After Hurricane Harvey, Will Houston Public Schools be Charterized?

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It’s an all too familiar scene in America.

A natural disaster devastates a major metropolitan city.

And then the forces of profit and privatization use the chaos and uncertainty as cover to steal public services and turn them into mechanisms to increase their own bottom line.

That’s what happened to New Orleans in the wake of Hurricane Katrina in 2005. And, if Houston residents aren’t careful, it’s what could happen there in the wake of Hurricane Harvey, which struck this weekend.

Right now the immediate danger is the weather.

The storm has already affected about a quarter of the Texas population, or 6.8 million people in 18 counties. It’s been blamed for at least 8 deaths so far.

Thousands of people have evacuated to rooftops as rushing waters flooded streets and neighborhoods. Many roadways are only navigable by boat, and emergency services are so overtaxed that civilian volunteers have stepped up to help rescue stranded residents. By the time the weather system passes through, Houston could get as much as 50 inches of rain – the highest amount ever recorded in Texas.

U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos was so overwhelmed by the news that she took to Twitter, saying, “Our prayers are with all those in the path of #HurricaneHarvey. @usedgov stands ready to assist impacted schools.”

 

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To which noted liberal commentator Keith Olbermann responded, “The hurricane is going to do less damage to schools than you are, Motherfucker.”
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And, if history is any guide, he may not be wrong.

In the aftermath of Katrina, New Orleans lost almost its entire public school system. About 90 percent of the city’s 126 schools were given to the Louisiana Recovery School District, which turned them all into charter schools.

For those uninitiated into the mysteries of corporate education reform, charter schools differ from traditional public schools because they are financed by tax dollars but privately operated. They often are controlled by appointed boards with little to no transparency, and are rife with opportunities for investors to profit through fraud and neglect – opportunities that just aren’t present at traditional districts.

So, in effect, Louisiana state officials elected by the white majority stole control from local school boards elected by the city’s black majority. More than 7,000 teachers most of whom were people of color and had been displaced by the hurricane found themselves replaced by mostly white teachers brought in from other parts of the country.

Now, more than 10 years later, the New Orleans experiment has been shown to be a failure. Scores on standardized tests have improved (kinda), but the curriculum has narrowed, teacher turnover has doubled, disadvantaged and special education students have even fewer resources while schools fight over high achieving children, students spend hours being bused to schools far from their homes, communities have been erased, and parents have less control over how their own tax dollars are spent.

This could be the future for the Houston Independent School District (HISD).

After all, Houston is where the infamous Knowledge is Power Program (KIPP) charter school network got its start.

KIPP is known for two things: draconian discipline and high attrition rates. Even those kids who do well there often don’t go on to graduate from college. Two thirds of KIPP students who passed the 8th grade still haven’t achieved a bachelor’s degree 10 years later.

Moreover, its methods aren’t reproducible elsewhere. The one time KIPP tried to take over an existing public school district and apply its approach without skimming the best and brightest off the top, it failed miserably – so much so that KIPP isn’t in the school turnaround business anymore.

Yet, the charter network, one of the largest such chains with 209 schools nationwide, has one of the best propaganda departments in the industry. They pass off inhumanity to children as “rigor” and gloss over inability to teach difficult students as “high standards.”

 

Will Texas lawmakers be swayed by powerful charter operators to use the current catastrophe as a business opportunity to gobble up the existing school system?

 
Perhaps. But there are some significant differences between Houston and New Orleans.

 
For instance, the students served by the New Orleans system a dozen years ago were almost all living below the poverty line. By contrast, Houston has high and low poverty areas. In fact, many neighborhoods cater to upper middle class children.

 
It’s doubtful that parents from more affluent neighborhoods would put up with losing local control and all that goes with it. Their political and economic power would probably stop any wholesale charterization of the district. That’s why KIPP schools – and in fact most charter schools – are nearly nonexistent in wealthy neighborhoods.

 
However, there are plenty of community schools serving high poverty populations suffering from systemic disinvestment and neglect that could be in danger of just such “reforms.” In fact, many of those are exactly the ones that have been worst hit by flooding and weather damage. At least 10 consistently struggling schools could find themselves targeted for the New Orleans treatment. The state and federal government could withhold relief funding on the condition these schools give up their elected school boards and embrace the kind of Wild West, laissez-faire, free market deregulation that charter schools bring.

 
The Republican controlled state legislature already has a law on the books to swipe local control from struggling districts and turn them into charters. It’s a blatant threat to takeover entire districts like HISD if certain schools within the district don’t improve standardized test scores and other measures favored by corporate education reformers.

 

 

Hurricane damage could become a pretext to empowering state lawmakers to expedite this process. Perhaps they might even ask local school boards to give up control of their struggling schools in exchange for leaving alone the more affluent white schools.

I had the pleasure of visiting Houston a year ago for the United Opt Out Education and Civil Rights Summit. There I met with parents, students, concerned community members and representatives of the local teachers union – the Houston Federation of Teachers.

They helped me understand that Texas has a unique perspective on school choice.

For instance, they aren’t generally too fond of school vouchers.

This session a Tea Party favored voucher initiative was squashed by more moderate Republicans. In fact, in Texas even religious leaders don’t like vouchers. This is surprising because the program usually allows tax dollars to be used at private or parochial schools. An organization, Pastors for Texas Children, has been particularly vocal about supporting public education over BOTH vouchers and charters.

However, this is the land of former Gov. George W. Bush, one of the biggest charter cheerleaders in the country. His party broadly supports charter schools, yet the Texas legislature has struggled to increase them.

Last year, Gov. Greg Abbott and Lieutenant Gov. Dan Patrick made a big push to increase charter schools across the state. In an unusual move, state House Speaker Joe Straus refused to bring the bill to the floor for a vote. Straus held the issue hostage because he couldn’t get support for a new school funding formula.

It should be noted that all of these players are Republicans. Democrats are a minority with the ability to impact policy almost not at all.

DeVos and the Trump administration are unquestionably supportive of voucher and charter school expansion.

It’s still too early to tell if the state and/or federal government will take a page from the Shock Doctrine playbook and use Harvey as a distraction to embolden their agenda.

One can only hope that voters have learned the lessons from Katrina and Louisiana.

Otherwise, over time a manmade disaster could once again eclipse the damage done by a natural one.


Special Thanks to Zakary Rodriguez for help navigating the Texas education scene.

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Who’s More Valuable – a Union Busting Lawyer or a Union Worker?

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There he was standing in front of me in line.

 

New gray pinstriped suit. Silk red Armani tie. White button down shirt so bleached it hurt my eyes.

 

We were waiting to board our plane to take us to Houston. Me, a public school teacher. Him, a union busting lawyer.

 

I was on my way to an education and civil rights summit. He was going to an annual lawyers conference, one of many he attends each year.

 

I got all this information not from talking to the guy. He was jovial enough but he just couldn’t contain his backstory to a single audience. He was in the mood to talk to anybody and everybody as we waited for the stewardess to tell us it was okay to board.

 

He spent most of his time talking with two representatives of the natural gas industry who had visited my home of Pittsburgh to invest in our rich deposits of Marcellus shale – and incidentally poison our environment. He also joked with another lawyer further up in line and already tipsy.

 

I listened to him yuk it up about exclusive golf courses, wine country and the presidential election (he’s a Trump supporter) and felt a warm dislike spread through my chest.

 

I looked at my faded t-shirt and jeans and wondered how it was that this guy gets so much for what he does and I get so little. Oh I get all the intangibles, but he gets… well… the money, pride and prestige.

 

There he was asking the gas guys about a good steak place for lunch in Houston. I love steak. I’d like to eat a nice, juicy steak. But I can’t afford it.

 

I’m only able to make this trip because I took the least expensive flight (coach, by the way – guess where he was sitting) and I was sharing a hotel room with a college professor who had saved up enough discretionary funds to cover the room.

 

While the attorney was dining on steak, I’d be lucky to store up a muffin or two from the hotel’s complimentary breakfast.

 

Yet there he was telling the whole world his story unafraid that someone would take offense.

 

Well, I do take offense, buddy.

 

You make your living finding ways to make it harder for me to make mine. You spend your whole day looking for legal loopholes and documented precedents to take away protections at my job, cut my pay and make me work longer hours without overtime. You eat at expensive restaurants and wear Italian leather shoes while people like me live paycheck-to-paycheck. You are nothing but a parasite.

 

Yet no one else seemed to take offense at his braggadocio. Only me. The natural gas guys clapped him on the back and congratulated him on the delicious rib eye in his future.

 

It makes me wonder why unions are so often made to seem the villain and guys like this are seen as good ol’ boys at best and merely innocuous at worst.

 

I teach young children how to read and write. I open their minds to the world around them and show them how to think critically. I raise up the weak and give succor to the needy.

 

What value does he add to society? Seriously! How does he make the world one bit better than the way he found it?

 

Yes, I am a union employee and proud of it. I collectively bargain for a fair wage. I band together with my colleagues for a middle class income so I can afford to be a teacher. I demand professionalism and autonomy so I can do the job. I seek fair treatment so I’m not constantly looking over my shoulder in case a school board member would rather give my job to one of his cousins. And if you’re going to fire me, I ask for due process – proof of wrongdoing.

 

Somehow in the eyes of the public this makes me a monster.

 

But this guy gives you nothing. He provides no return on your investment except that he stifles me.

 

He makes it harder if not impossible for me to stay in the profession. He works so I can’t support my family. He endeavors for me to be paid the minimum wage so I won’t be able to come home and help my daughter with her homework but instead will have to move on to my second or third job. He argues that I should not be considered a professional and should not be treated like an intelligent person with an advanced degree but should be a factory widget who does as he’s told. He tries to make anxiety my normal state. And he seeks to ensure I can be fired at will with no proof, no reason, just an employers whim.

 

If he achieves his ends, my students will not have a productive atmosphere in which to learn. When you weaken teachers, you weaken students. We all say to put the kids first, but you can’t do that when you put teachers last.

 

He does all this and still has the gall to boast of it aloud in public. All while I stay silent, seethe and silently rave.

 

So we got on our plane, and when we landed in Texas went our separate ways.

 

I spent the weekend fighting for children and families. He partied with his partners. As a taxpayer, you pay a lot of money for his services. I’m a bargain, a steal. You get next to nothing from him. I open the gates for the next generation.

 

And somehow I’m the bad guy.

Fighting for Public Schools Means Fighting Against Systemic Racism – United Opt Out Education and Civil Rights Summit

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What do you do when you hold a civil rights summit and none of the big names show up?

That’s what happened last weekend when United Opt Out (UOO) held its Education and Civil Rights Summit in Houston, Texas.

We invited everybody.

We invited the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). We invited the National Council of La Raza “The People,” the League of United Latin American Citizens (LULAC), the Urban League and several others.

None came.

But instead we were host to many of these organizations individual members.
Just how many people came to the Lone Star State for the summit? Thousands? Hundreds?

More like dozens.

Not only did the major civil rights groups neglect to send their leadership, but the bulk of our nation’s education activists also stayed away.

United Opt Out had just gone through a major reorganization on philosophical grounds. Only three of its long-time board members remain – Denisha Jones, Ruth Rodriguez and Ceresta Smith. They have since been joined by five new directors – Gus Morales, Zakary Rodriguez, Erika Strauss Chavarria, Deborah Anderson and Steven Singer (me).

The directors that left the group did so for various reasons, but some of them split along ideological lines. Some thought United Opt Out shouldn’t work with labor leaders or civil rights groups that weren’t perfectly aligned with all of UOO’s goals. So they left. Those who stayed are committed to working with almost anyone to push forward the cause, piece-by-piece if necessary.

As a result, this organization that had been growing by leaps and bounds, finds itself starting afresh. While last year’s conference in Philadelphia drew progressive luminaries like Chris Hedges, Jill Stein and Bill Ayers, this year’s gathering was more low key.

But it was far from somber. In fact, the board’s vision was vindicated in the most amazing way during the summit.

As Jesse “The Walking Man” Turner discussed the importance of reframing school policy to include students basic humanity, Gus looked up from his phone and announced, “The NAACP just ratified its moratorium on charter schools!”

We all stopped what we were doing and went to our phones and computers for verification. Denisha found it first and read the resolution in full.

We cheered, laughed and hugged each other.

This was exactly the kind of change we’ve been talking about! In fact, Julian Vasquez Heilig, education chair of the California and Hawaiian NAACP chapter, had originally been scheduled at the summit as a keynote speaker. When the resolution that he had been instrumental in crafting came up for a vote at the national NAACP meeting, he understandably had to cancel with us. Clearly he was needed elsewhere.

And now one of the largest civil rights organizations in the country has taken a strong stance on charter schools. Not only does the NAACP oppose charters as a solution to inequities experienced by children of color, they’ve now gone beyond mere ideology. They’re calling for action – no new charter schools.

It is a tremendous victory for parents, children and teachers everywhere. And a much needed win for civil rights and education activists. The civil rights community (including the Black Lives Matter movement) is starting to acknowledge that Brown vs. Board is right – we cannot have “separate but equal” school systems because when they’re separate, they’re rarely equal.

Let me be clear – UOO did not achieve this triumph alone. It took many people, some of whom probably have never heard of us. However, activists supporting our movement such as Julian were strongly involved.

And if we had listened to the naysayers who proposed only working with perfectly like-minded groups, this might never have happened.

As a national organization, the NAACP still supports standardized testing as necessary to hold schools accountable for teaching all students. But this was not always the case.

In October of 2014, there were 11 civil rights groups including the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund (LDF) who wrote a letter to President Barack Obama asking him to reduce standardized testing.

Then in January of 2015, a full 19 Civil Rights organizations including the NAACP wrote to Congress asking lawmakers to preserve annual testing.

What changed in those three months?

All of these organizations accept huge donations from the corporate education reform industry including some of the richest people in the world like Bill Gates. While none of us were present at these decision making sessions, it seems clear that fear of losing their funding may have forced them to make hard compromises.

Should we then as education activists wipe our hands of them? Should we refuse to work with them on some issues because we disagree on others?

United Opt Out says no. We’ll work with almost anyone where we can, when we can. And the results were on display with the NAACP resolution calling for a charter school moratorium.

Perhaps now that we’ve found that common ground on school privatization, we can do the same with standardized testing. Perhaps we can help educate them about the history of this practice, how it was a product of the eugenics movement and has always been used to support white supremacy and keep people of color and the poor in their place.

If we can make that argument, think of the potential. Perhaps leadership at these big civil rights groups would be less willing to compromise if they understood that standardized testing was used to justify mass sterilizations of American citizens and it was greatly admired by the Nazis. Perhaps if they understood that our modern standardized assessments are little better and create a racial proficiency gap by their very design – maybe then threats from rich white philanthropists won’t seem as important. Perhaps if they understood that schools can best be held accountable by reference to the adequacy of the funding they receive and a detailed accounting of what they do with it, these organizations might be less inclined to rely on multiple choice testing.

In fact, this is why we were there together in Houston in the first place. We wanted to make our case to these same civil rights organizations.

They may not have sent their leaders, but their members were already here. And we spent the time working together to find ways to make our case.

It was really quite amazing.

Audrey Amerin-Breadsley, professor and author of the blog Vamboolzed, gave us an incredibly accessible and informative keynote on value-added measures (VAM), the practice of using students test scores as a way to evaluate their teachers. For instance, did you know this common practice was originally based on a model for the cattle industry? It’s junk science and has little relation to education, teachers and students. All it does is pit students and teachers against each other creating a culture of fear where educators can be unfairly fired at any time – not the best environment for learning. Yet ignorant, lazy and/or corrupt bureaucrats still champion it across the country as a solution to improving schools.

Sam Abrams, Director of the National Center for the Study of Privatization in Education (NCSPE) and an instructor at Columbia University, explained in minute detail how corporate education reform relies on bad statistics and is bad business. He explained how academics blinded by economics and unencumbered by any real-life experience of public schools came up with this scheme, which has been disproven by the facts again-and-again. Not only do the highest achieving countries such as Finland go a different route, but those that follow this market driven model find student achievement suffering. In short, our current education policies are really faith-based initiatives, a faith in the invisible hand of the market, and an ignorance of reality.

But perhaps most heartening was the series of talks given by the locals. Houston Federation of Teachers is one of the few labor unions to pass a resolution supporting parents rights to opt their children out of standardized testing. In fact, teachers and parents even run a free Opt Out Academy for children not taking the tests so that their education continues while their peers suffer through these useless assessments. We got to meet parent zero, the first parent to refuse testing in the district. We heard the community’s painstaking process of spreading the movement one family at a time. This was in effect an opt out cookbook, a how-to for anyone wishing to bring this social justice action to their own neighborhoods.

It was a weekend to give anyone hope.

We were small but we were powerful. Given a few years to rebuild, UOO could well be much stronger than we once were. Meanwhile parents across the country continue to refuse these tests for their children at an exponential rate.

There are many struggles ahead. But we have made real progress toward our goal of providing an excellent education for all children.

No longer can our governments be allowed to keep discriminating against them based on the color of their skin, their parents bank accounts and other factors. We’re standing for all students, because we don’t see them as consumers or data points. We see them as children, as human beings. And we stand together to protect and preserve that shared humanity.

What better way to spend a weekend?