For those of us following the news, each new day brings a bevy of unbelievable and shocking stories…
- Reports of Russian election meddling!
- A national emergency (that’s not a national emergency)!
- Cabinet secretaries wreaking havoc on the environment, education, and human rights!
- Kids in cages at the border!
- The Mueller Report!
And in the middle of each of these stories? A deeply flawed, un-Democratic, and racist president* who doesn’t value our public institutions, and is only interested in his own personal and financial well-being.
After listening to more of these stories than I care to admit, it occurs to me that Donald Trump’s behavior as president* reminds me an awful lot of how charter schools and charter management corporations function.
What do I mean?
- Lack of regulation
One of Trump’s major goals as president* has been to eliminate or weaken regulations in eight major categories: agriculture, education, environment, finances, health care, housing, labor, telecommunications, and transportation. And on this one issue, even his detractors have to admit he’s exceeded their expectations. As of 2018, the Trump administration was eliminating 22 regulations for every 1 new regulation approved, surpassing their stated goal of “2 out for every 1 in.” These actions represent nothing less than a wholesale dismantling of the federal government’s oversight responsibility for every major sector of the country’s economic and environmental enterprises, many of which have been in place for decades. Taken along with the dramatic number of judicial appointments that the administration has jammed through, Trump’s influence on the nation’s direction is hugely outsized when compared to his legislative impact, which has been negligible.
This focus on rolling back regulations was, of course, the entire rationale for the existence of charter schools. That the “purpose” of charters has now morphed perversely into a profit seeking endeavor only reinforces the importance of a lack of oversight to the proliferation of charters across the country. Charter management corporations depend on this lack of governmental accountability to hire uncertified teachers, pay them less than teachers in traditional public schools, pay charter leaders more, and keep teachers unions out of their schools. And when forced to play by the same rules as public schools, they just can’t compete.
- Hiring unqualified people
Trump’s Cabinet appointments are clearly the least qualified in our nation’s history. Trying to come up with the worst Cabinet picks in this clown car of leadership has become a cottage industry for some pundits. For example, Betsy DeVos knows nothing about education, and her goal is to privatize public education; Rick Perry couldn’t even remember the name of the department he is now in charge of during a presidential debate, and he’s well along the path of eliminating it altogether; and, has anyone even seen Ben Carson lately?
Many charter schools are also guilty of hiring uncertified teachers. Even more troubling is the charter industry’s enthusiastic support of “back door” routes to teacher certification such as Teach for America and Teachers of Tomorrow, which promise people without degrees in education a quick and easy path to the classroom with as little as a few weeks of “student teaching” experience. Perhaps the most problematic issue here is that the charter schools most likely to hire these “lightly-trained” novices often are located in urban centers, where their impact is disproportionately detrimental to the learning needs of students of color.
- Turnover is a feature, not a bug
Trump’s Cabinet has been a veritable revolving door of chaos and turmoil, made worse by happening at the highest levels of government. Not surprisingly, this is a major component of the president’s* leadership style, such as it is. Trump has always “insulted adversaries, undermined his aides, repeatedly changed course, extolled his primacy as a negotiator and induced chaos.” There’s even a word for it in the business world: churn. For Trump, inducing and fomenting a state of constant instability and uncertainty within his closest circle of advisers has been the primary goal of his approach to management; it’s a feature, not a bug.
The same approach obtains in the charter sector. Whereas stability on a school’s faculty roster from year to year is recognized as a sign of a well-run traditional public school, near-constant teacher turnover, changing teachers’ work assignments on a yearly basis, and swapping of administrators between buildings is an accepted operating principle at many charter schools. In the education world, schools are seen as communities, and value is placed on building relationships among faculty and families over time. In the charter world, schools are seen as “franchises” or “shops”, to be managed remotely and dispassionately.
- Using office for personal gain
It’s been a poorly kept secret that Trump views the presidency less as a chance to serve his country, and more as an opportunity for enormous personal gains. Between funneling foreign dignitaries to Trump-owned hotels during their official US visits, money made from foreign tenants like the state-owned Industrial & Commercial Bank of China, blatant violations of the emoluments clause, and suspiciously shady business deals brokered with other countries by the Trump Organization and his family members, Trump and his associates are raking in hundreds of millions of dollars per year. Never has an elected official made such a mockery of public service at the nation’s expense.
Similarly, since so few education reform leaders actually know very much about education, there’s a big push to run schools like businesses. And the fundamental business practice behind charter schools is to deliver the best ROI (return on investment) to the school’s funders and investors. The only real way to increase profits is to reduce expenses, and since school budgets are 90+% personnel, that means fewer teachers, cheaper teachers, more online and virtual learning, and no unions with which to negotiate–none of which has been proven to be good for student learning.
The silver lining for those working to advance the goals behind so many of the country’s largest charter chains is that charter school administrators are making out like bandits:
Eva Moskowitz, CEO of the 46-school Success Academy network, received a pay package totaling $782,175 in 2016.
Geoffrey Canada, who stepped down as CEO of the Harlem Children’s Zone in 2014, received a whopping $1 million bonus the following year when he began serving as president of the nonprofit organization which operates two charter schools and a variety of other programs.
Anne Williams-Isom, who replaced Canada as CEO, received total compensation of $734,299 in 2016, including a base salary of $278,793 and a $212,955 bonus, along with deferred compensation of $234,514, according to the organization’s tax filing.
So while teaching at a charter school isn’t usually a very good financial decision, running a charter chain is a pretty lucrative way to make a living.
Which brings us to the final way that charter schools are like our current president* and his administration–both are deeply flawed, un-Democratic, and plagued by institutional racist tendencies, led by persons who don’t value our public institutions, and are only interested in their own personal and financial well-being.
Let’s hope that Trump’s presidency closes as quickly as so many charter schools do.