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We need to destroy this charter school proposal
What, you think you’re better than me?
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Today we’re talking about charter schools, with an emphasis on why charter schools are stupid and bad. And we’re talking about it because there is a charter school proposal for Worcester which is especially stupid and bad. Cartoonishly so, as we’ll get into. This proposal is juuuust starting to make its way down the long and winding road such proposals need to travel to receive government approval and thus government funding. As such, it’s vulnerable. The more opposition this proposal receives from the community at this early juncture, the less likely it is to succeed. More information on how to go about opposing it later in the post, as there are many avenues and you do not need to be an education expert to get involved.
The big thing right now, though, is to mark your calendars for this Friday, Dec. 9, 4 p.m., at Quinsigamond Community College. The Department of Elementary and Secondary Education is holding a hearing in the Hebert Auditorium.
I’d humbly ask anyone reading this to try to attend or try and spread the word in an effort to get others to attend. One way to do that would be sharing this newsletter! (Still running that holiday subscription deal btw)
The proposed name of this thing is the “Worcester Cultural Academy Charter Public School,” as detailed in a formal, 313-page application filed with the state Department of Elementary and Secondary Education on Oct. 31 by one James Donahue.
The address provided by Donahue is I shit you not 1 Old Sturbridge Village Road, Sturbridge, MA. And that’s because the company proposing this thing is the company that runs Old Sturbridge Village. Yeah—that Old Sturbridge Village. The place where they churn the butter. They’re in the charter school game now apparently. They already run one in Sturbridge on the OSV campus called the Old Sturbridge Academy, which opened in 2017 after it was rejected for the year prior. The actual educating however will be outsourced to a subcontractor by the name of EL Education, a large non-profit company headquartered in New York City which OSV already contracts for the Southbridge campus. The company was founded in 1991 and “partners” in various ways with schools around the country, and the majority of them seem to be charter schools. In Massachusetts, they partner with about a dozen schools. Most of them are charters but a few are public school districts, like Fitchburg. The company specialize in language education, according to its website.
The proposed location for this new “cultural academy” is 81 Plantation Street. It’s a large brick building on the corner of Hamilton Street last occupied by You Inc., a behavioral health service provider run by the Seven Hills Foundation.
As currently proposed, the school would serve students from kindergarten to eighth grade, but it would take five years to become fully operational. They’d start with kindergarten to fourth grade, with a total enrollment of 200 students. Over the next five years, they plan to slowly build the school out to K-8 and a full capacity of 350 students.
The school’s raison d'etre as described in the application—why it’s necessary or even different from a regular public school—is pretty vague. If there is a focus, it appears to be “partnerships” with “local cultural institutions.” In a post later this week, Worcester Sucks contributor Cara Berg Powers will take a deep dive into the specifics of the proposal, but for now, here’s the first paragraph of the mission statement. See if you can make sense of it. I can’t.
“Our mission is to educate, inspire, and uncover the inner genius of all learners through real-world and project-based experiences. In partnership with local cultural institutions, we provide Worcester students with learning opportunities that match their varied learning styles and needs and prepare them to be the cultural leaders of tomorrow.”
A masterclass in how to give the impression you’re saying something while saying nothing at all, if you ask me.
As far as government approvals go, all the school needs is a thumbs up from the state’s Board of Education. Such a vote wouldn’t happen until at least early next year. The commissioner of the state Department of Elementary and Secondary Education is expected to make a recommendation on the proposal next February. If he likes it, he passes it to the board for a vote. If he doesn’t, he can throw it in the proverbial garbage and say “try again next year.” Between now and next February the application will be vetted by the DESE bureaucracy.
That’s why the public hearing on Friday afternoon is so important. The audience is the commissioner, not the board. The commissioner can’t factor in public opposition if he doesn’t have a record of it. This forum is a way to provide that record. You don’t have to be an expert in education to speak against it. In a later section, I’ll outline just how to speak out and what to say. But for now, I’ll reiterate that we need bodies and voices at Quinsig on Friday at 4 p.m. in the Herbert Auditorium. More in the “How to fight” subsection.
Charter schools and the grand project of “privatization”
Before we get into the specific issues in this charter school proposal, I want to try to offer a framework for how to understand charter schools in general. I cannot stress enough that what is at stake here is the education our city’s young people deserve. Should this proposal go through, it’ll just add another card to a deck increasingly stacked against Worcester Public Schools students and pave the way for more cards to follow.
This charter school, like all charter schools, is a venture built on a classically Orwellian premise: The stated goal, education, is entirely at odds with the practical function, profit extraction. While claiming to improve education, it extracts profit from pools of resources already dedicated to education. Its success as a business is predicated not on how good a job it does educating kids but on how much money it can take away from those kids.
Charter schools are cynical profit-seeking ventures for which the stated goal is at best an ancillary concern. First and foremost, they have a fiduciary responsibility to generate profit. They’re best thought of as a political project built over the past several decades. While this began and remains a staunchly right-wing project, but it’s increasingly enjoying “bipartisan support” as the Democratic Party continues to drift rightward in the GOP’s wake.
This political project is just one piece of an overarching, decades-long campaign to destroy the public democratic state by replacing government programs with private business ventures. While some public institutions fell rather quickly (higher education, for instance), public schools have been an especially stubborn holdout.
I just finished reading “American Exception” by Aaron Good, a new and very eye-opening book on America’s troubling history of “deep state” politics (the real C. Wright Mills kind, not the Trump/Alex Jones strawman variety), and the following passage sparked a big “aha!” moment for me, especially as I’ve been trying to understand charter schools more deeply these past few days.
“Largely as a result of US-imposed systemic economic polarization, 25,000 people die of starvation and malnutrition per day. As sociologist Peter Phillips points out, a 25 percent tax on the wealth of billionaires, ‘if efficiently distributed, would likely eliminate hunger in the world permanently.’ Meanwhile, the major problems for the corporate rich is that they have accumulated so much wealth that it is difficult for them to find sufficient opportunities for investment. This leads capital to seek returns in financial speculation, military/war spending, and privatization of the public domain. All three of these predatory, rent-seeking avenues of moneymaking entail accompanying efforts to dominate politics and society to facilitate these types of economic activities.”
This passage led me to make three crucial connections, which I hastily jotted down in my notebook. One: “rentseeking” is an extremely good framework for understanding the practical function of charter schools. They extract rent from public education in a way public schools by design cannot. That’s the crucial inversion at work here. Two: I’d never considered that capital is running out of new markets to exploit, leading it necessarily toward more overtly evil prospects, like public education. Three: more overtly evil forms of profit extraction will require increased domination over society to mitigate backlash or resistance as the grimness of the situation becomes more painfully clear to regular people.
As if reading my mind, Good offers a recent example of how legacy media facilitates this necessary “top-down domination” by, as he put it, “running interference.”
“On the whole, the corporate media tends to abet or run interference for this system of top-down domination. In 2019, the Washington Post provided a darkly humorous example of this with an Orwellian “fact check.” Bernie Sanders stated that “Three people in this country own more wealth than the bottom half of America.” The newspaper dismissed Sanders’ claims as “apples to oranges” and “ not especially meaningful” because “people in the bottom half have essentially no wealth,” as if that impacts the literal veracity of the statement or mitigates the implicit critique.”
People with wealth and people without wealth have two different and incomparable personhoods says the well-respected journalism institution with the tagline “Democracy dies in darkness.”
Excuse me for going so far afield of Worcester here I really think there’s been a concerted effort to obfuscate the reality of charter schools and political projects like charter schools. The ability of the largest media outlets to “run interference” for capital runs a lot deeper than a bad-faith fact check.
In order to really understand why this charter school proposal needs to be fought, you have to understand what “privatization” really means in the first place, and the only people who really understand it are the people doing it—the hedge fund managers and lawyers and politicians and think tank academics and media sycophants—and then a relatively small opposition group of left-leaning politicians, academics, journalists, labor organizers and nerds like me. The average person is much more likely to see charter schools framed in the media within the well-trod context of “choice” or “options” than they are as the deliberate siphoning of public resources. The former is easily reportable as a matter of opinion and the latter is an accusation that requires citation and a response for balance.
The well-trod “choice” talking points employed by the privatizer work quite well. People tend to think about having options as a good thing. Who doesn’t like choices? It’s a framing that gets most people to go “hmmm yeah sure seems fine” and never think about it again. And lack of public attention is in the best interest of the people doing the privatizing. Really, the only thing the big media outlets have to do to run interference on privatization is to never talk about it as such.
Conversely, getting people to see the evil at work in specific attempts at privatization like this Worcester charter school proposal—and then to care, and then, hardest of all, believe they can do anything about it, is quite difficult. People tend to zone out as soon as they hear a term like “Post-Reagan” and for good reason. There’s no wider discursive framework. The slow, tactical assault on the welfare state by wealthy and nihilistic corporatists is not a prominent narrative in traditional American media. It’s no “Republicans=Racist” or “Trump=Fascist.” And it’s certainly nowhere near as palpable as the inescapable “(Choice=Good) + (America=Choice)” framework underpinning every corporate media organization. It’s one of those points of “bipartisan consensus” and as such, no need to talk about it.
Charter schools, like so many efforts at privatizing the public sphere, benefit immensely from this uneven rhetorical terrain. And I think that’s very important to understand as we begin to fight this thing. Proponents of charters use this uneven field to obscure true intentions and, even, the true historical legacy. A common, popular history of charter schools is that the idea was developed in 1988 by an American Federation of Teachers president. A union guy inventing something unions now despise. Of course the real history, as sketched out in a very good 2017 longform history in Democracy Journal, is less narratively compelling and more traditionally sinister.
Who invented charter schools? The same groups, it turns out, that are charters’ strongest backers today: business-oriented moderates and technocrats, focused on deregulation, disruption, and the hope of injecting free market dogmas into the public sector.
Like everything in modern America, charter schools can be tied back to Reagan and deregulation. The real brainchild was not a union rep but a little-known “policy entrepreneur” from Minnesota named Ted Kolderie, whose main impetus was to “end the exclusive franchise” of public school districts. Universities, non-profits, and, of course, corporations should be allowed to give it a shot, Kolderie argued. And in 1981, so inclined, he launched Public School Incentives, an advocacy group that would eventually help bring charters into being.
If we look at Kolderie as an agent of privatization first and forement, I think you’d have to hand it to him. In the intervening decades, charter schools have become so privatized there are some which are publicly traded. Stride, Inc., for instance, is currently trading at $33.22 a share. Stride offers, among many things, “tuition-free online public school,” and I’m sure the educational value is the main concern there.
How to fight
Unlike in the national media landscape, where charters are so successfully shrouded, we here in Worcester have one very palpable local narratives to rely on to get people on board with fighting this thing. It’s something many a Worcester Uncle has said through the annals of local history and it’s deeply held and felt by Worcesterites across the political spectrum. It’s this: What, you think you’re better than me?
Worcester is a city where no one is better than anybody else but regardless everyone harbors a certain notion. That notion is not that they personally think they’re better than everyone else, as would be the case in like... Brooklyn or whatever’s the Brooklyn of LA. The notion is that they think that everyone else thinks they’re better than everyone else.
In the case of this charter school proposal, the local quirk is easily exploitable: What, you think this charter school is better than the WPS?
And that’s a productive framework because as I’ll get to later the post, this charter school really don’t propose to do anything which is especially different or better than what we’ve been doing.
To my mind, this is the angle to hammer home at the hearing on Friday, which takes place in the Herbert Auditorium, which is in the Surprenant Building. Building 3 here.
On her blog, Novick provides some more specific talking points.
The state needs to hear of the choices you have available to you in the Worcester Public Schools; of the partnerships your school has with museums and other cultural institutions in the city; of how your academic differences are supported in your school; of how you as a learner and as a person have grown in your experience with the district.
The state needs to hear of the different choices available to your family within the Worcester Public Schools; of how your student’s different learning needs have been met by the public school system; of the experiences your family has had with Worcester’s cultural institutions through the school system; of how your family has been supported through the district; of how your students have succeeded through and beyond the Worcester Public Schools.
The state needs to hear of how your school and our district meet the needs of diverse learners; of innovation that is ongoing within the district; of the high quality teaching and learning that is happening in the Worcester Public Schools; of the ways in which there are ongoing efforts to make our curriculum more culturally responsive; of the social-emotional and multi-tier system of supports for students; of the rich community partnerships that your school has; of the ongoing work to improve the work we do for our students.
For otherwise concerned community members:
The state needs to hear of how the district is moving forward under new leadership that is focused on building relationships with families, educators, and the community; of the strong array of options available to families in Worcester for public education; of the lacks of connection and experience with needs of students, families, and the city demonstrated by the proponents; of the extractive nature of the proposal.
But now, here’s some more analysis from yours truly.
How does it hurt Worcester?
In the most laymen of terms, charter schools absorb government funding which should be going to nearby public school districts. While the affluent, well-funded suburban public school districts might not feel this diversion of funds too acutely, it’s disastrous for large urban school districts like Worcester’s, which are already chronically underfunded on every level. How this underfunding happens is wonky and hard to explain and different for every district. Explaining it would require a whole post at least.
But why the underfunding happens is plainly obvious. It’s the same combination of entrenched and institutionalized racism, classism and segregation-via-zoning—the cocktail of class warfare that leads to over-policed and imprisoned neighborhoods, chronic homelessness, disproportionately high rates of drug abuse and mental health problems, food deserts and dangerously unsafe living conditions in certain predetermined neighborhoods. It’s all one problem and it’s been institutionalized over generations and it’s not going anywhere until the schools get the money they need and the cops stop getting the money they want.
This charter school is going smack dab in the middle of Grafton Hill, which is by all accounts one of these predetermined neighborhoods. The application does not suggest they understand that. One line from the 300-page document is quite worrying (Kudos to Tracy Novick and her recent blog post where she pulled it out.)
The application claims this school “has a unique opportunity to serve children who fit a typically urban profile.” Language like that often belies a certain, um, mental framework. A “those kids” approach. The statement reminds me of an email from former School Committee member Mary Mullaney to former Superintendent Maureen Binienda in which she said “urban kids” are “spiritually and psychologically impoverished” among other such neocolonial observations offered in arguing against sex education.
While the OSV application doesn’t go so far as Mullaney, their proposed prescriptions for dealing with students of a “typically urban profile” include “exposure to the Expedition Institutions of Central Massachusetts” (translation: field trips) to “rural areas” and museums, among other destinations. The application takes pains to include an article from the trade magazine Museum Next which posits that trips to museums are good for mental health. It is unfortunately not hyperbole that this field trip idea is the bulk of their pitch for how they’d do a better job educating systemically disenfranchised children—those of an “urban profile,” as they say.
On top of that, the Old Sturbridge Academy’s student body is disproportionately white and affluent compared to the state average, to say nothing of how it compares to Worcester or the nearby Southbridge. The Academy is 76 percent white, as Novick points out along with a lot of other worrying demographic data in her dense but extremely useful post on the subject. So you have here a private company who’s only catered to a relatively white, affluent and suburban student body saying “you know what these inner city kids need are more field trips!”
Who wrote this thing? Sandra Bullock in “The Blind Side”?
So those are just a couple things in this 300-page application which inspire the opposite of confidence these people are prepared to run a school here or have good intentions in doing so.
Follow the money!
But the real danger this school presents—regardless of the quality of education it may or may not provide—is how it affects WPS funding and budgeting.
In an uncharacteristically animated and passionate address to the School Committee last week, Brian Allen, the district’s budget guy, broke down the potential damage. By the time the charter school gets to full capacity, in the fifth year, it would drain $7 million a year from the district, a figure which translates to about 100 teachers, he said, and would severely impact the district’s ability to provide fair contracts in collective bargaining. On the other end, that money would only translate into 23 teachers at the proposed charter school. A net loss for the community. He goes on to say that the district already does everything the charter says it plans to do—including field trips—and it pays teachers and paraprofessionals better than the charter plans to.
Perhaps most worrying and also telling aspect is the proposed administrative costs. Allen pointed out the proposed budget calls for “$470,000 for financial service management for a school with 61 total employees.” OSV plans to direct that $470,000 back to its main business office rather than hire internal business staff. They posit this as a cost-saving measure—a consolidation, if you will—but Allen called that “absolutely a false statement.” The figure is way higher than what a public school would spend on a business officer and support staff for a district of such a size—even a much larger one.
If Allen, one of the most highly-regarded public school finance experts in the state, is correct here? And the proposed administrative costs are many times higher than they would be at a standard public school? And it is not the cost-saving consolidation they claim? And the money is going back to a parent company as opposed to an internal staff?
Well, I think what we’re looking at in that case is a small but perfect example of the profit extraction motive at the heart of the charter schools project! We’re seeing a private enterprise planning to extract public money intended for public education! Rentseeking behavior, baby!
Even in a world where all things are equal between charter schools and public schools in terms of education quality, staff compensation, outcomes, accountability, etc.—and that’s not this world, by the way—the crucial difference between charter schools and public schools is that the former is brought into the realm of capital extraction and financialization in ways that are impossible in the latter. Every time a new charter school opens, a new opportunity for the extraction of value is pried open, allowing capital to take what it’s going to take.
There is a ton to look into in this 300-page proposal. As I said before, I’ll be bringing on Berg Powers later in the week to take a look. But for now, let’s take a closer look at the people behind this proposal.
Who are these people
If there’s one main character in this story, it’s none of those people. The whole enterprise revolves around Rhode Island resident Jim Donahue, and his career trajectory is illuminating, especially in light of this bizarre carveout in Mass. state law that Novick pulled.
It's also not a coincidence that it's Old Sturbridge Village that has been, I believe, the first and only museum to take advantage of the provision that allows for a charter to be filed jointly by (MGL Ch. 71, sec. 89(d)) "a college, university, museum or other similar non-profit entity," given who the President and CEO of OSV--who also serves as Executive Director of OSV Charter and who also is proposed to serve as Executive Director of the Worcester expansion--has been since 2007: Jim Donahue.
Donahue, as Novick points out, took the top job at Old Sturbridge Village in 2007. But he didn’t come from a museum background. He came from a charter school background. Before the OSV gig, he was director of the Highlander Charter School in Providence, RI.
In 2010, the Old Sturbridge Village Board of Trustees voted unanimously to extend his contract, citing his ability to turn attendance numbers around amid the then-raging economic recession. In a MassLive story from the time, trustees touted record-breaking numbers in attendance, education field trips and donations under Donahue’s tenure. A former trustee was quoted lauding Donahue’s “strong financial and fund-raising experience, coupled with a passion for the village’s mission” and lauded “his strong background in education.”
This trustee said they wanted someone from “outside the museum world” and they certainly got that. But in retrospect it seems this outsider had plans much more in keeping with his prior experience. Using the obscure caveat in state law that gives museums like Old Sturbridge Village a leg up in the charter school game, Donahue secured approval for the Old Sturbridge Academy in 2017, and plans to follow the same playbook with this current Worcester proposal.
The question of whether Donahue ever really left the charter school game to take command of OSV is an open one. It seems in retrospect, given that OSV is on its second charter school pitch during his tenure, that it may have been the other way around. He didn’t leave charter schools for OSV, he used OSV in a continued pursuit of his charter school career. The narrative that he “left” the charter school world to head up the butter-churning museum is a deeply spurious one. Conversely, the narrative that he’s used OSV to advance the charter school mission is plainly and intuitively obvious. The devil is always in the details and this detail in state law that makes it very easy for a “museum” to get in the charter school game, and the way Donahue has used that detail should raise an eyebrow. No one besides the people who stand to gain from it and shrewd policy experts like Novick would ever know that such a devilish detail exists.
One time a long time ago a very smart friend of mine named Gianni made an observation I’ve never been able to forget. He said that as a general rule success in America is based on whether or not you’ve been clued into the “white people secrets,” which mostly exist in the realms of finance, banking and government. These “white people secrets” are a series of well-guarded cheat codes available only to people who personally know the people who really know how to use them, and those people who really know how to use them are pretty much the same people who quietly write them them into law. In Donahue’s rather inarguable use of Old Sturbridge Village to expand his overarching charter school project, we see a clear proof of the “white people secrets” concept. Especially given it’s allowable by an obscure and wonky caveat in state law that no one would ever pay attention to otherwise.
Looking deeper into Donahue’s career, we find him to be something of a GOP operative in Rhode Island local/state politics. In 2011-2012, he was the “Republican minority leader” of the Cranston, RI City Council. After that, from 2013-2018, he was the chairman of former Cranston Mayor Allan Fung’s unsuccessful campaign for Rhode Island governor. This year, he co-chaired Fung’s similarly unsuccessful campaign as the GOP candidate for Rhode Island’s 2nd Congressional District. After, he lost a Cranston City Council bid but enjoys the power of a seat on Cranston’s City Planning Commission. In short, Donahue’s political trajectory is a perfect avatar for the sort of local politico who looks at charter schools and sees dollar signs. Rhode Island, like Massachusetts, is a state where public office is hard to attain for a standard GOP operative like Donahue but leaves plenty of room for such a person in the nebulous world of “public-private partnerships.”
So as with any self-respecting attempt at public sector privatization, we see this charter school proposal headed by a mostly anonymous but apparently well-connected conservative politician. Same as Ted Kolderie, the guy who thought charters up in the first place. x
Friday is the day! 4 p.m. at Quinsig.
Gah! I’m leaving on tour in two days!
So much to do beforehand I’m freaking out!
Thank you as always for reading! Still running my holiday subscription deal 🙂
Also, there’s a new substack writer in Worcester, and he’s following the same Worcester Mag-to-Substack pipeline I did. Shaun Connolly had written his “bad advice” column at Worcester for a while, but they apparently do not have the money to keep paying him for it. So now he’s on here. Check it out!
We have the Worcestery Council Theater 3000 stream tonight! I have pre-tour practice with BWB so I’ll only be on for a little while. Starts at 6:15 and we’re sure to have even more charter school talk.
And if you’d like to follow this long piece up with another long piece, I greatly enjoyed this retelling of the political failures around police reform in Rochester New York in the spring and summer of 2020.
Ok more in a couple days. And again, if you can make it Friday, please do.