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Push Back At Last

Something important happened on Saturday, March 15th. The Texas Democratic Party passed the following resolution:

WHEREAS Houston billionaire John Arnold, a hedge-fund manager and former Enron trader, is bankrolling an effort to transform all of the Dallas Independent School District into a so-called “home-rule charter district” that would not be subject to essential safeguards in state law for students, parents, teachers, and citizens of the district;
WHEREAS John Arnold is notorious for funding a nationwide attack on public employees’ pension funds, including state pension funds for school employees, and for funding various efforts to privatize the operation of public schools, including substantial financing of organizations that promote private-school vouchers;
WHEREAS the “home-rule charter district” idea that Arnold wants to impose on Dallas ISD is the brainchild of former Republican state Rep. Kent Grusendorf of Arlington, who managed to insert this option into state law in 1995 as a vehicle for nullifying many educational quality standards and safeguards in the Education Code and for facilitating private takeover of public schools;
WHEREAS a “home-rule district charter” in Dallas ISD would be a Trojan horse allowing John Arnold and his allies, in the name of local control, to kill state class-size limits for most K-4 classrooms, eliminate teachers’ professional contracts, wipe out parents’ and students’ and teachers’ rights to due process in student-discipline matters, nullify the entire parental-rights chapter in the Education Code, and eliminate accountability to the community through an elected school board;
WHEREAS the wholesale “charterization” of Dallas ISD through a “home-rule district charter” designed to suit the likes of John Arnold would actually be the very opposite of local control, transferring power from the parents and citizens in the neighborhoods of Dallas ISD–especially predominantly minority and economically disadvantaged neighborhoods–to special-interest elites and private operators likely to double down on top-down policies that already have disproportionately hurt those communities within Dallas ISD, like recent controversial school closures and layoffs of school personnel;
WHEREAS the “home-rule district charter” scheme in Dallas ISD would undermine genuinely democratic, grass-roots efforts to improve struggling schools, such as (1) community-initiated school turnarounds that provide wraparound community health and social services at school to students and their families, thereby building up rather than tearing down neighborhoods and (2) in-district “campus charters” initiated by teachers and parents at a campus working together with community partners to provide innovative educational programs while preserving important state safeguards such as class-size limits, due process in student discipline, and teachers’ contract rights;
WHEREAS the “home-rule district charter” initiative in Dallas is part of a national campaign by self-styled “education reformers” like John Arnold that is ultimately about profits, not about kids, employing a clear strategy to underfund our public schools, declare them a failure, contract out those schools to private operators, disenfranchise parents and community stakeholders, and deprofessionalize teaching;
WHEREAS the state Democratic Party has a duty to help ensure that all Texas Democrats and all supporters of public education see through the false rhetoric of “home rule” and “local control” that masks the real agenda described above;
THEREFORE BE IT RESOLVED THAT the Texas Democratic Party stands in opposition to the “home-rule district charter” proposal now being promoted in Dallas ISD and rejects its underlying agenda of privatization of control over public schools and destruction of democratic school governance.

What does all of this mean?

For some time now, certain individuals and certain interest groups have conspired to push their privatization agenda to turn public schools into “for-profit” organizations/corporations/businesses that would net billions of dollars for investors and subsequently bankrupt the public school system as we know it. Power and money would go to other entities so that students, parents , and teachers would lose their voice and lose their choice.

It would serve to reinforce a growing trend for the rich to get richer while the poor and middle class lose everything and are subjugated into their own sub-class of poverty and servitude.

Oh, well, “Let them eat cake,” some may say, but the majority are relegated to eat the 'bargain basement diabetes bomb cake' while the privileged few nosh on the Whole Foods organic beautiful sustainable gluten free cake that promises health and longevity. I digress.

Finally some push back.

The greatest perversion of educational principles is the threat to equal opportunity, a mandate that was eloquently expressed by Chief Justice Earl Warren in the 1954 Supreme Court decision on Brown vs. the Board of Education: "Education is perhaps the most important function of state and local governments...Such an opportunity...is a right which must be made available to all on equal terms." But we're turning away from that important message.

Privatization of schools and other public entities is a consequence of the hegemony of the market economy. Over the last twenty years the rise of the market economy has been facilitated by a convergence of neo-liberal economic power and neo-conservative socio-political power. The processes taking place have been described in terms of a conservative restoration (Apple, 1996) and the rise of the rich (Gran, 1996).

There are good reasons - powerful reasons - to stop the privatization efforts before the winner-take-all free market creates a new vehicle for inequality. At the very least we need the good sense to slow it down while we examine the evidence about for profit institutions, private school vouchers, private charters, and online schools. Privatization initiatives and voucher programs are funded by the private sector because corporations such as EMOs stand to benefit from them directly; and they are funded by the government sector because it gives the appearance that those holding political office are responsive to the needs of people who are disserved by public education.(louisville.edu/journal)

There are myths associated with the ideas behind privatization. An example is the Good Business Strategy Myth: Cut Employees, Use Machines to Teach.

The profit motive leads to shortcuts in the educational methods practiced on our children. Like "virtual" instruction. The video-game-named Rocketship Schools have $15/hour instructors monitoring up to 130 kids at a time as they work on computers. In Wisconsin, half the students in virtual settings are attending schools that are not meeting performance expectations. Only one out of twelve "cyber schools" met state standards in Pennsylvania. In L.A. public money goes for computers instead of needed infrastructure repair (ever sit on the 405 during commute?). While over 86 percent of K12's profits came from taxpayers, and while the salaries of K12's eight executives went from $10 million to over $21 million in one year, only 27.7 percent of K12 Inc. online schools met state standards in 2010-2011, compared to 52 percent of public schools.

Last October, Diane Ravitch was interviewed by the Texas Monthly and shared her perspective:

“I’m asking them to put their faith in the idea of a democratic society. What’s going on right now is an effort to turn what is a public responsibility into a free market exercise. We’ve already seen the privatization movement take hold in the prison system, we’ve seen it take hold in the hospital system, and there are lots of other areas of public life where people are looking for an opportunity to make big bucks. And now their focus is on education as being a moneymaker and a place to invest and turn a profit. There’s a story in the current issue of Forbes about this. The headline is “Charter School Gravy Train Runs Express to Fat City.” And it’s about people making a killing on private charter schools. This is really a question of citizenship.”

Jonathan Kozol of the New York Times writes, “Those who have grown increasingly alarmed at seeing public education bartered off piece by piece, and seeing schools and teachers thrown into a state of siege, will be grateful for this cri de Coeur—a fearless book, a manifesto, and a cry to battle,” to describe Ravitch’s book, Reign of Error.

It's been 60 years since Chief Justice Warren declared education "a right which must be made available to all on equal terms." Belief in the American Dream means that anyone can move up the ladder. But today only 4 percent of those raised in the bottom make it all the way to the top as adults. Two-thirds of those raised in the bottom of the wealth ladder remain on the bottom two rungs.

Compared to other developed countries, equal education has been a low priority in America, with less spending on poor children than rich ones, and with repeated cutbacks in state funding. But there's no market-based reform where children are involved. Education can't be reduced to a lottery, or a testing app, or a business plan. Equal opportunity in education ensures that every child is encouraged and challenged and nurtured from the earliest age, as we expect for our own children.