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CPS starving its schools to justify privatization

On Wednesday July 24, I was physically removed from a Chicago Board of Education meeting after I waited four hours to speak for two minutes. I timed it at two minutes and five seconds, but I was not allowed to finish. While board member Henry Bienen nodded off, I tried to say what I had to say:

“…and now we are faced with budget cuts so severe that the remaining schools are left wondering how they will function at all? What the Sun-Times declares a conspiracy theory [editorial, July 21] is self-evident to me — that our schools are being starved into failure in order to justify mass privatization. Fifty schools closed and over 20 new charter schools. Three thousand layoffs and $1.6 million to bring in Teach for America novices. Another $20 million on an academy for principals. All connected, along with the CEO of CPS, to the Broad Foundation.”

It is abundantly clear that CPS’ budget crisis, underutilization crisis and now the pension crisis are manufactured to force a situation so acutely painful that the solutions of venture philanthropists will seem the only logical options. They are quietly proceeding with mass privatization against the wishes of Chicagoans and CPS parents. What may sound like a conspiracy theory to some is the reality for parents, teachers and students.

Here’s the background on the folks who are trying to take over our schools — and their ties to CPS:

The Broad Foundation is a venture philanthropy (or “Philanthropic Colonialism,” a term coined by Peter Buffett, son of Warren, in a recent New York Times op-ed), dedicated to redesigning school districts, charter proliferation and alternative teacher recruitment. Venture philanthropy is the application of business/finance principals and data-driven accountability to giving, focused on the “return on investment.” Basically, venture philanthropists do not donate unless they can shape policy decisions.

To push their radical education agenda, they operate a superintendent’s academy, help place their graduates and even cover a portion of their salaries. CEO Barbara Byrd-Bennett led and coached for the academy, continuing that work until April 2013, even as she closed 50 schools. They also have a residency program that trains district leaders, with 13 currently working at high levels in CPS.

The Broad Foundation also finances Teach for America and the principal academy in use in CPS, called SUPES. Teach for America places new college graduates in inner-city classrooms for two years with a mere five weeks of classroom training. I expect some will replace the professional career service teachers CPS laid off. CPS funds these two programs as well, to the combined total of over $21.6 million this year, in the face of steep budget cuts to neighborhood schools.

On WTTW’s Chicago Tonight on September 19, 2012, venture capitalist and Republican gubernatorial candidate Bruce Rauner explained the venture philanthropy agenda. Rauner declared his desire to “blow up” the district and create “smaller networks of schools competing for resources…through charters, contracts, and independent providers.”

The Center for Reinventing Public Education (CRPE), an education privatization think tank, calls this model a portfolio district, similar to an investment portfolio. CPS has adopted that term and, last summer, CPS’ Portfolio Office staff joined the head of the Illinois Network of Charter Schools and New Schools for Chicago for a portfolio school district meeting in Seattle. CRPE developed the student-based budgeting model CPS is putting in place this year and considers it a critical component of implementing a portfolio district.

Mayor Rahm Emanuel and his pro-privatization friends want to blow up the public education system in this city by implementing CRPE’s vision. All they lacked was the crisis to justify radical change. Solution? Make one.

First there was the bogus pretext of underutilization and mass school closures. Terms such as “right sizing” and “high quality seats” came from the Broad “School Closure Guide.” The chair of CPS’ Commission on School Utilization and Byrd-Bennett admitted the underutilization formula was flawed but CPS proceeded to close schools anyway.

CPS said its deficit was $1 billion. That’s a lot of money. CPS has not faced an “historic” deficit like this since last year, when it was $700 million. But at the end of fiscal year they ended with a surplus of $344 million. They manufacture deficits by moving money around from one reserve to another. This year, the deficit was closed with $700 million in “reserve” funds! The entire city is facing deep budget cuts. But charter and contract school budgets are up over $85 million, while the parent group Raise Your Hand reports classroom cuts exceeding $98 million and still counting. Feast for charter/contract schools, and famine for public schools.

Secretary of Education Arne Duncan said “… the best thing that happened to the education system in New Orleans was Hurricane Katrina.” Byrd-Bennett’s colleague at the Broad Foundation Neerav Kingsland, currently CEO of New Schools for New Orleans, has laid out how to develop a portfolio district in the absence of a crisis. In “An Open Letter to Urban Superintendents in the USA,” he advocates not for reform but “relinquishment” to independent school providers. Many of the details may be familiar to CPS parents:

“…take over failing schools from districts and authorize new charter schools. This will give you the pressure and cover your need to be aggressive. Then rigorously approve charters. Give the schools you do approve free facilities. Close failing schools. Repeat for five years. Then utilize alternative human capital providers to grow your talent base.”

The formula for privatizing districts is the same all over the country: Open charters operated by private organizations. Simultaneously defund neighborhood schools, declare them “failing,” and then close them. Fire certified professional teachers and replace them with temporary, unskilled TFA recruits.

But parents do not want a portfolio district. Parents want strong neighborhood public schools. We believe public education is a social service; they should be run more like a family than a business. It is wrong to operate schools as tax shelters or investment opportunities — because the profit motive distorts outcomes for children. If allowed to continue there will be no public school system in Chicago, but a system of several charter school operators whose investors will profit handsomely off of our kids. As a CPS teacher, my hands are tied. But as a parent and taxpayer, I am willing to take drastic action to save my son’s public school.

Parents and students have been calling for a boycott of school this fall. Only parents can stop this madness. A school boycott will be painful for families, but I think it is worth a parent-led debate and discussion. The alternative is too costly. Once the public schools are gone, they are gone for good.

Timothy Meegan is a nationally board certified teacher at Roosevelt High School, a Chicago public school.



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