A slightly unlikely heroine…


… to wit, Diane Ravitch, who shares with St Paul the distinction of a Road To Damascus experience. In her case, the topic of conversion was, among other things, charter schools.

An old comrade passed along this rather nice piece, in which Diane quite rightly excoriates that empty suit, Bill De Blasio, the current inhabitant of Gracie Mansion, for rolling over and playing dead — surprise, surprise — against the onslaught of the charter chargers, after having rather tentatively intimated, during his campaign, that charter schools might not be altogether a Good Thing.

Well, Democrats, you know. Party motto: Promise ’em anything and give ’em Bloomberg.

I have a question: Why exactly do hedgies and people like Bill Gates(*) support charter schools so strongly? Of course the whole market-model meritocratic message is just catnip to them; but beyond a general ideological affinity, why do they give a shit about how public education is carried on? Their children don’t need to go to public schools, charter or otherwise. And yet a good many of these unspeakable creeps seem to be quite passionate about it.

Is there that much money to be made in the credentialling sector, even if its enterprises get to leech off public bricks-and-mortar?

I can’t believe these people really have any long-term plans for the world, extending past their own golden years — golden, of course, in more than one sense of the word.

Somebody enlighten me here.

(*) How many people like Bill Gates are there, anyway, you ask? Answer: Too many, even if there’s only one.

26 thoughts on “A slightly unlikely heroine…

  1. I actually believe there is a very serious long term plan in place.

    20 or so more years ago, vouchers was the big deal, trumpeted by conservatives who were ostensibly doing it so that Christian families could send their kids to schools of their own choosing rather than having to place them in the heathenistic public schools.

    The issue never really gained traction with the wider population and the vouchers never really went anywhere.

    Then, a few years ago there was a big deal made about Michelle Rhee’s appointment as head of schools in Washington, D.C. What was interesting was that she basically used her time there to implement tests that ‘proved’ public schools weren’t working, and possibly couldn’t be rehabilitated. Rhee is intimately involved in the Democratic Party, and now here she was proposing a possible charter school ‘solution’, one that would take money from public education and given to parents who could make a ‘choice’. There was a documentary about her time in D.C. that made huge waves, and Rhee has basically spent the last few years pushing the charter school agenda.

    Rhee happens to be married to Kevin Johnson, mayor of the fine city of Sacramento. A couple years ago, a charter school lobbyist was hired by the school district in an advisory capacity. He worked on a report that recommended the closing of around 10 elementary schools. Although the savings were minimal, even in the opinion of those recommending the closures, and parents were extremely upset (they didn’t either bother have real public meetings on the issue, rather some perfunctory explanation of the closures with no discussion, I think they learned a lesson from Rhee’s experiences with parents in D.C., which you can see in the documentary). Now the buildings are slowly but surely being filled with charter schools. Shocking, I know.

    It’s not a surprise that wealthy and political interests are worming their way into the education sector. Education spending in this country is astronomical. Even more important is that it’s something that everyone feels children should get, so it’s not going anywhere. The politicians love it because this would allow them to bypass having to deal with things like school boards and PTA’s.

    Sacramento is a very interesting place right now politically. The Democrats are spending a lot of time, money and manpower on expanding KJ’s powers within the city. Over half his money is from outside of Sacramento, mostly from LA. It seems like they are trying to develop a template they can use all over the country.

    • From the Wikipedia:
      “She was assigned to Harlem Park Elementary School, one of the lowest-performing schools.[5] She had difficulty controlling her classroom the first year. She said the stress gave her hives. In a speech at the Columbia Heights Education Campus in Washington DC, Rhee said that she once put small pieces of masking tape on the children’s mouths so they would be quiet on the way to the lunchroom and that, after removing the tape, skin came off their lips, they were bleeding and she had “thirty-five kids who were crying”.[7][8] Rhee told Washingtonian magazine that she was demoralized by her first year of teaching, but said to herself, “I’m not going to let eight-year-old kids run me out of town”. She said she took courses over the summer and received her teachers’ certification, then returned to teach at Harlem Park.[4] Rhee’s first year test scores showed a precipitous drop in her class: Average math percentile dropped from 64% to 17%. Average reading percentile dropped from 37% to 21%.”

      Sounds like the right lady for the job.


      • God, she’s really the worst. But really she’s only one example, and I think something of a sacrificial lightning rod for the Democrats.

        My favorite part is how she turns the focus from the kids onto herself. “I wanted to help them but look what they did to ME!”

  2. Another interesting tidbit, that I’m going to have difficulty fitting into the larger picture of Sac/Dem/Education politics, is that there is a non-profit organization called the Nehemiah Group, ostensibly for the benefit of young African American entrepeneuers, headed by a man named Scott Syphax. I first became aware of them when a number of them appeared a council meeting to speak on behalf of the Drexel University extension in the city. The school is already there, but a number of Drexel students/Nehemiah group members, along with the extension president, spoke at length and actually quite elegantly on the benefits of having such an institution in town and how much they wanted to work with the council. KJ seemed unusually excited by the idea, which of course was never actually given any specifics.

    I did some research on the Nehemiah Group and discovered that they were highly involved in a program that was supposed to help keep homeowners in their homes during the housing crisis a while back. Nehemiah was eventually forced to pay fines and stop their operation after coming under scrutiny.

    Syphax, who heads the Nehemiah Group, also has his own show on the local PBS station (KVIE), of which he also a board member, along with, yup, Drexel University.

    More recently, after KJ came to office there was a $2 billion development project that was up for bidding. Despite having very little experience in such a large project and facing stiff competition, Nehemiah Group got the contract. The project, Township 9, really isn’t a terribly big development, 65 acres and 180 units and really fucking generic, but it’s received wide publicity, mostly because of the fact that Nehemiah is an African American organization. Also, interesting to note, is the fact that every single one of the units is subsidized, meaning that Nehemiah is guaranteed an income stream right from the beginning. Seems like a possible model for others to follow.

    Here’s where it kind of ties into the larger political picture: Deputy Director for the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development , Ron Sims, visited Sacramento in 2010 to declare that this was a literally a ‘perfect project’, 3 years before they even broke ground. Drexel recently partnered up with the California School Boards Association to a create a post-doctorate program revolving around school administration. 2 of the 4 member group members assigned to developing a curriculum happen to be members of organizations devoted to championing charter schools, particularly in low income areas (I’m guessing it sounds better and they know the parents are probably too harried and broke to put up much of a fight compared to wealthier areas). Again, Syphax is a member of the Drexel board. KJ is married to Rhee, the face of charter schools. Rhee is also very connected to the Democratic Party and there is a ton of Democratic money being funneled into the city.

  3. I guess the long term strategy here is not just charter schools, but the Democrats working with big money backers to direct guaranteed public funds away from publicly accountable places to places where public eyes are barred from. They’re using African Americans and education as their Trojan Horses to help ram this through, and if anyone tries to get in their way they’ll just say that you hate kids and blacks.

  4. I’m sorry Michael, one final thing and I’ll shut up: KJ began his political career by campaigning to have Sacramento High School, the oldest continuously running high school west of the Mississippi, changed over to a charter school, St. Hope Academy, of which KJ was the head.

    • PA — No apologies needed. I really don’t fully understand the politics or political economy of this school-reform thing, though I am completely convinced it’s iniquitous to the last degree. Of course there’s a huge amount of public money spent on edumacation, and any time you can position yourself to intercept even a little bit of that stream, it makes for a nice income. Maybe it’s even enough, potentially, to attract the attention of hedgies. Get a position in a few of these privatization outfits, and then use campaign contributions to infuence decision-making in the right direction…

      It’s an old story, innit? And maybe it’s all we need to understand the phenomenon.

      • I think it has partly to do with in some way politicians wanting to keep the public out of policy, and schools are the one place still where the Joe & Jane Public aren’t afraid to speak out because their kids are involved. If schools are further removed from public oversight, that’s probably the biggest nail you could put in the coffin of public participation. The hedgies are all for less public scrutiny, of course the public funds are probably the biggest prize, but so is the ability to control the message imparted to not only students but to parents, who look at school as the way for their children to be successful. People who run schools have become very aware of the power of a mark on someone’s permanent record these days and it’s not hard to get a bunch of overworked parents to do whatever it takes to keep their kids on track. I think there is a ton of different intersections of interest between politicians and the money on this issue.

  5. Aside from the obvious profit motive I suspect it is the age-old dream of the power-mad to remake the world in their own image. “Give me a child for for his first seven years and I’ll give you the man.” Get the child for K-12 and you can remake the whole culture. Microsoft Society 1.01.

    While many diss the public schools they are not quite the dittobot factories some on the Left make them out to be. That’s the mass media’s job. I had some pretty radical teachers back in the day in the NYC system who taught us the importance of critical thinking and questioning everything we were told. Teachers like that would be out on their ass in a week in a charter school with no union. Of course, too many teachers were soulless functionaries widely despised by the kids they hated but the few teachers that gave a fuck are people I will never forget.

    • I too was brought up in the public schools, in my case during the 50s and 60s of the last century. The teachers were certainly a mixed bag, ranging from sick, twisted sadists to people whom I still remember with immense gratitude. The majority inhabited an anodyne middle ground of time-serving bureaucrats, neither particularly evil nor particularly good, just checking off the boxes.

      The institutional arrangements of the time allowed both the sadists and the saints to indulge their own particular bent. I wonder whether that’s still the case? To the degree that regimentation and bureaucratization have succeeded, it would seem that the implication is that both tails of the distribution have probably been lopped off. At least that would appear to be the goal: the teacher as robot.

      On balance, I think I’d admit the sadists for the sake of the saints. Come to think of it, the sadists taught me a lot too, and it’s been very useful in later life.

      • I always thought the Catholics produced the most magnificently neurotic sadists. In my own brief foray into the Catholic educarceration system the mostly female lay teachers were slap happy in every conceivable sense of that term. When they weren’t beating you or pulling your hair out they seemed to be continuously on the verge of pulling their own out.

        Something about being a control freak in charge of a bunch of 8-year-olds determined to act as such puts them at dropping distance over the edge. How can you have any pudding if you don’t eat yer meat?

        I get the impression the regimentation and control is worse nowadays. The sadists are no longer allowed to beat you, but they have found innovative ways to dehumanize you. When my nephew was 8 he got expelled for a week for mispronouncing “Nigeria” as “niggeria.” He got another week’s suspension when a kid who go caught setting off fireworks ratted him out and they found a single “lady finger” firecracker after searching his locker. The narc wasn’t suspended of course since that is precisely the kind of behavior they wish to encourage.

        Even the worst of the old school martinets wouldn’t freak out over a firecracker. let alone search your locker to find one. This is the new liberal “zero tolerance” regime.

  6. Googled up:
    “Total expenditures for public elementary and secondary schools in the United States amounted to $638 billion in 2009-10, or about $12,743 per public school student.”

    Then there is the labor union busting aspect.

    And charters are something different enough that nobody has been able (I speculate) to demonstrate yet that they are pointless balloon squeezing (now it’s a duck, squeak, squeak, now it’s a giraffe, but really it’s a balloon,and the amount of air hasn’t even changed).

    With so much money on the line, being really passionate about some proposed panacea for the nation’s public education woes is quite believable. And it is a pretty good sell if for no other reason because it “coded-ly” appears to unwind certain aspects of the as-yet-undigested social/societal rearrangements of the 60’s and 70’s.

    The most recent panacea hasn’t worked out particularly well….I refer to the North Carolina education lottery (and its many brethren). The legislature cut the school budget and didn’t even hand out a tax cut.

  7. Michael, this one loves everything said so far, but here are three more and less practical answers:

    (1) Taxes. When Bill Gates and the rest of his vile ilk “donate” money to the foundations they control, they get a straight deduction off their yearly income taxes for that donation. Sure, as Paul says, they get to steal money from American taxpayers by redirecting public school funds to their own projects–but they also get direct write-offs that translate into millions more dollars into their personal checking accounts every year.

    (2) Business Development. Even simpler than saving on taxes, Bill’s charities get to buy Microsoft equipment, and a lot of it. By standardizing what kinds of documents and operating systems that his nationwide “foundations” use, Bill can guarantee that any school that wants to succeed will have to run on his software. It lets him and his stockholders, and their families, continue to control the development of the operating system, the processor, and all other personal software and hardware for the next several decades.

    (Which means, indirectly, control of Congressional software, state government software, military software, et cetera. The bastard isn’t rich because he was some kind of smart computer programmer; he’s just a racketeer who bought into the computer family.)

    (3) Multiple Lifetimes. Gates and the others are thinking in terms of multiple generations. The structures they’re putting in place benefit them immensely right now, but they provide a far greater benefit to the elite class as a whole. A hundred years from now, technology- and cultural development will have been seismically effected by Gates’ infiltration of public schools and associated government. By making these moves during his lifetime, he has set back, by decades, the education and advancement of humans in America, and on Earth.

    Now, we’re far too innocent to believe that, right? Why would anyone act that way? He must just be stupid. Stupid, or crazy, or something.

    However, the only rational, consistent way to explain the mass destruction that the elites are engaged in is that they’re trying to harm Earth as a whole, and humanity. It doesn’t necessarily mean they’re aliens, vampires, or anything like that; what it does mean is that all these horrible things they do are not just (1) casual mistakes, or (2) short-term greed. For whatever reason, these people are actually trying to weaken us, poison the environment, and essentially, wipe us out. This isn’t kid gloves. It’s wishful thinking to pretend that it’s just an argument about misguided policies–not misguided, when these people are so intelligent, powerful, informed, and consistent in their actions.

    • It’s interesting that whenever a group of cops pull a Rodney King on someone, we readily accept that they are just a bunch of sadistic pricks out for a few thrills. But whenever the 1 percent pulls a Rodney King on the populace, everyone looks for a rational reason or tries to figure out what the practical benefit of the behavior might be. They never imagine the ruling class just wants to haul off from time to time and destroy a few million lives just for the sheer fun of it. What good is power if all you use it for is to yell at the maid? Where’s the fun in that? Not that you can’t combine business with pleasure, but sometimes the motivation is largely pleasure.

      To crush the working class, see them driven before you, and to hear the lamentation of their women. That is what is best in life.

  8. If our politicians are a reflection of higher education we are doomed. Our country seems able to produce only buffoons. When Harvard and Yale hand out diplomas to the likes of Bush and Kerry it’s time to pack it in.

  9. It’s a combination of believing your own “innovation” bullshit, plus the overwhelming need to deny that public enterprise can ever outperform private enterprise.

    They also need to have SOMETHING to point to as an excuse/alleged alternative in this area, which has been radically defunded and restratified since the overclass decided it faced a crisis of democracy back in the 1970s.

  10. The answer seems to be a zeal for union busting — and the teachers union in particular seems to inspire irrational, frothing rage in the wealthy and powerful — and a general war on all things public. Ultimately, this is about corporate dominion over all things, and the conquest of any alternate institutions, forces, or influences. It’s about private undermining and destroying public everywhere. The fact that charters are technically “public” and nominally “benefit” some black kids makes this schools the perfect Trojan horse.

  11. A friend of mine emails:

    You should read more Ravitch–she explains what the hedge funds are doing. There’s gold in them thar hills.

    And you also have to reckon with the unwavering certainty of a Gates, like old JP Morgan before him, that what he is doing is right for America.

    And: There’s gold in them thar tests.

    There’s a guy from HBS named Clayton Christenson, who writes about disruptive innovation. Many have latched on to this and have seen MOOCs as the great disrupter of higher ed. Janet Napolitano just called bulldoody on the impact of online ed in California despite Jerry Brown’s enthusiasm for it. It will not disrupt higher ed–or lower ed, for that matter.

    Student debt is also a huge industry–many say it is the next big bubble to burst. But there’s gold in them thar loans, especially if you run a for-profit higher ed training mill for the lower classes, who take out gummint loans to make it into the “middle class.” The profiteers are fighting in Washington to keep the regulators from shutting them down and taking away their gummint gold mine.

    It’s a very big picture, but Ravitch has seen it from both sides now and clarifies the issues.

    The question of why they are “reforming” the schools, as they “reformed” welfare, and as they want to “reform” Medicare and Social security, is all part of the overall movement to stick it to the poor and the working class in this country while they loot the gummint–and also help the poor starving and sick Africans. Why are they doing that? There’s gold in them thar hills in Africa. Bush did a lot in Africa, as does Gates. Their actions may be indirect–build up an educated work force to help loot the gold in a more systematic way, perhaps–better than dealing with warlords. Africa is big and there’s tons of unexploited gold in them thar hills and emerging markets.

    But I ramble at 4 in the morning. Nuff said. Read more Ravitch.

    She has a blog–here is one post: http://dianeravitch.net/2013/09/07/why-are-hedge-fund-managers-so-interested-in-school-reform/

    Note the Democrats for Education Reform–those are some of the guys.

    Here’s another: http://dianeravitch.net/category/democrats-for-education-reform/ Democrats for Education Reform is a tag in her blog.

    Here she is in the Washington Post in 2011: http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/answer-sheet/post/ravitch-billionaires-and-millionaires-for-education-reform/2011/11/15/gIQAlDAHPN_blog.html

    This is her book, which I haven’t read yet:
    Reign of Error: The Hoax of the Privatization Movement and the Danger to America’s Public Schools (2013) ISBN 978-0385350884

    • I still don’t see an explanation in any of those links. If the hedge fund crew wanted to make money, you would expect to see an emerging Walmart of charters. While there is a pile of money there, the market looks too fragmented to leverage for cash. As for Gates and co., I don’t see the patent monopoly that they don’t know how to operate without.

      When they first created compulsory education, everyone was on the same page as far as standardization and purpose was concerned. They all agreed that schooling was for creating factory drones. I don’t see the same solidarity of purpose in all the different players in the current “reform” movement.

      • Those are great points, but if you read enough Ravitch (and others like her), you’ll see how Gates (and others like him) is standardizing education, disempowering teachers, and pushing fixed input responses and multiple-choice history so much that state/corporate education returns to its original purpose–which you’ve correctly identified.

        Teachers who encourage creative problem-solving, intellectual growth, and independence are stifled as fast as Windows blocks the use of unwanted software.

  12. I’m generally all for “follow the money” as an explanation. But in the case of charters, I do think the hedgies and other rich folk are expressing a visceral desire to crush unions and all things public — that is, competing and/or alternate institutions and influences. This is about power and control, of which money is of course a significant part. And they get to crush unions wearing the halo of helping black kids.

    Africa? White man’s burden redux. And also gaining the halo of helping helpless blacks. The need to wrap in altruism an existence driven by a sociopathic lust for power is quite common.

Leave a Reply