Tuesday, September 08, 2015

A Victory!

It's going to take a miracle to avoid a Seattle teachers strike. Tomorrow is the day public schools are scheduled to open and reports are that the sides are still quite far apart on most major issues, even if the district did agree to one of the key union demands that children be guaranteed a minimum of 30 minutes of recess per day, and there has apparently been agreement on substitute teacher pay.

It's always good news when working people stand in solidarity with one another, but of course, as necessary as they are sometimes, strikes are never good news. It will be stressful for teachers and parents, not to mention disappointing to students, many of whom are eager to get back to school.

The other big education news from our state, however, is an unqualified win for public education. In 2012, voters, by the slimmest of margins, approved the introduction of charter schools in our state. Three previous times since 1996, we had rejected charters, but this fourth effort, funded by many of the wealthiest people in the world, finally eeked through. Ninety-eight percent of the pro-charter campaign's $10 million war chest came from just 21 individuals, including Bill Gates (Microsoft), Alice Walton (Walmart), Paul Allen (Microsoft/Vulcan), and Jeff Bezos (Amazon), a dream-team of billionaires apparently hell-bent on turning the education of our youngest citizens over to the private sector.

In a 6-3 ruling issued late Friday afternoon, the high court said that charter schools do not qualify as common, public schools and cannot receive public funding . . . In the lead opinion, Chief Justice Barbara Madsen said the case wasn't about the merits of charter schools, simply whether they were eligible. Citing state Supreme Court precedent from 1909, she said they are not, because they are not under the control of local voters.

This is a victory, not only for public schools, but for democracy. It's unclear what's going to happen to the the nine charters slated to operate this school year (8 of which are brand new and therefore untested, while the one that has operated for a full school year is a mess), but at the very least they are going to have to find a source of funding other than taxpayers. Maybe the billionaires will step up, it would be chump change for them, but I'm not holding my breath. You see, their ultimate goal isn't simply more private schools; their goal is for private interests, and primarily for-profit education corporations, to control public education instead of we the people. The kind of transparency that comes with voter control, that comes with democracy, is anathema to the privatizers. Indeed, secrecy is their calling card.

As Peter Greene points out, the solution to keeping the charter doors open is a simple one -- just agree to be overseen by an elected school board:

I mean -- what's more important to you? Providing a strong educational alternative for those 1,200 students, or holding on to your ability to do whatever you want without having to answer to the public? Is it so important to you that you not be accountable to the public that you would rather engage in time-consuming rewrites of state law, or even just close your doors, rather than let yourself submit to transparent and open oversight by a group of citizens elected by the very taxpayers whose money you use to run your school?

My money is on a contentious, drawn-out process of lobbying the state legislature to re-write the law. In the meantime, the billionaires might prop up the current schools for a time, perhaps an entire school year, but when the legislative efforts fail, as is likely in this state where charters are widely viewed with suspicion, then the charters will just shut their doors, which is par for the course for charters. Over 300 charters have gone belly-up in Florida and one in six of the remaining 650 or so schools are on the verge of doing so. Muskegon Heights, Michigan was left without a public school system at all when it's poorly-managed charter chain decided that running the school system wasn't profitable enough. These are businesspeople: they have no problem leaving families in the lurch in the name of a greasy buck.

And while there are a few shining examples among them, charter schools as a whole are failing right across the country, not just financially, but educationally, legally, and democratically. I mean, if you need any more evidence that the whole charter movement is broken and corrupt, look no further than the fact that the highest paid government worker in America is the CEO of a huge for-profit charter chain that is failing so badly that major universities are refusing to "accept credits" from their schools because of the low quality of the education. But, you know, the chain is so profitable that the CEO took home $4 million in taxpayer money last year, and since money is how you measure success in a businessman's world, it's all good, right? Education in their model is secondary to profit.

Of course, I feel sorry for the Washington state families that took the bait and enrolled their kids in these illegal schools for the coming school year, but I assure you their children will be welcomed into their transparent, voter controlled public schools with open arms. Like all democratic institutions, our public schools are far from perfect, but they are better than the secretive, corrupt alternative of charters. So while this isn't necessarily a ringing endorsement of our public schools as they exist today, I do stand with Seattle's teachers, and public school teachers everywhere, who have your children's best interests at heart and who embody the kind commitment, passion, and solidarity that gives me confidence for the future of public education.

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