The “Quiet Revolution”: Charter Schools flex their muscles with the help of despicable reporting in the Los Angeles Times

The headline was clear in the LA Times on Sunday the 10th of January. According to a team of LA Times reporters, Mitchell Landsberg, Doug Smith and Howard Blume, enrollment is up in Los Angeles charter schools and “overall, standardized test scores outshine those at traditional campuses. Even the L.A. Unified board has eased its resistance.” (Landsberg, Smith and Blume, latimes.com/news/local/la-me-charters10-2010jan10,0,5522248.story)

Uncritically accepting that standardized tests have anything to do with learning and teaching is of course the underlying assumption behind the story. Landsberg, Smith and Blume accept the premise that students need high-stakes standardized testing one size fits all, in order to become an educated person in today’s society. Of course their definition of an ‘educated person’ is in keeping with calls to “compete with China” and beef up capitalism and the trans-national corporations. But their bias doesn’t stop there.

The article is riddled with misunderstandings, factual inaccuracies and tainted censorship. The article begins with the line: Over the last decade, a quiet revolution took root in the nation’s second-largest school district (ibid) The fact of the matter is the only thing quiet about the whole inane mess is the awful reporting by the LA Times, Landsberg, Smith and Blume especially and the national and state media in general.

The revolution has not been quiet at all. The movement started in 1991 and I and others have been writing about charter schools for more than a decade and there certainly has been a great deal of noise about the charterization of schools; Blume and his colleagues either don’t listen or they do what they are told and listen to their bosses, the sock puppet press that has given refuge to some of the worst scoundrels in the charter school movement by failing to cover the charter issues with any accuracy, as we will see. But even this won’t wake up the snoring trio of reporters at the LA Dog Trainer, as Harry Shearer, of the Simpsons, refers to it.

Were they not awake when in 2004, a California chain consisting of sixty charter schools collapsed, leaving ten thousand students with nowhere to attend school. The California Charter Academy, the largest educational retail charter chain of publicly financed but privately run charter schools in the state, slid into insolvency in August of 2004, just weeks before the start of the new school year. The businessman who founded the educational chain of charters, former insurance executive C. Steven Cox, managed to collect $100 million in state financing to build a small retail chain of 60 mostly storefront charter schools. Cox abandoned the schools, refusing to answer phone calls while terrified parents scrambled to find educational opportunities for their displaced children. Thousands of students’ immunization and academic records, along with school equipment had been virtually abandoned all across the state of California at various Charter Academy school sites (The NY Times September 17, 2004). http://query.nytimes.com/gst/fullpage.html?res=9901E5D61639F934A2575AC0A9629C8B63&sec=&spon=&pagewanted=print

The reporters do go on to note that of the charters that have failed in California: Sixty-four have had their charters revoked for a variety of failings, almost all involving fiscal or administrative mismanagement. More than 200 others have closed, according to the California Department of Education, in many cases because their charters were not renewed. More than 800 charters operate in the state (Landsberg, Smith and Blume, latimes.com/news/local/la-me-charters10-2010jan10,0,5522248.story).

Also mentioned:

Another charter, Dosan/ABC, collapsed last year amid           accusations of financial mismanagement and an internal struggle over control, including teacher resignations that left students scrambling to enroll at other schools (ibid).

And then Landsberg, Smith and Blume note this:

Sixty-four charter schools have had their charters revoked for a variety of failings, almost all involving fiscal or administrative mismanagement. More than 200 others have closed, according to the California Department of Education, in many cases because their charters were not renewed. More than 800 charters operate in the state (ibid).

None of this seems to perturb the writers nor does the fact that out of 800 charter schools in the state over 264 have closed for one reason or another. What kind of track record is this and how does this build an educational system that students and their parents can rely on?

Never mind, the reporters quickly go on to bend over backwards to give cover to the grim reality reminding the public that:

Records obtained by The Times do not show a single case of a California charter school closed solely for poor academic performance, and some charter advocates believe this apparent leniency has done their cause a disservice (ibid).

What about opposition to No Child Left Behind, the geography of charters?

The stenography of Landsberg, Smith and Blume is incredible and once again, the authors’ bias for standardized tests, teaching to the tests and teacher and student regimentation, is overwhelmingly evident. Not once is the issue of teaching to a test under No Child Left Behind ever questioned, nor are any points of view that oppose this approach to education given any coverage. This too is the “quiet revolution” that the reporters simply do not see — the growing opposition to No Child Left Behind encased in Secretary of Education Arne Duncan’s new Race to the Top and the awful education it is imposing on our children in California and across the nation.

But let’s face it, the reporters are not writing to present any critical understanding of the charter school controversy and the debate over privatizing education. They are writing to promote uncritical acceptance of a testing regime and the awful market fundamentalist policies that are destroying childhood and advancing militarization, regimentation, autocracy, non-disclosure of practices, and the privatization of education. They do this by reporting facts favorable to charter schools and testimonials from parents who are desperate to get an education for their children.

They go on:

The charter movement amounts to a tectonic shift in the educational landscape, the most far-reaching effort to reform Los Angeles schools in recent history. It puts L.A. Unified in sync with the Obama administration, which champions charters as a key reform strategy (ibid).

Absolutely right, it is a requirement for the $700 million dollars California hopes to get from Race to the Top and this good news regarding charter schools puts them right in the Race to the Top. Arne Duncan has made this one of the four assurances required for RTTT monies charter schools and he will dole out the federal cash based on how well “the movement is doing.” This is why Landsberg, Smith and Blume are so uncritical in their acceptance of market driven ideas. They write for those in power and get their ideas about education from the new CEO’s, graduates of the Eli Broad Academy for Superintendents as well as market based think tanks that have been “quietly promoting” the idea for over 19 years. These reporters know so little about education; they mrely exist to serve up ‘news’ from those who are promoting the notion of a market driven educational model.

What about coverage of Parent Revolution?

And just how ‘quiet’ was the fight at, Birmingham High School in the San Fernando Valley neighborhood of Lake Balboa where the school opted out of the district last summer after a “quiet battle” among members of its teaching staff that virtually received no attention in the media. Where were Landsberg, Smith and Blume then?

The school converted to a charter after a majority of its tenured teachers petitioned for the change. It is also hard to find any unbiased reporting in the LA Times about the role of Parent Revolution and its ties to Ben Austin, a city attorney for Los Angeles and head of the astro-turf parent group and employee of Green Dot “Public Schools”. Why didn’t Landsberg, Smith and Blume mention the City Ethics complaint filed against Green Dot ‘Public’ Schools that is being currently investigated by the City Ethics Committee?  This ethics complaint is of real concern, given LAPU/Parent Revolution used their vast financial resources for their CEO Ben Austin (who is also a city attorney), who ran for the LAUSD District 4 Board seat. In fact, Mr. Austin’s campaign website address now redirects everyone to, of all places, the Green Dot LAPU Parent Revolution website http://www.benaustin2009.com//.  Isn’t this a clear violation of intervening in a political campaign?

As immigration activist Robert Skeels notes:

Reflecting on how much money, time, and resources Green Dot’s LAPU/Parent Revolution has devoted to lobbying in Sacramento, here with LAUSD, and both local Assemblypersons and State Senators, makes me wonder if they haven’t violated the laws on how much money a 501c3 ‘non-profit’ can spend on such endeavors. This would explain, in part, why the Ben Austin (City Ethics Case # 2010-36) headed organization hasn’t filed a 990 for 2009 yet. They’re probably afraid they spent far more than a substantial amount of their donations on lobbying. Chances are they’ll wait until all the damage is done in terms of privatizing schools, and then release their paperwork. By then it won’t matter if they loose their tax exempt status, as they will have already accomplished their goals (http://rdsathene.blogspot.com/2009/08/report-green-dots-ben-austin-on-city.html http://rdsathene.blogspot.com/2009/12/evidence-against-mr-ben-austin-of-la.html)

I guess this was just was too ‘quiet’ for Landsberg, Smith and Blume to hear it?

The challenge from within and without

With the economy of California completely busted and the city of Los Angeles unable to cope with its wretched economic policies in the wake of Wall Street theft and years of neo-liberal economics that favors socializing the costs of doing business and privatizing the profits; the dragnet is replacing the safety net as profiteers limousine into the city to grab public assets. We pay for it twice as taxpayers; in the first round we pay to build the schools and in the second round we pay the profiteers and corporate CEO’s to run them after we have ‘turned them over’.

More and more schools will now “go charter”, as I described in my book published in November – that is unless activist stop their backers and the politicians that are passing legislation to covet them. The public sector simply cannot compete with the for-profit and non-profit sector and the Eli Broads, the Bill Gates’, the Walton Family, and The Fisher family who fund charters, they all know this. They have been “quietly” organizing for years, right under the noses of Landsberg, Smith and Blume just for this moment. Now the time has arrived. As a result, the three reporters are actually right when they state:

Charter schools now are challenging L.A. Unified from without and within. Not only are charter school operators such as Green Dot Public Schools and ICEF Public Schools opening new schools that compete head-to-head with L.A. Unified, but the district’s own schools are showing increasing interest in jumping ship by converting to charter status (ibid).

Don’t look for the reporters at the LA Times to give a full court presentation of union concerns. Part of their job is to demonize unions and they do it constantly, have been for years. When they aren’t reporting on how marvelous the new charters are they are busy digging their claws into public teachers and their unions.

Interestingly, after speaking of the “quiet revolution” in charters, the three reporters go on to note:

Yet the change was largely unplanned and unorganized, scarcely noticed for years outside of small circles of parents and educators and it remains widely misunderstood (ibid).

This is not only untrue, it is a whopping lie and the reporters know it. They’ve been part of the scheme, used as carrier pigeons to bring the good news to LA residents that their schools were now being reformed in their favor. With Mayor Villaraigosa as their centerpiece and a compliant school board ready to hop aboard the neo-liberal bandwagon, billionaire Eli Broad, Parent Revolution, Gates, Green Dot Public Schools, The Walton Family, Fishers and all the other philanthro-capitalists have been organizing for years to decertify public schools (as they did at Locke HS), gin-up parents who correctly demand a decent education for their children, push for charter conversions, and set-up administrative and supervisorial academies to replace public models with business models.

Capitalizing on the failure of capitalism itself has always been the plan of the devastation profiteers. They have been setting this game up for years and the LA Times is more than mendacious, it is a willing accomplice in public crime, reporting half truths, naked distortions and conjured lies to an unwitting citizenry beleaguered by economic turmoil, fear, terror and war. This is simply yellow journalism, propaganda for the new charter pioneers.

Playing the non-profit card

The reporters don’t stop there; they go on to falsely state:

Even now, there are those who believe that charter schools are private (they aren’t), that they are run by for-profit companies (rarely in California), that they primarily serve affluent communities (the opposite is true) and that they are better than traditional public schools (ibid).

This is little more than half truth. Charter schools are private if they are run by private educational maintenance organizations (EMOs); they trade, many of them, on the NYSE. They receive federal and state funds as subsidies for their businesses. Not a bad model if you can get it. The LA Times is also right in noting that non-profits are the preferred method of extracting capital and turning education into an exchange relationship. But don’t let the word “non-profit” fool you, as the reporters at the Times are attempting to do.  Non-profits like Green Dot, contract out many of their services to security companies (Green Dot paid $120,000 just for Locke High School last year), for curriculum development, day to day operations of their “district”, supplemental materials, as well as cafeteria services and the like. They are a cash cow for the private sector, seeking contractual relationships or outsourcing of services. This is all privatization and the fact they do this with non-profit status is part of their business plan, part of their scam. Another cruel hoax perpetrated on an unwitting citizenry. Their boards are stacked with Wall Street entrepreneurs and philanthro-capitalists that are accountable to know one. They do not have to disclose many of their business relationships, making the enterprise an exercise in autocracy and authoritarian control. But this is non-profit, right? Right, all paid for with taxpayer monies and run by a managerial elite – hardly non-profit. Landsberg, Smith and Blume are correct in noting that the new non-profit charters look to capitalize on what I call the ‘sub-prime’ kids, for it’s where the money is and where the Obama educational policy promoted by Duncan is headed.

Zero-tolerance charter schools that will promote discipline and regimentation for those least advantaged is the new ‘de-rangement’, the new ‘de-form’. Peppered by unemployment, gangs, the break down of social order, many of these charter schools now promote themselves as centers for youth containment and have very strict security and surveillance. This is the plan: dreary dungeons of standardized testing and skill-drill teaching; a place to park a surplus population of youth with little hopes for jobs or economic security.  for those fortunate enough, boutique charters.

Charters raise all boats

The Time’s reporters go on to repeat the proverbial “charter students score significantly higher on standardized tests than their counterparts”, once again as if this was the assumption regarding learning and education we should be operating on. The bias for tests runs rancid throughout the article — no other points of view are expressed. Landsberg, Smith and Blume comment that:

Citywide, charter performance is so mixed that speaking broadly about it is like talking about the quality of fish. What kind of fish? Salmon? Goldfish? (ibid).

If this is meant to be some kind of illuminating or endearing metaphor, it certainly isn’t. It fact it betrays the ignorance and infantilism of these sock puppet reporters as to what it means to be an educated person, the role of education in society and the role of teachers in education. Comparing schools to fish might be an amusing line for functionally illiterate readers, but it does nothing more than rapture ideas; it doesn’t capture them. It is a sad commentary by three reporters who know very little about education and feed at the source of their paymasters, the LA political machine and their campaign financiers, the new philanthropist. They must have received their education at a charter school or the Phoenix University.

Charters in LA growing

The fact is the market share for charter schools is growing. in Los Angeles and across the nation.  Enrollment is up nearly 19% this year from last in Los Angeles. Blume and his colleagues announce in the article that there are charters:

which offer great variety. Ocean Charter, a predominantly white, middle-class school on the Westside, emphasizes “experiential learning” based on the Waldorf model. The Alliance for College Ready Schools, whose 16 schools south and east of downtown mostly serve low-income black and Latino students, use a strict and structured adherence to state curriculum standards.” (ibid)

Class divisons and stratification, increasing segregation, racism, economic deprivation all require “great varieties” in education, according to Landsberg, Smith and Blume with the sub-prime kids getting a regimented authoritarian, back to basics ‘variety’ while the more affluent can live next store and receive music and dance lessons.

This is one way that charter schools segregate by class and race and I note this in a previous article for dailycensored.com. Yet for Blume and his dynamic duo, this is just a matter of appealing to ‘variety’ — what any great class society would want.

There are charters dedicated to learning through dance, through science, even through German language and culture (ibid).

Sure but not for the disenfranchised, not for the students whose parents live in or on the edge of poverty due to a failing economy, who have no health care, who are in foster care, or who live in marginalized sectors of the city. They’ll get the back to basics, skill drill charter schools but don’t tell that to Landsberg, Smith and Blume.

Charges against charters

According to the reporters: Critics of charters tend to focus on three main arguments: Charters “cherry pick” the best students from traditional schools; kick out students who do poorly; and serve far fewer special education students and non-English speakers than traditional schools. Such practices could give charters a boost in standardized test scores, the primary gauge by which schools are judged (ibid).

Once again, standardized testing, the pedestal that holds the whole sordid mess up the gauge by which performance not just of the teachers and students, but of the business model itself, is going to be judged.

Going on they wade in by falsely reporting:

By law, charter schools are required to enroll any interested student or use a lottery, but even some charter operators allow that the schools tend to attract families who are especially motivated. And although charter administrators generally say that they rarely, if ever, expel students, staff at traditional schools say they periodically receive troubled students who have been counseled out of charters (ibid).

This is not true either. In Chicago under Duncan’s watch in 2003, there were 8,666 expulsions, 266 suspensions per day (Giroux, H. Youth in a Suspect Society, McMillan). Don’t these reporters do any research or talk to anyone outside of their narrow circles?  To state, as the reporters do, that:

In fact, classes of motivated, focused, non-disruptive students are a drawing card for charters, as are their small size and apparent safety (ibid)

is to simply state that charters do cherry pick. For the unmotivated, disruptive students there are other charters as mentioned above, but more penal in nature.

Riddled with contradictions the article offers up:

Even a sophisticated charter organization like Green Dot achieves mixed results. With 18 schools and a comprehensive headquarters staff, Green Dot is practically a district unto itself. But although its campuses typically outscore nearby traditional schools, fewer than 5% of students at several of its campuses scored at the “proficient” level in math last year (ibid).

Wait! Either they do better on the tests or they don’t. You can’t have it both ways. And then there is the applause for the sophistication of plans for deregulation of the new charters and the waiver of burdensome decrees like safety. Speaking about a Los Angeles charter Landsberg, Smith and Blume write:

Academy No. 4 occupies a cluster of bungalows wedged onto an abandoned piece of L.A. Unified property that sits almost directly beneath the intersection of the 110 and 10 freeways downtown. L.A. Unified couldn’t put a school there-district policy prohibits new schools within 500 feet of a freeway (ibid).

Duh! There is a reason we don’t build schools under freeways. Freeways fall down in earthquakes as they have twice within the last 40 years in Los Angeles. Not a problem, it’s all about the money, power and control and regulations are made to be broken — with government help, of course; this is why we call it neo-liberalism, using the government to relax profit making standards, regulations and then subsidizing the onerous business plan in the name of public education. If this is true, then why can’t children and teachers waive standards? The hypocrisy is thick.

According to the reporters:

Charter schools got their start in California in 1992, when the Legislature authorized the creation of public schools that could operate outside most Education Code requirements and free of school district bureaucracies (ibid).

Creating model schools to compete Yes indeed, as stated earlier the “quiet revolution” has been going on for close to two decades but hushed up by the press and suffocated by reporters like Landsberg, Smith and Blume. The fact the reporters do not know the facts about charter schools is troubling enough but when they make comments like the following, the reporting borders on the absurd:

The idea was to create model schools that would test innovative practices. If they didn’t post better standardized test scores than traditional schools, they could be closed (ibid).

No it wasn’t. Any cursory review of literature from the right wing think tanks shows how they have argued for years, up until just recently following the horrendous charterization of New Orleans, about how they wished to create innovative practices so that public schools would improve. Competition was their mantra then, but not now. Now the mantra is for a complete takeover of public schools by charters as a primary provider driving the public sector into secondary provider status. This was always the case. Any diligent reporter would and could have seen this but the LA Times prefers to hoodwink its readers and pander to Eli Broad and the Mayor’s office than present the public with the facts.

Contradicting themselves once again they hurl on, stating:

Among the goals of the charter movement from its inception was pushing traditional public schools to improve. In some cases, that might be happening. View Park Preparatory Charter, an ICEF elementary school, has seen steady growth in test scores (ibid).

How does correlation suddenly become causation? Where is the evidence for the new ‘evidence based schools’? The fact is there is no evidence and Blume and his associates are grasping at straws trying to make an argument that simply is not true. Show me one educational bank for innovative practices where public school teachers can go to get the most current and sophisticated innovations from charter schools. They don’t exist. It was all a hoax and still is.

But Landsberg, Smith and Blume don’t stop there; they trudge on to serve this up as “news”:

Six years ago, it appeared to provide a superior option to the nearest traditional elementary school, Fifty-Fourth Street Elementary, at least as far as test scores were concerned. But an interesting thing happened: Fifty-Fourth Street, whose students tend to come from poorer families, improved at a faster rate. This year, it nearly caught up with View Park in English scores and surpassed it in math (ibid). So what’s the point? Whether this is the result of competition from the charter, an emphasis on testing or some other reason is hard to say (ibid).

If it is hard to say then why say it? Perception management, batting for the big boys in an effort to provide red meat propaganda for the new business plan for schools, that’s why. For what immediately follows is the real plan:

Mike Piscal, ICEF’s tough-talking founder, runs 13 schools in South L.A. and has set a goal of effectively taking over the district’s role in that part of the city. He sees no future for a district that, he says, sends only about 5% of its students in South L.A. schools to college (ibid).

These charter hooligans are tough talking macho men with muscular business language about “best practices” and the like but their goal is clear: they are business men who believe in winnowing out a surplus population through privatized education by tracking students and teachers in accordance with tests and making a good dollar doing it. Clearly the American Dream is the American Enterprise. The new providers and turnaround artists know this and so does the lapdog LA Times. They just won’t report it – too “quiet”, I guess.

The issue is the Los Angeles Unified School District, like most urban districts around the country, is collapsing. The collapse is fiscal and is part of the horrific stage of capitalism we are in where everything public is vanquished to the history bin while everything private or “non-profit” is harnessed as a remedy for social ills. These reporters for the LA Times are simply representative of courtesan stenography all over the country. They know little of what they speak, mix their facts with fantasy, rely on the billionaires and entrepreneurs for “news”, fail to present any competing points of view, and are part and parcel of their own destruction. For as we know, the LA Times soon will find itself ‘belly-up’. Maybe then the reporters can get together and open a ‘charter school’.