I will protect your pensions. Nothing about your pension is going to change when I am governor. - Chris Christie, "An Open Letter to the Teachers of NJ" October, 2009

Monday, October 2, 2017

Education "Reform" Is a Right-Wing Movement

One of the perils of "success" is that it opens you up to increased scrutiny. Just ask Eva Moskowitz, the founder of the "successful" Success Academies chain of charter schools. Her constant self-promotion was nothing less than an open invitation to the press and others to take a look at how her schools achieved their "success."

Sure enough, a hard look at SA reveals disturbing disciplinary practices, a highly questionable curriculum, huge resource advantages (gained by appealing to wealthy donors and by wage "free riding" on public district schools), a distinctly different student population compared to neighboring public district schools, and patterns of significant student cohort attrition.

In other words: the "success" of Success Academies is largely attributable to the chain's ability to game the system. There's just no evidence Moskowitz and her staff have found any innovative, let alone scalable, methods to improve schooling for urban students.

But more recent scrutiny of SA has revealed something else: Moskowitz's financial patrons are much more closely aligned with the far political right than the current "reform" narrative would like us to believe.

The problems for Moskowitz on this front started last August, when the chairman of SA's board, Dan Loeb, compared an African-American New York state senator to the KKK:
The hedge fund manager Daniel S. Loeb, a prominent supporter of charter schools and a major financial backer of Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo and congressional Republicans, accused the African-American woman who leads the Democrats in the New York State Senate of having done “more damage to people of color than anyone who has ever donned a hood.” [emphasis mine]
Somewhat lost in the outrage, however, was the fact that this wasn't Loeb's first time getting caught saying something offensive and stupid. As Chalkbeat notes:
This isn’t the first offensive comment he’s made. Far from it, in fact. Loeb is fast-fingered on Facebook and frequently uses derogatory language to lash out at people who have made him unhappy. Here are a few of the examples that have been reported previously:
  • Another time Loeb compared the unions and their supporters to the KKK: Loeb posted the following on his Facebook page in 2016, first reported by Dealbreaker: “If you truly believe that education is the dividing line (and I concurr) then you must recognizer and take up the fight against the teachers union, the biggest single force standing in the way of quality education and an organization that has done more to perpetuate poverty and discrimination against people of color than the KKK.”
  • Using a derogatory term for people of color: Loeb once got into a fight with Fairfax Financial, a Canadian insurance company, which resulted in a lawsuit. Reported Reuters in 2011: “Fairfax’s filing quotes Loeb as saying he found the situation somewhat ironic because “the odds are much greater of being strung up by a Canadian Jew than a Canadian schwarze.” Loeb, who is Jewish, used “schwarze,” a derogatory Yiddish word for a black person, to describe Watsa, who is of Indian ancestry.”
  • Making light of domestic violence by comparing Obama to an abuser: In a 2010 letter to hedge fund managers who had supported Obama, Loeb wrote, according to CNBC: “I am sure, if we are really nice and stay quiet, everything will be alright and the President will become more centrist and that all his tough talk is just words; I mean he really loves us and when he beats us, he doesn’t mean it; he just gets a little angry.”
  • Making a xenophobic, homophobic attack against a rival: A damning 2013 Vanity Fair profile dredged up an anecdote from 1999, when Loeb was feuding with John Liviakis, a San Francisco public-relations executive. In an “imaginary monologue” in the voice of Liviakis, Loeb wrote under a pseudonym: “Then I will laugh at you fools for buying my shares and I will celebrate with a bottle of grappa, some fresh feta, and a nice young boy-just like in the old country.” Liviakis sued him for libel.
Apparently, Moskowitz thinks this is exactly the sort of person who should be leading the board of a school system that primarily enrolls students of color. And Loeb's support isn't limited to SA:
Loeb’s allies say his mean-spirited comments don’t necessarily reflect deep-seated beliefs. “I have known Dan to be a champion for underserved children who has worked tirelessly for years on their behalf,” said Jenny Sedlis, the head of StudentsFirstNY and a former deputy to Moskowitz, last week. “I know from first-hand experience the post he made does not reflect his true beliefs or the person he is.”
He has championed progressive causes in the past. Most notably, Loeb helped get gay marriage on the books in New York by throwing his influence into winning over Senate Republicans. This position put him in line with most Democrats and with Moskowitz, who has had wide support in New York City’s gay community for nearly 20 years. It also suggests that some of his internet posts, which have included seemingly homophobic comments, do not necessarily reflect the entirety of his beliefs.
Look, I will be the first to admit that people -- especially me -- occasionally say and do stupid things. And people can and do grow. But there are at least two problems with Sedlis's defense of Loeb. First, he said what he said just a month ago, and he has said similar things in the past. So you'll forgive me, Ms. Sedlis, if I think the words coming out of Loeb's mouth are a better indicator of his world view than your "first-hand experience," whatever that might be.

Second: It's clear that Dan Loeb is not the only player in the education "reform" movement whose mindset aligns with the political right.

Last month, for example, Leo Casey posted a long Twitter thread that looked at the connections SA's patrons have to the conservative movement. Kenneth Campbell of AlterNet also picked up the story:
Success Academy, New York City’s largest charter school network, has been the subject of a steady stream of unflattering press reports since Board chair and billionaire hedge funder Dan Loeb accused New York Legislature's highest-ranking black woman of inflicting more damage to people of color than the KKK. But Loeb isn’t the only Success leader who traffics in incendiary racial commentary. Board member Charles Strauch has had a blog for years that specializes in right-wing race baiting and recycled conspiracy theories from the dregs of the Internet, many with a racial tinge. 
Strauch’s blog, Wealth Creates Good, was taken down on September 5th, not long after I began Tweeting excerpts of his posts to Success, asking for a response. (An archive of some of Starch’s post can still be viewed here.) [emphasis mine]
As a long-time blogger, I can tell you there are probably several things I've posted over the years that I don't agree with now. But I don't take down my posts because I believe anyone who puts their thoughts out into the public should either have to defend or disavow them. The fact that Strauch took down his blog speaks volumes.

Campbell continues:
Strauch isn’t even the highest profile right-winger on the Board. That honor goes to Suzie Kovner, who, with her husband, has contributed more than $3 million to Republican causes, including charter school expansion and school choice. Once called “George Soros’s right-wing twin” and “the patron saint of the neoconservatives” Kovner’s husband was formerly the chairman of the American Enterprise Institute, where he led a conservative PR effort to undermine unions and halt the spread of a plot to spread socialism throughout America, AKA the living wage. Meanwhile, Suzie Kovner has a seat on Success Academy’s Board, overseeing a network where more than three-quarters of students’ families are classified as low-income, and getting poorer, even as the wealthiest New Yorkers, the Loebs and the Kovners among them, have grown richer still.
Success Academy’s love affair with the reactionary right wing doesn’t stop at the boardroom. The controversial Mercer family, owners of the alt-right outlet Breitbart News, known for its crusades against immigrant students and warnings about how the LGBT agenda is hijacking America’s youth, has contributed more than $1 million to Success Academy through their family foundation. And of course there is Success Academy CEO Eva Moskowitz’s own support for school choice zealot Betsy DeVos. Despite concerns from faculty at her schools, Moskowitz has been reluctant to distance herself from President Trump and his Secretary of Education. After all, the network’s political influence has been key to helping Moskowitz realize her vision of growing a charter school empire in New York.
It's pretty clear at this point that any notion of Moskowitz being a liberal is a pretense. However, some might ask: "So what?" Does it really matter if SA takes the money of right-wingers in support of urban education?

I'd argue it matters a lot.

First, consider what the Success Academy formula for "success" is: privately-controlled schools, fueled by public money with private donations mixed in as an additive. Combine this with the clear differences in student populations and the wage free-riding and you've got a big problem with resource inequities between SA and the NYC public district schools.

New York State has been systemically underfunding its own law regarding state aid to schools for years. It's the very districts where charter schools are proliferating that have paid the largest price. I've seen the same pattern here in New Jersey, made worse by the "hold harmless" funding policy of the Christie administration.

Across the nation, spotty charter "success" stories, like SA, have been the justification for this chronic under-resourcing of schools. Bruce Baker has started digging into this and the preliminary results are disturbing: "choice" is being offered in place of adequate school funding.

Support for charter proliferation goes hand-in-hand with a lack of support for adequate and equitable public school funding. No wonder the political right, which has set the accumulation of wealth for a small elite as its highest priority, loves the charter movement.

Second, the ties between SA and the political right highlight a clear reality: The charter school movement is, at its core, an anti-teachers union movement. Unions have been the backbone of the Democratic Party for years -- especially public sector unions. And the teachers unions have been pretty much the last vestige of professional unionism.

I know the unions are trying to organize charter teachers; it's telling that the charter managers have fought so hard to stop them.

Third, charter schools have proliferated largely because agency has been stripped away from urban communities. One of the charter supporters' favorite chants is that charters allow families to "vote with their feet." But that's not the same as voting with your vote.

Charters in New Jersey sprang up in Newark, Jersey City, Paterson, and Camden: all cities where schools have been under state control. The state also controls the schools in Philadelphia, a major charter haven; same in Detroit. New York City and Chicago have "strong mayor" control of schools; the charter sector has grown in both cities.

When the voters of Boston were given the chance to decide on whether they wanted to see charters expand, they overwhelmingly said no (especially in communities of color). Now we find out the entire campaign to expand charters in Massachusetts was illegally funded by extremely wealthy plutocrats; in other words, the notion that there is a urban, grassroots movement for charter school proliferation is a conceit.

The charter school movement has thrived in a climate where communities of color have been denied agency over the governance of their schools. If that isn't an alignment with right-wing values, I don't know what is.

Part of the marketing of school "choice" has been the selling of a myth that charter schools and vouchers are disputed issues within the liberal circles -- that there are many on the left who embrace "choice" because it aligns with their overall liberal worldview. But we must always remember that the reformy types know they will always have conservatives on their side; there's no need to convince Republicans of the virtues of privatizing any civic institution.

No, the real work for reformies is in getting the left on board. When failed hedge fund manager Whitney Tilson started Democrats for Education Reform, he all but admitted he was infiltrating the left so he could sell them what was always an inherently right-wing plan:
“The real problem, politically, was not the Republican party, it was the Democratic party. So it dawned on us, over the course of six months or a year, that it had to be an inside job. The main obstacle to education reform was moving the Democratic party, and it had to be Democrats who did it, it had to be an inside job. So that was the thesis behind the organization. And the name – and the name was critical – we get a lot of flack for the name. You know, “Why are you Democrats for education reform? That’s very exclusionary. I mean, certainly there are Republicans in favor of education reform.” And we said, “We agree.” In fact, our natural allies, in many cases, are Republicans on this crusade, but the problem is not Republicans. We don’t need to convert the Republican party to our point of view…” [emphasis mine]
I really don't know how much more clear this could be:

- The education "reform" movement provides a pretext for underfunding public schools, which aligns with right-wing values.

- The education "reform" movement is inherently anti-union, which aligns with right-wing values.

- The education "reform" movement thrives when communities of color lose agency over their schools, which aligns with right-wing values.

- The education "reform" movement is financed by wealthy people who openly profess conservative values.

Can we please, then, stop this nonsense about charter schools and vouchers being a policy embraced by the left? Yes, there are some Democrats and other folks who are otherwise liberals who support "choice." But their embrace of "reform" -- whether out of ignorance or hypocrisy or, yes, even genuine belief -- is inconsistent with the liberalism they espouse in other policy areas.

Education "reform" is a right-wing movement. There is nothing remotely liberal about privatizing schools, demonizing unions, and making excuses for underfunding education. If you support charter schools and vouchers and call yourself a liberal, that is, of course, your right. But it's really no different than being a pro-assault weapon liberal, or a pro-life* liberal: you're holding a position on at least one issue (and likely others) that is philosophically aligned with the right.

More school choice "liberals."

* I hate -- hate -- that label; the proper term is "anti-choice." But I've been using "choice" here to mean school choice, and I don't want to confuse that with a woman's right to choose.