This past week, New York Times columnist Michael Powell elegantly illustrated the inequities of the charter school movement with a look at East Harlem’s Public School 30 and Harlem Success Academy 2, which share the same building on East 128th Street in NYC. (Full disclosure: Powell is a friend and mentor.) The latter school is a charter run by Eva Moskowitz, a former City Council rep about as politically wired as you’d expect. While PS 30, like just about every public school, struggles for resources, Harlem Success Academy 2 is awash in money, with Moskowitz apparently seizing exclusive control over an $875,000 grant from the City Council to renovate the building’s playground. Moskowitz’s annual salary for running her little fiefdom within the public school system is a little less than half that figure.
Thinking about charter schools, I plunged down the bottomless rabbit hole of the internet. Eventually this led me back to some recent writing by Diane Ravitch in the New York Review of Books, particularly this essay about the school ‘reform’ movement, in which charters have found surprising bipartisan traction. Ravitch was interviewed (that link is to a PDF of the full issue) by Joel Shatzky for Currents back in our Fall 2010 issue; in his review of her book The Death and Life of the Great American School System, published simultaneously in our pages, Shatzky called her out for failing “to tackle . . . the root cause of poor schooling: poverty, and especially the lack of motivation students feel when faced with no hope of upward mobility.” While Ravitch was skeptical of Shatzky’s argument concerning upward mobility, she’s either revised her thinking since then or poverty was always part of it:
The reformers like to say that poverty doesn’t make a difference, but they are wrong. Poverty matters . . . . Poor children can learn and excel, but the odds are against them. Reformers like to say that “demography is not destiny,” but saying so doesn’t make it true: demography is powerful. Every testing program shows a tight correlation between family income and test scores, whether it is the SAT, the ACT, the federal testing program, or state tests.
Ravitch has continued to sound similar notes in more recent writing for the NYRB, going at least so far as to say that “schools and teachers alone cannot cure the ills of an unequal and stratified society” and “to the extent that we reduce poverty, we will improve student achievement” (which is closer to Shatzky’s analysis of causation).
The ‘reformers’ argue that it’s the public schools that are failing, and that charter schools are the answer. Interestingly, Ravitch observes that charter schools were originally propagated by neocon godfather Al ‘Nuclear Apocalypse‘ Shanker (skip to 1:30 in that clip), the former president of the American Federation of Teachers. According to Ravitch, Shanker thought charters would exist in a collaborative relationship with the public schools; when he saw them being turned into a backdoor for union-busting and privatization, he turned against them.
Ravitch’s NYRB essays are an impressive campaign to defend the public school system against its well-heeled detractors. She launched her counter-attack by demolishing Davis “An Inconvenient Truth” Guggenheim’s latest documentary sensation, Waiting for ‘Superman’, but it was last September’s dispatch that caught my attention, the aforementioned essay on the movement for school ‘reform’, which was mostly dedicated to skillfully dismembering Stephen Brill’s Class Warfare: Inside the Fight to Fix America’s Schools. Brill, a lesser media mogul, is a champion of education reform and in particular the charter school movement. If, as Ravitch argues, the ‘crisis’ in education is really a matter of “ill-considered federal legislation that sets utopian targets and then punishes schools and educators when they cannot meet impossible goals,” then it’s hard to interpret the reform movement’s response to that crisis as anything other than an effort to break the teachers’ unions. (I suppose the key question is whether the crisis has been intentionally ginned up or if it’s just the result of a shoddy analysis; I can’t quite tell which way Ravitch leans on this point, but in her judgment “the actual data do not suggest a crisis.”)
Brill’s book apparently offers an impressively candid account of how a small fraction of the One Percent can hijack policy. First, cook up an innocuous name, say, ‘Democrats for Education Reform.’ Then start raising money from your friends and their hedge funds. Spread it around to a few influential legislators: stuff $4100 into Rep. George Miller’s hand (D-CA, and the ranking Democrat on the House Committee on Education and the Workforce), $6600 for former Rep. Tom Perriello (D-VA, Perriello was defeated in his bid for reelection in 2010, and it’s unclear why he was so favored, as he wasn’t on any of the relevant committees), get $8800 to James Clyburn (D-SC, former House Majority Whip, now the third-ranking member of the House Dems leadership and an “influential” member of the Congressional Black Caucus) and another $10,000 to his PAC. Brill reports a 2007 DFER fundraiser for Clyburn scrounged up another $45 grand. Finish by naming an Education Secretary (Arne Duncan, duly appointed).
The president was a key early recruit to the cause, reportedly lending his name to DFER’s New York City launch party in June 2005. After installing Duncan, Obama implemented ‘Race to the Top,’ which encourages standardized testing as a way of evaluating teachers and lifting state limits on privately-managed charters. To those who argue that Congress has stood in the way of a more progressive Obama presidency, here’s yet another issue on which the primary obstacle to a more progressive presidency seems to be Obama himself.
DFER is still out there shaking the cup. This election cycle has been slow so far, but if previous cycles are any indication, they’re only getting warmed up. In the ’06 mid-term election—in which DFER got a late start—the organization doled out a mere $10,600. They quadrupled that in ’08, dropping $43,000 on the election. Mid-terms usually see a drop-off, but in the 2010 election cycle DFER put $48,500 in the pockets of their favored Democrats. It’s worth noting that the Center for Responsive Politics’ numbers (from which these figures are drawn) don’t tally up donations bundled together at fundraisers and the like (such as that $45 grand for Clyburn) as bestowed by whoever did the bundling, so they may very well understate the extent of DFER’s leverage. (If anyone wants to buy me a subscription to CQMoneyline, I’ll happily spend a few days digging deeper into those numbers.)
You see some of the usual tricks. By law, a PAC can only receive up to $5,000 from a single individual in a given calendar year. So John Petry of Gotham Capital (and a co-founder of Eva Moskowitz’s Harlem Success Academy) happens to donate $5 grand on August 13th, 2007, the same day Karen Petry, a “self employed/homemaker” donates another $5 grand (they share a zip code, and, one assumes, a home in it). They did it again on December 31st, 2009. Rafael Mayer (of Khronos Capital) and Yvette Mayer (of self employed/homemaker) also both happened to kick in $5 grand each on August 8th, 2007… and on March 16th of 2009. Last year John Arnold, of Centaurus Advisors, ponied up $5 grand on the same day as Laura Arnold.
DFER’s supporters also include machers like Charles Ledley, Cornwall Capital, one of the heroes of Michael Lewis’ The Big Short. It’s a wealthy bunch. As Ravitch puts it:
Class Warfare is not about a “classroom war,” but literally a “class war,” with a small group of rich and powerful people poised to take control of public education, which apparently has for too long been in the hands of people lacking the right credentials, resources, and connections.
Hey, it’s not her fault if reality is Marxist. Ravitch rounds out her essay on Brill with a warm appraisal of a Bronx teacher’s memoir. If you’re interested in the war over education
, her recent essays are worth your time.