|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)
"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."
"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.