UPDATED: Privatizing struggling schools: a cautionary tale of a corporate-backed, astroturf group strong-arming parents

Coming soon to an Education Achievement Authority school near you?

Alternet has a frightening piece up this week about the experience of a small, impoverished California town that utilized a “parent trigger” to give its school system over to a private group. The piece, “Exposed: The Billionaire-Backed Group Strong-Arming Parents into Destroying Their Kids’ Public Schools” is worth your time to read.

The story is one of a corporate-funded drive to privatize schools in poor areas. What’s frightening is that there is legislation for doing the same here in Michigan and there is nothing in the bill that would prevent making these schools profit centers for for-profit corporate education companies. Funded by groups like the Walton Family Foundation, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and the Broad foundation, a group called “Parent Revolution” used strong arm tactics and bullying to convince poor residents of Adelanto, California to privatize their school system.

Here’s a little taste of what they experienced:

The parents told me that a Los Angeles-based group calling itself Parent Revolution organized a local campaign to harass and trick them into signing petitions that they thought were meant for simple school improvements. In fact those petitions turned out to be part of a sophisticated campaign to convert their children’s public school into a privately-run charter — something a majority of parents opposed. At times, locals say, the Parent Revolution volunteers’ tactics were so heavy-handed in gathering signatures that they crossed the line into harassment and intimidation. Many parents were misled about what the petition they signed actually meant. Some told me that the intimidation with some of the undocumented Latino residents included bribery and extortion. {…}

By enlisting local parents to canvass the neighborhood speaking out against the teacher’s union, Parent Revolution had already laid the groundwork. The “parent union” was a classic PR strategy, designed to create a rift between parents and the local teachers’ union. Parent Revolution’s aims were initially vague, except on one issue, which was demonizing the teachers union. Parent Revolution volunteers all told the same story: The school’s problems were the fault of bad, self-interested teachers, who cared more about their own pay benefits and job security than about educating the children. {…}

Maggie Flamenco, a mother of two special-needs children enrolled in Desert Trails, and a member of the Adelanto’s Special Education Parent Advisory Committee…told me she had to file a police report against a Parent Revolution activist because the man kept harassing her every time she came to pick up and drop off her kids at school. “Because I was one of the parents who did not want to sign… he blocked the car with his body and prevented me from leaving, writing my writing my plates down, taking pictures of my plates, taking pictures of the kids…it was just harassment.”{…}

Parent Revolution operatives followed people into local businesses, harassed them with constant phone calls and staked out people’s homes. One father got a panicked call from his child, who was scared because a man was lurking outside their home for a long time. Panicking, the dad rushed home, only to find a Parent Revolution organizer camped outside waiting for a signature.

In the end, after using multiple flavors of intimidation including telling parents their kids would get free laptops and bribing undocumented immigrants with promises of “fixing” their immigration status, Parent Revolution secured enough signatures to convert the school to a private charter funded by taxpayer money. A group of concerned parents worked to get petition signers to rescind their signatures and did get over 100 of them to do so. However, backed by lawyers working for free, Parent Revolution convinced the court to force the school to accept them anyway and, last year, the school district was taken over by LaVerne Elementary Preparatory Academy.

There is legislation pending in Michigan at the moment that would allow the so-called “parent trigger” to force conversion of public schools to charter schools. Introduced by Republican Senator Dave Robertson, Senate Bill 83 is a reintroduction of Senate Bill 620 which passed the Senate last year but failed to pass the House by the end of the session. (The full House didn’t get it until December and, if you recall, they were busy screwing over unions and passing several hundred other bills during their inflamed duck session.)

What’s worrisome about the Michigan legislation is that it does not preclude these “conversion schools” from being run by for-profit companies. Parent Revolution executive director Ben Austin penned an op-ed for the Detroit Free Press pointing this out as a flaw and they, by all appearances, reject for-profit charter schools. However, the fact remains that their group is heavily funded by groups who have pushed vigorously for the privatization of schools. As the Alternet article points out, there are a lot of very wealthy investors in the half-trillion dollar for-profit education industry and that is what is what should concern all of us.

Whether or not Parent Revolution is a front group for profit-driven school privatization interests is irrelevant. The fact that Senator Robertson’s legislation doesn’t preclude for-profit charters means that there is a strong incentive for these groups to pour money into lobbying for its passage and, more importantly, getting parents to pull the “parent trigger” if it becomes law. When you see how parents in Adelanto were strong-armed, harassed and intimidated by Parent Revolution and the folks they trained, imagine the pressure that would be applied if corporate groups with (tax) dollar signs in their eyes get involved. We’ve seen how corporatist money has swayed elections and public policy all too often and the effects are being seen in Michigan every day.

An important aspect of this discussion is that this “parent trigger” legislation applies to only the bottom 5% of schools in terms of test score performance. These are the same schools that are covered under the Education Achievement Authority. If S.B. 620 passes, it will incentivize parents to turn their schools over to this educational experiment that is, so far, producing dubious results, and encourage the involvement of corporations eager to funnel tax monies into their bank accounts, companies that are sure to invest time and money to make sure that happens. It has the real potential to make kids in our worst performing schools victims once again, educated in corporate profit centers where decisions about their education are weighed against the impact on the company’s bottom line. I have no doubt that they’ll one day ask to be self-regulated, too.

UPDATE: I just wanted to add some information about the state of charter schools in Michigan at the moment. Michigan has more for-profit charter schools than any other state. During the 2010-2011 school year, 23.9% of the 758 for-profit charter schools in the country were in Michigan (pdf). A full 80% of the charter schools in Michigan are run by for-profit companies. Nationally, that rate is 35%. Finally, a 2012 report by two university professors (pdf) found that “charter schools on average spend nearly $800 more per pupil per year on administration and $1100 less on instruction”.

Given these statistics, you can see why people like me are concerned.

One final point: Any organization that blames the state of our schools on self-serving teachers who they demonize as out only for themselves with no regard for the children they teach is too far out of touch to be taken seriously. Anyone who knows educators in this state — really knows them — understands that teachers, by and large, hold their students’ best interests in front of their own. There are precious few teachers that don’t spend extra personal time and even their own money to ensure that their kids have the supplies they need and are getting the best education that they can provide. To suggest otherwise is ludicrous and points out how flawed their arguments really are.

UPDATE 2: I should have pointed out that this legislation, S.B. 83, forces the school district to essentially give the school building to the charter school. Specifically, it says, “The school district that owns the school building shall lease the school building to the conversion school for $1.00 per year”. The Senate Fiscal Agency’s summary of the legislation from last year (pdf), S.B. 620, points out what an advantage this gives to the charter school (in addition to taking funding out of the public school district):

A conversion school would have a comparative advantage over other districts because of the $1 rent charged for the school building, as required by the legislation. In most, if not all other instances, the cost for school buildings in both local districts and public school academies exceeds $1. Public school academies pay for buildings out of their operating funds; local districts may ask for locally voted millage to raise revenue for buildings, or pay for them out of operating funds. Either way, the costs typically exceed $1, and therefore the low cost of rent for a conversion school would give it a comparative advantage through lower infrastructure costs. In addition, if the conversion school building were still being paid off from a bond election, the district in which that building is located would remain responsible for paying off those bonds.

That is not an inconsequential advantage.

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  • http://www.facebook.com/jackie.schneider.1426 Jackie Schneider

    Our schools are awful, let them go private perhaps the kids will actually learn and not be passed to the next grade without reading at grade level.

  • http://www.facebook.com/Forsetti Jim Matthews

    Philosophically, corporations are not concerned about the education or well-being of children or their education. That is not to say they cannot or don’t make business decisions that can have beneficial consequences for children, it is just these consequences are not the driving force behind a for-profit corporation’s goals or decisions. A for-profit corporation whether it is a manufacturer of a school has one overarching goal-make money. If they can make money offering fewer services, manipulating test scores…they will. If the state gives a company the right to run schools, who oversees their progress? What remedies do parents have if their school doesn’t provide what was promised? ProPublica has done extensive, in-depth reporting in this area, especially in Ohio where the cost to taxpayers has been extensive and the results disastrous.

    There are certainly various ideas and methods that public schools can learn from for-profit schools that would improve their outcomes and perhaps lower some costs. However, there is a huge chasm between adopting a few ideas and having them completely turned into for-profit schools. I now parents want their children to have a good education but they should seriously think twice about turning their children into commodities in trying to attain this.

  • K Smith

    I am deeply sadden by the state of public education in Michigan. It has been all down hill for public schools….and this started with Republican Governor John Engler removing local control. Local districts at one time could depend on the community to vote in millages for operating purposes…that all changed with Engler.

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