School Choice & Charters Opinion

Why Do Corporate Reformers Hate Democracy?

By Anthony Cody — March 27, 2014 2 min read
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Back in the 1950s, we were told that the communists wanted to destroy democracy. I am not sure what the communists ever did to hurt democracy in America, but the corporate backers of charter schools are making some real headway.

Their target is the power of elected school boards and even the mayor of the nation’s biggest city. In New York City, according to the New York Daily News, financiers have poured close to $4 million into ads attacking Mayor Bill de Blasio for revoking the carte blanche that the previous mayoral administration had given to charter schools.

Though corporate reformers like Bill Gates were huge fans of mayoral control of schools when their man was the mayor, there is now a drive to strip Mayor de Blasio of his power, led by New York governor Andrew Cuomo. In Indiana, the governor has similarly sought to remove power from the elected state superintendent of education, Glenda Ritz, even though she was the top vote-getter in the 2012 election. The only consistent pattern is the effort to remove power from anyone who might not carry out their will.

Netflix billionaire Reed Hastings made his feelings clear last month at a convention of the California Charter Schools Association (transcript from StopRocketship.com, h/t Valerie Strauss.)

And so the fundamental problem with school districts is not their fault, the fundamental problem is that they don't get to control their boards and the importance of the charter school movement is to evolve America from a system where governance is constantly changing and you can't do long term planning to a system of large non-profits...The most important thing is that they constantly get better every year they're getting better because they have stable governance -- they don't have an elected school board. And that's a real tough issue. Now if we go to the general public and we say, "Here's an argument why you should get rid of school boards" of course no one's going to go for that. School boards have been an iconic part of America for 200 years. So what we have to do is to work with school districts to grow steadily, and the work ahead is really hard because we're at 8% of students in California, whereas in New Orleans they're at 90%, so we have a lot of catchup to do...So what we have to do is continue to grow and grow... It's going to take 20-30 years to get to 90% of charter kids....And if we succeed over the next 20 or 30 years, that will be one of the fastest rates of change ever seen around the world for a large system, it's hard. [applause]

What do we lose if Hastings gets his way?

This week on Diane Ravitch’s blog, Denis Smith shared a memo from 2008, written by the Imagine Schools charter chain CEO Dennis Bakke, explaining how charter school governing boards ought to function.

Without you saying anything to them, they will believe that they are responsible for making big decisions about budget matters, school policies, hiring of the principal and dozens of other matters. This is the way most nonprofit boards work, so no one should be surprised by the assumptions held by the board members you select for an Imagine School. I suggest that Imagine boards and board members have two significant roles. The first is to "affirm" (vote FOR if legally required) significant items like our selection of the Principal and the budget (if you "need" to give them veto power over our proposed principal, then that would be okay although I don't think in most cases it is essential that they be given that power (check the State law). Legally, I believe "affirming" is the same as voting "yes". The difference is the assumption that we have made a "recommendation" or decision and want the board to agree formally with that decision. Before selecting board members we need to go over the voting process and our expectations that they will go along with Imagine unless the board member is convinced that we are doing something illegal. Of course, we want the board member to vote "no" on any proposal that the board member believes is illegal. However, in non legal issues of judgment , we expect them to argue the issue vigorously, but if they can't convince us to change our position, we expect them to vote for our proposal. It is our school, our money and our risk, not theirs. (see the full memo here.)

And what difference does it make if a school is governed by an elected school board or an appointed “board of governors” whose only job is to vote “yes” on whatever they are presented with?

We got a clue a couple of weeks ago, when teachers and parents from the Harriet Tubman Village Charter School in San Diego testified before the San Diego Board of Education. They had this chance to go before the elected Board only because the school’s charter was due for renewal. However, as the charter school association lawyer made clear, the Board’s only choice was to renew the school’s charter. Their powers of oversight are very weak. The school is overseen by a Board of Governors. And here is what the head of the Parent Teacher Council said about that:

I attempted to contact our Board of Governance to express my concerns, and I was met with resistance, lack of concern, and unapologetic apathy. I am of the opinion that our Board of Governance has lost its ability to be objective and to act in the best interests of our school.

But the parents and teachers have no say over this Board of Governors. Neither does San Diego’s Board of Education. They are not elected, and they are not accountable to the public. And that is by design. This is not democracy, and it leads to abuse by the powerful.

Reed Hastings was right about one thing. If you go to the American public and actually tell them you want to eliminate elected school boards, or completely disempower them, no one’s going to go for that. So instead, these billionaires conspire. Yes, conspire, behind closed doors, and we only find out when someone surreptitiously shoots a video of the bald-faced attempt to steal our democracy right out from under us.

The question nobody asks is “why do they hate our freedom”? The answer is obvious. Occasionally it gets in the way of what they want to do. And when that happens, the solution is to destroy democracy. Take power away from the elected offices that are there to ensure accountability to the people. Make sure that it goes wherever your grip is strongest. And spend millions on TV ads to cover up the real game under way.

What do you think? Are we witnessing an assault on democracy? What should we do?

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The opinions expressed in Living in Dialogue are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.