The Dramatis Personae in the Privatization of Public Schools in North Carolina – or Who is Trying to “Reform” Education Through Deformation

Michelle Rhee’s visit to North Carolina for a “closed-door” meeting (February 7th)) with lawmakers in the current climate of public education in this country and in the state should not sit well with public school advocates.

In fact, this meeting that was brokered by an educational lobbying body of business leaders called BEST NC (coupled with the NC GOP’s invitation to Betsy DeVos) should serve as an ominous omen of what will be attempted in North Carolina.

This meeting with Rhee was passed off as a session with leaders where candid questions could be asked and ideas exchanged on how to improve public education seemed to be void of the very people who know education the best – educators.

And while the media did have a chance to meet and greet with Ms. Rhee and George Parker in a manicured and measured way, what happened behind closed doors with people who make decisions on how to spend taxpayer money and fund public schools along with controversial educational reformers remains a mystery.

So much for transparency and including all stakeholders. In fact, it seemed more like a special session of the NC General Assembly who used such “secret sessions” to spawn actions such as HB2, SB4, and HB17.

Despite what they claim, the intentions of BEST NC to improve public education seems to have a different meaning to them than it does to those who are educators in our public schools.

That’s because there exist too many relationships between business leaders, lobbying groups, wealthy benefactors, politicians, and educational reformers to be coincidental. In fact, many in the “reform” movement that have started to dismantle the public school system are strategically linked to each other, including BEST NC.

Look at the graphic below:

privatizers

That is a diagram of the relationships between entities that many public school advocates deem as detrimental to our public school system. The box at the bottom represents the state of North Carolina. All of the other listed players are national.

Consider the following groups:

  • Teach For America
  • Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation
  • Walton Family Foundation
  • Eli Broad Foundation
  • KIPP Charter Schools
  • Democrats For Educational Reform
  • Educational Reform Now
  • StudentsFirst
  • America Succeeds
  • 50CAN
  • American Legislative Exchange Council
  • Civitas Institute
  • SAS Software
  • CarolinaCan
  • North Carolina General Assembly
  • BEST NC

They are all linked. And the only teachers who seem to have any sustained dialogue with any of these is the Hope Street Group – and that dialogue seems mostly to have been with BEST NC.

Somehow, someway all of the bulleted entities above were in that closed door meeting which started literally four hours after Betsy DeVos was confirmed as secretary of education thanks to the first ever tie-breaking vote by a vice-president for a cabinet position.

If you are willing, simply follow the explanation below because what seems to be a simple meeting may just be another step in the GOP-led NC General Assembly to dismantle public education and finance the privatization of schooling.

In 2014 a teacher/researcher named Mercedes Schneider published an informative book called A Chronicle of Echoes: Who’s Who in the Implosion of American Public Education. What Schneider did was literally research and report on all of the bodies of influence that were applying forces on the landscape of public education for the benefit of political and capitalistic gain.

The fact that she is a teacher, product of public schools from southern Louisiana, a trained researcher, a survivor of Katrina, and a residential expert of the charter takeover in New Orleans, she has a unique perspective and an educated point of view.

Chapter 17 of the book is dedicated to the Democrats For Educational Reform and the Educational Reform Now groups (DFER and ERN).

DFER supports vouchers, union busting and other reform measures that are common in other reform circles, but they are (to summarize Schneider) not “non-profit.” What makes them powerful is that they have the word “Democrat” in their name and it allows them to literally “train” democrats into accepting and advancing a protocol that actually is more conservative in nature – initiatives that align with school choice and charter movements. Schneider talks about in pages 276-279 how the DFER even promoted “mayoral control and charter favoritism.”

It may seem a little bit like conspiracy theory, but it does make sense. Why? Because DFER is non-profit and has the word “Democrat” in it and therefore does not get the big time donations from conservative donators.

Or do they?

DFER is run mostly by hedge-fund managers. One of them is Whitney Tilson, who happens to be a Teach For America alumnus and a vice-chair of New York’s KIPP charters. He also sits on the board of DFER. That alone links DFER, KIPP, and TFA (p.278).

At least in 2013, DFER had an Executive Director named Joe Williams. He just happened to “also head another reform group, this one actually is classed as a ‘nonprofit,’ and it doesn’t have the D-word in its title.”  Education Reform Now (ERN) is a “democratic” body understood to be a “sister entity” to DFER (p.279).

By 2010, ERN counted the Broad Foundation and the Walton Foundation as donors. “ERN enables hedge-fund managers to quietly donate to Democrats advancing the privatization agenda…. Looks like the big Republican money is available to DFER, after all – through its ERN back door” (p.279).

More from Schneider:

  • Remember that Whitney Tilson is also a founding member of Teach For America along with Wendy Kopp. Kopp was the mentor of Michelle Rhee. Their ventures literally share the same circulatory system.
  • Tilson sits on the KIPP board and sits on the DFER board.
  • Kopp sits on the Broad Foundation Board which feeds money to ERN who in turn feeds DFER. Kopp is also married to Richard Barth, the CEO of KIPP Foundation.
  • DFER through ERN conducts business with Rhee’s StudentsFirst.
  • Tilson, Kopp, and Rhee are TFA alums.

How does this link into BEST NC? Well, BEST NC is affiliated with an outfit named America Succeeds that feeds and supports various “reform” groups within certain states that bring together powerful business leaders to push “educational reform.” Look at the following article: – http://www.prwatch.org/news/2016/03/13065/how-dfer-leaders-channel-out-state-dark-money-colorado-and-beyond. The title alone alludes to the ability for DFER to channel “dark” money to out of state entities that promote anti-union, pro-charter, voucher supporting measures. It shows something interesting.

  • America Succeeds’s address in Colorado is 1390 Lawrence Street in Denver.
  • DFER’s Colorado office is located on 1390 Lawrence Street in Denver.
  • KIPP’s Denver charter schools are headquartered in Denver. At 1390 Lawrence Street.

Seems that TFA, StudentsFirst, DFER, ERN, KIPP are about as incestuously linked as a Greek god family tree and it is feeding support to groups like BEST NC who just happens to be the Carolina affiliate of America Succeeds.

Think about it. North Carolina is an ideal target. Why? Because of the following conditions:

  • Right-to-work state.
  • Elimination of due-process rights.
  • Removal of caps for number of charter schools which are not regulated.
  • GOP controlled state assembly.
  • Opportunity Grants increasing.
  • Push for merit pay.
  • The new state superintendent is a TFA alumnus – Mark Johnson.

Brenda Berg who is the CEO of BEST NC has increasingly brokered working relationships with many entities that have targeted public schools – John Locke Foundation being one.

BEST NC’s VP is Julie Kowal, who at one time was the Executive Director of CarolinaCan, which is the NC chapter of an outfit called 50CAN, a national “advocacy group” that just last year merged with another entity: StudentsFirst: https://studentsfirst.org/pages/50can-and-studentsfirst-merge-strengthen-support-local-education-leaders-across-country.

Now, add to that the fact that BEST NC has had some workshops/meetings with people from the The Hope Street Group which is a group of teacher leaders who receive a stipend in exchange for gathering and communicating educational concerns with public school teachers.

Also consider:

  • Hope Street Group receives funding from the Gates Foundation.
  • Hope Street Group and other teachers were not in the meeting that Michelle Rhee attended with lawmakers that was set up by BEST NC. That means that the dialogue between what happens at the meeting and other teachers will be brokered by BEST NC because if HOPE Street can’t go, then other teachers can’t go.

It could also mean that there might be an altered script that is read to these teachers.

And one other thing – the vice-president of BEST NC (Julie Kowal), the Director of the North Carolina Teachers Network for Hope Street Group (Katharine Correll), and the NC state superintendent (Mark Johnson) all have law degrees. Johnson practiced corporate law. Kowal and Correll worked with non-profits.

Additionally, Mark Johnson was granted a massive amount of power over public education through House Bill 17 and Senate Bill 4 (HB17 &SB4), power over charter schools, and the control of the Achievement School District and has retained the services of ex-Pat McCrory aids who possibly were enabled by other McCrory cronies, such as Art Pope who is linked to the American Legislative Exchange Council, otherwise known as ALEC. Art Pope is also part of the aforementioned John Locke Foundation.

And Mark Johnson is an admirer of Betsy DeVos. When interviewed by the Charlotte Observer for a Jan. 27th feature Johnson expressed his support for the neophyte DeVos.

When asked about her, Johnson didn’t hesitate: “I support her.”

Mark Johnson has only three to four more years (as a teacher and local school board member) of experience with public schools than DeVos, and DeVos has no experience with public schools.

It’s not ironic that Betsy DeVos, Trump’s selection for secretary of education, is also associated with ALEC. From sourcewatch.com it is learned that DeVos has “bankrolled the 501 (c) (4) group the American Federation for Children, the 501 (c) (3) group Alliance for School Choice and by having these groups participate in and fund the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC).”

All of these connections seem more than coincidence and this perfect storm of timing, state politics, gerrymandering, and people in power can’t just be by chance. Could it?

So where are the teachers in this dialogue? The schools of education in one of the best college systems in the nation and from some of the highest ranking private schools in the country?

Well many teachers have been represented by groups like NCAE (which is an association and not a union). Multiple times the NC General Assembly has tried to weaken any group like NCAE through stopping automatic dues payments and other things such as what the Civitas Institute tried to do here – luring teachers in NCAE to “buy” their membership back.

Remember this?

civitas

That website was established by the Civitas Institute, which was founded by Art Pope. It showed NCAE members how to withdraw their membership in NCAE and make $450 because that is what they would not be spending in dues.

Furthermore, on February  8th, the NC GOP which holds a supermajority in both chambers of the NC General Assembly issued a formal invitation to Betsy DeVos to come and “share ideas” according the 2/9/17 edition of the News & Observer (http://www.newsobserver.com/news/politics-government/state-politics/article131486504.html).

Now look at the graphic again:

privatizers

The NC GOP (where many of the very same lawmakers and policymakers in this Feb. 7th meeting with Rhee caucus together) were very instrumental in the following actions:

  • Removal of due-process rights
  • Graduate Degree Pay Bumps Removed
  • Standard 6
  • “Average” Raises
  • Less Money Spent per Pupil
  • Remove Caps on Class Sizes
  • Jeb Bush School Grading System
  • Cutting Teacher Assistants
  • Opportunity Grants
  • Virtual Schools
  • Reduction of Teacher Candidates in Colleges
  • Elimination of Teaching Fellows Program

Also look at the timeline in which BEST NC came into existence – 2013

  • Art Pope became McCrory’s budget director – 2013
  • Graduate Degree Pay Bumps Eliminated – 2013
  • 50Can created CarolinaCan – 2013
  • School Performance Grades – 2013
  • Due-process rights taken from new teachers – started in 2013
  • Charter school cap in NC lifted – 2014, but proposed in 2013.
  • Opportunity Grants – 2014
  • Hope Street Group in NC – 2015

And one last thing – the Feb. 7th meeting with Rhee and Harris does have a connection with SAS, a software company whose president, James Goodnight, is married to one of the founders and current Board Member of BEST NC, Anne Goodnight. Mrs. Goodnight was also one of the founders of Cary Academy, a rather prestigious private school in the Triangle area.

In a data-driven, educational-reform era that seems to crunch and use data to position evidence that supports their claims, it would make sense to align with SAS, an “American multinational developer of analytics software based in Cary, North Carolina. SAS develops and markets a suite of analytics software, which helps access, manage, analyze and report on data to aid in decision-making” (Wikipedia).

“Decision-making” is an interesting term in this discussion, because isn’t this meeting with Rhee just about asking questions?

Because it seems to have raised more questions.

But what this all really means is that public school advocates should and must hold our officials accountable and do everything they can within legal limits to counter the trends that are privatizing our public schools.

Part of that started today with the Moral March in Raleigh. The tens of thousands of people who came to show solidarity in overturning suffocating government policies is just a sampling of the strength that resides within the citizens of our state – 90% percent of whom are affiliated with the public schools either as a student, graduate, parent, or a combination.

Teach For ‘Merica!

There was a very disconcerting report from Arika Herron in April 28th’s edition of the Winston-Salem Journal. In an article entitled “School district could partner with Teach for America to fill persistent vacancies”, Herron describes that the WSFCS system is looking at trying to fill persistently hard-to-staff job vacancies through alternative means.

There are many who look at Teach For America as fulfilling a need. Bright, young, energetic recent college graduates can devote two years (sometimes more) to educating students in hard-to-staff schools. According to Herron’s article, there are studies that show these teachers having effectiveness like their “counterparts” in the schools where they are placed.

However there are many, many critics of TFA. Sometimes referred to as “Temps For America”, TFA only requires candidates to complete a summer “crash” course in teaching before placed in schools. Critics look at this as bringing in ill-equipped teachers into schools who will only stay for a couple of years at most. In essence, it only puts a Band-Aid over a gaping wound.

Dana Goldstein’s book The Teacher Wars spends some time exploring the rise of TFA and other “corps” driven ways to counter teacher shortages. While attempting to treat the subject of the reform movement in education with objectivity, Goldstein shares what are perceived as positives and negatives of Teach For America, but one quote really seems to garner the most attention from me. It is from Catherine Michna, a TFA alumna, who states,

“They work in service of a corporate reform agenda that rids communities of veteran-teachers, privatizes public schools, and forces a corporatized, data-driven culture upon low-income communities with unique dynamics and unique challenges” (p.196).

That’s not flattering coming from someone who was a part of the program.

Michelle Rhee, the former firebrand chancellor of the Washington D.C., made national headlines with her method of “house-cleaning” in the D.C. schools firing many principals and teachers immediately. She is a TFA alumna who is now championing the charter school movement in California. She expounds on TFA’s credentials quite often.

Diane Ravitch is well-known for voicing her opinions about TFA and opposing the ideology of reformers like Rhee. She even devotes a chapter in her bestselling book Reign of Error to dissecting Teach For America. She opens Chapter 14 with a claim made by proponents of TFA and then immediately follows it with a statement on the “Reality” of TFA.

CLAIM Teach for America recruits teachers and leaders whose high expectations will one day ensure that every child has an excellent education.

REALITY Teach for America sends bright young people into tough classrooms where they get about the same results as other bright young people in similar classrooms but leave the profession sooner.

In a recent March 21st, 2016  post on her iconic blog entitled “Insider:Big Trouble Inside TFA”, Ravitch posted an anonymous letter from an employee at TFA chronicling layoffs and improprieties (https://dianeravitch.net/2016/03/21/insider-big-trouble-inside-tfa/). That post nearly coincided with news that San Francisco was terminating its relationship with TFA due to poor results.

Yet, I am not simply wanting to debate TFA’s merits. There are some great teachers who naturally possess qualities and a drive to succeed that allows them to be successful in teaching. But I do have a concern over the length that many TFA’s serve in classrooms because if teaching is a professional endeavor, then does that not denote some sort of commitment beyond two years?

I would argue that it takes almost three years to even get a handle on the teaching profession. Dealing with actually developing a craft, much less get a handle on the curriculum takes time. Most teachers student-teach longer than TFA “graduates” actually train, and that is not even talking about the course work and observations beforehand.

Two to three years may not afford one person an idea of what it is like to undergo a curriculum change, a change in leadership, a new evaluation system, or a new round of standardized tests. Gosh, it took me over two years to just develop an immune system that had come into enough contact with students to not get sick every week with some malady.

Maybe it is just that fact that some teachers spend more time preparing to become teachers than many TFA’s actually serve in schools that makes me wonder.

But I believe the real issue is why would these people need to be recruited? What would make the teaching profession so hard to staff in a state that once boasted one of the best teacher education systems in its colleges and universities? How could conditions become such that school systems like WSFCS even need to look at alternative paths for teachers to become “certified” to place in a school?

Kevin Bastian of the Education Policy Initiative at Carolina (EPIC) wrote an interesting piece for EdNC.org on May 22nd entitled “Staffing North Carolina’s classrooms”. In it, he highlighted the decrease in enrollment in teacher preparation programs while a teacher shortage is continuing. It is very much worth the read, not that I agree with all that he says.

What I truly feel is the root of this need for teacher recruitment through programs like TFA is a simple lack of respect for the teaching profession that many state governments have made commonplace. With stagnating salaries, more students in more classrooms, VAM evaluations, and an emphasis on singular test scores, many teachers do not feel supported and respected. Potential teachers stop even considering becoming career teachers.

In my youth, the teacher was respected he/she was the teacher. In fact, my mother believed a teacher over me when it came to academic progress. Simply put, the teacher was respected because the occupation was valued.

Is that the case today?

Sorry, that is not a rhetorical question.