Providence Public Schools Under Siege

Any autopsy of the corpse identified as that of Providence public education in the near future will include recent developments involving the expansion of the Achievement First charter school by the Rhode Island Council on Elementary and Secondary Education on December 20, 2016.

How apt, so to honor the birth of the Savior in the state with the highest concentration of Catholics, the government gives the corporate charter school effort, itself an internal colonial project intended to re-segregate education, an extravagant bail-out that is expected to “break” the public school system, to quote a recent report by Providence City Councilman Sam Zurier. Testimony on the 20th even included mention of the creation of a “parallel school system” by multiple speakers. Gee, they promise this is going to be separate but equal, how cute!

What is so instructive about this particular episode is that this was done by a Democratic majority state with a Democratic governor all by themselves! The nasty, narcissistic white nationalist President-elect Donald Trump has tapped for his future Education Secretary the pro-charter theocrat Betsy Devos, a foreboding development to be sure. But the expansion of Achievement First in a bastion of the American labor union movement, actualized in totality by the traditional party of the teacher unions, is a very clear and present illustration that the inauguration of Trump is going to be a true case of jumping out of the frying pan and into the fire. And this only took place because of a spineless, useless “progressive” edifice, made up of outlets like the website Rhode Island’s Future and voter clubs like the Working Families Party, the Democratic Socialists of America, and the Progressive Democrats, that gave soft-glove treatment to ne’er-do-well political actors who passive-aggressively boosted for the charter school system. Why was a mayor who is the ultimate decider of whether to destroy public education in his city given anything but derision for using the panic over the election of Donald Trump to get a photo op and offer platitudes of absolutely zero meritwhen instead he should have been asked point blank by reporters covering him if he backs segregation? Where is the sort of indignation towards the powerful regarding a neoliberal soft power coup that would overturn Brown v. Board overnight which would certainly be given if the individual in question were a member of the GOP?

Just to be absolutely clear, if this is allowed to happen in Providence, every public sector labor union in America will be next. For my entire life I have seen everything that became a national policy given a test run in Providence. Consider the example of the automated post office in the last century. The USPS used the Providence central post office to give that system a test run owing to the fact the state is so small it has one area code and used lessons from that test run to roll out the system in the rest of America. Achievement First or another corporate charter operator will be in your municipality next trying to privatize your schools if they can break us first.

One can start the exploration of this progressive failure with the case of Seth Magaziner, currently the Treasurer, who ascended to office as a progressive darling and with a pedigree second to none as the son of longtime Clinton insider Ira. After being elected on promises to fix the Treasury, his record was one of absolute banality owing to near total inaction with regards to tremendously damaging and impacting policies of his predecessor, the now-Governor Gina Raimondo. Following the 2008 crash, Raimondo, a venture capitalist of dubious character and merit, tricked the public into thinking she was breaking both the glass ceiling and crony shenanigans in a cesspool of nepotistic corruption. She then “reformed” the pension system by investing it in hedge funds, which are little more than ATMs for vulture corporate raider capitalists like Dan Loeb, Paul Singer and Paul Tudor Jones.

Hedge funds are the major funders and supporters of the charter school industrial behemoth. While there is a little variety that might have merit with independent charter schools, the reality is that the majority are big box corporations that are known for awful teaching philosophy, Gulag-like disciplinary regimens, student body selection standards to make a eugenicist proud, and zero accountability. As with payday lenders and subprime mortgage vendors, charter corporations target poor communities of color and prey upon fears of the school-to-prison pipeline to foster interest in an alternative to public schools that have been made to fail due to intentional underfunding. Interestingly the Council on Elementary and Secondary Education meeting where Achievement First had its application approved also featured testimony by independent charter school operators who were denied expansion of their schools, showing exactly how the affair was stage managed from the start. Independent charters in Rhode Island do lend some truth to the claim that privatized schools taking public money can engage in unique pedagogical practices. But with the big box getting the bail-out while the little guys get the shaft, one can see the tactical logic, these independent charter school employees were just unwitting tools who were conned into helping in a multi-year effort to make Achievement First the king fish.

With all this in mind, where is the indignation towards Treasurer Magaziner? I can understand the tactical logic, his slow reduction of the pension portfolio exposure to hedge funds has been caused by the pragmatic desire to limit the exit fees taking a hit on the fund. But considering his reduction of 15% to 6.5% still was sufficient enough to help these neoliberal Jim Crow lackeys put the school district at risk for obliteration, one is forced to ask what it would take for him to take this seriously and recognize desperate times call for desperate measures, a lynching? The branding and whipping of students? While all this was at play, the editor of progressive blog Rhode Island’s Future Bob Plain has the audacity to cover the Achievement First expansion one night and then on another sing hosannas to his buddy Seth at the exact moment that the Treasury should be called out for what it is, a major funder of school segregation!

The pension heist and the charter school fraud are both elements of a wider game plan of one John Arnold, the Enron alumnus who wants to reduce his corporate taxes by destroying the social safety net bit by bit. Gov. Gina Raimondo, whose husband Andy Moffit is a longtime charter industrial player, was deeply involved with discussions over the past year with her new education Commissioner, Ken Wagner, who in turn was probably behind the radical request of the Achievement First expansion application. It was expected that the charter would look for some modest growth until at the last minute they instead put forward a request for the type of expansion that is certain to break the union, hurt the most vulnerable students, and leave the fat cat wallets swollen. Those in the know across the state totally grasp this was a Raimondo job and it was all done at the bidding of John Arnold, her major campaign donor.

Simultaneously, the state is looking to expand “public-private partnership” deals that are nothing more than infrastructure privatization efforts with a catchy name. Again, this is not Trump, this is the Democratic-majority single-party Soviet-style state of Rhode Island! Less than a year after the entire state rejected Hillary Clinton and overwhelmingly voted for Bernie Sanders in the Democratic primary, all the alleged gains made by these progressives have evaporated into nothing within less than eight weeks of Election Day.

This is owing to one simple fact, the various progressive outfits are trying to fight fire with farts. At a time when the most vicious elements of the neoliberal project are licking their chops while sharpening their claws, these well-intentioned souls are saying very loudly but not too rudely “Play nice! C’mon guys, if you aren’t nice I’m telling mom!” What next, early curfew while the water system is privatized? Rhode Island’s Future has a strange hang-up about Hugo Chavez and did not like the Bolivarian revolution but, whatever his flaws were, at least Chavez knew how to actually fight neoliberalism. This is like watching Arnold Palmer take on mini golfers at the back nine!

Achievement First’s fate now lies on the desk of Providence Mayor Jorge Elorza, who is granted via state law and his position on the Achievement First board ultimate approval of the expansion. The man has so far remained relatively disconnected and aloof from the entire affair, itself a small scandal. His office is worthy of a great deal of pressure at this point, particularly considering his election was decided at the last minute by the East Side of Providence’s vote. The East Side, a bastion of rich progressive Democratic Party voters, is of course the campus of Brown University, the neoliberal finishing school that ethnically cleansed the Cape Verdeans from their Fox Point neighborhood and is now gentrifying black and brown South Providence, but the residents have a progressive inclination despite how awful the University is, demonstrated by the fact they elected a City Councilman like Sam Zurier. Part of the reason why schools are being privatized in the first place is due to the fact that a significant percentage of land in the city is untaxed because it belongs to the nonprofit Brown or Lifespan hospital network.

If you are reading this right now, I’m begging you to give the children of Providence a Christmas present they are entitled to but which sadly is being threatened to be revoked. Call Mayor Jorge Elorza at (401) 421-2489 and tell him you want him to do the following three things:

a) Reject the expansion of Achievement First.

b) Submit to City Council a bill that would immediately use the eminent domain laws to turn untaxed Brown University properties into public land to be sold for profit by the city so to increase funding for the school district.

c) Begin serious consideration of doing the same to the home of Edward Achorn, the racist hack editor of the Providence Journal who boosts for this travesty in part because his wife is a charter industrial player. Achorn’s East Side house would make a fine equestrian charter school horse paddock and it would show his dedication to the industry for sure.

Maybe this seems a bit, say, radical? The loss of funding for Providence students, caused by a per pupil funding formula that follows the student from school to school, is going to result in the most brutal austerity measures being taken out on the kids who are not up to the elite standards of Achievement First, mainly special education and English as a secondary language learners. If that sort of thing is not radical, what is?

If you live in a city that has been hollowed out by charters, like Detroit, call the Mayor. If you are a teacher or a retired teacher anywhere in America, call the Mayor. If you are a unionized worker or believe in labor, call the Mayor. Be as radical as reality itself!

Andrew Stewart is a documentary film maker and reporter who lives outside Providence.  His film, AARON BRIGGS AND THE HMS GASPEE, about the historical role of Brown University in the slave trade, is available for purchase on Amazon Instant Video or on DVD.