Neo-liberalism and Charter Schools

The Los Angeles Board of Education, little more than a managerial club belonging to LA Mayor Villaraigosa and his privatized charter crew, including Green Dot Schools, other educational maintenance organizations (EMO’s) and deep pocket entrepreneurs approved a resolution in August of 2009 to turn over 12 long-struggling campuses and 18 new ones to bidders from inside or outside the district, including some charter operators.1 The effort is all part and parcel of the capitalist “reform of education” that is sweeping the nation below the radar screen of any national news. It includes using the government, which the neo-liberals say they abhor, to asset strip the public realm; in this case to orchestrate the legal seizure of actual public buildings that house public schools paid for over the decades by public taxpayers.

The insurgency is brutish and the mugging unconscionable as the hostile takeover of public schools is happening precisely at the same time that many schools are being closed and shuttered under the insidious No Child Left Behind provisions that allow for such pernicious disinvestment. Of course the efforts of the neo-liberals are hastily moving along with the disastrous loss of public funds for public schools and the horrific budgetary crisis slamming the state like a virtual Tsunami. Feasting on disaster is the model for these corporate market fundamentalists who see huge profits in the for-profit or non-profit ownership and management of public schools by educational maintenance organizations who want the actual building titles for the public schools and thus the imminently the facilities themselves. This is asset stripping done in broad daylight, a public pillaging that goes unreported by national media on both the ‘left’ and the ‘right.’

Coupled with this is public pillage is the huge amount of authority and autocratic decision-making that the Race to the Top, the neo-liberal brainchild of Arne Duncan and his corporate advisors, will have for the privatization of education. In order for states to qualify for any federal monies under Race to the Top, itself an insidious yet logical rhetorical label for the super-competitive ethos underlying capitalism and its ideological culture, they must meet four assurances that will open up a huge private market in teacher and student surveillance, ala longitudinal test score tracking, supplemental educational materials, merit pay for teachers tied to NCLB accountability and a chokehold on learning and assessment. Reconfigurating education in accordance with Race for the Top will also, of course, be a godsend to the makers of canned curriculum (“best practices”) that will need to be produced in alignment with the new state and federal standards to assure students pass the regimented tests which scores will be then used to rate the teachers and the new primary providers, the charter school EMO’s. Then there is the test prep industry that will dine like vultures off the new assessment obligations imposed on the states by Race to the Top.

UTLA files suit

The good news is that the union representing Los Angeles Unified Teachers (UTLA) filed a lawsuit December 21, 2009 to block the potential hand-over of new campuses to charter school EMO’s and their minions. This is an important legal attempt to stop the asset stripping from taking place. The lawsuit contends that under state law a new school can only become a charter if at least 50% of its permanent teachers petition for it. This was not the case when the board voted to simply give away title to the schools; the schools were handed over to the outside or inside turnaround artists without any public participation in decision making, let alone with the consent of 50% of the Los Angeles teachers. The undemocratic nature of the decision-making is a harbinger for how the schools will be run if the lawsuit is unsuccessful and the district gets its way.

The lawsuit also asserts that recent voter-approved school bonds can’t be used to build schools for charters unless the money was set aside for that purpose. Not surprisingly charter-school advocates defended the plan’s legality as did the Los Angeles Unified School District which means the issue will go to the courts.

Another claim in the lawsuit is that any new school must be staffed by district teachers who would then have the option of converting it to a charter, what is known as “charter conversion”, as opposed to ‘start-up’ charters that require a building to house them. Under the district’s current plan, the subject of the lawsuit, a charter school provider could now move into a public school hire its own faculty, wipe out veteran teachers, union organizers, decimate the union itself, build their own cadre of like-minded followers and market culture and otherwise destroy a public community of teachers. Then the new ‘providers’ can ‘turnaround’ and reconstruct a privatized community of teachers under public guise — one marked by a corporate culture and language of both fear, panoptic surveillance, competition, intimidation, tracking, inauthentic testing, loss of benefits, longer working hours, lack of participatory democracy in school decision-making by teachers and staff, the growth of an elite management ‘team’ or new authoritarian autocracy accompanied by the loss of academic freedom.2 It is no coincidence that most charters in the country are non-union and their owners and operators would like to see them stay that way.

The 30 Los Angeles campuses, the number scheduled for hostile smash and grab takeover, represent hundreds of jobs for union teachers, whose numbers have been shrinking because of declining student enrollment, budget cuts and the migration of 60,000 students to charter schools. One must see that the business plan promoted by the Hudson Institute, Paul T. Hill, The Heritage Foundation, the Gates Foundation, The Broad Foundation and countless more market fundamentalists is working.

Charter schools drain funds and students from public schools. They seek to become primary providers of education and the flight to these schools is leaving traditional public schools (TPS) in the role of secondary provider (see my book on Charter Schools, Grey House Publishing 2009). Any argument about charter schools lifting all boats is pure rubbish and all parties to the altercation know this. This is the point, and why mayoral control and Eli Broad, Gates, The Fisher family and the Walton family (and a host of other such charitable capitalists) along with Green Dot schools and other EMO’s who seek to privatize all of education are so giddy. Creating a sub-prime school system that breaks the backs of the teacher’s union is the goal of the new managerial elite who seek only to turn over public schools to private operators and entrepreneurs. This way they can reduce teachers to at-will employees, de-skill them with the “best practices”, force them to work longer hours for less pay and less benefits and of course eliminate collective bargaining; that will then give the new managerial elite and their corporate masters, control over the entire educational enterprise – from curriculum development to the hiring and firing of teachers.

The sad part is that despite the litigation, United Teachers Los Angeles (UTLA) says they support aspects of allowing educational maintenance organizations such as Imagine Schools or Green Dot or KIPP to bid for management and control over the schools “because it allows groups of teachers to vie for schools.”3 But they are missing not just the point but the site for struggle: our public schools belong to us, the public that built them with our hard earned tax monies and they should remain within the public realm for they are designed to serve the public commons. If the union cannot begin to see the devastation that neo-liberal policies have wrought they will continue to partner and negotiate with the very same Wall Street thugs and market fundamentalists that designed the entire financial mess which led to the economic collapse the schools find themselves in now. Are these public unions going to stand up and fight for the public good or is it simply capitulation after capitulation with an educational money crowd, who are no different than the giant HMO’s or corporate health industries that spend millions and millions on think tanks and lobbying influence? Why give them a private option in a public system when we can’t even get a public option in a private system of healthcare?

Deadline for School Takeover ‘bidding’ is Looming

The deadline for school takeover proposals is January 11, 2010 and the board is scheduled to vote on the recommendations made by Superintendent. Ramon C. Cortines, in February of 2010. Why wouldn’t they? With Cortines little more than a courtier and gopher for the privatization crowd, philanthro-capitalists like Broad and the burgeoning venture fund capitalists, can be sure that the auctioning off of LA students will proceed in accordance with their desires and at a quick pace without any fussy democracy or parental or citizen input. This is all reminiscent of the privatization of education accomplished in New Orleans after Katrina in 2005.

When asked, district officials have nauseatingly said that their role is to approve a sound education plan for each of the 30 campuses — whether they eventually operate as charters or not. Yet the district is little more than a wholly owned subsidiary of special interests. Remember, this is the same district that has already given the green light to allow charter school operators or turnaround artists to run 250 other Los Angeles schools. As I have written elsewhere, the school board is little more than a rubber stamp for the Mayor and his political supplicants.

All over the country we are now witnessing the absolute collapse of many major urban public school districts; Los Angeles is certainly not the only one. However, it is being targeted, like other urban areas such as New York, Houston, D.C., et. al. by Education Secretary Arne Duncan and the charter school crowd for it offers a golden opportunity in the midst of an economic crisis to put into place the urban privatization plans for education which at its helm, has as its goal the destruction of collective bargaining with teachers and thus is aimed at destroying teacher unions themselves. Although the lawsuit is commendable it will only buy time, if that. As A.J. Duffy, head of UTLA admitted, if the lawsuit succeeds: we will have gained valuable time to continue to push for local control of schools, where teachers, parents, administrators and community members are the driving force behind the education program at that school.3

What is needed now

With all due respect, lawsuits simply are not enough. They can act as platforms for forthright organizing and education but what is needed now is bold direct action on behalf of teachers, students, citizens and communities looking to safeguard their neighborhoods and public institutions from the locusts of privatization. If we are to secure the educational commons and seal if off from the crass entrepreneurs and privatizers that seek to parcel it out based on race, gender and social class for profit; if we are to protect our children from a loss of childhood under siege by ‘measureable outcomes’ and ‘efficiency targets’ begot by standardized tests linked to bankrupt federal policy; if we are to shed any attempts at merit pay and assure decent wages and working conditions for teachers, along with real and secure pensions and adequate and affordable health care; if we are to put forth an educational reform plan based on what we know works (lower class size, teacher collaboration, participatory democracy, preparation time for teachers to develop creative lesson plans, pre-schooling, etc.); if we are to educate the public about the urgency and exigency of public education with an emphasis on learning to think critically and developing the values and dispositions necessary for citizenship education to advance participatory democracy so we might confront the daily horrors of inequality, a lower standard of living, lack of participation in power, and divisiveness honed by racism, sexism, class, gender discrimination and gender inequality, then we must seek active coalitions for social change. These coalitions must grow and they must involve more and more public and private workers who see nothing in the future but growing inequality, tightening economic hardship, and the further destruction of childhood, promoted and fostered by the neo-liberal politics of late stage capitalism.

  1. See my article regarding Asset Stripping and LA schools. []
  2. Charter Schools, the repression of free speech and authoritarian autocracy: the new but old, educational reform.” []
  3. Howard Blume, “Teachers union files lawsuit over charter takeovers,” LA Times, December 22, 2009. [] []

Danny Weil is a junior college teacher at Allan Hancock College in California where he teaches philosophy. He is a former kindergarten, first grade, and second grade teacher who has written a great deal on education. Read other articles by Danny.

5 comments on this article so far ...

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  1. bpeterson1931 said on December 27th, 2009 at 10:41am #

    In connection with “Race to the Top” it would seem that distributing public funds based on some type of competitive scheme not approved by Congress would be unconstitutional.

  2. Danny Weil said on December 27th, 2009 at 12:50pm #

    Yes, it would seem unconstitutional but that is the problem: neo-libralism works to assure the government is nothing more than a collection tray for the vast riches it needs to continue to accumulate capital. Be it NAFTA, the Patriot Act, No Child Left Behind or many other government ‘policies’, the role of the ‘state’ under capitalism to to assure laws that work in accordance with ruling class interests.

    One can only hope a legal challengee will be mounted, but with the corporatizers flush with cash any remedy at the gate of justice will be ephemeral.

    As a public interest lawyer I can tell you that without a political movement along side any legal claims, the suit will either be subjected to dismissal or will fall into the deep hole of obscurity while the policies become permanent features of our institutions.

  3. beverly said on December 27th, 2009 at 8:24pm #

    Privatization of public schools will be as big a fiasco as the subprime mess. Who’s left to teach after those young fresh out of college grads that are replacing veteran teachers tire of the “idealism” of charter ed (or find better paying gigs)? What other “great idea” will the power players dream up after discovering that No Child Left with a Mind, er, No Child Left Behind has created test taking automatons but the students haven’t learned a damn thing – be it developing critical thinking skills, love of reading, fluency in foreign language, or decent oral/written communication skills? Studies have already been done that show charter schools are not getting much better results than public schools. I’d bet some results are worse as anyone can put out a shingle and go into the charter business with little oversight on cirriculum or teacher/adminstrator qualifications.

    What happens at those charters who fail to return a profit? Will they be closed like any other failing business? Where do the students go? Back to the underfunded public school?

    This whole mess is just another example of the crap policies that used to be stopped cold by advocates and even a few left leaning politicians. Now, every ill-advised, damaging beyond repair idea every conceived by either right wing zealots or corporate America is sailing smoothly to fruition under the smiling face of the biracial Hustler-in-Chief. I guess if the king is a Democrat and has a black face as an added bonus, all that stuff that used to be bad is now to be considered good. Geezus. Gullibility will do us in long before global warming.

  4. chemtchr said on December 28th, 2009 at 7:08am #

    Thank you for the information. i forwarded this link to a congresswoman I know, but I have little hope of a response without some kind of breakthrough in journalism.
    Here is the comment I just posted on EdWeek:
    The legislation that has been slammed through the state senate in Massachusetts doesn’t just lift the cap on “high performing” charter schools. It MANDATES the stripping of assets from public school districts and their bargain-rate sale to whatever charter school corporations and Education Management Organizations bid on them. State senators said the economic forces behind this drive (Gates, Broad, veteran lobbyists for data management, defense and tech industries, and the Boston Globe editors) are so powerful they didn’t dare stand up to it. Our State Legislators are now left with that job, knowing that it may well cost them their political careers. The ethics and lobbying legislation I worked for last spring seems powerless to stop the juggernaut of leveraged self-interest.

    Across the whole country, the public education system is being deliberately driven to destruction and despair by hired “CEO” corporate wreckers. Now, they see a “breathtaking” opportunity to destroy the work of generations, and seize the public education assets that should be handed down again to our children’s children.

    Edweek readers, including all you entrepreneurs and opportunists who have helped build this whole industry of leveraged lies, I’m not denouncing you or condemning you. I’m trying to talk you over before it’s too late. The clueless, structurally corrupt administration I helped elect is being shamelessly wagged by “Democrats for Ed Reform”. All your hype aside, we can’t allow public education to be broken and pillaged like our banking industry was. This blind drive represents the same leveraged, “competitive” business forces and is funded by the super-profits they stripped from our people.

    A court challenge has been filed in LA:
    http://www.latimes.com/news/local/la-me-utla22-2009dec22,0,4251620.story

  5. Danny Weil said on December 28th, 2009 at 1:06pm #

    Thank you for your comments and I do hope the ‘congresswoman’ will read this as well as articles on dailycensored.com by me.

    The problem is that the right wing is so organized and the left is so disorganized. The right has decades of plans written in the shadows of their corporate think tanks. We seem to be caught off guard.

    Take a look at my article on Dailycensored.com on Detroit. Truly startling and as one can see, the astro-turf parent organizations are breaking through the broken cracks like weeds in a garden.

    In the interim, if we do not oxygenate our unions and coalesce with other unions we will not have teachers’ unions, only hollowed out organizations. Then it is back to trying to organize charter school by charter school which is what is going on now.

    I hope to hear more from readers.