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Corporate charter school hijackers destroying public education

Opinion-Editorial

By CARMEN DIXON | 5/22/2014, 1:46 p.m.

New York City has become a hotbed for education reformers making promises to ready Black and Brown children for college and their careers, even as young as kindergarten. Wealthy philanthropists have committed to transforming failing urban public schools into world-class learning centers. Their strategy? Use privately managed charters, vouchers and frequent standardized tests to measure student achievement and teacher quality.

This strategy would seemingly yield schools that have the freedom to experiment, increase available options, assess students and hold teachers accountable. At least that’s what we’re told. In reality, the results of school reform have been devastating to communities of color. 

As an organizer, I’ve learned that people act out of self-interest—what is most important to them. So during my brief stint organizing at a prominent education reform advocacy group, I found it hard to believe that our billionaire board members were suddenly model altruists for Black students in Harlem.

What I learned is that reformers disguised as critics of the status quo are thieves hiding in plain sight. They are guilty of the following:

Commandeering the charter school movement, which was originally designed to be a space for exploring innovation in education, for financial gain. Schools have no business as publicly traded entities in the same stock portfolio with privately owned prisons.

Lobbying elected officials and finance campaigns to intentionally cut resources to traditional public schools. They have not once supported the Campaign for Fiscal Equity to restore public school funding.

Convincing parents to give up their power by supporting traditional public school closures in exchange for privately managed charters with no public oversight. 

Cleverly using civil rights language to rob students of their own civil right to an appropriate education.

Reformers are ushering in a new school system characterized by segregation, overcrowded classrooms, data-driven instruction that emphasizes test preparation and results over creative and analytical thinking, a general disregard for students with special needs, more students unprepared to handle the social and academic rigors of college, more Black and Latino males being fed into the school-to-prison pipeline and fewer highly qualified teachers of color in exchange for a cheaper, whiter, inexperienced teacher force with a high turnover rate.

Putting students first means responsible use of taxpayer funds inside classrooms instead of outside contractors profiting from them. It means hiring qualified staff to support all children. It means supporting teachers and providing time to collaborate with their peers to create meaningful and relevant lessons and assessments instead of demonizing and firing them based on test scores. We need to hold elected officials accountable to restore funding to public schools. These funds can reduce class size and restore music, art and early intervention programs. They can also establish extended learning, linked learning and community schools. 

If the corporate reformers truly believe every community deserves a quality public school, why are they promoting the opposite of what their own kids receive?

Historically, it’s no secret that Black folks have had to fight in order to educate their children. A basic tenet of grassroots organizing is that the movement is always cultivated from the soil of people toiling through their own experiences. 

That’s why on May 17, the 60th anniversary of the landmark Brown v. Board of Education decision, thousands of educators, parents, students and activists gathered at City Hall Park to march and rally to save our public schools from corporate takeover. This is an authentic civil and human rights movement.

Carmen Dixon is an educator and community organizer living in Harlem, N.Y.