Invasion of the (student) body snatchers

Cranston Mayor Alan Fung has announced a plan to open five charter schools in his city, to be run by a “non-profit” charter management organization.  The phrase “non-profit” has been utterly abused in our nation, to the point where it has no meaning.  Or perhaps its means has been reduced to: “we don’t have to pay taxes, so we’re an excellent investment opportunity for venture capitalists”.  This is probably the real meaning.  So don’t be fooled: our schools are about to get Funged up—in a big way.

If you are not familiar with the charter schools movement, I suggest you start your reading with the critique.  Of course, the best introduction is Diane Ravitch’s book, but if you’re looking for something shorter, check out this article and this article and this article in the International Socialist Review.  Then, for a sense of how it’s going to work out in Rhode Island, check out this leaflet written by my friend Kevin Faria for the Bristol-Warren Parents’ Alliance, a project we started to bring back funding to our district and stop the threat of charter schools.  We’ve not been super successful in practice, but Kevin’s insight is extremely useful—especially his insight on the meaning of “non-profit” charter schools and the public education cash cow that hedge fund managers are now salivating over.

GO READ.  Oh, and also go back and read my last post about why we need an elected school committee, particular the appendix that’s taken from Ravitch’s book.  OK, have you read those articles?  Because now I’m going to throw at you much more to read.

So now that you’ve read that background, here’s the foreground: Kevin has always maintained (correctly, in my view) that the state budget crisis in education is being manufactured precisely to open up space for and create incentives to parents to send their kids to new charter schools, particularly through the Rhode Island Mayoral Academies.  Take some time to familiarize yourself with these “reformers”.  Among their people are Mayor Fung, former director of Progreso Latino Ramón Martínez, and Joe Williams, executive director of Democrats for Education Reform.  One of their founders was none other than Angus Davis, the Bristol-based Bill Gates wannabe who has been behind numerous charter school initiatives.  He was recently relieved of his post on the Rhode Island Board of Governors for Elementary and Secondary Education by Governor Chafee, but is certainly still a player.  (There was a hilarious website called beefwithangus.com that has now disappeared.)  And of course, all of this is supported by RI-CAN, whose staff includes Anna Cano Morales, a member (appointed, not elected) of the Central Falls School Board who voted to fire the Central Falls High School teachers last year.  Check out RI-CAN’s first public statement to get an idea where they’re coming from.

So when the Projo announced that the number of applications to operate charter schools had dropped, we thought, gee, maybe we’re in the clear.  Well…clearly not.  (Actually, I think I was the one to think that—Kevin maintained his prudent cynicism on the issue.)  Then came the firing of Providence teachers, then the closing of the schools—with the rationale that enrollments were dropping (a dubious assertion).  Well, here it is folks: once the Achievement First Mayoral Academy takes over 900 Providence students, the enrollments will drop.

Mayor Fung’s plan is outlined in this Providence Journal article, which also notes the opposition of the community.  Remember that earlier this year, it was Fung who claimed that the Cranston Schools were in a massive financial crisis that required major cuts to their programs.  Then he turns around and announces he’s bringing in a charter—meaning that the Cranston Schools were set up, and Fung is the hit man.

So who is Achievement First?  It seems that this benevolent company sprang from the Amistad Academy in New Haven (remember that movie?  Didn’t it make you feel good?), a charter school which grew into a much larger company with the help of New York City Schools Chancellor Joel Klein.  Remember Klein’s role in implementing NYC Mayor Bloomberg’s dictatorial policies, and in expanding charter schools there.  A look at AF’s Board of Directors gives you a laundry list of CEOs, venture capitalists, and other financial vultures.  Their staff is packed with graduates of Teach for America and KIPP schools, and they have plenty of big business, profit-making connections.  Take, for example, Mr. Harris Ferrell:

Harris Ferrell
Chief Information Officer
Mr. Ferrell is responsible for information practices, processes and systems across the Achievement First network. His goal is to ensure that Achievement First’s data and information practices are supported by the proper enterprise systems to efficiently and effectively communicate, document, share, analyze, report, plan and review all facets of its best practices and organizational performance. Formerly, Mr. Ferrell was a co-founder and senior vice president of AdvancePath Academics, a company that sets up and operates drop-out recovery academies on behalf of school districts. Mr. Ferrell attended Yale University as an undergraduate and earned his M.B.A. from Harvard Business School. He has worked in education in many different facets: a classroom teacher through Teach For America in Houston, a designer of education software as director of product management at SchoolNet and an investor in education as an associate partner at NewSchools Venture Fund.

It’s a bit stunning, really, the intersection of education “reform” with technology developers and venture capitalists.  This one man embodies it all!

What about Achievement First’s accomplishments?  There is ample evidence on the Interwebs that it’s doing fabulously well, right?  And in fact, much of its accomplishments sound wonderful—though the whole notion of “miracle schools” should always be approached with a strong dose of skepticism.  But there are also some other stories about difficulties, and some real problems with their middle school management in particular.  While most comments from parents are highly laudatory, I found this comment to be quite interesting:

I have a child in third grade. Her academic performance is on par with my great expectations. All or most of the children at AFBES fare well in all areas. The true concern is moving forward to Middle School, any of them. We can not ignore the countless number of families fleeing this charter because of the new, erroneously pervasive insistence of character and moral education emphasis mandated once in Middle school – acting as if they are entering a reform school. I believe the teachers to be stellar in elementary school level. I have few if any complaints that weren’t addressed or corrected. The staff from the office are pleasant, the principal greets every child by name and the school culture is “family”. The PLC could be a powerhouse if they organized their efforts like getting employee matched donations, ice cream socials and dual language insistence to meet the needs of the community and future based earnings criteria. My biggest issue would be the unpreparedness or unwillingness of the two schools to meet and connect to make for a smooth transition. Its as if they – the corporation) want our children to support their product (charter school) so it can be sold to NYC

Perhaps most interesting for us in Rhode Island is AF’s connection with the Broad Foundation, which is clearly supporting AF’s expansion into Cranston.  It raises all sorts of issues about who’s in line with the Broad Foundation, who’s doing their dirty work, and what do they expect to get out of it.  This is a growing problem, and we need to pay close attention.

The first hearing on the school drew a sizable crowd.  Here’s the Projo report, and another from Tom Hoffman.  I think Tom’s probably right that the hearing is not likely going to influence the decision much.  That said, I think there’s important work that the Coalition to Defend Public Education can do at the next hearing.  This is a wonderful opportunity for us to connect with parents and teachers in Cranston, and to expand the scope of the Coalition.  Public education is under attack all over the state—and an injury to one truly is an injury to all.

So I strongly encourage everyone: PLEASE COME TO THE HEARING!  Tuesday, May 31 at 6pm at Cranston City Hall, 869 Park Avenue, 3rd floor.

And then come on Friday to the RALLY TO DEFEND PUBLIC EDUCATION, 4:30pm at Providence City Hall.  See you there!

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About riredteacher

I'm a foreign language teacher and socialist in Rhode Island.
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2 Responses to Invasion of the (student) body snatchers

  1. Kiersten Marek says:

    You sum things up well and provide a lot of good links. I am opposed to the AF plan for Cranston as a parent, social worker, and member of the community here in Cranston and have posted about my concerns on my blog. I am not completely opposed to charter schools — the Met School in Providence for example is a school that does great work and provides a needed service in my opinion. But there is no reason for the AF schools in Cranston — it is being done for political reasons, basically to try to lower wages and benefits for teachers, and I think the mayor has a moral responsibility to do this work of negotiating with the unions in a way that does not use individual children as pawns. I also think some of the techniques of the AF educational philosophy prey on fears and a sense of cultural shame rather than building on positive identity based on each child’s gifts and abilities. The excessive emphasis on discipline in some of the NY schools is very concerning.

  2. Tom Hoffman says:

    The main reason charter school applications were so low is how badly Gist has managed the sector — threatening to abruptly close Highlander, RIDE’s general disorganization in re-writing the regulations and process, and the contradictions built into the Mayoral Academy law (tying charters to town government is just stupid).

    If charter school opponents had done the exact same things, RI-CAN, etc. would be howling.

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