Accountability Billionaires Charter Schools Corporate Reform Dark Money Education Industry Failure Privatization South Carolina

Dark Money in the Holy City: A Short History of School Privatization in Charleston, South Carolina

Interesting essay samples and examples on: https://essays.io/dissertation-examples-samples/

Paul Bowers was the education reporter at the Charleston Post and Courier. He wrote this post at my request. A reader alerted me to the billionaire-driven attack on public schools in Charleston, and I had the good fortune to find the journalist who knew the story.

Paul Bowers writes:

Every few years, South Carolina becomes a battleground for school privatization. It looks like 2022 is going to be one of those years.

Back in the 2000s, the New York real estate investor Howard Rich backed a series of South Carolina candidates pushing school vouchers, which would funnel public education funds into private schools. More recently, we have seen efforts by Gov. Henry McMaster and the state legislature to create a Tennessee-style “turnaround district,” to deregulate for-profit online charter schools via authorizer shopping, and to divert federal COVID-19 relief funds from public schools to private schools. Teachers and parents have had to fight these advances tooth and nail and have so far kept most of the damage at bay.

Lately it seems like the tip of the spear for privatization efforts in South Carolina is the Charleston County School District, a starkly segregated and unequal district anchored by a world-renowned tourist destination. The Charleston County School Board is scheduled to vote Jan. 10 on a proposal called “Reimagine Schools” that would allow a private third party to make decisions at 23 predominantly Black schools. I thought now would be a good moment to revisit the history of school board power struggles and dark-money campaigns in Charleston County.

The pressure to privatize the governance of public schools often comes from two of South Carolina’s billionaires, the chemical manufacturer CEO Anita Zucker and the debt collection agency CEO Ben Navarro. Sometimes working in tandem, sometimes independently, Zucker and Navarro tend to promote more charter schools and private takeovers of public schools.

Zucker and her advocacy organization, the Tri-County Cradle to Career Collaborative, were involved in a 2015-2016 effort to create a “turnaround district” at the state level, modeled after failed efforts in Tennessee, Louisiana, and Michigan. The proposal involved lumping the state’s lowest-performing schools into a new district and bringing in third-party operators to manage them. Similar bills were introduced in Georgia and North Carolina around the same time, but the idea never received serious discussion in the South Carolina Statehouse.

Navarro is best known nationally for his failed 2018 bid to buy the Carolina Panthers NFL team. In the financial world, he is known for his Sherman Financial Group, a privately owned firm that filed more lawsuits against defaulted credit-card debtors than others in the industry during COVID-19 lockdowns, according to a recent Wall Street Journal investigation.

In the arena of education, Navarro is known for his private Meeting Street Schools, which are sometimes lauded as a model for improving the test scores of low-income students from at-risk communities. Since 2014, Meeting Street Schools has entered unique public-private partnerships with South Carolina public school districts, starting with the takeover of two elementary schools in North Charleston.

With a boost of private funding, the schools invest in wraparound services for students and their families, offer additional psychological support, place two teachers in each classroom, and operate on an extended school day and academic calendar. Those practices have a proven track record of success, but most schools in South Carolina lack the funding to carry them out.

Meeting Street Schools also heavily recruit staff from Teach for America and KIPP, and they preach the trendy mid-2010s gospel of “grit” – in fact, the disciplinary model is so gritty that one Meeting Street-run elementary school suspended one-quarter of its students in a single school year. Before opening the schools under new management, Navarro sought and received a special exemption from the state’s employment protections for teachers. As a result, Meeting Street principals can hire and fire teachers at will.

Navarro is also closely associated with the Charleston Coalition for Kids, a dark-money group that emerged in 2018 and immediately outspent all other donors combined on advertising for a slate of school board candidates. Much of the Coalition’s funding and spending is hidden from public view thanks to state election law and the group’s nonprofit status, but FCC records reveal it spent at least $235,000 on TV commercials alone in the run-up to the 2018 school board election – four-and-a-half times what all of the candidates combined raised for their own campaigns. (Local activists estimated the Coalition’s spending on Facebook ads, billboards, and other media might have cost additional hundreds of thousands of dollars.)

The Coalition spent big on the school board election again in 2020, investing $306,000 on TV commercials, including attack ads against two Black incumbents. Today 6 of the 9 sitting Charleston County School Board members have received backing from the Coalition.

A number of national organizations have taken an interest in Charleston school politics as well, including 50CAN (formerly StudentsFirst) and the Broad Foundation.

After failing to create a statewide turnaround district in 2016, the 50CAN affiliate SouthCarolinaCAN shifted its focus to the local level – specifically to Charleston County. When I interviewed then-Executive Director Bradford Swann in December 2016, he said his organization would be focused on “grassroots organizing” via a 5-month fellowship program for parents.

The result was Charleston RISE, a parent advocacy group that also operates a parent help hotline. Billboards advertising its services have appeared all over the county, particularly in low-income neighborhoods. Charleston RISE trainees were among the founding members of the Charleston Coalition for Kids when it launched in 2018. Some RISE members said they helped vet school board candidates for the Coalition.

Currently the Charleston County School Board is deciding how to spend its share of the COVID-19 recovery funds provided under the American Recovery Act’s ESSER III program. Multiple local nonprofits submitted proposals on how to spend the money, but only one has gotten a public hearing.

On Monday January 10, the school board will vote on a proposal called Reimagine Schools that would target 23 low-performing schools in low-income and majority-Black parts of the county. Leaning on a “Schools of Innovation” law recently expanded by the state legislature, the proposal would authorize a takeover of individual schools by an unidentified “Innovation Management Organization.” The Schools of Innovation law also allows a school to hire up to 25% of its teachers in certain subject areas without a state teaching license.

The organization that proposed the Reimagine Schools plan is the Coastal Community Fund, a relative newcomer to school board lobbying. The fund and its CEO, Darrin Goss Sr., have promoted the Meeting Street Schools public-private partnership model as a way of getting around “bureaucratic” regulations. (Complicating matters further, the Coastal Community Fund also administers an investigative fund and Education Lab for the local daily newspaper, The Post and Courier.)

The 9-member school board gave the Reimagine Schools proposal initial approval by a 6-3 vote in December without holding any community input sessions about it. All 6 members who voted to approve for the proposal had been endorsed by the Charleston Coalition for Kids.

Whatever the Charleston County School Board decides, the privatization push will continue in parallel at the state level. The state superintendent of education post is up for grabs this fall, and the first candidate to announce her run was Ellen Weaver, a charter school advocate with the conservative Palmetto Promise Institute. A central proposal in her platform is the creation of an Education Scholarship Account, a modified private school voucher program.

Sound familiar? If at first they don’t succeed, they give it a new name and try again.

***

Paul Bowers is a parent of 3 public school children in North Charleston, South Carolina. He was The Post and Courier’s education reporter from 2016-2019 and was part of a team that won the 2018 Eddie Prize from the Education Writers Association. Find him on Twitter at @Paul_Bowers and read his work at brutalsouth.substack.com.

Related posts

Camins: Two Roads Diverged in a Wood…..

V4tgDpeDBhQGUBa7

Report: Barr Undermines Justice and Intelligence Agencies

V4tgDpeDBhQGUBa7

Scholars: Oklahoma Grading System Deserves a Solid F

V4tgDpeDBhQGUBa7

Karen Francisco: How Failed Charter Schools Survive and Turn a Profit

V4tgDpeDBhQGUBa7

Tucson: DeVos’ Aide Visits a High-Performing Public School and Insists It Must Be a Charter

V4tgDpeDBhQGUBa7

Mercedes Schneider: Betsy DeVos Hasn’t Had a New Idea in Thirty Years!

V4tgDpeDBhQGUBa7

“Stand for Children” Folds in Massachusetts

V4tgDpeDBhQGUBa7

Valerie Strauss: Florida Cancels Local Control of Public Schools

V4tgDpeDBhQGUBa7

South Carolina: New Charters Built with EB-5 Visa Boondoggles

V4tgDpeDBhQGUBa7

Leave a Comment