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Education Tue Feb 19 2013

Genealogy of Scandal in Public Education

When Seth Lavin asks questions, he gets answers. Lavin is a local teacher, parent, and education observer, and briefly published a newsletter following Chicago education news. He's a thoughtful man who has recently been active in the school closure process -- or, "process" -- surrounding Brentano School in Logan Square. Frustrated with the Chicago Public Schools' posture during the closures, Lavin recently posted 10 questions to Twitter meant to question CPS's assertion that its school closure process and the related charterification was purely data-motivated (what I and others would refer to as "technocratic").

CPS felt the need to respond to Lavin's thoughtful questions. Their responses are forceful, but hardly get to Lavin's essential point: if school closures don't really save money, if the past closures haven't improved outcomes for children, and if the main criteria for closing schools, "underutilization," doesn't itself harm student outcomes, why is CPS causing these communities so much pain, ignoring the outrage in the community, and undermining community schools?

One could add: and why are they doing it to support and institutionalize a program of charterification when charters can't be said to be as efficacious as they claim, and scandals like the United Neighborhoods Organization (UNO) scandal are becoming more frequent and acute?

I envy Lavin. I doubt CPS would have answered my 10 questions. I don't need to doubt actually; these are precisely the questions critics of the privatization of the Chicago school system have been raising at least since 2005.

Please, Be Serious

I understand, of course. After all, I'm a partisan on the issue; which is to say rather, I've been critical of their pet program. I'm not a member of the teachers union, I don't work for a think tank or nonprofit that pays me to be critical of the program. I stand to personally gain literally nothing from being critical of schools privatization, and in fact if anything it has made me persona non grata in the circles of serious observers. Disagreeing with technocrats will have that effect -- technocrats cloak themselves in the mystique of the "apolitical," so of course their critics must just be political types with a special interest, and thus to be considered only in a said/she said context.

This is the genealogy of the current scandals roiling our public education system here in Chicago and throughout the country. Technocrats, backed by big-money individuals and foundations, were granted or seized control of the education system city by city, taking control and decision-making away from the public. As a result, policy bred policy isolated from mass participation and participatory decision making and ownership. The only participants in the public discourse were those creating, implementing and selling a program of privatization, and "neutrals" who reliably, "on the one hand, but on the other..." No dialectic could operate.

Witness the monstrous result, two to four successive years of heart-rending school closures, mass dislocations and job losses, demoralization of the teaching profession, alienation of the public from the school system they once owned, and a steady stream of scandals possible only in the privatization program. From the initial policy determination that public and professional participation was an impediment, this hideous result.

To be clear: the problem isn't that technocrats have failed to successfully "sell" their vision of the public, but only to the elite political establishment. In other words, the problem isn't a lack of "engagement," that limp public relations term. The problem is more fundamental; that the ideas themselves didn't emanate from an engaged populace. In fact, the only reason the current education reform framework exists is because communities were locked out of the decision making process, through mayoral control, use of consultants and outside parties, and disemboweling of democratic professional associations.

But many of us have been critical of the privatization program for precisely the reasons Lavin raises now, that are now taken seriously at the point where it's too late to change anything: the public was never given evidence that the radical program of privatizing huge swaths (and soon, most) of the school district was beneficial in any empirical way. Comb through the history of the successive waves of privatization, and you'll find no empirical studies or rationales beyond generalities about the need for choice and the impossibility of "doing nothing," as though that is the only alternative to privatization.

This isn't good policy gone wrong; this is an always baseless, radical policy now revealing itself.

Don't take this the wrong way; I'm not caterwauling about not being taken seriously. This is meant to trace the primordial error: the aggressively undemocratic process by definition excludes critical voices, a positive feedback loop is created and the results are monstrous.

Despite the best efforts of closure process critics like Lavin, Chicago's school system will be privatized. The charters, even the poorly performing charters, will remain, and the neighborhood schools once gone will never, ever come back. Public schools will more and more often serve a function like county hospitals -- there to catch the hardest and poorest cases only. The point of no return was passed long ago -- and it was passed, notably, with the agreement of the previous leadership of the Chicago Teachers Union, which offered no resistance to the process (more on that in a moment). The UNO scandal speaks to this (more on that in a moment also). Property rights have vested, powerful rent-seeking special interests created and highly positioned. When the time was ripe to stop the onslaught of school closures and privatization, it was considered a fringe radical position to ask the simple question, "Why? Why embark on this radical program?"

Participatory Democracy Means Something, Right?

Critics of the privatization program were always dubious, obviously. Not because of a belief in any nefarious conspiracy or even any adverse or malicious intent. Only for this reason: it was undemocratic.

Participatory democracy is not a box to be checked; it isn't a positive feature of a public relations process. It's the whole ballgame, to borrow a phrase; it is its own reward. The value of participatory democracy is that when the community meaningfully participates -- comes together to share their issues, problems, reservations, and experiences, and in turn offer solutions, programs, and knowledge -- the solutions that emerge are qualitatively better.

Can parameters be set? Can experts be empowered within that framework? Of course. But sovereignty is with the people. Not because just because of tradition, but because of the value of democratic control.

We have to believe that the participatory democratic process is good because it leads to good governance and good policy. If we don't believe that, really believe that, we're in trouble, aren't we? What do we believe? That communities are to be dictated to, that technocrats should have to listen to them, but only up to a point? That's what our form of government means?

In Chicago, the entire process of school privatization has been top-down and undemocractic. It only began after the mayoral takeover of the school system with the Amendatory Acts of 1995 effectively locked parents and teachers out of system-wide school governance. Subsequently, Renaissance 2010 (the proto-privatization program) and the subsequent intense charterification and attack on teachers' organization were wholly undemocratic. These were decisions made by highly placed technocrats loyal to the mayor, rubber-stamped by a Board of Education unaccountable to the public.

The problem wasn't just that the Board wasn't elected, or that the technocrats were loyal to the mayor. The problem was that the entire program was not the result of a democratic process. It was borne of technocratic consensus absent meaningful empirical study and mass participation. Even if the empirics were there -- in other words, if they had meaningful evidence that privatizing a school system would work -- the privatization program would still be wrong, because it was not the result of democratic deliberation.

Democracy is its own reward, and creates its own value. Participatory democracy -- people actually participating in decision-making, not "retail politics" of mass advertising and voting as consumption -- has value beyond "engagement." It produces the best ideas, hones leadership, creates a sense of ownership in a community and inculcates civic value. We shouldn't just want it. We should lust for it. CPS tolerates it.

So about that former union leadership submitting to CPS's privatization program. Karen Lewis did not become president of the CTU in a vacuum, nor did she do so through sheer charm and elan. Lewis ran on a slate assembled by a caucus in the union called CORE, the Caucus of Rank-and-File Educators. CORE was formed in the wake of aggressive school closures. See for example this profile of the closure of De La Cruz from 2009 -- which features a teacher named Kristine Mayle, who is more familiar now as the financial secretary of the union, elected along with Lewis. Actual, real social relations spurred the growth of this opposition caucus. Teachers early on formed an alliance with angry parents and community groups affected by those closures -- the result being the Grassroots Education Movement, or GEM, among others. CORE created alliances with community groups, activist parents, and among teachers feeling the pressure of the high-stakes testing that undergirds "school choice," to build a sophisticated organization all across the city, in every neighborhood, in every school. In other words, CORE was a democratic, participatory response to an undemocratic, non-participatory set of policies not only of CPS but of the union leadership, too.

So by definition this was never about "the union" versus "the Board"; "status quo" versus "solutions." The union originally supported, or at least did not oppose, the privatization and school closure program. CORE defeated the union leadership precisely because it was undemocratically supporting an undemocratic policy that was creating an adverse reaction in the community. It was possible to halt that process within the union because the union is democratically run.

This is an inescapable and uncomfortable fact for the education reformers: CTU's posture is a function of its democratic nature, and is contoured by the Board of Education's lack of participatory democratic structures. Lewis's condemnation of CPS's policy is not a result of her personality but of a long and arduous democratic process engaging teachers, parents, and students. Her volume is calibrated to consensus built by the union's organizing.

That's not sloganeering. It's not ideology. It is a fact that history bears out, and is demonstrated by a consistent history of predictions about the percolating anger about privatization.

So Bring on the Charters, But the Right Way

Charters, like magnet schools, have a perfectly appropriate role in public education. Categorical opposition to charter schools would be as baseless as categorical support; unfortunately, only the latter is treated as a serious position.

Schools operating outside of the system-wide curriculum, scattered through regions of the city, are desirable for their ability to innovate, and as sub-magnet school options for motivated students. As wholesale substitutions to traditional public schools, they are just privatization of the school system with a raft of risks easily predictable and almost impossible to prevent.

Charter schools are justified essentially on two practical grounds: first, they can produce better outcomes for students than traditional public schools because they compete with one another, and thus are forced to innovate; and second, because they compete, students are no longer "chained" to a neighborhood school by dint of the property their parents can afford.

In an exchange with a prominent pro-charter journalist, I pointed out that the myth of charters should be dispelled after far-reaching investigations, like this one by Reuters, that point out that charters are unethically, and sometimes even illegally, selective in admitting students.

He disagreed, arguing that even if charters are inappropriately selective, closer regulation would solve that problem, and they would still in the big picture be less selective than traditional schools, which after all are selective based on your zip code.

His reasoning speaks to the danger of giving technocrats free reign to generate policy, and cloaking them in empiricism when they are closer to ideological assumptions.

Ideally, yes, better enforcement would eliminate this problem, and perfect competition would end the tethering of children to their parents' zip code. Practically speaking, neither is possible, as any process that involved practitioners and parents would quickly reveal.

First, enforcement and oversight is a political question, not a technical one. Lax enforcement is a function of political strength not bureaucratic negligence. From where is strict oversight -- which would be costly to the public and charter operators -- supposed to manifest? Given that the school system is not democratically run, insiders -- like charter operators -- wield disproportionate strength. Just as the financial sector's political muscle prevented strict oversight of Wall Street, in the urban context, the undeniable political power of charter operators will prevent any oversight that they disapprove of. The oversight is inexorably related to the political strength of the regulated parties.

Second, as any parent would easily explain, perfect competition in a city of 230 square miles, working parents, and spotty public transportation is not ever going to be a practical reality. Ultimately, all but the most motivated students will be stuck with a comparatively small number of options based on geographic proximity. Students will still be geographically tethered.

Not only this, but intense competition between schools will lead to redundant upper management earning incommensurate salaries; incentives to skim students to create the appearance of better "market signals"; rent-seeking through political clout; and spending on frills, including the inherent need to spend on marketing.

So about dislodging charters now. Essentially impossible. It's very easy to privatize something; it's extremely difficult to make it public again. All sorts of legal and even constitutional issues arise. Pro-charter advocates realize this, of course. Given the contracting scandal at UNO -- wherein the charter awarded millions in contracts to family of the leadership -- and the increasingly obvious fact that charter operators are using (or at least can use) the charter process to build political power and patronage armies, pay themselves insanely lavish salaries -- Juan Rangel makes a quarter million dollars a year to oversee the education of less than 15% of Chicago's students -- while not providing a better education than traditional schools, we can't simply revoke their charters and leave students without a school. And since many charters are taking over properties once occupied by public schools, merely building new public schools will always be prohibitively expensive.

Imagine a similar contracting scandal at a public school. If you're having trouble, that's because it isn't possible. Principals and area supervisors don't have this kind of power over budgets. But suppose there was some equally distressing misuse of public funds at a public school. We don't need to shut the school down -- the equivalent of revoking a charter. We would simply fire the responsible administrators. We can't fire Juan Rangel.

We can't fire Juan Rangel because he functionally owns the schools he runs.

I'm going to repeat that in the general because it sounds so wrong, so inherently wrong, it deserves reiteration.

We can't fire even corrupt charter operators because they functionally own public schools.

In the case of Rangel, he, has a property interest in public schools via his fiduciary duty as executive director of the United Neighborhood Organization-Charter Schools Network. The state can revoke the charter -- at least it can per the terms of the charter -- but it can't remove its officers and operators. And revoking a charter is the equivalent of closing a school; which it can't do mid-year, of course, and which will be approaching impossible when traditional schools have been both eliminated and immiserated, leaving few available options.

Damning Lineage

Note that there's no discussion here of bad or impure motives. Nobody has to say one group is inherently bad and the other is inherently good.

The problem from the beginning was that one side was undemocratic; it in fact valued a lack of participatory democracy. School privatizers emphasize mayoral control and high-level connections rather than mass mobilization, to not only create policy but implement it. Participatory democracy -- by the 30,000 professionals who make the system run, by the thousands of parents who serve on local school councils, by students, and by communities and voters who form the constituency of the Board of Education -- were seen as "impediments" to crafting and implementing policy.

Those types of genetic origins will result in deformed phenomena. The policy results will lack the wisdom of mass participation and consensus. It will lack the facility needed to understand the unique problems and needs of different communities. It will lack the sense of ownership that makes neighbor convince neighbor, that brings hearts and minds into a process.

Elite planning and implementation relies on opacity that irritates and provokes unnecessarily. Opacity will eventually fester with scandal.

Last night a friend whose partner is a first-year teacher at a CPS school on the South Side asked me about the school closure process. He said that her colleagues and students were scared about the threatened closure. Many of the kids have emotional bonds with their teachers, are worried about crossing more gang territory, don't know where they'll end up, and mostly, just feel angry and frustrated, shut out of yet another decision in their lives, another sphere where they have no say, where powerful forces make decisions for them.

He asked me how communities have fought closures in the past.

I told him they've fought by shouting as loud as they could for as long as they could.

He asked if that has worked.

"Sometimes. Not usually. Actually, almost never."

So what was there to be done?

I didn't really answer. The answer of course is nothing; there's nothing to be done. Powerful interests have been created. There is no structure in place to allow even an outraged populace to participate and change policy.

When it would have helped, democracy and participation got laughed out of the room. Thoughtful people struck a neutral pose at a time when most aggressive criticism and skepticism was needed. Born outside of the democratic process, error bred error bred error. The result can't just be undone.

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randolfhurts / February 20, 2013 10:47 AM

"they can produce better outcomes for students than traditional public schools because they compete with one another"

There is a lot of evidence to the contrary of this. You don't even attempt to bring any support to this statement. Instead, when talking about enrollment selectivity concerns, you quote a "pro-charter journalist" to further your argument. Pretty sad state of affairs.

Andrew / February 20, 2013 10:57 PM

@Randolfhurts Seems pretty clear to me that Mr. Canon is arguing that this isn't so. The sentence before what you quote reads "Charter schools are justified essentially on two practical grounds:" Key word is "justified." He's not making that assertion, he's saying that pro-charter people do.

Luis / February 22, 2013 11:45 PM

While there are merits to this piece (e.g., acknowledging that the charter school movement was"undemocratic"from the beginning), it ultimately falls flat, as Canon argues that charter operators "functionally own public schools" and thus we cannot "fire even corrupt charter operators." The use of "functionally" smacks of legalese-speak, as the writer seems to forget that taxpayer money is propping up charter schools. If private money wishes for charter school expansion and what products and services, among other things, that it will harvest from such an expansion, then they should foot the entire bill themselves. That is not the case, as the charter school movement falls under the wedded corporate-state education reform movement. And as such, the taxpayer has every right to say that it not only owns those charter schools that are run and operated on their dime, the taxpayer has a say in pulling the plug on them as well. What is needed is the political will to do so followed by concrete follow-up. Time will tell. What quasi-participatory democracy we have going on in Chicago these days, and the rest of the nation, is promising. But we are at an early stage of a multifaceted counterpunch.

Carol Jonas / February 23, 2013 6:45 AM

Ramsin Canon's comments (Geneology) are remarkably eloquent. In a field of intelligent, thoughtful commentators (most of whom were probably educated in public schools), his will stick with me. I do not agree with his conclusions, but will probably quote his remarks about the democratic process regularly.

PS: I almost never dole out douchebaggery (!)

James Harris / February 23, 2013 7:57 PM

School closures because of underutilization is smoke screen to move out a race of people that live in a environment that resembles dystopia. You can't have a Bloomingdale trail with drugs and gun violence sky high. The removal of neighborhood schools and construction of 3 bloom dale parks create two things: Tourism and Big money for investors(Rahm friends).

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