Meet Our New Public Education Personnel: Just Like the Old Ones (Only More So)

Like shifting tides creating debris pools, the changing political winds of this election year have revealed common underpinnings of our public education system.

Let us start with Antwan Wilson, who has been offered the position of DCPS chancellor (albeit without the review of the DCPS Rising Leadership Committee—oops, so much for public engagement required by law).

The city council will hold three public roundtable hearings about Wilson:

Wednesday, November 30, 5 pm, Brookland Middle School, 1150 Michigan Ave NE
Monday, December 5, 5 pm, Benning Neighborhood Library, 3935 Benning Road NE
Thursday, December 8, 10 am, Wilson Building, 1350 Pennsylvania Avenue NW

Sign up for the roundtables is here.

Wilson himself embodies the path of many DC schoolchildren, having grown up with a single mother and attending 10 different (presumably public) schools. As the cross sector task force has examined, students with such high mobility are much more likely to do worse in school.

Wilson served as the head of public schools in Oakland, California, for about 2 years. His resume indicates that he has had many similarly short education stints elsewhere. Wilson’s longest employment appears to be as an administrator in Denver public schools, under the guidance of Denver superintendent Tom Boasberg, himself a proponent of charter schools and school closures—as well as a product of the elite DC private school St. Albans.

Perhaps not coincidentally, Wilson is also the beneficiary of training provided by a billionaire financier of education reform, Eli Broad, whose deep-pocketed foundation has funded a variety of pro-charter and school privatization interests.

Wilson is apparently leaving the Oakland schools mid-year, after making more than $400,000 a year in compensation.

So why take a pay cut to come to DC mid-year? And why the rush, such that the DCPS Rising Leadership Committee never saw any of the candidates’ resumes until after Wilson was selected?

Here is what Wilson said earlier this year, in an interview with Chiefs for Change, a pro-education reform group whose members include him, Boasberg, as well as our current state superintendent of education Hanseul Kang:

“There are some families who are concerned about the quote, unquote ‘competition’ and the drain of resources from schools [with the creation of new public schools]. But to me, the issue isn’t around district-run or charter, it’s around monopoly, and monopolies are slow to innovate. What ends up happening is people begin to peel off and innovate.”

Wilson’s statement above is aligned well with what many public education decision makers in DC think.

For instance, in June 2013, former mayor Vincent Gray called for expanding excellent public schools; releasing unused DCPS school buildings for charters; and creating a neighborhood preference for charter schools. The common thread with all of these ideas is expanding access to excellent schools, particularly for children who would most benefit–the poorest of the poor.

For years, in one way or another, all of these ideas have been floated in DC public education circles by councilmembers and agents of the mayor as well as federal officials.

And they all seem like such a sure thing. After all, who doesn’t want excellent schools? Who would argue against innovation?

And yet–let’s look at Wilson’s statement above:

That “drain of resources” he spoke of when new schools are created without existing schools being filled is quite real.

It’s not just me saying this: It’s the financial rating service Moody’s.

After Massachusetts voters rejected charter school expansion in that state this year, Moody’s said that this vote was “credit positive for urban local governments because it will allow those cities and towns to maintain current financial operations without having to adjust to increased financial pressure from charter school funding.”

Hmm: Maybe Moody’s should check out DC’s public education funding situation, wherein for the last decade, such “increased financial pressure” in DC has resulted not merely in huge crunches for school facilities for charter schools, but also shortages of school nurses and by right schools that have the poorest of children in DC having inadequate facilities as well as resources.

Then there’s the innovation Wilson speaks about. This is really what charter schools were intended to bring about. But at least in DC, that is expressly not how they work.

Rather, charter schools here in DC right now are chosen to exist, or expand, based on their perceived superiority to other public schools around them.

There is nothing and no one besides their own proponents to rate that superiority–and there is nothing used to judge it except test scores, which measure demographics better than anything else. (It’s not just me saying this–check out the charter application guidelines used by our very own city.)

Moreover, there is nothing and no one to scale that supposed charter superiority such that other, currently existing DC public schools of any ilk, charter or DCPS, can benefit from it.

That is: if BASIS is supposedly the “best” charter school in DC, how are other charter schools that are not doing as well benefitting from it? Ditto for all the other “best” charter schools?

This is why the language used in talking about innovation in public education is rather laughable. We say “innovation,” but what we really do with our public schools is force them to close in on each other, like a circular firing squad, all fighting for the ultimate prize: enrollment.

Because enrollment is the key to facilities and funding in all schools.

But enrollment in DC public schools, while growing, is not commensurate with the unregulated growth of schools here and the increase of available seats.

Thus, we have created a situation whereby we the DC people are endlessly funding the creation of endlessly numbered new seats, while the existing ones, funded by we the DC people, are not filled.

Let your 6th graders ponder that math.

As we screw ourselves over by pretending that there’s a competition between schools, whereas we just increase our costs by creating new schools willy nilly, education reformers, who apparently include our former mayor (now the Ward 7 councilmember) and our proposed DCPS chancellor, are not even slowed down by that unbalanced money equation.

Moody’s gets that math–but our DC politicians and education leaders do not.

Why?

To answer that, we need to look at another new education hire: our new federal secretary of education, Betsy DeVos.

There are people already hating on Betsy–but I am not one of them, because unlike many right here among us in DC, she has never once hid her true motivations, which is to funnel public money to private interests in education, whether they are religious schools, privately run charters, or elite private schools.

She (and her husband, Dick DeVos) have spent nearly two decades doing this, by ensuring that politicians and political initiatives favoring this are well funded. For instance, since 1997, according to federal election finance data, Betsy has given more than $140,000 to right-wing political action committees that are all about education reform—and more than $150,000 to the most powerful ones in the last year.

That is not counting the political donations of her husband, who also gave hundreds of thousands to similar political action committees.

That the DeVos’s have chosen to not send their own children to public school is beside the point. They want so-called excellent schools and have made every effort to ensure that people who are elected or appointed to positions with authority over public education enact the transfer of public education dollars to private interests.

Dick DeVos himself has gone even further, urging supporters to call public schools “government-run schools,” to highlight what the DeVos clan apparently considers the horrible, terrible, no-good thing that is public education in the United States–which, in addition to educating everyone everywhere is also run by the public for the benefit of the public. (Quelle horreur!)

Never mind that it is uniquely American to guarantee everyone a decent and free education–and that this idea has been the engine of the American middle class education for more than a century. The DeVos’s believe that privatizing public education is in the best interests of our nation.

Fair enough.

So let us accurately describe what the DeVos’s and legions of others here in DC who support unregulated funneling of public money into privatized education interests (Antwan Wilson, our former mayor, DC charter advocates, Democrats for Education Reform, etc.) want:

Private profiteer schools on the public dole.

Now, please don’t wring your hands–private profiteer schools on the public dole are truly nothing new.

If we here in DC really cared about using public dollars wisely for public education, we wouldn’t be creating new public schools when we don’t even have enough money to keep afloat the ones we currently have.

And we would not allow public monies to those new schools to be almost completely unaccounted for, creating an unaccountable “monopoly” of private profiteer schools on the public dole.

Moreover, if we really cared about helping the poorest kids, we would not be working endlessly, like the cross sector task force has been directed, to guarantee enrollment for one sector at the clear expense of the other.

And we would be scaling our resources to help all schools “innovate”–instead of letting them die slow, painful deaths due to (inevitable) resource starvation and lack of public oversight.

But we don’t do any of that, because it would limit (and, horrors, even “burden”) private profiteer schools on the public dole. Admittedly, that “dole” is pretty handsome here in DC, amounting to more than $1 billion annually.

Some time ago, a neighbor of mine–whose children attend private school—lamented about our public schools and the wild gaps, achievement and otherwise, between them.

“All our schools should be excellent!” she intoned gravely.

Yes, indeed, who doesn’t want an excellent school? Betsy DeVos does. So does her husband. They want Sidwell and Gonzaga to be excellent by ensuring they get public funds–and any other private profiteer schools on the public dole.

And who knows? Maybe there is room in their universe for excellent “government-run schools” as well, with all their messy, ugly, burdensome public involvement and oversight and stuff.

But then again, maybe not:

The state of Michigan (from which hails the DeVos family) has just stated in court that students in Detroit have no right to literacy. This was in defense of a Detroit lawsuit brought against the state (which took control of Detroit schools from local officials) for poor conditions that have ensured that nearly half of Detroit’s public school students are functionally illiterate.

No doubt it was just such conditions that prompted Betsy DeVos to fund efforts to put a voucher and school choice system into place in that state, using vast amounts of her own private money as well as that of others, out of control and sight of the public and draining resources from those same Detroit public schools.

And who knows how that influenced government officials there to state that the universal and very American guarantee of public education doesn’t include a right to literacy?

At least here in DC, we have a group dedicated to just such issues of cross sector collaboration!

Or not:

Our cross sector task force, which has yet to discuss anything concerning duplicative educational offerings or what actually constitutes a by right public school (hint: it’s not geography or having to take all comers), cancelled its November 22 meeting in favor of a meet and greet (concurrently held at a downtown restaurant, RPM, 650 K NW) for the new nominee for DCPS chancellor, Antwan Wilson.

So,

In our new federal education secretary, we have someone who supports school choice; put her children in private school; gave lots of money to supporting education reform; has no experience teaching; and is in a position of adjudicating public schools.

In our current charter board head, we have someone who supports school choice; sent his child to private school; gave lots of money to supporting education reform; has no experience teaching; and is in a position of adjudicating public schools.

And in our new posited DCPS chancellor, we have someone who thinks that competition in schools, with winners and losers, is good; that the guarantee of public education for all is a “monopoly” that needs to be broken; and that innovation is the exclusive purview of private profiteer schools.

Pax Americana! Across political parties, races, classes and creeds, education leadership in DC apparently dislikes “government-run schools.”

(Guess we’re all Republicans, now.)

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