A recent article in The New York Times described how New York City Schools’ Chancellor Joel Klein is surrounding himself with young MBA/investment banking types who are charged with “reforming” New York City’s schools. These new twenty-something’s in red suspenders seem very much like the boy wonders we heard so much about in the late nineties. Interestingly, one thirty-one year old on Mr. Klein’s staff, Matthew Onek, is also the son of Mr. Klein’s law partner. In other words, no experience necessary.
According to the article, “To some, the new educrats - working in everything from curriculum to strategic planning - are a long-overdue influx of extraordinary managerial talent from outside the school system. To others, they represent an insult to veteran school officials, a devastating loss of institutional memory and a corporate-style takeover of the public school system.”
To those who still remember the “greed is good” battle cry, the message should be clear. The battle is on and no prisoners will be taken. In the case of the City of Buffalo, the barbarians may already be inside the gates.
Charter Schools: The Shiny New SPV’s?
While the “special purpose vehicles” or SPV’s formerly were phantom companies with names like “Raptor” and “Chewco”, in the “new economy” pedagogic parlance they’re simply referred to as “charter schools.”
The off-balance sheet “phantom menace” for the Buffalo Board of Education is the charter school movement. Charter Schools are designed to bankrupt the system and bust the teachers’ unions.
Even though the charter school movement in the City of Buffalo is rooted in racial issues, the ability to terminate contracts with teachers’ unions across the board is akin to a gold rush. Authentic, community-based charter schools set up in good faith may soon find themselves cut loose as their corporate sponsors build a cartel and if the union busting and empire building works in Buffalo, who’s to say it won’t work in Williamsville or Kenmore?
The Analysts Can’t Be Wrong
One doesn’t need an overpriced study to realize that Buffalo’s Public Schools are in trouble, but the Buffalo Board of Education commissioned a study anyway and found out that the answer to the crisis in funding for public education lies in dividing the meager resources allotted to public schools with charter school rivals.
Last year, an entity called the Education Innovation Consortium published a report at the behest of the Board of Ed. That recommended a radical experiment in education. It called for the school district to start sponsoring charter schools. Not surprisingly, Alt has found that the group is an offshoot of the Center for Educational Innovation, a not for profit operating in New York City that promotes charter schools.
Charter school advocates usually target teachers’ unions as the gravest problem facing education today, and while most would agree that the traditional school year is still geared more towards the needs of nineteenth century agrarian society, the argument that the teachers’ unions are the ones at fault for this and many other problems in education has high credence in the charter school movement.
The belief that teachers’ salaries are too high also seems to be a central theme. In other words the union has done too good a job on behalf of its members, and is about to become a victim of that success. Interestingly, the six figure salaries of board members of the Education Innovation Consortium, and other right wing think tanks devoted to privatizing public education, aren’t an issue. The obscene level of executive compensation packages in corporate America hasn’t changed in the aftermath of the new economy bubble. If anything, it’s gotten worse. The spiritual leader of this movement, Jack Welch, fattened his calf by intoning “shareholder value” as his mantra. That meant firing tens of thousands of workers or “drowning the kittens” in new economy-speak. As the vitality continues to be drained from the America economy at a rapid pace, it should be clear that any industry still retaining a strong union work force in the United States has a big target on it with “Neutron Jack” and his followers.
Curbing “Cadillac Health Care Packages”
The disparity between teacher compensation and the income received by many parents struggling in low wage service economy jobs, creates a natural class rift that is being exploited ingeniously by wealthy “reformers.”
Part of teacher compensation includes an endangered species in American society called health care coverage. Why do teachers deserve generous health care benefits when the rest of American society has been left at the mercy of a privatized and increasingly class-driven health care industry?
The answer seems to be that they don’t and if we privatize public education, everyone will be on a level playing field.
Right-wingers have been able to control this debate. Why, indeed, do teachers deserve a privilege like health care? That is the focus, instead of asking the question of why so many Americans are without coverage in the wealthiest nation on earth.
MBA Buzzwords: Create Your Own Reality!
The lingo of charter schools is peppered with new economy buzzwords. The website of the Buffalo Board of Education uses terms and phrases like “creative innovation”, and the imperative of “greater economies and efficiencies.” The Board’s website also talk about how Buffalo will be a “district that will compete vigorously with other districts.” Then there is the notion that Buffalo Public Schools are like lords of the manor when compared with their colleagues in the suburbs. They need to be, “...brought into line with similar benefits of comparable employees.”
The poor funding of City schools doesn’t call for statewide reform, but for a more competitive business model.
The way to accomplish this sort of MBA mission statement appears simple. While repeatedly demanding greater accountability from its teachers, the Board of Education appears to be removing its own liabilities from sight through the “special purpose vehicle” of charter schools.
However, if “performance evaluations” are to be believed, then charter schools have not demonstrated that they represent an academic improvement over public schools. Historically, Charter schools have “outperformed” public schools when they’ve been allowed to “skim” students. In other words when a new charter is able to take the best students from failing public schools, they do better than those public schools. By bringing in enough new charters to bankrupt the entire system, teacher salaries will decrease, while leaving a big slice of pie for the creative entrepreneurial types who saw this “business opportunity” and ran with it. Once this end is accomplished it’s hard to see how the new under-funded charters will be any different than their under-funded public school predecessors.
The Illusion of Choice
The addition of school choice has given parents some options of removing their children from poor schools, it has done so at the price of increased transportation costs for those students who must now be provided with free bussing to the school of their choice. So while the School Board has stated that it will be “attempting to reduce the expense to the school system of high cost items in our bargaining agreements which benefit only small groups of employees,” transportation costs for the district will actually be going up.
“School Choice” as promoted by the district may also have the unintended consequence of weakening and even forcing the closure of poorly performing schools, which are more often than not located in poor neighborhoods. Such a result would be in direct opposition to the goal of a return to strong neighborhood schools advocated by many conservatives.
School Choice does not allow attendance in wealthy suburban school districts, but parents who have embraced new economy ethics still enroll their children in these schools under false pretenses. We call these parents criminals. School board members who take on the teachers’ unions by withholding millions of dollars in back pay, as in the case of former Buffalo Board of Ed. President Paul Buchanan, get to be called Judge. The message is clear for school board candidates who would choose to support a hostile takeover of the public school system: your reward won’t come from feeling good about making a difference in students lives, it will come in the form of an immediate and highly tangible financial and political payoff.
Free Market Free-For-All: If You’re Thinking, You Should Be Writing
The unabashedly pro-market approach embraced by the School Board comes in the aftermath of the market collapse created by that very same way of thinking. Unlike Enron executives, parents and students may not be able to walk away unscathed. If anything, the position of school board members is similar to that faced by devastated third world government officials requesting assistance from the International Monetary Fund. Federal and State officials are insisting on free market solutions for problems that have more to do with a lack of transparency, corrupt funding formulas, and chronic poverty than with whether or not teachers are entitled to middle class salaries and free health care.
In the face of this hostile takeover, many teachers, particularly those in suburban school districts are remarkably complacent. Americans have been slow to embrace the concept of lifelong learning especially when it comes to scholarly pursuits. How many teachers wielding absolute authority in their classrooms have held their students to strict writing deadlines while failing to put pen to paper themselves? How many teachers, saddled with enormous debt from pursuing the advanced degrees necessary to meet rising standards view a well paid teaching position as the logical and just conclusion to their own academic inquiries? Many teachers and students take it on faith that if they study hard follow the rules they can earn a comfortable living as an educator. That is no longer the case. Earning a living wage is NOT a birthright. Though most people still regard education as a sacred institution in this country, in terms of the “new economy” mindset it is just another industry waiting to be “right-sized.”
George Bush ran on a campaign promise to become “the education president.” What have you teachers and students out there learned so far? As an old teacher from Texas once told me, “If you’re thinking, you should be writing.”