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St. Louis: Privatizers and Assorted Billionaires Pick Over Bones of Public School System

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Tracee Miller, a member of the St. Louis Board of Education, writes that she was shocked and dismayed to discover that a proposal to raise taxes for early childhood education was actually a disguised effort to divert more public money to charter schools. The truth leaked out:

Emails exposed via public records requests revealed that not only did the proposal lack specificity around fund distribution, but also that the funds could be redirected to economic projects unrelated to ECE. These articles also named local individuals and organizations affiliated with the deceit, illustrating the depth and breadth of political corruption connected with one ballot measure. Only it isn’t just one ballot measure.

The individuals peddling their agenda under the guise of education equity will continue to steer public dollars toward private programs and gain political capital unless we decide that public education is too important to jeopardize for the sake of private gain. We will all be complicit in the perpetuation of inequity if we choose to let this continue when we know the reality. I feel compelled to ensure, to the extent that I am capable, that the public is as aware of the even broader reach of these local actors. In reading about my experiences, I hope that St. Louis citizens will gain further awareness of the corruption at play in our education system and choose to eradicate that corruption once and for all. The same shadow groups who publicly say one thing yet do another behind-the-scenes, as they did with the ECE proposal, are working to restructure our city’s entire public education system without input from the larger community. It is incumbent upon residents of the St. Louis region to fully unearth the far-reaching influence of these groups, to assess the impact of their operating with impunity for so long, and to ensure that the community leads the way in making decisions that will impact the city’s children and its future.

Because of intense personal pressure, both public and behind-the-scenes, I spent countless hours trying to better understand the connections between groups and the strategies they were using. What I learned will strike fear into the heart of any public education advocate. Since 2018, The Opportunity Trust has funded new charter founders, has steered these founders to specific charter sponsors, and has paid for start-up and strategic planning costs to launch new charter schools or expand existing networks in St. Louis City. They do this even as St. Louis Public Schools (SLPS) struggles with under-enrollment and the possibility of school closures. This work has been executed through tactics similar to those used in their attempt to push through the tax increase allegedly for ECE, and for similar self-serving purposes.

In addition to their work in the charter sector, The Opportunity Trust has launched numerous local non-profits and supported three cohorts of fellows, including many individuals connected with the SLPS district and Board of Education (BOE), to study other school systems that have implemented similar reforms. The Opportunity Trust is not a home-grown Missouri organization, and it and its associated organizations are not here to solve Missouri problems. The Opportunity Trust is the local arm of a national organization, The City Fund, whose model seeks to expand the number of charter schools, increase charter enrollment, fund the election of school choice advocates to elected school boards, divide public school districts into factions by treating schools as independent entities that function without the oversight of an elected board, and fund the election of school choice advocates to elected school boards, including at least one current member of the SLPS BOE. The City Fund does not make it clear when it is investing in a city, actively maneuvering funding through non-profits and PACs so that the money and their motives are harder to track.

Who might these “shadow groups” and individuals be? As Miller says, “The Opportunity Trust” is the St. Louis branch of the national group called “The City Fund.” The City Fund started life with $200 million from billionaires John Arnold (Texas) and Reed Hastings (California). It took a few minutes of scouring its web pages to find its list of “investors,” which include familiar names: The Walton Family Foundation; the NewSchools Venture Fund; the Silicon Valley Community Foundation; and other less familiar names, such as the California-based Intrepid Philanthropy Foundation, which supports innovative approaches to teaching, such as Teach for America; also George Roberts, San Francisco-based billionaire and founder of the powerhouse investment fund KKR.

Their agenda is to demand more charter schools, more scrutiny of public schools, and less scrutiny of charter schools. They are there to destroy public schools, not to help them.

Miller writes:

These organizations have made a practice of using distorted data to fundraise and garner support from individuals and organizations who champion the school choice movement. A salient example of this unethical use of data is the past year’s presentation hosted by ednextstl in collaboration with WEPOWER, EdHub STL, Equity Bridge, Forward Through Ferguson, and The Opportunity Trust. The data presented at this community event, where the audience was primarily composed of charter school employees, philanthropists, and self-named equity advocates, was so slanted that a third-party representative subsequently presented on that bias during a meeting of the SLPS BOE.

It is also critical to consider the motives of WEPOWER’s education advocacy campaigns. While budget transparency and community engagement should be pillars of any public education system, these tenets are not specific to traditional public school districts, though WEPOWER treats them as such. As recipients of public tax dollars, charter schools also have a responsibility to the community they serve, yet the group has not included any charter school in the demands they have issued; to-date, SLPS has been the sole target of WEPOWER’s demands. If what they seek to achieve is truly high-quality education for all students, this same level of scrutiny must be extended to charter schools as well. Instead, they have worked harder to push their agenda than they have to truly advance the quality of education in St. Louis, as was made evident in the ECE tax proposal.

Really, it is quite disgusting to see these elites circling the neglected and abused public schools of St. Louis with their discredited solutions that have such an empty track record. Their propaganda is powerful; their track record is abysmal. Will they trick another urban district into abandoning its public schools?

Tom Ultican writes here about the charter vultures descending on St. Louis to pick over the bones of their once glorious public schools. He notes that student enrollment in the district has fallen precipitously since the mid-1960s, when it was 115,543. The drop accelerated since then and it is now under 20,000. Ultican tells the sad story of the reformers who wasted money and opened charters to further enfeeble the district.

 From 2000 to 2020, the student population in St. Louis has again fallen by more than half from 44,264 to 19,222. Some of that decline can be attributed to the continuation of migration to the suburbs which now includes Black families. However, a large portion of the drop is due to the growth of charter schools. The charter school enrollment for 2020 was at least 11,215 students which represents 37% of the district’s publicly supported students. 

Like the national trend, the privatized schools chartered by the state, educate a lower percentage of the more expensive special education students; charters 11.4% versus SLPS 15.1%.

The “reformers” have had their “fun” with the St. Louis public schools. The one thing that they have not done is to improve them. They are raiders of the public schools.

Because of declining enrollment, 11 additional public schools are on the chopping block, candidates for closure. In a recent article in Medium, St. Louis parent Emily Hubbard called on politicians and civic groups to take some pro-active steps to save these 11 schools and what remains of public education. In case they didn’t know how to help the struggling public schools, she offered some ideas:

Here are some suggestions:
* Demand commitments from all your big donors to create an endowment that will fund north city schools for years to come
* Use your strength and connections to demand that county entities pay a white flight/greenlining/educational reparations tax (perhaps that can fund the endowment?)
* Demand a charter school moratorium; refuse to sponsor or delight in these entities that play such a big part in SLPS’s struggles
* Get right to the root cause of another of SLPS’s struggles and provide universal basic income for district families
* Before giving us coats and backpacks, make sure all the parents in the district are being paid fair wages at a job that doesn’t take hours to get to
* Create more non-slummy housing for families that need three bedrooms
* Demand whoever is in charge of it to create a more equitable funding situation than property tax 
*refuse to let charter schools get access to tax breaks and capital that SLPS is unable to access because they are just a plain ol’ public school district
* do what it takes to re-do the de-seg order so that the majority of Black children are able to benefit
* Put your children in St. Louis Public neighborhood schools (and not just the majority/plurality white ones) in a demonstration of solidarity with the families you claim to speak for.
* work out a deal with the city to do something about the unused buildings, free the district from the millstones
* If you want to dismantle the public school system, please just go ahead and say so instead of being all devious 
* if you think your family is too good for SLPS, please just go ahead and say so, instead of dancing around the issue
* repent publicly for not doing the things that you should’ve to care for the children in SLPS’s care, and for doing things that harm the children in SLPS’s care

Is anyone listening? Does anyone care? Will the leaders of the city allow the Wall Street bankers, the hedge funders, and billionaires from California and elsewhere to buy the public school system and close it down?

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