Left Ed: It's The Democracy, Stupid

by: jeffbinnc

Sun May 02, 2010 at 16:01


Earlier this week, the edublogosphere was swarming with links to this memorandum from the US Department of Education warning of the "vulnerabilities in the oversight of charter schools." (h/t The Frustrated Teacher)

Since 2005, there have been 40 investigations of charter schools using public funds fraudulently. What these investigations have found is that charter school officials have used taxpayer money to pay for things like "an extravagant lifestyle" (Minnesota), "spa treatments and personal vehicles" (California), "purchases at stores such as Louis Vuitton" (Illinois), and "funeral expenses" (Wisconsin - that's what passes for fun there).

There have been 18 indictments, 15 convictions, and 24 cases are still being pursued. But because this memorandum was sent as a warning for further vigilance in regard to this type of crime, it's easy to assume that the problem is apt to get much worse. And in fact there's ample proof that it is.

jeffbinnc :: Left Ed: It's The Democracy, Stupid
Recently in New York City, a charter school official stole more than $200,000 from a nonprofit South Bronx housing organization to pay for "designer clothes, fancy restaurants and trips to the Caribbean." Charter school officials in this city have been known to use their positions to hire their wives, husbands, and children and choose board trustees as vendors, teachers aides and consultants - all of which is forbidden in typical public schools - and then go to court to bar the city and state controller from auditing their books.

In Buffalo NY, a charter school used public funds to pay it's chartering agency (a private company) "$1.3 million in rent for a building the company owned, $976,000 for executive administration, and $361,000 in professional fees."

In Philadelphia, charter school agencies are using taxpayer funds to reward officials with exorbitant salaries and build up millions of dollars in business assets. According to this report, "One Philadelphia charter-school operator runs a private parking lot on the side. Another rents out apartments and collects the rent at his school. Yet another rents property to herself, signing her lease as both tenant and landlord."

In a nationwide example, a commercial management company called Imagine is using its public funds to control and profit from school real estate and retain fees under contracts that often guarantee Imagine's management "in perpetuity."

Just as Barak Obama and Arne Duncan are touting charter schools as effective solutions to education improvement and giving cash-strapped states strong incentives to allow more of those types of schools in order to be eligible for much-needed federal funds, there is an Oklahoma-sized land-rush of entrepreneurs opening charters to cash in on the billions in funds made available by federal grant programs such as Race To The Top and the Investing in Innovation funds (i3).

Not only are federal funds waiting to be had, but private foundations, such as those run by Bill Gates, the Broad Family, and the Walton family of Walmart fame, are aiming fire-hoses of cash at start-up charters all across the country.

The supposed advantage of charter schools - that they are not governed by the local education governing agency - is actually what makes them prone to corruption. With very few checks and balances - sometimes none if the chartering agency runs the whole show - charters can determine student populations served, personnel policies, salaries, and other matters, all without the input of the local community.

Some would say that "what matters is not the way schools are governed but what happens inside them." But I disagree. That's like saying that it's okay for those in charge of municipalities to operate as a dictatorship as long as garbage gets picked up, cops are on the beat, and "the trains run on time."

The reality in much of education policy making today is that more and more decisions governing public schools are being made without regard to the will of the public. The whole Race to the Top mandates that determine which schools will get federal funding were conceived primarily without any input from the legislative branch whatsoever. And in many more school districts the growing influence of private foundations is dictating public policy on the way schools are run. Not only are private foundations determining the leadership of local schools, regardless of what parents and educators may feel. They are also using their big bucks to leverage decisions by the federal government on which schools will be rewarded with grant money funded by the taxpayers.

Tom Hoffman at edublog SVC Tuttle clarifies how the influence of private foundations goes hand-in-hand with charter schools to usurp the public's control of education policy. "In addition to whatever ideological biases drive foundations to promote the charter school approach," he explains, "there is also a pragmatic, functional bias in favor of working with charters. They are simply easier for foundations to work with. That's not a good reason to shape public policy to favor charters, however."

Edublogger Claus von Zastrow warns "that too much power over schools is passing into the hands of people who have not been elected by the public to serve the public interest."

As we see democracy receding from the center of education policy making, it's important to understand that the ramifications of this extend deep into the classrooms of our children and the lessons they learn about how the world works. As Deborah Meier explains in her most recent blog post: (emphasis added)

"The means and ends of school reforms are connected. The 'way' we conduct schooling affects the way we conduct other matters of public life. Schools prepare us as much by 'how they work' as what they require us to know. If we treat our older and more experienced teachers as dispensable (not worth two new, young, would-be teachers) we are saying a lot to our youngsters about what we value; if teachers are fired without due process, we are providing a very powerful curriculum to kids. When we say that a score on a particular test is the measure of the woman, and surely more 'real' than what the adults who know you might say, we are engaging in an instructional act-influencing how young people value themselves and others."

A Housekeeping Note: before I award this week's Duncehat, the link to the report "Who wins and who loses? Public transfer accounts for U.S. generations born 1850-2090" that I referenced in last week's Left Ed has been kindly provided here by a trusted reader of this blog.

This Week's Duncehat Award: Newsweek Magazine
Educators everywhere were outraged by a recent issue of Newsweek whose cover featured the headline "The Key to Saving American Education," and in the background, on a blackboard, was the phrase written over and over in chalk: "We must fire bad teachers."

Inside, the cover story "Why We Must Fire Bad Teachers" continues the idiocy with a mostly fact-free argument that schools would all be great, children would improve, and America would again "lead the world" in test scores if only we could hunt down and fire all the "bad" teachers who are the sole cause of all that is wrong with public education.

I'm not going to bother with a point-by-point rebuttal of this screed, especially when so many educators have done the job for me.

(h/t Philly teacher)
Diane Ravitch:

"Leave aside the odd assertion that "much of the ability to teach is innate." (How do they know?) Leave aside the adulation for Michelle Rhee, Wendy Kopp, KIPP, and anyone who fights teachers' unions. Leave aside the horror stories about teachers accused of abusing students and keeping "a stash of pornography and cocaine at school." The article is a flamboyant example of outright hostility to teachers, to the organizations that represent them, and to public education itself.

Nowhere does the article mention that the highest-performing state in the nation is Massachusetts, where all or almost all teachers belong to unions; nor does it mention that the highest-performing nation in the world is Finland, where all or almost all teachers belong to unions. Nowhere in the article is there an example of a non-union district or state in the United States that has achieved high academic performance."

Barnett Barry:

"Newsweek's editors never once reflect on root causes - like the large numbers of ill-prepared teachers who enter and exit teaching quickly, or the many high-needs schools led by a revolving door of ill-trained principals who botch teacher evaluation and undermine the potential for effective teachers to work together to solve the problems in their own schools. Most blatantly, the article fails to consider just how our present mechanisms for teacher recruitment and preparation will replace teachers lost in wholesale firing frenzies. With laid-off journalists, perhaps?"

I'm awarding the whole magazine the Duncehat rather than just the authors because I can't imagine a competent editor allowing such a poorly researched and shabbily written article ever seeing the light of day.  


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Oh So THAT'S What They Mean By "Running Government Like A Business"! (4.00 / 6)
Glad you could clear that one up for me, Jeff.  It's been bothering me for the longest time!

Since 2005, there have been 40 investigations of charter schools using public funds fraudulently. What these investigations have found is that charter school officials have used taxpayer money to pay for things like "an extravagant lifestyle" (Minnesota), "spa treatments and personal vehicles" (California), "purchases at stores such as Louis Vuitton" (Illinois), and "funeral expenses" (Wisconsin - that's what passes for fun there).

There have been 18 indictments, 15 convictions, and 24 cases are still being pursued. But because this memorandum was sent as a warning for further vigilance in regard to this type of crime, it's easy to assume that the problem is apt to get much worse. And in fact there's ample proof that it is.

Here's a thought: One more reason to gut Social Security and Medicare is to help pay for the tsunami of fraud that privatizing education will bring!

"You know what they say -- those of us who fail history... doomed to repeat it in summer school." -- Buffy The Vampire Slayer, Season 6, Episode 3


Much obliged. (4.00 / 2)
Technocrats like Duncan think that complicated problems will become resolved as soon as the right "incentives" are put into place. Well, we can see where that's getting us. Heavy on the incentives. Light on the solutions.

Save Our Schools! March & National Call to Action, July 28-31, 2011 in Washington, DC: http://www.saveourschoolsmarch...

[ Parent ]
Oh, Grifters Have LOTS Of Solutions (4.00 / 2)
As soon as one fails, they've got half a dozen more ready to go!

"You know what they say -- those of us who fail history... doomed to repeat it in summer school." -- Buffy The Vampire Slayer, Season 6, Episode 3

[ Parent ]
So Familiar... (4.00 / 2)
Ravitch:

Nowhere in the article is there an example of a non-union district or state in the United States that has achieved high academic performance.

The same way that libertarians can never point to a functioning libertarian society, or any advanced industrial democracy without a welfare state.

Life is so much easier when you ignore the need for evidence.

Easier, that is, if someone else pays the price for your folly.

"You know what they say -- those of us who fail history... doomed to repeat it in summer school." -- Buffy The Vampire Slayer, Season 6, Episode 3


That Newsweek piece is truly reprehensible. (4.00 / 1)
The only "evidence" they bring into the article at all is the fact that teachers are indeed the most influential factor relevant to student achievement -- among the factors that are within the control of schools (they conveniently left off that part). But then the authors take that evidence and turn it on its head to suggest that firing teachers is a solution. Unbelievable!

Save Our Schools! March & National Call to Action, July 28-31, 2011 in Washington, DC: http://www.saveourschoolsmarch...

[ Parent ]
Ah yes, this whole neoliberal experiment is working out so very well, isn't it? (4.00 / 4)
Now that "teachers" can join "mexkins," "Libruls," "progressives," "furriners" and "The French" as "the new jews," all I can say is, Welcome To The Club!

And to think Jon Meachum will be replacing Bill Moyers' time slot on PBS, now know as the Propaganda Broadcasting System! Talk about Full Spectrum Dominance!

So now we can list miseducation to the list of officially sanctioned scams.

Jeff, what's your sense as to how this is sitting with the public? The polls that I've seen don't really address the nuts and bolts of education issues, it seems. It seems to me parents who aren't rich ought to be furious by now.

"More than any other time in history, mankind faces a crossroads. One path leads to despair and utter hopelessness. The other, to total extinction. Let us pray we have the wisdom to choose correctly." -Woody Allen, My Speech to the Graduates


The public (4.00 / 3)
Right now the national press is totally out-of-touch with education issues, with only the brief flurry of articles about Diane Ravitch's about-face making any sort of headline news at all. Even on the local scene, media coverage of education is usually terrible. And think tanks that examine education often fabricate the data as this new report shows. IOW, how are people going to get the information they need to form opinions? Only at the most personal level, i.e., what is happening to your child's education, is there any point of reference. And most people tend to be content with their neighborhood schools (although, I haven't seen a recent poll on this).

Save Our Schools! March & National Call to Action, July 28-31, 2011 in Washington, DC: http://www.saveourschoolsmarch...

[ Parent ]
Yes, I was afraid you would say that. (4.00 / 2)
Agree all 'round, of course. I'm sufficiently jaded that your comment is pretty much my default remark on most issues and PO. Then again, reading posts like these have me scratching my head, thinking, "Maybe I'm not cynical enough! Where's the outrage?"

I'm not a parent, so I'm not engaged in local education matters the way I would think an engaged parent would be. It seems like a part-time to full-time job just to monitor a school district's behaviors.

I was rereading parts of Theda Skocpol's States & Social Revolutions a few weeks ago, so I am increasingly finding myself looking for breaking points in the polity. This certainly should be one of them. There's simply too much at stake here and the government is delegitimizing itself in a big way, behaving in such an outwardly sleazy manner.

"More than any other time in history, mankind faces a crossroads. One path leads to despair and utter hopelessness. The other, to total extinction. Let us pray we have the wisdom to choose correctly." -Woody Allen, My Speech to the Graduates


[ Parent ]
What it takes (4.00 / 3)
In a neighboring county where I live in NC people are starting to get incensed with the school board, which was taken over by rightwing fanatics in the last election. And they're now demonstrating at board meetings and mounting advocacy campaigns to combat the board's scrapping of a nationally admired diversity policy. But it took a really severe turn of events to activate this. Most people, even parents, don't bother voting in school board elections.

And even in the "politically aware" community, knowledge of education issues is generally shallow. Anecdotally, since I started blogging about this on OL, I can't tell you how many people have contacted me to say, "Wow, I had no idea this was going on."

Save Our Schools! March & National Call to Action, July 28-31, 2011 in Washington, DC: http://www.saveourschoolsmarch...


[ Parent ]
Well, at least you're having an impact. (4.00 / 1)
With the right-wing fanatics out there doing everything they can to destroy liberal education, they are providing all of us with a plethora of shocking examples with which to educate people. From the Texas schoolbooks, to Arizona deciding to fire any English teachers "who have accents," methinks the tide will turn on this.

Das kulturenkampf is heating up. If we can tie neo-liberalism into that, perhaps there's an opening there, eh?

"More than any other time in history, mankind faces a crossroads. One path leads to despair and utter hopelessness. The other, to total extinction. Let us pray we have the wisdom to choose correctly." -Woody Allen, My Speech to the Graduates


[ Parent ]
Yes (0.00 / 0)
Let's hope.

Save Our Schools! March & National Call to Action, July 28-31, 2011 in Washington, DC: http://www.saveourschoolsmarch...

[ Parent ]
Count me as another grateful reader (4.00 / 3)
I'm so glad that OpenLeft is hosting actually progressive perspectives on education - it's a rarity, as so many left of center foundations and think tanks follow the Gates & Rhee line.

Join the fight to give students a real voice on campus: Forstudentpower.org.

[ Parent ]
One Telling Indication (0.00 / 0)
is that year after year, public opinion surveys show that the closer people are to the schools, the higher they rate them.  Folks think the nation's schools are pretty bad.  But they rate local schools more highly.  And if they have kids in schools themselves, then the ratings go up even higher.  I first became aware of this relationship almost 20 years, and as far as I know it's never changed since then--only minor fluctuations.  

"You know what they say -- those of us who fail history... doomed to repeat it in summer school." -- Buffy The Vampire Slayer, Season 6, Episode 3

[ Parent ]
So this "blame the teachers" meme should fail outright, yes? (0.00 / 0)
Excepting the mediot windbags, of course.

"More than any other time in history, mankind faces a crossroads. One path leads to despair and utter hopelessness. The other, to total extinction. Let us pray we have the wisdom to choose correctly." -Woody Allen, My Speech to the Graduates

[ Parent ]
And a complete failure of Democratic pushback (4.00 / 1)
When the Dems treat Republican nonsense as serious, and attacks on that nonsense as un-serious, it tends to encourage this sort of nuttery.

Politics is the art of the possible, but that means you have to think about changing what is possible, not that you have to accept it in perpetuity.

[ Parent ]
Agreed. (0.00 / 0)
Then again, they do that because they're playing on the same team.

They aren't going to push back on things they agree with, eh?

"More than any other time in history, mankind faces a crossroads. One path leads to despair and utter hopelessness. The other, to total extinction. Let us pray we have the wisdom to choose correctly." -Woody Allen, My Speech to the Graduates


[ Parent ]
Blame the teacher is alive and well. (0.00 / 0)
The race for the RTT money has them falling all over themselves to praise this stupid piece of legislation.  Neoliberals are the worst.    

[ Parent ]
Indeed. If current trends hold... (4.00 / 1)
... within a few years we'll find out that about 80% of the US population is to blame for everything from oil spills to tsunamis and the other 20%, the right-wing nutbags, will be the only "innocents" within the polity. Of course, the dominant class will never take responsibility for anything.

I think I'm joking when I say that. I think I am....

"More than any other time in history, mankind faces a crossroads. One path leads to despair and utter hopelessness. The other, to total extinction. Let us pray we have the wisdom to choose correctly." -Woody Allen, My Speech to the Graduates


[ Parent ]
The solution to everything (0.00 / 0)
upend democracy, unions, public institutions and increase penalties (for the little people of course, for the rest, we must not look back...)

Politics is the art of the possible, but that means you have to think about changing what is possible, not that you have to accept it in perpetuity.

Also (0.00 / 0)
why is it the firing elite journalists and editors is never the answer?

By the way, anyone have a good link so I can get better caught up on Michele Rhee? The DC mayoral election, to the extent it is not about personalities, seems to be a referendum on Rhee (although its largely implicit.)  

Politics is the art of the possible, but that means you have to think about changing what is possible, not that you have to accept it in perpetuity.


[ Parent ]
. (0.00 / 0)
Last I checked, public schools weren't any better at maintaining honesty with money. For example, I went to public schools in SF and my superintendent was a guy named Waldemar Rojas. Look up Waldemar Rojas fraud, somehow the guy was still able to get another job after the mess he left us in. Do you honestly think public school systems are run any better?

You SUCK At Math! (4.00 / 3)
The vast majority of schools in America are regular public schools.  Charters are a relatively small fraction.  But the number and extent of financial scandals surrounding them is already substantial.

No one is claiming that public education is perfect.  No human institution is.  But that's just the point:  Public systems are inherently more directly accountable.  Meaning that it's harder for scammers to pull ahit off.  Privatized entities are both harder to hold accountable, and more attractive to those whose motives are monetary rather than educational.  So it's no surprise that they're more attractive to fraudsters.

"You know what they say -- those of us who fail history... doomed to repeat it in summer school." -- Buffy The Vampire Slayer, Season 6, Episode 3


[ Parent ]
Let me add to Paul's comment. (4.00 / 1)
Currently about 10% of students attend charter schools. And for there to be that many cases (documented in my diary) of charter school corruption is pretty alarming. And the DOE didn't send out a memo warning of corruption in local public schools. It sent the memo about charters. I think your "public schools weren't any better at maintaining honesty" comment is totally without warrant. Even though you've picked a particular case that certainly is deserving of scrutiny.

Save Our Schools! March & National Call to Action, July 28-31, 2011 in Washington, DC: http://www.saveourschoolsmarch...

[ Parent ]
Editors (4.00 / 1)
"...I can't imagine a competent editor allowing such a poorly researched and shabbily written article ever seeing the light of day."

Sadly, I assume the Newsweek editors probably assigned the writers and encouraged them to go down this road. Have to make their bosses at Kaplan happy!


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