All posts by Brett Dickerson

This Is What Happens When Bankers Run Public Schools

This is what happens when a state hands over public education to investors and bankers: They use up the school start-up effort for financial reasons only and forget the potential for negative impact on the students if the school fails.

As reported by The Charlotte Observer, the most recent casualty is the StudentFirst charter school in North Carolina that abruptly announced last Friday that it would be closing its doors for good after numerous struggles with unethical administration and misuse of public funds.  Here is a reaction from an involved parent that day:

The Republican-dominated North Carolina legislature made this possible by instituting sweeping reforms a few years back that took local control out of the hands of locally elected school boards and handed it over to a statewide appointed commission that was supposed to be a big improvement of accountability for charter schools in the state.

Sound familiar? That’s because Oklahoma is proposing the same model framework in SB 573. I described the details of that bill in my earlier post.

The framework gives all accountability to one appointed state-wide commission that controls which charters are allowed and which are to be disciplined and controlled. Most importantly, this commission’s power is mostly after-the-fact, rather than proactive. When school debt is allowed, then the potential for a huge waste of taxpayer funds that cannot be recovered becomes larger than any negative potential of the current set of controls in traditional education in the states.

Perhaps it’s because it takes a very different person to do well as a banker or hedge fund manager than it does to be a teacher or a principal.

The NC fiasco shows the built-in weakness of the model that has been passed around from red state to red state that allows charter schools to go into debt. When a school administration knows that it cannot take up the slack of its administrative failings with going deeper into debt, then they know from the beginning that they better bring their “A game” to work from day one.

What happened?

1. Model legislation was passed.

2. Authorization of charters was given over to a central commission for the whole state. This was supposed to solve a number of problems that other states have seen by giving the authorization job over to special people with special training and talent to do that job of authorization and oversight. It didn’t work that way, just as it hasn’t worked in so many other states.

3. Due to bad administration at the school, financial problems started affecting the performance of the school. This shows that money actually does matter in public education and has a profound impact on the performance of a school.

4. Once word got out of financial difficulties, many parents pulled their students as soon as they could and moved to other schools.

School is less a place to be shopped than a relationship to be developed.

No problem, right? Wrong. What I heard in so many of my struggling students’ stories (and especially when I taught alternative school) was that things started falling apart when they started moving from school to school. Participation in a school has to do with consistency, relationships, and continuity of expectation. Going to school is not like walking into your favorite restaurant or clothing store. School is less a place to be shopped than a relationship to be developed

And this is the big difference between the way that a corporate raider thinks about school and the way that an experienced teacher or principal thinks about school. Teachers know that school is not a place, it is a relationship.

Conclusion: So, we can’t just do speculative work in one charter and – oh, well – if it doesn’t work we just offer a new “store” for the kids to shift over to. It doesn’t work that way. Schools are not stores and students are not customers. That sounds obvious to educational professionals; but, clearly it is not so obvious to bankers who want to make big bucks in the education business.

Bill Allowing Charter School Debt Threatens Education Funds in Oklahoma

A Bill Advances

SB573 is working its way through the Oklahoma Legislature right now. It will allow charter schools to incur debt, privatize profit, and socialize the risk. The current law does not allow charters to take on debt. Yet, almost the whole of public discussion on this so far is focused on the promises of achievement of the students, ignoring the risk to public education funds if those charters go under and file for bankruptcy. The spin is that only charter schools are capable of offering an alternative to current problems in public education.

The Problem

The problem with this diversion is that charter school laws as they have been enacted in several states have allowed charters to incur debt, and then close, file for bankruptcy, and leave the taxpayers to clean up the mess.

Yet, allowing charters to take on debt is presented as a deal-breaker if not included in new laws. Why? Hedge fund investors “behind the curtain” are the real driving force behind these laws that have been fashioned by The National Alliance for Public Charter Schools for regurgitation in various state legislatures under Republican control such as Oklahoma.

Why hedge funds? Why would they possibly have such a large investment in charters? They see private charters and the service corporations that sign contracts with them as a new and large investment opportunity with the potential for “growth”. That’s investor speak for making a lot of money.

Schools generally go into debt by issuing bonds, which are a way to borrow money from investors. This bill seeks is to allow charters “bonding authority”, meaning that they can issue bonds, or in layman’s language, borrow money.

Now this is where the hedge funds come in. They stand to make money from completing the circle both ways: They make money by investing in the educational service companies that this bill would allow to actually run the schools, and they make money by loaning money to these charters when they are allowed to borrow.

The largest issue with taking a business competition approach to publicly-funded education is that in the business world companies and corporations fail every day. While certain employees and investors feel the emotional sting of a failure, most know that it’s the way of that world.

But, when it comes to schools, no matter how much re-education promoters have tried, when any school fails, it is crushing to students, parents, teachers, and staff. Why? School, no matter how configured, feels like and is treated like a public good by the constituents, almost like the local fire station. It isn’t an auto body or dress shop in a mall. That’s why giving the reigns to people who have no history in education like hedge fund operators, holds so much potential for deep harm.

The Bill

The proposed law is SB573 sponsored by Sen. Clark Jolley, Republican from Edmond.  The House sponsor is Rep. Jason Nelson, Republican from Oklahoma City-War Acres. It is based upon, and nearly identical to a model law produced by The National Alliance for Public Charter Schools. You may download a PDF file of their model here and compare it to the proposed legislation in The Oklahoma Legislature here.

News Coverage

The Oklahoman openly promoted the spin of charter success, and covered a carefully staged event on April 9th at KIPP charter school in Oklahoma City. According to some sources, KIPP in OkC receives somewhere around $7,000 more per student than traditional public schools. Okla. Gov. Mary Fallin and former Fla. Gov. Jeb Bush were the center of attention at this event where no questions were allowed from the news media or from students. Photos in the article were all flattering and promotional.  Most interesting were comments at the end of the piece at the bottom of page 2.

The Oklahoma Gazette ran a story that passed through policy talking points from a executive with The National Alliance for Charter Schools, leaving out any mention of counter arguments, and made it more of a human-interest story that focused upon one of the current charter school superintendents in Oklahoma City.

The only exception to this type of coverage has been in The Red Dirt Report, a digital news site, where one of the opponents from the legislature points out the threat to public education as too much competition for funds.

The Tulsa World simply passed on the puff piece from The Oklahoman but has reported little on this bill.

Examples of Failed and Debt-ridden Charters

It is amazing how little effort has been exerted by news organizations to simply look up news reports of financially failed charter schools. One single Google search,  “charter school goes bankrupt” produced these results:

From the Columbus Dispatch in Ohio, we learn of a careful scheme of circular finance that left the public holding the bag: “Taxpayers’ $1.2 million propped up owner’s 2nd charter-school bust”

From the Charlotte Observer in North Carolina we learn about a large charter school effort that has involved unaccounted funds and general turmoil from mismanagement: “StudentFirst charter school dreams fade in startup turmoil”

And then these sites emerged from that single search; but, are more focused on openly opposing charters. Nevertheless, the information is important.

There is the Charter School Scandals Blog that is a listing of charter school scandals that have taken place in recent years.

The Mommy on the Floor Blog raises serious issues about how the effort to fund charters ends up depriving the whole of public education of needed funds.

This piece in the site The Hechinger Report, goes in depth about the fallout from the failure of charter schools.

What Happens Next?

What happens next in Oklahoma when it comes to charters will have a deep impact on public education in Oklahoma.  Let’s hope that it doesn’t have a negative one. Make sure that you are heard on this matter by contacting your legislators now.

Your voice can be heard by looking up your state senator and representative at the state web site,


Advancement or Anomaly for The Oklahoman?

Last Sunday, the largest Oklahoma City newspaper, The Oklahoman, did something unexpected: The entire edition showed journalistic verve and even boldness in several incisive reports, giving factual information that would equip citizens to take action on important issues. How about that? The big question: Is this an advancement that will be sustained or just an anomaly, an exception, quickly “corrected” once particular people start calling in? I hope it’s an advancement.

While some Progressives in Oklahoma have made a name for themselves criticizing the paper, most residents jYesterday's Sunday Edition of the Daily Oklahomanust wanted it to do what large papers are supposed to do: direct sunlight on problems in government and society that need to be brought out of the shadows so that they can be corrected.

It has always been a delicate dance for anyone at The Oklahoman who tried to lead that organization into a more traditional role of providing clear, well-researched reportage, with editorial positions clearly taken on the editorial page and not slipped into the front page.

Powerful and extremely conservative forces in our state have exerted deep pressure on The Oklahoman for years to direct public opinion in every page toward not just a conservative, but a right-wing agenda. And now that they have a new owner, Denver-based billionaire and right-wing philanthropist Phillip Anschutz, the question has loomed even larger if the paper would ever achieve its potential as a news outlet of integrity.

Denver-based billionaire Philip Anschutz
Denver-based billionaire Philip Anschutz

So, while I have been openly critical of The Oklahoman and for their clear, deep, but unacknowledged bias lately, I gladly want to give them credit for this latest Sunday edition.

The largest piece, “Addicted Oklahoma”, took up much of the front page and continued onto 8 more pages inside. It was the result of a productive collaboration between Oklahoman reporters, Jaclyn Cosgrove, Phillip O’Connor and Warren Vieth of investigative outfit Oklahoma Watch.

Environmental issues? Only if Sen. Imhof says they aren’t there, right? Hey, wait…Brianna Baily’s piece on the first page of the Business section, “Pollution Problems: Old Aircraft Factory Is Site of Concern”, showed good research coupled with a timeline and diagrams. It dealt openly with the conflict about ownership of earlier pollution problems when a company like the old North American Aviation/Gulfstream plant goes by the wayside and leaves the cleanup for someone else.

Over the last several years it has seemed like the OPUBCO’s, has shown a much more tolerant and broad editorial policy than The Oklahoman which certainly is read by an older age demographic than the online content. Sunday’s showing reveals what seems to be a good experiment.

I’m going to allow that The Oklahoman will have to serve its sometimes-dark corporate and political masters on the Opinion pages as long as power remains concentrated on a wealthy minority the way it is now in this state. But, this slow change, starting with what they allow reporters to do and publish, shows me that leaders in The Oklahoman realize that central Oklahoma is becoming more progressive and more heavily populated than the surrounding rural areas served by that paper. If they act now, and move closer to a central position, they have an opportunity to rescue the newspaper. If not, numbers will continue to dip as smaller, more nimble papers pick off it’s increasingly younger demographic.

That’s why I will give them praise when they do well and serve their public rather than serving that one-percent-ish minority hiding in the shadows. I encourage you to do the same. When we do, we may help that part of their staff who should be winning editorial arguments in meetings within The Oklahoman.

Education Rally Draws Large, Enthusiastic, Angry Crowd at Oklahoma State Capitol

Today more teachers, support staff, parents, and administrators turned out for the Education Rally at the Oklahoma State Capital than expected. Afterward, a majority of them patiently waited in line to go through security checkpoints and talk to legislators about Oklahoma’s being at the top of the list for education cuts.

Five Ways in Which Oklahoma Can Move Forward

Populism is not just for the history books. It is a practical way forward for our state that resists the quiet rule of the wealthiest, tiny minority, which in Oklahoma is even smaller than “1%”.

It is necessary to resist, too: Oklahoma has not a better place now for ordinary people since we got the “right to work” or since we went from a one-party, to a two-party, and back into a one-party political system again, just with the other party now as the current single political power in the state.

The following is based on five points (in italics) for developing a Populist agenda nationally that were proposed by Jim Hightower, print and radio commentator from Texas, in a speech at the Strategy Summit held by the Progressive Congress and reported by The Nation Magazine .

These points are just as, if not more, applicable to potential Oklahoma Progressive/Populist influence as they are nationally.

1. Great Progressive movements have advanced not only by good organizing, but by a steady altering of the public’s perception. Cultural shifts produce political change. This truth is born out by how fiercely we see the current controlling conservative minority in Oklahoma working to control the print and broadcast media. If they can keep certain types of information from most of the people, or at least twist it enough, then enough people will believe their narrative and not rise up against a minority-rule system that has been developing for years. Truth published, spoken, aired by many different voices will have its effect over time.

2. Building a people’s movement requires taking the long view. Advancement takes place in decades, not months or years. Impatience is the biggest enemy of those who are progressive. That’s one of the reasons why progressive-minded people show up to vote for a particular candidate and then fade away until the next campaign. It requires little thought or effort to be all for a candidate for the last month of their campaign. In order to actually turn our state government toward that which will benefit a large majority of Oklahomans, progressives need to be a part of a movement year in and year out, not just individual campaigns. The best candidates that did not have enough support in this campaign will stay and return to fight another day if they have a convinced movement of people working for the same causes between campaigns.

3. Expand the movement by reaching out and connecting with other movements that don’t identify as progressive but are in fact populist and also are actually on the move. People who might disagree with a pro-abortion rights stance can be moved to act with others who are concerned about preserving life beyond the womb. People who might self-identify as conservative might be very moved by the ways in which unfettered strip mining and fracking are affecting the land that they love and want to protect and join with more progressive people who are concerned for what that does to our environment.

4. Do less issue-speak and policy dump and more talk about core values such as economic fairness, social justice, and equal opportunity for all. Van Jones has reminded us that MLK in his historic 1963 speech at the Lincoln Memorial didn’t say “I have a position paper”. Most people who I know in this state would be hard pressed to argue against those three values. Do we talk specifically about those values that most progressives have in common? I don’t hear it or see it much in print.

5. Get the hell out of Washington! The most productive politics are local, not national. Just look at any recent polls of the approval ratings of the Congress and you will see that most people of either party see Washington political piss fights as in-credible and not worth the time of anyone who lives outside of Washington, D.C. Recently our Republican Governor and Republican dominated legislature have blocked the expansion of Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act for no other definable reason except that it’s “Obamacare”. Right now, our state is not currently governed by Oklahomans, but by think tanks like ALEC and The Heritage Foundation.

Oklahoma has a great tradition of Populism. Currently, we see more signs of that in the workings of the Tea Party where there is a general appeal to the hard-working Oklahomans who believe that the economic system is rigged in favor of somebody else. They really don’t know who is rigging it, though. They believe it is that black man in the White House. But, they do only because they are hearing one narrative that sounds credible to them and not other counter narratives that more closely hold to the truth rather than racist, anti-abortion fiction.

It is time for people who advocate for common folks in Oklahoma to speak up, and in a constant way right here in our towns, cities, and state. We shouldn’t even worry that much about consistency. The persistence of our message is what will win.

What do you think?

So, Teacher, You Don’t Want to be “Political”? That’s No Longer An Option

Walker, protest, teachers, strike,
Wisconsin teachers protest the heavy-handed tactics of Gov. Walker – Photo Credit: John Westrock via Compfight cc

I know, you are in the teaching life to teach, to instruct, to give to the next generation.  So am I.  But, I have come to some stark realizations lately:

1.  If you are a public school teacher, you are involved in politics right now, whether you acknowledge it or not.  Professional writers and pundits have been hired and paid handsomely to attack public school teachers and our representative organizations as their full time job.  And in case you missed it, they are attacking you, too.

2.  Even if you don’t like the idea of being involved in some sort of job collective, like being active in your union, your critics will lump you together with all other teachers anyway.  Sorry, your critics won’t let you out, no matter how much you want to be seen as that virginal, non-collective, not-dirty-with-politics, nice-smelling teacher.

3.  Critics will want you to forget that your democratically-elected union leaders at the local, and state levels have been, and in many cases still are in the classroom, teaching every day.  They will begin presumptive statements with phrases like “greedy union bosses” and hope that you forget that your “bosses” are still certified teachers, deeply committed to the profession.

4.    If your union falls apart, you will be on your own to negotiate a job or contract up against big-money interests who have teams of staff lawyers just waiting to overwhelm you if there is ever any legal action that you may bring.  Don’t believe me?  Ask any number of professionals, including doctors and nurses who work for huge hospital corporations.  Remember, school administrations operate in collective ways, also, not just teachers.  And they won’t stop even if all teachers unions go away.  It is in their best interest to act collectively.  Hmmmmm…Maybe it’s in our best interests, too.

5.  If you have any concern for the poorest of your students, you will want them to have the consistency of a good education, right?  The original purpose of public schools was to create that kind of consistency.  Those who want to dismantle public schools today want only to “open up a new market” of private schools that will come into existence, fail, over and again. Isn’t that what wide open, freewheeling business does today?  Sure it is.  And not much of anyone thinks anything of it.  Would we think something of it if a charter school collapsed and closed at odd times and their students had no place else to go for the rest of the year.  Oh, yea.  Who stands between “market” education and consistent public ed?  The teachers unions.  That’s the whole purpose of the attacks.

The only way left for you to not be “political” is to stop being committed to public education.  So, welcome to “the collective”, like it or not.  Your critics have made sure that you are locked in.

Still A Student

My Yoga Teacher, Trinity Mays

My twenty-something yoga teacher is a great student of her students.  That’s why she is such a good teacher.  She knows what is going on with this fifty-something guy in her class (me) who sometimes has problems with contrary knees…and back…and…and.  What’s important is that she studies, remembers, adjusts, yet always challenges her students to grow.  There is a very impressive organic approach that she takes to teaching.  In addition to the obvious benefits to my yoga practice under this teacher, I learn much about teaching from being her student.

That’s what I want to do in my classroom:  I want to see my students for who they really are.  Right now.  Today.  Yea.  That kid with the green shirt on.  The one who just walked past me smelling like he just came in from fighting a forest fire.  Only there isn’t one.  And his eyes are not red because he has an eye infection.

I want to connect with that kid.  And it won’t happen without my becoming a student of him.  I am still a student in order to be a teacher.

Martin Luther King, Jr.: More Than a Cardboard Cutout

For a history teacher, one of the easiest, yet most damning mistakes is to allow the history of the United States to become safe, sanitized, vanilla, and sloganized.  I have never met a history teacher who wants to be credited with such an offense to the discipline; but, it does happen even to the most vigilant.

It is so much easier to play the end only of King’s “I Have A Dream” speech and let students engage in a vacuous exercise such as writing a letter to him.  About what?  The inevitable questions surface:
“Who was that dude, again?”
“What was he dreamin’ about?”
Other teachers, administrators, and curriculum supervisors will love it, though.  It’s just what anyone who has not taught history imagines is good history teaching.  It plays well in meetings and the teachers’ lounge over lunch.

But we know better.

Instead, the history teacher can choose to keep actual people in history alive in the fullness of who they were rather than a few safe soundbites or a cardboard cutout stood up in the corner .

Life, and so, history is untidy, uneven, often offensive to someone.  That’s why this audio of King’s “A Knock At Midnight” is so much more appropriate and powerful to remember and use.  It is confessional.  It shows King, the man who fears for the lives of his wife and children.  It reveals the fervent Christian who struggles with the call to faith and action.  It also reveals the sheer brutality, violence, and, yes, evil that he faced day-to-day in a place where the ruling class had one “Christian” persona in the day, and entirely another at night.

History in all of it’s fullness is far more interesting and engaging to our students, but far more irritating to others who want to twist it to fit their own current agendas.

It is the history teacher’s job to keep untwisting history. Our students will be truly inspired to live full lives of meaning if we do.  The cardboard cutout can stay in the closet.