With the 2018 primaries less than a year away, battles over school privatization intensified this week as civil rights groups spoke out against charter schools, an issue where Donald Trump and establishment Democrats agree. Parents of color, in particular, are being sold ‘school choice’ in the hopes they will turn their child’s education over to corporate ‘providers.’
On Wednesday, July 26, the NAACP boldly doubled down against privately-run charter schools, citing a year-long study which followed up on their call for a moratorium on new charters, issued just before the presidential election last October. This was a telling rebuke of the DNC platform committee who asked only for minor tweaks to charter oversight.
As the Democratic nominee, Hillary Clinton continued support of charters schools throughout the election despite embarrassingly vocal opposition from rank-and-file teachers. It was also discovered that fall that the Hillary team was meeting billionaire ‘ed reformers’ (who they called “money and substance folks”) in secret policy roundtables as they simultaneously collected campaign cash.
EITHER WAY, CHARTERS
Trump went further than Hillary, promising a rapid expansion of charter schools – but this meant charter advocates were siding with both presidential candidates. After winning, Trump wasted no time seeking out the notorious charter maven Eva Moskowitz, CEO of the 41 school Success Academy network in New York City.
Moskowitz had financial ties to the Trump campaign through Wall Street financier John Paulson. An $8.5 million donor to Success Academy who served as economic advisor to the Trump campaign. Billionaire investor Julian Robertson who gave Success a record-shattering $25 million gift is also a donor to a prominent pro-Trump PAC.
After meeting Trump, Moskowitz pledged support for his plan to expand charters – as well as controversial private school vouchers – but she stopped short of joining Trump’s cabinet. Next, Moskowitz offered praise to Trump’s Education Secretary Betsy DeVos (whose foundation had previously donated $300,000 to Success Academy). Moskowitz then invited Ivanka Trump and House Speaker Paul Ryan to tour Success charter schools in Harlem.
Most people do not realize that PACs allied with Moskowitz also helped engineer a political coup in Albany. Her two charter school lobbying groups, Families for Excellent Schools and Great Public Schools PAC, an offshoot of Students First NY, spent over $10 million making pro-charter donors the biggest political manipulators in NY state.
Another group of hedge funders called New Yorkers for a Balanced Albany financed a massive advertising campaign in 2014 to keep the NY State Senate in Republican hands and pro-charter. Success Academy mega-donor Daniel Loeb contributed $1 million to the group.
Also pushing charter schools is Reclaim NY, a PAC disguised as a “charity” backed by reclusive billionaire Robert Mercer. When it’s founding VP Steve Bannon stepped down to work in Trump’s White House, it illustrated why The New Yorker’s Jane Mayer reported Mercer has “surrounded” Trump with “his people” by “paying for their seats.”
MAYORAL CONTROL MATTERS
As the plan to expand charter schools in NY starts with wealthy donors who in turn fund legislators, an important focus is wresting control from local stakeholders who might oppose charters opening in their neighborhood.
Just as we see in charter-heavy Chicago, the key to this in NYC was mayoral control. In 2002, the NY legislature upstate first granted then-mayor Michael Bloomberg unilateral control of NYC schools for a term of seven years, dissolving locally-elected school boards. Because Bloomberg was an advocate for privatizing education and had successfully expanded charters, he was granted a six-year renewal in 2009.
The promise was that mayoral control would help improve student performance and that there would be direct accountability. From the very start, however, it became an excursion into perverse incentives (cash bonuses for success, firing for failure) built wholly on a system of specious test-based metrics which the Bloomberg administration was the worst offender in manipulating.
Fast forward to the election of “liberal” Democrat Bill de Blasio as NYC mayor, and suddenly mayoral control would be held hostage, with annual one-year extensions granted only in exchange for significant concessions on school privatization. The NY State Assembly, which is under control of Democrats, offered de Blasio 3-year extensions with no strings attached. The State Senate Republicans meanwhile sought a pound of flesh – backdoor vouchers in the form of religious school tax credits, lifting the cap on charter schools, new oversight powers and other policies that were all rejected.
Integral to 2016’s final one-year renewal deal was letting charter schools switch authorizers and allowing one such authorizer, The State University of New York (SUNY) to change certain rules governing charters. This didn’t seem like a big deal at the time, but over the next year, some fifty NYC charter schools switched authorizers, moving over to SUNY in advance of their controversial new proposal to allow charter schools to hire unlicensed teachers.
The concept, it turns out, was championed by Success Academy’s CEO Eva Moskowitz (who herself would be granted power to issue certifications for teachers after three years working for her). At present, it’s not clear whether SUNY has the legal authority to make these changes, but they have begun a public comment period and may eventually take their case to court.
STACKING THE COMMITTEE
It is suspected the uncertified teacher proposal was orchestrated by NY Governor Cuomo, who appointed all four trustees of the SUNY charter school committee that will make the decision. The committee chair Joseph Belluck, a prominent personal injury attorney, was himself a major Cuomo campaign donor. Another committee member Edward Spiro was married to a former Cuomo chief of staff and member Eric Corngold also served as deputy under Cuomo when he was NY’s Attorney General. The board is stacked with Cuomo loyalists, but the sweetener was tens of millions in increased capital funding allocated for SUNY.
Cuomo has amassed millions from the charter industry, including $50,000 donations from Eva Moskowitz and the billionaire Walton family. The list of Wall Street donors giving both to Cuomo and Success Academy is impressive, including billionaire Trump supporter Carl Icahn, who runs seven SUNY-authorized charter schools.
Other hedge-funders who gave directly to Cuomo include Ravenel Curry III, Julian Robertson and founding Success investor John Petry, while others like Paul Tudor Jones and Paul Greenblatt (who also run charter networks) support Cuomo through PACs. In gratitude, Cuomo and the Legislature approved as much as $2,600 per pupil in new charter school spending in state budget deals.
DE BLASIO GIVES CHARTERS “WINS”
In a last-minute deal for a two-year renewal of mayoral control, Mayor de Blasio agreed to go around the legislature, promising to help charters expand. The agreement granted permission to revive so-called “zombie” charters, meaning schools that never open or quickly closed. Twenty-two such slots existed in limbo until the agreement. Mayor de Blasio’s position on the uncertified teacher proposal has not been made public, but it was revealed around the same time de Blasio secretly negotiated his side-deal. After wondering aloud if the two were linked, Politico’s Eliza Shapiro later reported that withholding details was part of the deal between de Blasio and NYS Senate leadership.
Adding pressure on the NYC mayor this year was the Independent Democratic Conference (IDC), a breakaway group of Senators nicknamed “Trump’s Democrats” because they accept clandestine donations from Republican donors and pro-charter groups, in turn helping Republicans keep control of the narrowly divided NY State Senate.
In stark contrast, the NAACP issued a bold new call for policies to bring all US schools under one standard of oversight. Echoing the NEA’s recently revised policy position, the NAACP demanded charter schools cease all for-profit operations (lest anyone think venture capitalists and Wall Street investors were backing charter schools out of philanthropy, think again).
The NAACP report also called for fuller community input, demanding charters fall under the oversight of democratically elected local boards. As teacher-blogger Steven Singer observed, “school choice” always seems to happen after charters are authorized and built, not before.
With one in eight black children in the US today attending a charter school, the NAACP also decried out the infamous cherry-picking practices that ensure charter schools enroll the best test-takers, only to disparage the schools who serve the “troublesome” kids. Those unsure how charters weed out the most “at risk” students need only look at the process that discriminates against small children whose parents do not enter them in lotteries.
The NAACP called out funding disparities and long-unenforced federal equity provisions. They called out the lack of transparency in charters – particularly fiscal transparency – and the lack of accountability (which Betsy DeVos spent millions to secure). They called out the propaganda efforts of charter advocates, distorting research to skew public perceptions.
Joined by other civil rights groups, the NAACP denounced the charter movement’s push for competition, rather than cooperation across public school systems.
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