J’accuse!

First, if you have not already done so, please go read Tom Hoffman’s blog posts on Achievement First. Tom has compiled important facts about organization in the lead up to these last week’s forums, and everyone needs to know this information.

Secondly, here’s the Providence Journal report on last night’s hearing in Cranston. My overall assessment is that while I fully expect Achievement First to get permission to put their schools in—Broad wouldn’t give them that kind of money without a reasonable expectation of a return—nonetheless, I think we schooled the charter school supporters something fierce. And, it was fun!

I would estimate 200-300 people in attendance—enough to move the meeting from city hall to the Cranston East auditorium, but not enough quite to fill that auditorium. This was a surprise overflow crowd—and it became clear relatively quickly that the majority of people in the crowd, whom they had not been expecting, were in opposition. In fact, their supporters were a hard core of maybe 30 people, almost all of them sitting front and center, a conspicuous knot of organized lackeys in a room full of angry Cranston parents and teachers. As I was chasing two small children, I did not get the opportunity to take notes. I can say that there were many eloquent speakers before I was called on, and I was quite impressed with the large group of Cranston educators, parents and community members who called out Mayor Fung and the whole charter school racket. So here, in brief, is what I said.

*****

I’m a teacher in Bristol and I’m here because this is not just about Cranston, or Providence, but about what they’re doing all over. You’ve heard of “an injury to one is an injury to all”? Well, they’re injuring us all!

Achievement First is a non-profit organization. It may surprise you to learn that the Providence Place Mall Corporation is also a non-profit organization—for the “services” it provides the city of Providence. In return, the mall does not pay roughly $17 million annually in property taxes to the city. Non-profit doesn’t mean not for profit, it means that you’re a tax haven for the money contributed by your wealthy backers, like the Broad Foundation who gave you the million dollars to expand into Rhode Island. Be honest about what your status means.

It’s nice to hear that you’re working with mayors, but why not work with existing school committees? Or could it be that you’d rather not have to deal with an elected, representative body that’s accountable to the community? You’d prefer to work with an executive who’s less directly accountable, following the preferences of the Broad Foundation? It’s funny how that works—they always talk about “accountability” for students, parents and teachers, but they themselves seem to be exempt from accountability.

When Rhode Island was applying for Race to the Top funds, it revised its fair funding formula. My district is getting cut massively, as are other regional and suburban districts—oh, and also Central Falls, a clear indication of the “fairness” of the formula—but, we were told, this was to benefit the underfunded urban districts. But then I hear that Providence has a $100 million budget gap, and that Cranston schools had to cut $7 million from their budget. It raises the question: are you starving us all of funds so that you can force people into charters? Because it sure looks that way!

*****

Phew! That was fun, especially with the cadre of charter supporters sitting right in front of me, glaring as I called them out. J’accuse, tas d’escrocs! Take that!

I would add a couple things also, that I didn’t get to say last night. For one, I find it interesting that we were told that enrollments were declining at the five Providence schools that were closed—though no one could find clear documentation of the decline in enrollment. Could it be that this was a planned decrease in enrollment? That they were accounting for an estimated future drop in enrollments in Providence along the lines of, say, 900 students?

Secondly, I think we need to be quite careful about how we frame the issue between communities, who we exclude and what it means for the justification of our opponents. It sounded like a certain Cranston city councilman (I don’t remember who and I’m not super-familiar with Cranston politics) talked at the last forum about how hard Cranston had tried to keep Providence kids out of their system. This is a narrow-minded approach that unfairly labels the Providence kids as “a problem” and sets up a barrier between two communities that have a lot more in common than they have in differences. And it provides grounds for charter school supporters to accuse our side of wanting to condemn a certain section of the student population to a sub-standard education. It makes the problem one of “I want this for my community, everyone else be damned” instead of attacking the charter movement for what it is: a movement to siphon public money into the private sector while parents become “consumers” and lose any control whatsoever over their children’s schools, and teachers are stripped of their union rights. It’s the same sort of pedantic local opportunism that I heard from Bristol folks when Gist came to our district to defend the funding formula, and it’s a losing strategy. It makes their side look reasonable and justified, when they are not.

Thirdly, it is quite stunning how the charter movement frames itself as “the new civil rights movement”. As a friend from Cranston put it while we were walking out of the event, they make it sound like people who want their kids’ public schools to be adequately funded and not replaced are actually racist! When someone from the Cumberland charter school talked about wanting to expose her kids to “diversity” that they couldn’t get in Cumberland, frankly it was quite condescending, like, “I still want to live in my lily-white suburb, but I want to pretend that we live in a racially integrated world by sending my kid to a school where there are token students of color so we can feel better about that.” It was striking, also, that all the people who spoke in favor of the charter school who live in Providence—who complained that they didn’t have good alternatives to “bad” public schools—were all white! My Cranston friend, who’s white but whose wife is Mexican-American, pointed out: Cranston already has plenty of diversity. There’s the black family next door, the Vietnamese family across the street, etc. Why do they want to screw that up with a charter school?

The last thing I want to discuss is where we go from here. The Board of Regents votes on the school on June 16—and we should prepare to have a presence at that meeting. I fully expect that they’ll approve the AF proposal. But I don’t think it has to end there. I think we put a huge dent in the ideological armor of charter schools, and I think we can potentially keep up the pressure, keep them from expanding, and maybe even convince the general public not to send their kids to these schools. Imagine if AF couldn’t even get the 900 students for their elementary schools that they seem to want! The road ahead is long and treacherous, but I think we can aspire to lofty goals.

Meanwhile, everyone PLEASE COME to the RALLY TO DEFEND PUBLIC EDUCATION this Friday, June 3 at 4:30pm at the 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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3 Responses to J’accuse!

  1. Kiersten Marek says:

    Thanks for the free reporting and excellent advocacy and compelling questions. I’m impressed that you are doing all this, when some part of you suspects that all the cards have basically been dealt to make this happen. I am also cynical about how much weight will be given to the public comment on this issue. The next question it seems we should be asking is, why can’t the charters be schools that are unionized for teachers? Is it specified in RTTT that the charter schools can’t have unions?

  2. riredteacher says:

    Well, Kiersten, I’m cynical about how much of this has already been decided behind the scenes, and the extent to which the public hearings are dog and pony shows. I think they’ll force through a lot of stuff that we’re not currently prepared to stop. But I’m not cynical about the long-term project of defending public education. The real importance of the forum, in my mind, was that we had a fabulous audience. We had at least four of us from the CDPE, plus a friend of mine who’s a Cranston parent and budding political activist, get up and expose the charter school movement–and we were not the only ones! A whole range of Cranston-based folks had brilliant comments about the whole thing. My hope is that, coming out of this forum, more people come to the rally for public education on Friday–and that we enlarge the active base of the CDPE. That is the real goal of these hearings, in my mind.

    And it’s not just a vain hope, I don’t think. Through the process of the Providence teacher firings and school closings, we brought together a range of teachers who previously did not know each other–from different schools, retired teachers, etc.–plus parents and community activists, including some real seasoned people who’ve been around for a while but may not have worked together before. I brought to the table a small network of people I’d met through previous struggles around education from beyond Providence, as well. So our core group–now between 20-30 people, plus a discussion list of over 40–is really becoming a solid organization. I was quite happy about how we could pull together, pretty last minute, to go to the hearing with clipboards, flyers, etc.–and I wasn’t the one preparing all that! Furthermore, this group will be the core of a future network of education activists who will figure out what the unions have not been able to–how to up the ante on the struggles so that in the future, maybe we can block some of these “reforms”.

    This is where it gets tricky. Sure, there’s no law saying you can’t organize a union at a charter school–but then again, there’s no law saying you can’t organize a union at Walmart, which is, of course, one of the backers of the charter school movement. But it’s a thought. Already there’ve been union organizing efforts at charters in Chicago and LA, and charter school parents who’ve organized to demand a say in their kids’ education. I could also imagine people organizing sit-ins at decision-making meetings, occupying buildings slated to be handed over to charter management organizations, or organizing broad boycotts of charters (what if they only got a fraction of the 900 students they’re supposed to have?). It’s all part of a bigger discussion about which way forward for the struggle for public education. Direct action will have to figure in at some point–but before we get to that point, we have to win the ideological battle. I think the forum in Cranston was an excellent step in that direction.

    • Jackie says:

      Sorry this reply is not timely but I couldn’t resist commenting about the diversity remark by one of the Cumberland parents. The southern end of Cumberland is quite diverse. Over the past few years, there have been attempts to redistrict and move the school boundary lines to shift the overflow of students into the schools in the southern and diverse area. You can’t imagine the outcry that this always causes. Who knew that they were now seeking diversity.

      I am a retired teacher who is very interested in becoming active in the Coalition to Defend Public Education. Please let me know what I can do.

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