked up and re-published nationally by AlterNet.org, the Horace Mann League, and Diane Ravitch, among others. Ravitch wrote a response piece, “About that Meeting at the White House,” in which she asked pointedly, “will they do anything differently? What signal, if any, will the White House give to show that they understand that Race to the Top is an extension of NCLB? It is NCLB on steroids.” Here are some comments from people across the country:

  • “Empty chair for PRESIDENT! Because no other choice measures up”
  • “…the Dems [are] hellbent on pushing [Race to the Top] during Obama’s re-election. From a purely political perspective, it has got to be the worst strategy the Dems have ever had. The race is very close and it is possible Obama will lose. I wonder why he has abandoned teachers and parents.”
  • “I guess [the election] wouldn’t be so close right now if he hadn’t forgotten all of us. I am disgusted, completely and totally disgusted with Obama, Duncan and the whole lot of them. Obama should spend a morning at Sidwell Friends and then follow up with an unannounced visit to a test prep charter. Then he should hang his head in shame.”
  • “…[throw] the profiteers and consultants out of the meeting; [abandon] Race to the Top; [say] that Mr. Duncan would not be part of the next administration; [promise] to phase out testing and to remove test scores from teachers evaluations. When they do the above, I will trust them.”
  • “USDoE spokespeople seemed to be brave in this meeting — and then what? And now how is the Obama administration going to respond to the brave teacher/parent/community alliance in Chicago, where teachers are being forced to strike…to defend and protect their students and schools?”
  • “Alas, the [NCLB] waiver is not a waiver, just a commitment to do other harmful things!”
  • “…of the 40+ educators who attended, only 2 were teachers. Teachers have professional expertise that needs to be acknowledged, cultivated, and sustained.”
  • “Race to the Top is more of the same un-researched, unreliable, and feckless education policy that further demeans the profession and those of us who are steeped in the research of effective practice.”

Last week we talked about the new Hollywood movie, “Won’t Back Down,” which blames coldhearted teachers, unions, and school districts and was made by the same people who released “Waiting for Superman” two years ago. I practically begged you not to use the movie as a promotion for market-based corporate “reformers” and their agenda of school privatization. This piece of fiction claims to be “inspired by real events” and is set right here in Pittsburgh, though there is absolutely no evidence that anything like it ever happened here. What is clear, however, is that the film was bankrolled by the ultra-right and attempts to introduce the notion of parent-trigger laws, another policy darling of those supposed reformers. I was appalled to learn that the Democratic National Convention chose to show the movie this week (following in the footsteps of the Republicans who showed it at their convention last week).

I’ve been invited by President Obama’s campaign here in Pittsburgh to speak tonight at a party celebrating his acceptance speech. I’ve been asked to speak about my trip to the White House. What am I supposed to tell them? On this issue, Mr. Rodriguez – your issue of education – President Obama is no different from his opposition. To say we are disappointed is an understatement.

I hope you and all of the President’s advisors will give serious attention to Diane Ravitch’s most excellent advice in, “How President Obama Could Win the Election.” She has proposed an amazing, short speech that could win back educators, parents, and public school advocates.

I plead with you once again from here on the ground in the grassroots of a key state in this election: let’s talk equity, let’s talk about poverty, let’s talk about real education reform, and let’s talk about public education as a public good.

Respectfully yours,

Jessie Ramey
——————
Jessie B. Ramey, Ph.D.
ACLS New Faculty Fellow, Women’s Studies and History
University of Pittsburgh
Yinzer Nation + Education = Yinzercation