Monday, February 27, 2012

Whatever It Takes? - "Charter School Reform" & the Future of Madison Prep

-Allen Ruff

Part #3 in a Series.
(For Part #1, see:  “History, Not “Conspiracy”: Kaleem Caire’s Connections”; & Part #2: The Company One Keeps: Kaleem Caire’s Rightward Connections)

David Cagigal, the chair of Madison Preparatory Academy’s board of directors and vice chair of the Madison Urban League, made a provocative suggestion following the Madison School Board’s December 19th rejection of the proposal for the charter school. As the large crowd filtered out of Memorial High’s auditorium that evening, he mentioned a different option that supporters might take to win approval of the project.

David Cagigal
While the Prep’s public champion, Kaleem Caire, floated the idea of opening a private academy, the usually less vocal Cagigal recommended a different tack. Speaking to the Wisconsin State Journal, he suggested that the school’s supporters might urge Wisconsin legislators to create a statewide charter school authorizing board as a way to bypass School Board approval and help Madison Prep receive public funds.

Reporting Cagigal’s statement, the WSJ’s Mathew DeFour pointed out that such a bill had already been introduced earlier in 2011. It was approved by the Republican-dominated Joint Finance Committee in the spring, but has not yet been scheduled for a final vote. The WSJ piece noted that charter schools currently become eligible for public money only after they receive approval from the school districts in which they are located. The proposed legislation would do away with that and do much more.

Kaleem Caire
Caire had emphatically stated how he was “one hundred percent in support of the charter bill” when he spoke before the Republican-dominated Joint Finance Committee hearing on the bill last March.  His close associate Cagigal clearly understood the significance of the pending “school choice” legislation.

A seasoned executive with over twenty-five years’ experience, Cagigal had come to Madison in October, 2004 to become chief information technology officer at Alliant Energy. He worked there into 2011.

Previously, he helped develop electronic learning at Depaul University.He then went on to become a director of information services involved with e-learning at DeVry, Inc., the international education-for-profit corporation. The parent firm of a wide range of business and technical colleges and universities, Devry in recent years has moved into making acquisitions in the rapidly expanding field of online secondary education. Cagigal most recently took a $500-a-day position as interim director of technology for the Dubuque Community School District.

The proposed “charter school reform” legislation that Caire has fully endorsed and Cagigal urged the Prep’s supporters to get behind contains many aspects that warrant some close examination.

The Proposals for “School Reform”

Still pending, the companion bills (Senate Bill 22/Assembly Bill 51) were introduced in February and March 2011 by Republican State Assemblyman  Robin Vos and co-sponsored in the Senate by Luther Olsen, a recipient of out-of-state recall campaign contributions from the chairman of the anti-public school Children First America. Olsen’s legislative accomplice, Alberta Darling, was the supposed author of SB 22. The companion bicameral proposals would, among other things, entirely remove the charter school approval process from locally elected school boards.

If enacted, the new legislation would create an appointed state body, the Charter School Authorizing Board (CSAB) that would have the power to grant charters anywhere in Wisconsin, even in communities where the local school board has turned down a proposal.
The Capital Times’ Susan Troller honed in on the impending situation: 
In the past, School Board denial of a charter agreement signaled the end of the line for a project. But a new GOP-backed piece of legislation creating a state authorizing board for charters could change that. In fact, it would upend Wisconsin’s long tradition of local control of schools, where authority rests primarily with school board officials elected by local taxpayers….

…[C]ritics say loss of such control, combined with Gov. Scott Walker’s massive budget cuts to schools, plus 18 years of strict revenue limits, would lead to financial ruin for some public school districts. They claim the legislation is unfair because it provides public money from the state’s general aid fund — at $7,775 per student — to start new independent charter schools, but eliminates any oversight role by locally elected school officials. The flow of money for these new charters would reduce the pot of money remaining for the states’ existing schools during already fiscally challenging times.

Observing the public hearings held before the legislatures’ Joint Finance Committee last March, Ruth Conniff, political correspondent for the Progressive Magazine, observed that the measure was a political maneuver to allow privatization of public education.

Under the initial proposal, later amended primarily because it entirely by-passed the Department of Public Instruction (a body authorized by Wisconsin’s constitution), the CSAB would have consisted of nine members, with three appointed by the governor, three by the senate majority leader, and three by the speaker of the assembly. (Presently, and for a now uncertain period, Scott Walker and the Brothers Fitzgerald.)

As amended, the Authorizing Board would include the state superintendent of public instruction and eight other members – with six appointed by the governor and two by the DPI superintendent. Among other powers, the proposed panel would be given the authority to grant charters for virtual (online) schools.

The new law would eliminate enrollment caps on existing charter schools and expand the use of vouchers statewide. The changes in the law would provide wealthy families access to thousands of dollars in state school aid once ostensibly set aside for students from low income families. It also would weaken teacher licensing requirements.

State funds that had previously gone to local districts would now leave brick-and-mortar public schools, referred to as “government schools” by right wing proponents of the legislation. Funding would pass into the hands of online charter ventures or private and parochial schools operating from anywhere in the state.

Under the new law, the CSAB could grant charter school “associations” the ability to open more than one school, and would allow a charter school’s governing body to enter into multiple contracts. Representatives of a number of “non-profit” charter school ventures, certainly interested in the millions in tax dollars annually allocated for public education, spoke before the Joint Finance Committee hearing of the “expanded opportunities” promised by the new legislation.

The Bill’s Origins

The Cap Times’ Troller noted that the proposed legislation had its origins in a larger “school choice” movement which she described as an unusual coalition of mainstream Republicans, tea party members and various liberal school reformers. The movement’s supporters argue that charter schools would provide dissatisfied families educational options and would force existing public schools to improve through competition.

That movement for “school choice” has had a base of community support among those legitimately concerned with city schools challenged by ever decreasing state funding, public support, and largely racialized “achievement gaps.” That grass roots concern, while providing popular backing for the movement, has not led or propelled it, however.

The primary push for the expansion of voucher, charter and virtual schools in Wisconsin and elsewhere has been part of a well-financed nationally coordinated offensive – motivated by educational entrepreneurs and privatizers, as well as corporate conservatives eager to further cripple teachers’ and other public sector unions.

Just as eager have been those who seek to shrink funding for public schools, to reduce them to little more than temporary holding pens for the unchosen majority not quite ready or old enough for low paying jobs, military service, or the “school-to-prison pipeline.”  (Various supporters of “school reform” have argued that “school choice” would help disrupt, if not halt the incarceration of youth of color. They have ignored the fact that some of the same foundations and think tanks that promote “independent schools” have also played a key role in accelerating the expansion of the prison population and the for-profit “prison industrial complex”.)

Virtual schools and privatized “choice” academies have also been viewed favorably by those demanding “tax relief”; those long opposed to property tax levies and spending for public education. The movement has included the ideologically motivated arch conservatives who historically have been suspicious of public education, viewed as the well-spring of subversive democratic demands.

Wisconsin’s charter school reform bills were not the work of Alberta Darling and other Republican geniuses in the legislature. The joint proposals were drawn from boiler plate “model legislation” created by the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), the conservative national combine of legislators and business execs set on moving the country rightward.

Members of  ALEC’s Education Task Force (ETF) wrote the "Charter Schools Act" and "Next Generation Charter Schools" – “model legislation” for the creation charter school authorizing boards that would override the chartering authority of locally elected school boards. ALEC’s "Virtual Public Schools Act" encourages the introduction and expansion of on-line charter schools. (One merely has to compare any of the above proposals with SB 22 or AB 51 to see the marked similarities.)

Mickey Revenaugh, the “private sector chair” of ALEC’s Education Task Force, illustrates the nature of the organization.  She was co-founder of Connections Academy, the Baltimore-based  private developer of virtual charter schools. As “Senior Vice President for State Relations” at Connections, Revenaugh has worked to create management contracts for K-12 Connections Academy schools with local districts, charter schools, and state boards of education in twenty-one states, including Wisconsin.

The company’s “school without walls” programs and private virtual school, National Connections Academy enroll K-12 students nationwide. Connections was an off-shoot of the education-for-profit giant, Sylvan Learning Systems.

Such for-profit education companies, part of an increasingly competitive field, stand to benefit directly from brick-&-mortar schools staffed by underpaid teachers or virtual “classrooms without walls”.

On Wisconsin

Robin Vos, who introduced the charter school reform bill in the State Assembly, happens to be ALEC "State Chairman" for Wisconsin.  Alberta Darling is also a member of ALEC.  She has had some direct dealings, some would even suggest collusion, with former Wisconsin Republican political operatives Scott Jensen and Brian Pleva who now work for the American Federation for Children (AFC). An ALEC-affiliated association, the AFC promotes public school privatization, independent charter schools and the expansion of voucher programs. Its board, in 2011, was chaired by the right-wing billionaire Betsy DeVos. Early AFC funding came from the Wal-Mart heir, John Walton. (For more on the AFC, Walton, and Devos, see: Ruff, “The Company One Keeps…”)

Other Wisconsin conservative politicos in addition to the formerly indicted Jensen have gravitated toward the well-endowed national charter reform associations. In her coverage of the State Joint Finance Committee’s hearings on SB 22 last March, the Progressive Magazine’s Conniff pointed out that another Republican top operative, James Bender, the former chief of staff for the Assembly majority leader Jeff Fitzgerald, had left his government post to become president and a chief lobbyist for School Choice Wisconsin.

The National Effort

A broad network of primarily conservative foundations, think tanks and charter school associations have directly and indirectly financed and influenced the debates on “school reform” at all levels. They not only have designed school privatization legislation introduced at a number of state houses and actively lobbied for it. More significantly perhaps, they have been largely successful in defining the terms of the public discussion.

Leading figures and activists in the movement actually come together on occasion to map strategy and tactics and learn from each other. For example, the anti-union consultant Richard Berman, head of an outfit called the “Center for Union Facts,” speaking at an October, 2010 Philanthropy Roundtable conclave on education reform, outlined a clear strategy.

Rather than “intellectualize ourselves into the [education reform] debate…is there a way that we can get into it at an emotional level?” Berman asked. “Emotions will stay with people longer than concepts.” He then answered his own question: “We need to hit on fear and anger. Because fear and anger stays with people longer. And how you get the fear and anger is by reframing the problem.” Running in places like Washington, DC, and New Jersey, Berman’s glossy ads have portrayed teachers unions as schoolyard bullies. One spot seemed to compare teachers to child abusers.

While Berman could be discounted as a movement extremist, other “school choice” activists have understood the force of emotional appeals. Conniff notes what she describes as a mantra of buzzwords that have popped up over and over again across the country – the talk of providing schools and communities the “right tools” they need; the framing of the push for charters and vouchers entirely as an “issue of social justice”; and a “new civil rights movement,” The use of the term “flexibility” comes up and there’s a constant refrain regarding "reforms" that will "empower" parents and students and improve educational “opportunity”.

Some readily dismiss efforts to illustrate a relationship between the Madison effort to open an “autonomous”, largely unaccountable charter school and state and national initiatives. Direct ties are waved off as little more than attempts to discredit the movement through “guilt-by-association” and “conspiracy theories”. Those making such out-of-hand dismissals, however, are either unaware or would prefer to disregard those common grounds of interest and shared perspectives that unite a seemingly disparate spectrum of “school choice” advocates. 

One part of that shared vantage point has to do with an ingrained belief in the ability of the free unbridled market to solve all of society’s ills. There are those who go so far as to argue that “school choice” would induce improvements in public schools since they would then have to compete with the chartered and privatized ventures that would in fact further siphon off dwindling state funds.

Another shared assumption has to do with the negative role of the state; that it indeed should provide funds for educational “choice,” but remain limited in its ability to regulate, license and oversee what goes on in the schools.

There also is a common belief in technical and technological solutions for what ails the public schools, shared across a broader spectrum. The accelerating push for virtual online voucher and charter schools with reduced numbers of in-house teachers and kids increasingly schooled via computers and proprietary programs owned  by education-for-profit outfits -- that already appears to be the income generating wave of the future.

Madison’ schools cannot be viewed in a vacuum, though the promoters of charter solutions and “choice” primarily frame the issue as a local one. The disparities in achievement, based on race and class inequities, are national in scope and cannot be laid at the feet of some local “liberal establishment” or the failings of this school board or that union or those teachers. (One merely has to enter “closing the achievement gap” in any search engine to gain an immediate sense of the nationwide concern.)
Whatever it Takes?

Susan Troller’s Capital Times piece pointed out that the Madison Prep project could still become an independent reality if Alberta Darling’s bill eventually passes, and a newly appointed state board of political appointees approves the proposal. The resulting $7,775 per pupil state allocation would fall well below the amount which the Urban League says is needed to operate the school, however. Independent, the Academy could become eligible for federal funds from a variety of entitlement programs for its students. Troller also noted there would be plenty of opportunities for raise funds, including those from well-endowed national organizations that may favor Madison Prep’s approach.

One of the slogans Kaleem Caire, David Cagigal and the rest of the Madison Prep’s development team have used throughout the campaign for their charter school experiment has been “Whatever it takes.” Not giving up entirely on the idea of funding through the MMSD and conceivably looking toward a more favorable future vote on their charter proposal, they’ve advanced one of their own as a candidate for a seat on the School Board. 

Undeterred and committed, Madison Prep’s promoters also are seeking patrons and donors, locally and elsewhere. Recently, there’s been talk of “venture philanthropy” alongside ongoing discussions on how to improve the school district as a whole.

The Prep’s advocates now, too, are looking toward the passage of the “charter school reform” bill, no longer as certain as it was. That will allow them to bypass the need for Madison School Board approval as they draw funds from a district still responsible for the thousands of kids remaining in the city’s schools. “Whatever it takes,” remains the refrain. “Whatever it takes.”


Aunt Bee said...

Thanks, Alan, for doing Chris Rickert's work for him. But then, he's busy trolling people's Facebook pages while wearing sunglasses.
Keep connecting the dots.

tony123A said...

Thanks for researching and posting your results. I hope this gets wide readership. People need to know the agenda of these hucksters and charlatans before they get swindled again. I have yet to see a real study demonstrating superiority in any privatization scheme, in any field whatsoever.