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Obama and Charter Schools

The Showdown at Schottenstein

by GEOFF BERNE

On May 1, 2009, Michigan’s Board of Education, like boards in most of the other states across the U.S., issued a resolution "recognizing that teachers are vital to the very fabric of our society" and declaring the week of May 4-8 Teacher Appreciation Week.

Three days later, on May 4, President Obama, in what could only have been intended as a face slap to the week’s traditional teacher-centered theme, issued a proclamation designating May 3 through May 9, 2009, as National Charter Schools Week. Rather than honor the contributions to our society of American teachers in our 95,000-plus public schools, and teaching as a profession, as has become customary, he chose to salute only the personnel of the 3,500 charter schools that though publicly financed have been allowed to exist like private businesses, independent from and competitive with the public system.

Here are his exact words of selective praise:

"I commend our Nation’s successful public charter schools, teachers, and administrators, and I call on States and communities to support public charter schools and the students they serve."

How ironical, then, that in the very state that gave birth to publicly funded private education, Ohio, with the establishment of a pilot program in Cleveland of giving vouchers to parents to use for private schools in 1992—the state that has the greatest number of privately run charter schools, 330—a growing backlash against the privatization concept is being led by none other than the state’s governor, Ted Strickland.

Strickland rode into office in 2006 on a platform pledging to remove the exemptions from government oversight and academic accountability requirements that have given the private schools an unfair advantage in the marketing of their undocumented and unproven "product," enabling a myth to grow of charters’ academic superiority that, in Ohio anyway, as my co-author Todd Price will show in his interview in Part II with Ohio Federation of Teachers president Sue Taylor, couldn’t be further from the truth. Strickland vowed in his campaign to shut down rogue schools that had proliferated to siphon public funds under the pretense of educating kids—and he won in 2006 with a landslide majority. In the two years since his win he has made no bones about his determination to honor his crackdown pledge.

As if to hammer home how unswerving Strickland looks to be in his mission to uphold government’s obligation to public over private education, the governor chose the very same week that President Obama was placing the imprimatur of his administration on America’s charter schools, to hold a rally in Ohio’s capitol, Columbus, to call for the strengthening, rather than abandonment and replacement, of the public system and inviting none other than the president’s famously pro-charter Secretary of Education Arne Duncan to participate, which he did with something falling slightly short of avidity, as the day’s featured guest!

On May 8, 2009, against a backdrop of the majestic Schottenstein Arena at Ohio State University, the largest public university in the United States, Governor Strickland hosted a Rally for Education that capped the sixteen month-long "listening tour" he has been conducting to promote his plan to restore Ohio to its once-top place among state economies through education. His plan, widely criticized by Republicans for its reliance on federal stimulus money that, they predict, will require replacement with taxation when it runs out at the end of two years, calls for greater monetary investment, expanding programs connecting education to work, supporting creativity and curricular innovation, and ending the open door policy that has allowed charter schools to obtain state funding without oversight or accountability, by shutting down those found to be mismanaged and academically substandard.

There was a certain poetic justice, which one suspects Gov. Strickland may have intended to bring out in extending his invitation for the secretary to be the headline speaker at the event, in the spectacle of Sec. Duncan, a man whose name has become synonymous with advocacy of privatized education, addressing an assemblage of public education celebrants including union leaders, teachers, parents, students, legislators, and administrators.

As the final speaker, Secretary Duncan found himself obliged to wait patiently on the speakers platform through a succession of speeches resolutely supporting public education before delivering the speech he had himself come to give, the highlight of which would be an offer to bestow five billion dollars in federal money on states (hint to Gov. Strickland: this could be YOUR state) exhibiting the greatest commitment to education "reform." Given that Duncan’s own record as head of Chicago public schools for seven years prior to his 2008 cabinet appointment consisted of shutting down rather than rebuilding the public schools, and replacing them with new academies that, though ostensibly within the public system, were privately run, when Sec. Duncan uses the words "education reform" what he specifically means by them is in the words of the Associated Press’s Libby Quaid, closing public schools, firing their staffs and principals, and “turning the school over to a charter operator.”

The speaker directly preceding Duncan was the man who had invited him to speak and who was there to introduce him, none other than Governor Strickland. What Strickland did first off, prior to delivering his own remarks, was to yield the stage to two figures who wound up overshadowing all other speakers on the program including Secretary Duncan and (as was surely his intention) the governor himself, namely Dale and Nathan (“Nate”) DeRolph, the father and son who have come to symbolize the struggle for educational improvement in Ohio through eighteen years and four challenges in the Ohio Supreme Court to Ohio’s abysmally unequal educational system.

Unlisted in prior publicity for the program, the DeRolphs were artfully brought there by the governor to tell the story of a challenge in 1991 to the primitive conditions in their home area of southeastern Perry County that became a crusade to overturn the state’s neglect of schools in low income areas, a crusade that resulted in four judgments in the Ohio Supreme Court since 1997 that were in their favor, pronounced the Ohio funding of schools with local tax levies unconstitutional, and culminated in the election victory of Ted Strickland for governor in 2006.

Dale DeRolph, the quiet-spoken hero of the crusade, spoke of discovering his son taking a final history examination cross-legged on the Sheraton High School gymnasium floor, and resolving that while his son found nothing out of the ordinary or wrong in doing so, he, as a father, found it wrong and would seek legal help to do something about it. He described conditions in the county schools at the time:

“. . . split classes in elementary, reusable textbooks, labs without equipment or working equipment, and buildings that were under constant repair, . . . teachers (who were often) our third and fourth choices of teacher applicants.”

Nate DeRolph, in whose name the court challenges had been waged, and who had been fifteen years old and a high school freshman at the time of the initial filing, spoke next.

"Once my dad and I got involved," he said, "we traveled to some of the wealthier districts in Ohio and some of the poorest. I think I can speak for both of us when I say we were shocked. The wealthier schools had every college prep class you could imagine and extracurricular activities I thought only colleges offered. They had facilities and learning materials rivaled by none, then we visited some of the poorest schools and it was like being in a third world country. Buildings falling down, textbooks from the 60s and 70s, and minimal college prep courses, if any.”

Confessing amazement at the failure of even four Supreme Court decisions to budge the all-Republican state legislatures of the 1990s and early 00s toward making a more equitable school funding system, the younger DeRolph speculated, "I hate to think what would happen if you or I ignored the Supreme Court. I thought with each ruling that they would have to fix school funding. How could they say no to the children of Ohio? But with each ruling came more backlash and more politics. More people saying that school funding couldn’t be fixed and that there was no good solution. The DeRolph suit was originally filed 18 years ago. The graduating class of 2009 was born when the lawsuit started. I’m now 33, married, with two kids of my own."

So here is Ohio with its first governor to target a top-to-bottom housecleaning in Ohio’s prehistoric education funding system, and already the traditional Ohio attitude that "school funding can’t be fixed and that there is no good solution" is coming back and threatening to take ascendancy over the governor’s unprecedented pro-public education campaign.

Cox Newspapers, a national newsgroup of 43 newspapers including The Dayton Daily News, Hamilton Journal-News, and six other papers in Southwestern Ohio, pronounced the Republican majority in the state Senate an opposition too formidable to overcome. In addition the governor faces opposition from Ohio newspapers themselves, whose failure to hold the entrenched Republicans’ feet to the fire on education has been no small part of the state’s festering educational inertia, going back so many decades.

"Governor Ted Strickland is not going to get his way on changing how Ohio pays for schools. Nor should he," Cox proclaimed in its syndicated editorials, rebuking Strickland for placing education above other equally compelling funding needs of the state, such as prisons. Acknowledging that Strickland has won backing from Ohio business as well as labor, they turn thumbs down on Strickland’s formula for arriving at a per-student funding number, requirements that may fit some schools in need of improvement but not others who are already here, and . . . Strickland’s philosophical stance that pits him against what (in the Cox papers’ publishers’ eyes, at any rate) is the direction a good part of the state, for whom Ohio Republicans speak, wants to go, namely toward charter rather than public schools.

The Republicans will give no quarter toward Strickland on education reform because in making Ohio the nation’s leader in creation of charter schools, it’s their party’s fifteen years in Ohio’s political majority that have defined how to improve public schools . . . by opening up competition from an alternative system. "They think that if anybody should be credited with changing the rules in a profound way that fosters genuine reform, they have had — and still have — the better changes."

In Ohio, there’s a line in the sand that divides the education bashing of the past decade and a half of Republican rule from the determination to build on the good elements in the public system that has come in since the Democratic victories in the 2006 election. The pre-2006 mindset is predicated on the idea that the public education system is in an incurable crisis and needs to be replaced by schools run as private business, and by private businesses themselves. Since the 2006 Democratic victory in the General Assembly (lower house) and governorship, a steadfastly opposing pro-public school philosophy has come in to take center-stage. To the astonishment, and discomfiture, of the makers of opinion who have helped condition the public’s mind for the demise of public education in recent decades, the championing of public education over charter education by the irrepressible Governor Strickland has been heard in every corner, and every newspaper, in the state. His message, that performance of the state’s charter schools has been a scandalous failure compared to that of the publics has stopped the piling on of the public schools in its tracks and for the first time put the Ohio charter movement on the defensive. His proposed program of rehabilitating the public schools with proper funding rather than junking them and “outsourcing” their students to privately chartered institutions, has held out the tantalizing, and prior to now long-lost, hope that Ohio schooling would turn the state into a paragon of learning and achievement. In the two short years since his election, Strickland has made the debate over Ohio’s educational future two-sided rather than one-sided and brought hope of a reprieve for a public system that had prior to his arrival seemed on Death Row.

When Ted Strickland took office as governor in 2006, Ohio was 11th in mass layoffs, 48th in new companies, (was and is) 3rd in home foreclosures, 2nd in bankruptcies, 50th in job growth, and 44th in Real Gross State Product. In education, the state was 46th in equity of school resources, 50th in students per computer, 42nd in schools with unsatisfactory heating, and tuition at public universities was 46 percent higher than the national average. From 1999 through 2008, the legislature, embarrassed by the Supreme Court’s rulings exposing the state’s grossly deficient school environments, increased their investment in schools, and new school structures, by 47 percent. The Strickland plan calls for increase in funding by an additional 45 percent in the decade ahead.

The Strickland plan of increasing still further the money given to public education is based not on willful denial of the charter alternative’s professed superior educational results, but on the ample evidence that for all their hype charter schools’ actual record has been one of student failure, financial and academic mismanagement, and lack of oversight and control. In 2006, when he took office pledging to put charter schools under the microscope and to require that those performing significantly worse than the public schools lose their public funding, Strickland was riding a tide of realism in reporting the results of America’s charter school experiment. A May 10, 2006, New York Times editorial, “Reining in charter schools,” cited a study showing that states with charter programs dominated by for-profit education companies have poorer results for those schools in terms of performance and accountability.

A July 15, 2006, Times article by Dianne Schemo reported an Education Department study documenting that children in public schools generally performed "as well or better in reading and mathematics than comparable children in private schools."

Revelations of misreporting of student academic performance and of school financial records by a significant percentage of Ohio charter schools have fueled the Strickland pro-public education fire, but they have not altered the fact that already 43 percent of the students in the Dayton school district attend private or charter schools, nor has Strickland made a dent in the Ohio choice movement’s single-minded goal of breakup of the public school system and privatization of the entirety of the state’s schools.

The problem with a charter system putting choice of schools in the hands of parents is that the market theory it’s based on assumes that the parents, viewed economically as “consumers,” will make choices that are rationally based and that therefore the best schools, as in Darwin’s natural order, will survive and bring overall quality and improvement to the system. But what if parental choice is based on the schools’ advertising packaging rather than academic factors. A 2007 study by Christopher Lubienski showed that “the information made available to families through commercial-style materials challenges the notion of parents making reasoned choices based on institutional effectiveness. Instead, more emotional themes and images dominate school marketing strategies.” In other words, the system as a whole can wallow in chronic mediocrity with slickly packaged lemon schools “out-selling” ones that are academically superior.

It’s interesting to note that supporters of privatized education also lament the failure of parents to make enlightened choices of schools when allowed to do so. Instead, it’s been shown that they tend to stick with their customary public schools against all evidence of their inferiority.

Inasmuch as schooling is the single largest employer in the United States, once education is looked at as an industry, and one of America’s biggest industries at that, then its product becomes viewed as a manufactured one, and education degenerates into an economic competition to establish which system (the government-run “public” system or the privately run charters system) will do a better job of selling the population of “consumers” (formerly known as “parents”) on their product.

Despite concerns like this—expressed increasingly even by friends of charterization—that charter schools may fail to fully get off the ground for want of parent support and/or willingness to change schools, and only a few months prior to release of the Stanford University study, indicating that 37 percent of charter schools offer education that’s inferior to that of the public schools . . .

. . .the long-standing infatuation with the idea of choice and "free-market"-based education, education that allows the wonderful sink or swim anarchy of American business to reign in the previously state-controlled sphere of education, finally found itself seated at the very head of the table in Washington with the advent of Barack Obama to the Presidency and the installation of his Secretary of Education Arne Duncan.

With his only professional pedagogical experience having been as a tutor helping minority children with their homework in his mother’s tutoring program in Chicago and an A.B. in Sociology that numerous information requests to see by charter school critics have failed to produce, Duncan has cut a swath through public education as “C.E.O.” (formerly known as “Superintendent”) of Chicago Public Schools, where since 2001 he closed over 20 elementary schools, most privatized into charter schools, and six high schools, while showing his commitment to school reform by forcing a legion of career teachers and principals out on the job market.

In a recent essay by Henry Giroux and Kenneth Saltman, former Chicago top school official Duncan was taken to task for identifying closely with blatant privatization efforts associated with Chicago’s Renaissance 2010 plan:

“The Commercial Club hired corporate consulting firm A.T. Kearney to write Ren2010, which called for the closing of 100 public schools and the reopening of privatized charter schools, contract schools (more charters to circumvent state limits) and “performance” schools.”

Replacement of 100 of Chicago “underachieving” (i.e. underfunded) public schools, 15 percent of the city’s total, with new experimental schools “in areas slated for gentrification” was the goal of the Renaissance 2010 education plan created by these Chicago businessmen for Mayor Daley.

In point of fact, Charter education has become the idée fixe of the U.S. Department of Education under Secretary Arne Duncan who, building on what he started in Chicago on the national level in Washington without missing a beat, gives every appearance of credence to the idea that if business does it, it’s good and children will excel; if unions are involved, mediocrity and child failure will befall.

In Chicago, the schools closed under Duncan were replaced with new institutions that were non-union. The idea of replacing “union” schools with schools put in the hands of business was put in motion by Duncan in conformance with the previously mentioned Chicago Renaissance 2010 study. A.T. Kearney, the author of the Chicago study, hailed by Duncan as a national role model for school reform, is unapologetic about its business-oriented notion of leadership. Kearney’s website cites this importation of the business model as Renaissance 2010’s key achievement:

“Drawing on our program-management skills and our knowledge of best practices used across industries, we provided a private-sector perspective on how to address many of the complex issues that challenge other large urban education transformations.”

We recently asked John Duffy, a longtime Chicago area teacher and observer of education interviewed by Todd Price for the article “Bailing Out The Foes of Public Education,” what he sees as having been the true motivation of Renaissance 2010. In reply, he zeroed in on the classic business goal of disenfranchisement of union labor, in this case teacher union labor:

“Renaissance 2010 is the most visible of the Chicago corporate elite’s authoritarian plan to close neighborhood schools, undermine and dismantle teacher unionism, and further aggravate the inequitable allocation of school resources away from schools that disproportionately serve impoverished communities.”

According to Duffy, out of the ashes of what he called the “undemocratic, centrally orchestrated closing of arbitrarily determined ‘under-performing’ local schools” would arise both charter schools and “centrally controlled re-organized schools” where, stripped of union protections, “teachers (and teachers’ programs and curriculums) are directed and constrained in ways that would never be imagined or tolerated in middle class and upper socio-economic communities.”

On May 11, 2009, as predicted by those who have watched him in Chicago, Duncan wasted no time in announcing in an Associated Press interview the intention of the Obama administration to close 1,000 so-called “underperforming” schools in each of the next five years, 5,000 schools in all. The “war” against public education that many have seen coming for more than two decades has now been declared and is out in the open.

Introducing the market model into education at, you’d think, an unpropitious time, when the market model has brought down the house on people’s heads worldwide and, most especially, in this country, Messrs. Obama and Duncan cannot be assured of smooth sailing.

First they face a growing consensus in Ohio, amongst the public who, unfazed by the negativity about him being spread by the pro-charter Republican Senate and the state’s charter-friendly newspaper editorial boards, support Gov. Strickland and his message of fixing the state’s stagnating economy by finally fixing the state’s unconstitutionally unequal funding of schools. Win or lose in his effort to push his plan through the recalcitrant Republican State Senate, Ted Strickland has become a symbolical leader, in Ohio and increasingly on the national stage, of resistance to the charter movement for which Duncan speaks.

In Part II of this series, Todd Alan Price reports on his interviews with key players in the battle to which Ted Strickland has dedicated his governorship, to rebuild Ohio public education and stave off the charter phenomenon.