Charter Management Organizations Take Aim at Los Angeles Unified School District

Green Dot’s Revolution

By KENNETH LIBBY and DANNY WEIL

“Sometimes they don’t see how things are.”

-Handwritten student posting on a bulletin board at Locke High School, explaining why the media don’t always tell the truth about inner-city schools

- “Cash for the classroom,” LA Times. September 28, 2009 [1]

In what could only be considered an admittance of guilt, the LA Times opinion page began with the above quote expressing one student’s take on the lack of attention paid to the state of inner-city schools.  This humble admission, however, is followed immediately with commentary about one of education’s saviors, a nonprofit charter school management organization (CMO) known as the Green Dot Public Schools.  Green Dot orchestrated a hostile takeover of Locke High School in 2007, and, along with a number of other CMOs, is poised to expand their occupation of public education in the coming years.  Their timing couldn’t be better, as the Los Angeles Unified School District recently decided to turn over up to a third of their schools to outside operators.[2]

The Locke student correctly pointed out the media “don’t see how things are” in schools - which is certainly not a recent phenomena by any means - and the consequences of blindness for so many decades makes it virtually impossible for journalists and the public to view education with any kind of clarity.

Locke was founded a few years after the 1965 Watts riots.  Alain LeRoy Locke, the first African American Rhodes Scholar, wrote extensively about the Harlem Renaissance, and the school’s name was intended as a symbol of hope for a community long revenged by poverty, unemployment, violence, and a public school system providing few opportunities.  On the heels of other Civil Rights advances in the 1960s, Alain LeRoy Locke High School represented the government’s acknowledgement of the woefully inadequate public institutions serving communities with the fewest resources, particularly communities of color.  Civil Rights appeared to have won a victory in the early 1970s when California’s school funding and taxation laws were ruled unconstitutional and subsequently changed to increase the burden on the wealthy while redistributing funding to support education in areas with a weaker tax base.  Unfortunately, the backlash from these changes helped lead to the taxpayer revolt and Proposition 13, greatly limiting the funding to public education and weakening all of California’s schools.  While Locke was losing funding, the surrounding communities in greater South Los Angeles faced increasing unemployment, high levels of poverty, and gang violence.  These problems continue to face the community, and the hostile takeover of Locke by Green Dot does absolutely nothing to address the non-educational issues greatly impacting Locke students and their families.

Snake-oil salesmen and strong-talking politicians thrive in this kind of ahistorical reform environment; glitz and glamour prevail while details and facts are whitewashed to create a media-friendly story.  The LA Times now claims to be able to clearly see a solution to the education woes of the Watts community, and what they claim to see at Green Dot’s Locke High School and how they’ve presented their new revelation should give us pause for concern.

Behind the Scenes

The Green Dot Public Schools are backed by the West Coast’s most famous venture philanthropists, Microsoft’s Bill Gates and KB Homes/SunAmerica founder Eli Broad.  Eli may be most famous for being the only man to start two Fortune 500 companies, but, more recently, Mr. Broad has come under fire for KB Homes’ dire financial situation and SunAmerica’s connections to AIG, which purchased Eli’s retirement giant for $18 billion in 2000.  Gates, of course, is well known for ruthlessly dominating much of the computer industry, and the anti-trust lawsuits filed against his corporation are testament to the no-holds-barred mentality behind his business practices. Both men have reached the conclusion that public education has failed, and a market-based system relying on charter schools, competition, merit-pay based on test scores, and high-stakes testing are the solutions for improving one of America’s most cherished public institutions.  The Obama administration largely shares this agenda, an agenda even Jeb Bush buys into.  NY Times columnist David Brooks recently reported on Jeb’s approval of Obama’s DOE:
“I’ve been deeply disturbed by a lot that’s going on in Washington, Jeb Bush said on Thursday, “but this is not one of them.  President Obama has been supporting a reform secretary, and this is deserving of Republican support.”

Charter management organizations like Green Dot promise to find an education solution for America’s inner-city schools by using the same, if not fewer, resources than traditional public schools.  Their ideology claims education can be radically improved without economic reforms, social reforms, or increases in public school funding, a message that speaks to small-government fanatics, “third way” Democrats, and educational entrepreneurs looking to get their hands on part of the approximately $750 billion spent annually on K-12 education.  Poverty, inadequate healthcare, violence, addiction, environmental pollution, and woefully underfunded public schools are not responsible for the educational inequities; instead, the Obama administration has attacked unions, proposed more charter schools, and left the testing regime firmly in place.

Green Dot’s leadership also deserves attention.  The president and founder, Steve Barr, worked on President Bill Clinton’s 1992 campaign, founded “Rock the Vote,” and served as a finance chair for the Democratic Party.  The man could be considered the poster-boy for the Clintonian “third way” in the educational field.  Barr has publicly disclosed his distaste for libraries, somewhat jokingly called the head of the LAUSD teachers union a “pigfucker,” and makes no secret of his desire to blow up the Los Angeles public schools.  The Democrats and billionaire philanthropists are willing to assist Barr and other charter management organizations in their hostile takeover of the LAUSD and other public school districts across the country.

The Future of Urban Schools: Militarization?

Locke, now under the control of Green Dot, is praised by LA’s biggest media outlet for their preppy-dressed students (khakis and polo shirts) and tight security.  Kevin Simpson, a sophomore during Locke’s first year of operation, told LA Times writer Howard Blume, “You can’t even tell who everybody is ‘cause they all look the same.”[3] The dress code is representative of middle-class suburbanites or entry-level employees at chains like Best Buy, Wal-Mart, and Target.  Students must wear clothing bearing the logo of Green Dot or their school’s name, turned into billboards for the privately run charter management organization, and stripped of their right to pick out their own clothing.  Prisoners, too, face a limited dress code for many of the same reasons, and the students and inmates share experiences beyond simply attire.

The Times boasts, “Green Dot maintains order on what was a traditionally unruly campus by spending hundreds of thousands of dollars more on security than most schools.”[4] A major assumption lies behind this praise of order, discipline, and security: militarized environments are acceptable - even necessary - for urban youth, particularly youth of color.  At a recent event, high-level Green Dot employees revealed the Locke school operated with a $1.2 million security budget in its first year, employing subcontracted security guards armed with handguns and pepper spray.[5] The charter chain hopes to reduce security expenditures to a mere half a million dollars within the next few years.

Secretary of Education Arne Duncan has praised Green Dot as a model for school turnarounds, even summoning Barr to Washington DC to discuss the prospect of the CMO expanding into other cities, telling Barr, “You seem to have cracked the code.”[6] Government in this version of neoliberal education reform slides out of the picture and allows privately run companies to provide a vital public service.

The Future of a Profession?

Education management organizations, including Green Dot, thrive despite high teacher turnover thanks in large part to Teach For America and other alternative track licensing programs.  This steady pipeline of inexperienced workers - most of whom will exit the profession after a few years - does little to help the long-term development of the teaching force.  In fact, short-term employees weakens the teachers union while ensuring urban minority students will continually have ill-prepared educators with little classroom experience.  These young teachers are led astray by preparation programs promising candidates will be prepared to help all children succeed after a five or six week teacher “boot camp,” a preparation program void of serious examinations of pedagogical approaches, developmental psychology, or the role of education in a democratic society.  The inadequate training makes the first few years much more difficult, chewing up and spiting out many of these young teachers, including many bright candidates that would succeed with rigorous pre-service training.  These alternative preparation programs hurt both students and the teaching profession, all in the name of trying to “save” public education along with quick-fix reforms, standardized curricula, and the “no excuses” approach to schooling pushed by reformers and philanthropists.  CMO backers, including Gates and Broad, view these alternative preparation programs as part of the “human capital pipeline,” a code word for morphing the teaching profession into a short-term employment opportunity focused on testing and standards.  This kind of reform is akin to changing a small business owner – with a wealth of knowledge about their profession and a wide variety of refined skills - into a big box store cashier limited to conducting only the most routine, standardized procedures.

This de-skilled workforce is a ripe target for management organizations looking for employees willing to work long hours with zero job security, conditions few educators with families will accept.  Additionally, many younger teachers and those coming from alternative certification programs suffer from historical amnesia, unaware of the struggle of teachers for more than a century to gain higher wages, better working conditions, academic freedom, job security, and authentic curriculum for their students.  This is the future of the teaching profession under CMOs like Green Dot.

Privacy and PR: Confusion and Secrecy?

There are also concerns about what the public can no longer see when public schools are turned over to privately run management organizations.  Through open government legislation of previous decades, education researchers and members of the public can access a wealth of information about traditional public schools.  Nonprofit corporations like Green Dot must file some financial documents, but these records are far less transparent than information available on traditional public schools, and detailed transparency becomes wiped away entirely when outside contractors are brought in to perform services.  In the end, Green Dot and other CMOs are file barebones tax forms revealing shockingly little about their use of tax dollars. For instance, Green Dot employs a private security firm, uses two for-profit companies to supply substitute teachers, outsourced their school lunches, and enlisted a number of management organizations to perform various operations.

In 2007, according to their 990 tax form, Green Dot conducted a review of “the debit and credit card charges submitted to the Corporation by founder and President Steve Barr.”  The report concluded Barr was reimbursed “a total of $50,866 for chargers that were either not reimbursable in nature, or were insufficiently substantiated or documented to quality for reimbursement.”  And, although Barr did not use the money “to enrich himself,” the minimal explanation in the Green Dot Corporation’s tax form illustrates how private operators means privatized information.  A public official caught misspending or insufficiently documenting the use of fifty thousand dollars would face serious questions and media scrutiny, but self-policing charter boards conducting their own investigations can shield misconduct from public scrutiny.

Inquiries to Green Dot are answered with the typical PR jargon and the vagueness one would expect from a for-profit company, if not ignored entirely.  Public schools, on the other hand, either provide information requested or can be compelled to release records through legal avenues.  Sadly, the media, more interested in the sales pitch and glitz of charter schools operators and their bipartisan promoters, do not see how these reform efforts greatly reduces public disclosure and access to information.

Conclusion:

Green Dot claims to advance civil rights and democratic principles, yet these promises are secured by a system legitimizing the militarization of urban schools while handing over public institutions to private operators. This is, to be sure, this strikes at the very heart of the issue.  No one can claim the existing public school was serving the needs of Locke students, families, and teachers.  But, as is the case in other neoliberal reform efforts, this militarization and privatization turnaround plan is presented as if “there is no alternative” (TINA) when, in fact, the state of California could reverse its anti-tax legislation, boost funding for public education, and reduce the bloated prison budget, which has been steadily rising while public services face massive cuts; the Obama administration could embrace progressive social and economic policies, commit tremendous resources to America’s struggling schools, and repeal No Child Left Behind.  Unfortunately, a combination of the conservative stranglehold on the state’s funding formula and poor reform agenda of Obama’s DOE disregard any serious attempts to address the social and economic inequities of the nation, inequities that are all-too-evident in American classrooms.  Instead, privately managed schools, merit-pay, and other market-based mechanisms are the preferred sledgehammers of conservative and neoliberal reformers driving education policy; No Child Left Behind, which Duncan insists is toxic in name only, is the ultimate tool for cracking open a market for public schools – a market Gates and Broad have helped to develop with their support of nearly every major nonprofit CMO and many charter advocacy groups.

Charters, as conceived by Ray Budde and embraced by American Federation of Teachers president Albert Shanker in the 1980s, put extensive power in the hands of trained teachers, the people spending the most time with our children.  By 1994, however, Shanker had changed his stance on charters, calling them “another threat or a potential threat” in his State of the Union address to the AFT.[7]  In the 1990s, most if it under President Clinton, the business community began to see how charter schools could be twisted into forming chains of schools offering prepackaged curricula, non-union teachers, and competition for struggling public schools.  It’s a reform agenda focused on breaking public education and especially teacher unions, not improving the quality of education for all children.

The public must understand the trade-offs made when public schools are turned over to privately run CMOs promising great changes.  Although Green Dot and most other chains do not exist specifically to turn a profit, the operating procedures mirror the governance structure of private companies operating in the for-profit sector; information is not open to public scrutiny, self-appointed governing boards do not have to answer to parents, and the concept of education as a public good becomes wiped away.  Like the oncoming wave of charter chains expanding across the country, Green Dot’s hostile takeover of Alain LeRoy Locke High School fails to address the most pressing issues facing children forced to grow up in inner-city neighborhoods where drugs, violence, unemployment, inability to access healthcare, malnutrition, pollution, incarceration, and poverty are all too prevalent.  Schools alone cannot deal with the conditions imposed by the social end economic oppression perpetrated by a grossly unfair tax structure, a government represented by private interests, and wealthy philanthropists pushing the corporate model of school reform.  The media have failed to bring to light some very pressing concerns about the brand of school reform engulfing the nation.  Democracy, the teaching profession, and the lives of our students are at stake.

Kenneth Libby is contributing author in an upcoming volume about the Gates Foundation and the future of public education.  He recently received his Masters in Teaching and can be reached at KennethLibby06@gmail.com.

Dr. Danny Weil is a public interest attorney and an educational writer and international journalist.  He has published several books including School Vouchers and Privatization, Charter Schools, 1st edition, and his new book, Charter School Movement: History, Politics, Policies, Economics & Effectiveness 2nd, is now available.   He can be reached at weilunion@aol.com.

Footnotes:

[1] Los Angeles Times Editorial Board, “Cash for the classrooms,” Los Angeles Times, September 28th, 2009.

[2] Counterpunch Sept. 16-30, 2009 Alexander Cockburn and Jeffrey St. Clair vol. 16, no. 16 Privatizing Public Schools: Another Big Chapter in the Smash-and-Grab Saga of Neoliberalism The Wal-Mart Model of Education Comes to Los Angeles By Danny Weil

[3] Blume, Howard.  “Transformation of L.A. Unified’s Locke High into a charter school is Green Dot’s biggest test yet.”  The LA Times, September 18, 2008.

[4] Los Angeles Times Editorial Board, “Cash for the classrooms,” Los Angeles Times, September 28th, 2009.

[5] Donnell-Kay Foundation.  “Our Work: Speaker Series.”  Donnell-Kay Foundation, http://www.dkfoundation.org/speaker_archive-09-10.asp

[6] McGray, Douglas. “The Instigator.” The New Yorker, May 10, 2009.

[7] Shanker, Albert.  “State of the Union Address.”  73rd Convention of the American Federation of Teachers, Anaheim, CA, July 16, 1994.