MARK KARLIN, EDITOR OF BUZZFLASH AT TRUTHOUT
On Tuesday, May 13, Newark elected Ras Baraka (with 54% of the vote) as its new mayor, filling the vacancy left by Cory Booker. Booker had recently won a special election to fill the vacancy in the US Senate left by Frank Lautenberg, who died in June 2013.
Ras Baraka, son of the late poet and activist Amiri Baraka, is a public high school principal. A key plank of his campaign was an attack on the privatization of K-12 education. The Star-Ledger (New Jersey’s main newspaper) ran a pre-election article in which Baraka scathingly criticized a state plan to convert public schools to charter schools in Newark:
Newark mayoral candidate and South Ward Councilman Ras Baraka blasted the school reorganization plan released by State Superintendent Cami Anderson earlier this week, calling it "radical" and "disruptive" and predicting it will damage the city’s school system.
"They say this is about choice, but it is about anything but choice. They are saying we’re going to get rid of your neighborhood schools," Baraka said today. "This is a dismantling of public education. It is an irresponsible and radical plan. It needs to be halted...."
"The buildings are the property of the taxpayers of Newark. They are not the state superintendent’s property, they are not the governor’s property," he said. "We don’t want to sell them. We want to repair them."
"We will not stand idly by and let this happen," he continued, listing the meetings and rallies by parents and alumni in response to the proposal. "We want to say to parents, we are with you."
The Baraka victory in Newark provides a significant boost to opponents of the abandonment of public education in poor communities of color.
Charter schools - and the privatization of public education in general - have become a battleground between wealthy and political elites and marginalized neighborhoods that have been economically abandoned.
From the White House on down, many politicians (Republicans and Democrats) have been highly critical of teachers' unions. Funded by foundations and government incentives, charter schools are held up as an ideal model by those who blame public school teachers and administrators for what are largely academic challenges linked to urban economic desolation. Ironically, charter schools have made many people rich without necessarily improving educational outcomes.
The Progressive magazine recently ran an analysis of Rocketship, a charter school provider in Milwaukee. In April, Ruth Conniff, editor of the publication, penned an article entitled, "Scathing Report Finds Rocketship, School Privatization Hurts Kids":
Rocketship is a pioneer of the "blended learning" model of schools that rely heavily on computers to cut staff costs. The fastest growing, and most profitable, sector of the charter school industry is online or virtual schools, with the "blended learning" model, which combines online learning with a reduced and low-paid staff, a close second.
With no gym, art class, librarians, or significant science or social studies, Rocketship provides a stripped-down program of study with a heavy focus on standardized tests.
"The education model of the Rocketship chain of schools, a company central to the education reform push in Milwaukee, is particularly ill suited to providing the city's children with a high-quality education," [Gordon] Lafer [who wrote the report on Rocketship for the Economic Policy Institute] found.
Because of its extraordinarily high teacher turnover (the chain relies heavily on Teach for America volunteers), its large classes, and reductive curriculum, Rocketship subjects kids most in need of consistent, nurturing, adult attention to low-quality instruction and neglect.
That model, which is also on display in Milwaukee's low-performing voucher schools, is demonstrably harmful to kids. But it has generated big profits for wealthy investors.
As we’ve pointed out before on BuzzFlash and Truthout, even if charter schools are run by nonprofits, it is often the case that administrators receive large, six-figure salaries, while teachers' salaries are often lowered. Consulting firms and for-profit offshoots also benefit, but little - if anything - is done to enhance the employment and financial prospects for the families of the children in privatized schools.
What of the academic results? Charter school defenders among the ruling elite claim that they improve "outcomes." But detractors point to evidence that proves otherwise, as noted by Conniff:
From 2010 to 2013, Rocketship increased it assets from $2.2 million to $15.8 million. And while it posted impressive test scores at its first schools in California, over the last four years, test scores have fallen at every Rocketship school. All seven Rocketship schools failed to make adequate yearly progress according to federal standards for the last school year. (Italics inserted by BuzzFlash.)
Similarly, Kari Lydersen reported in In These Times that a primary charter school organization that Mayor Rahm Emanuel and the Chicago Board of Education turn to, the Academy for Urban School Leadership (AUSL), has a spotty performance record. In fact, it has, at times, produced student test results worse than the average Chicago public school:
But critics point to uneven performance in the turnaround schools managed by AUSL. While test scores in these schools increased during the first years under the group’s management, they stagnated soon afterwards. As of last year, 11 of the 12 schools taken over by AUSL between 2006 and 2010 had composite ISAT scores below the CPS district-wide average, as Curtis Black reported for the Community Media Workshop. Two AUSL-operated schools in the low-income area of North Lawndale have actually seen drops in their composite test scores of late. And while 33 Chicago elementary schools with student poverty rates above 95 percent achieved above-average ISAT reading scores in 2012, none of them were AUSL schools, according to a study by Don Moore of Designs for Change. (Italics inserted by BuzzFlash.)
The AUSL similarity to the record of Rocketship in terms of actually shortchanging students educationally is not to be overlooked. Yet, as Lydersen notes, the privatized school corporations or nonprofits are sometimes paid an incentive, as in Chicago: "[Dr. Diedrus] Brown [a Chicago Public School principal] and others say it is unfair that turnaround schools get $300,000 in startup funding, plus, for five years, $420 per student more than other CPS schools receive."
A May 10 Chicago Tribune article reinforces Lydersen's reporting. The Tribune points out that AUSL is now the predominant provider of education in one of Chicago's poorest minority neighborhoods:
"It's depressing," said Valerie Leonard, a community activist and member of CPS' North Lawndale Community Action Council. "What we're seeing is a consolidation of our schools under private interests. For us as a community, we're the ones that are bearing the brunt of all this."
When school starts next year, nearly 70 percent of the public schools in North Lawndale will be in private hands. Most of those schools were failing or under-enrolled when CPS turned the buildings over to charter operators, or fired staff and put the Academy for Urban School Leadership in charge. The shift has been attributed to everything from population decline to sporadic efforts to revitalize the neighborhood.
Test scores and other data show the privately run schools aren't doing much better academically and in some cases are performing worse than the schools they took over or the district-run schools that remain in the community.
As BuzzFlash has often pointed out, the push to privatize schools is composed largely of a white elite that benefits financially from taking the public out of schools - or uses the campaign as an excuse to avoid providing economic assistance and jobs to communities in distress. Furthermore, the charter school movement is not aimed at students from white middle class and wealthy families. If that were the case, then you would find them in the nation's wealthy suburbs - but that is rarely the case.
It may not be too cynical to assert that the war on public schools is just another exploitation of poor people of color and unions. There is little proof that it has much to do with the long-term improvement of K-12 education.
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