Family Affair

Political scientist Maurice Cunningham says the campaign to lift the cap on charter schools in Massachusetts is driven by GOP operatives and a handful of wealthy Republican families…

EduShyster: Ads in support of Question 2, the ballot initiative that will dramatically expand the number of charter schools in the Bay State, are running during the Olympics, and come with the tagline: *more money for public education.* I was prepared to give them a gold medal for, um, dexterity, but since the ads are being produced by the team that made the infamous Swift Boat ads that cost John Kerry the 2004 presidential election, I suspect there’s plenty more where that came from.

Maurice Cunningham: I think we can expect some rough stuff. This is a Republican effort, it’s a big money effort, and it’s a conservative effort. That’s where they tend to go.

EduShyster: There’s a well-funded effort underway to paint the campaign to lift the charter cap in Massachusetts as a progressive cause. But what you’ve found in your research is that this is basically a Republican production from top to bottom.

Cunningham: That’s right. There are a handful of wealthy families that are funding this. They largely give to Republicans and they represent the financial industry, basically. They’re out of Bain, they’re out of Baupost, they’re out of High Fields Capital Management. Billionaire Seth Klarman, for example, has been described as the largest GOP donor in New England, and he gives a lot of money to free market, anti-government groups. Then on the campaign level, you have Republican strategist Will Keyser who certainly knows his stuff, and Jim Conroy who certainly knows his stuff. They know how to make something look like a grassroots campaign that really isn’t.

EduShyster: By *make something look like a grassroots campaign that really isn’t,* what you really mean is that this is an entirely community-driven, grassroots campaign, correct?

Cunningham: No. There is no grassroots support behind this campaign whatsoever. What do we look for to measure grassroots support? We look for a campaign’s ability to find people who will essentially volunteer, who feel strongly about an issue and are willing to do the work that a campaign needs done. Two examples: signature collecting and canvassing door to door. Great Schools Massachusetts isn’t able to do either one of those things. When they had to get signatures in 2015, they wound up paying $305,000 to a signature gathering firm. And that’s because they don’t have people who are strong believers who will go out on the street and volunteer and be passionate and do the things that people do when they really care about an issue. Or look at Democrats for Education Reform. When they backed Dan Rizzo in the special Senate election earlier this year, they had to pay for canvassers because they don’t have people who feel strongly enough about the positions they take. The idea that these are community groups is completely manufactured.

EduShyster: Readers of this blog will recognize the name Families for Excellent Schools, a New York group that set up shop in the Bay State in 2014, and which counted our Republican Secretary of Education James Peyser as its *uncle* until about 15 minutes ago. But *families* in this case literally refers to six families.

Cunningham: The same small group of families that gave to the ballot committee, which is now Great Schools Massachusetts, gives to a private foundation called Strategic Grant Partners year after year. Strategic Grant Partners is at the center of this whole thing, and it’s where you really see the longer term view taking shape. Joanna Jacobson, who founded it, understands strategic vision and marketing. She comes from a corporate background; she has a Harvard MBA and was the president of Keds. Jim Peyser is a central figure when you look at who was involved, both as a board member of Families for Excellent Schools and in his former capacity as a managing partner of New Schools Venture Fund. They’ve been at this for several years now—much longer than most people are aware of.

*Secretive cabal* and democracy don’t go together—they just don’t. And if you say *let’s sacrifice democracy so we can have better schools,* that imperils us going forward.

EduShyster: Is it really so bad if a secretive cabal hatches a strategic plan and marshals millions of dollars from untraceable sources if it means more Great Schools™?

Cunningham: I think it’s terrible for democracy. *Secretive cabal* and democracy don’t go together—they just don’t. And if you say *let’s sacrifice democracy so we can have better schools,* that imperils us going forward. Supreme Court justice Louis Brandeis once said that we have to make a choice. *We may have democracy, or we may have wealth concentrated in the hands of a few, but we can’t have both.* To me this campaign is about democracy vs. unlimited wealth.

EduShyster: Massachusetts is no stranger to divisive education ballot initiatives backed by wealthy businessmen. There was the measure that eliminated bilingual education back in 2002. Coincidentally, it was also the work of a Republican and also called *Question 2.* What’s different about the campaign to lift the charter cap?

Cunningham: We’re in the Citizens United era now, and that’s true nationally and here in Massachusetts. I think the application of a huge amount of money from a very small group of people who hide pretty well, that’s new. A good deal of this campaign is *off the books*—at least so far as campaign finance disclosure goes. I always look to see who the contributors that are listed at the end of the ad. Look at those contributors and see if you can figure out who the heck any of those people are—and you can’t. Basically you have what is a Russian nesting doll problem here.  These people hide because they know that if voters recognize who is really behind this ballot question, they’ll be less likely to support it.

EduShyster: I thought you were going to say that what’s different is that this time it’s about the kids…

Maurice *Mo* Cunningham is a professor of Political Science at UMass Boston and a long-time commentator on Massachusetts politics. He blogs at MassPolitics Profs.

Like my work? Donate to my PAC. Note: I won’t tell anybody 😉

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Take Your Money and Run

How parental powerlessness distinguishes urban charter schools from suburban public schools…

By Emily Kaplan

This is how you get your child into a public school in an affluent suburb:

1. Make a lot of money.
2. Buy a house in an affluent suburb. 

Congratulations! Your child will now receive a top-tier education!*

*If you ever feel that your child is not receiving the education to which she is entitled, exercise your right to go directly to the administration and complain. (Your tax dollars pay their salaries, after all.) Work with teachers and administrators, many of whom have decades of experience, to create an individualized education plan for your child. Do not fear retribution: your child cannot legally be driven from the district in which you have chosen to live.**

**If you still feel that your child is not receiving the best education property taxes can buy, you may choose among several courses of action, including: going to the school committee (an elected board on which sits one or more parent representatives like yourself); running for a seat on said committee; sending your child to a private school; or moving to another suburb, where you may repeat the steps above until you are satisfied.


This is how you get your child into a Boston charter school:

  1. Possess the social capital to be informed about the existence of— and application procedures of— charter schools. (Good luck to recent immigrants, particularly those who do not speak English!)
  2. Make the harrowing decision that the education your child would receive in the local district school is so under-resourced and/or deficient, academically or otherwise, that you are potentially willing to tolerate one or more of the following characteristics of many charter schools:draconian discipline; an obsession with testing; a developmentally inappropriate curriculum; a curriculum which is not culturally representative of your family; an inexperienced team of teachers and administrators, many of whom have never taught in any other environment; treatment as a pawn in a drawn-out political ruckus about charter schools’ right to exist and/or expand (or not.)
  3. Attend lottery night, at which you will be informed by a charter school administrator that if— and only if— your child “wins the lottery,” he or she can have the chance to graduate from high school, gain acceptance to college, and succeed there. (According to her, if you “lose,” of course, the chances of your child having a fair shot in life are slim to none.)
  4. Look around the room of parents and their children, all of whom are just as desperate for quality education as you are.
  5. Realize that, statistically speaking, 90% of them will “lose.”

If you “win,” congratulations! Your child has a chance of receiving a decent education!*

*If you ever feel that your child is not receiving the education to which she is extraordinarily lucky to have “won,” well… she can always go back to the district you fled, right?

Continue reading →

Sit Down and Shut Up

I went to a high-performing charter school to become a better teacher. Instead I learned how to silence and punish kids.

Editor’s note: the following piece was written by a charter school teacher whose request for anonymity I honored. Leave comments or email them to me at jennifer@edushyster.com and I’ll pass them along. 

It’s sexy to be *woke* right now. Some schools are infusing social justice into their curricula, while others are scaling back on harsh discipline practices. At an individual level, an increasing (and still too small) number of people—including a growing number of teachers, most of them young—are posting pictures and statuses on social media about how #BlackLivesMatter.

seth-tobocman.jpg (750×199)I’m no exception. Indeed, this growing movement has had a profound impact on the way I view my role as the white teacher of all students of color. I know it’s vital that I’m aware of the cultural differences between me and my students. I want to show them amazing literature by authors who look like them and expose them to new perspectives. I’m aware of the disparate manner in which discipline is applied at schools along racial lines. I don’t want to contribute to that disparity, or to the school-to-prison pipeline.  In a recent meeting led by teachers of color at my school, I excitedly engaged in a conversation about a cartoon that juxtaposed a white officer yelling at a black man against a white teacher yelling at a black child.

But I have a confession to make… Continue reading →

In an Effort to Keep Our Kids Safe, We May be Silencing Their Voices

Parent and early childhood educator Jamila Carter warns that the emphasis on strict discipline and control in urban schools can stifle kids’ creativity and natural desire to learn…

By Jamila Carter

Philadelphia mom and early educator Jamila Carter.

Philadelphia mom and early childhood educator Jamila Carter.

There is a sentiment among some folks in the black community that teaching our children respect for authority through strict discipline will save them from falling victim to violence, jail or being killed at the hands of the police.

Historically, black parents, especially those of us in low-income communities have often used strict discipline coupled with love and support as a means to protect our children. So I’m not surprised when I hear of parents who welcome the *no-excuses* discipline methods employed at some urban schools.

The belief is that because of the color of our skin there is no room for mistakes, and in the real world we may not get a second chance. Therefore, the training ground for this dismal reality should extend to the classroom.

I understand why many parents feel the need to use discipline to protect their children, but I reject this notion in the classroom. I certainly believe that classrooms must be safe and orderly and that students must face consequences for misbehaving in order to maintain a healthy and productive learning environment. However, the emphasis on order and discipline, especially in urban schools where children of color are the majority, can be demeaning to students and their families. It can lead to a style of classroom management that excludes one of the key elements of education: engaging children. It may also give parents the false notion that strict discipline is the driving factor in their child’s educational success. Continue reading →

Disparate Measures

The author of a new study on charter schools, civil rights and suspensions says it’s time for charters to abandon the *broken windows* approach to discipline…

brokenwindowsEduShyster: Your new study on charter schools, civil rights and discipline hones right in on what seems like, um, kind of a big contradiction. That the self-proclaimed civil rights issue of our time so often seems to lead to a type of schooling that ends up violating students’ civil rights. Am I right?

Dan LosenThe main thrust of the report is this concern that you’re raising. That not only are there some really high-suspending charter schools, but that you have advocates for these kinds of schools resisting what is a really important discipline reform movement across the nation. Also, we have to be looking at school suspension rates when we’re considering performance. We can’t be making excuses or giving a pass to charter schools when we know there’s a consensus that we shouldn’t be suspending kids at really high rates, because it’s really harmful. What we see when we look at the data is that there are some really high-suspending charter schools that are embracing zero tolerance which they should be rejecting. Continue reading →