Resegregation Now, Resegregation Forever!

Are charter-school conversions the vanguard for public education or a scam for resegregating the learning experience and making a lot of money?

In the new industry that has sprung up around charter schools, competition is fierce for management, materials, and construction contracts. The Big Three rivals in South Florida (Edison Schools, Chancellor Beacon Academies, and Charter Schools USA) are racing to open as many facilities as possible because they make money on economies of scale. It's resulted in strange bedfellows, such as the interesting arrangements the teachers union has made to run schools with both Chancellor and Edison. "Our commitment with Chancellor [and Edison] is our teachers will be paid," says Mann. "With charter schools we don't participate in, we can't say that."

It's an especially interesting place for the UTD to be because Coconut Grove-based Chancellor, which bills itself as the second-largest school management company in the nation, is clearly gunning to surpass Edison's stock-driven educational empire that spans more than 130 schools across the nation. In December Chancellor received a $26 million infusion from the venture capital firm Warburg Pincus and investment banking and securities firm Goldman Sachs that went hand-in-hand with its merger with Beacon (bringing its total of public and private schools to 81).

It's also ironic, Mann admits, because the union itself has been at odds with some of Chancellor's executives on many past school reform issues, such as school-based management, a sort of charter school forerunner UTD pushed fifteen years ago that was later quashed by some of the same bureaucrats who now operate Chancellor Academies. The company is filled with executives recruited from the ranks of Miami's much-maligned school district. Octavio Visiedo, Chancellor's chairman and original partner, was Miami-Dade's superintendent of schools for five years in the early Nineties. Other executives at the company who were formerly high-ranking school bureaucrats in Miami-Dade County include Alan Olkes, Phyllis Cohen, Emilio Fox, Paul Phillips, and Rudy Rodriguez. "When Chancellor walked in [to a charter school review], I thought we were having a staff meeting," jokes Joe Mathos, the school district's former deputy superintendent of education.

Phillips and Rodriguez worked for the school district as recently as last year, the former as head of the district's school construction department and the latter as the district's comptroller. Even G. Holmes Braddock, dean of the school board until November 2000, has been spotted in the political trenches of Tallahassee, lobbying for Chancellor. This presents no conflict because the school board has never adopted a policy preventing retired members or employees from lobbying or competing with the school district until a year or two has passed, a standard rule in most large government agencies.

UTD's Merri Mann admits the union's deep involvement with charter schools and management companies is not without drawbacks. She describes the reaction of rank-and-file union members to this move as "mixed." "It's a very hard, fine line we walk between the private and the public," she sighs, looking out at Biscayne Bay from the window of her fifth-floor office in the union's new multimillion-dollar building downtown. "It is big business." But Mann says that given the political realities of the day (a Republican-controlled agenda that includes privatization and decentralization of public education), the union can either join the process or get shut out of it.

Mann chalks up the school district's resistance to the UTD's efforts, especially in regard to Snapper Creek's conversion, to good old-fashioned protectionism. "It's a control issue, because if every school is a charter school, then you don't need a school board," she declares. "They are looking down the road." Snapper Creek principal Herrman also suggests that the school district's motives are obvious. "It's money and power [but] I don't think anyone will tell you that," he complains.

Mann says the school district's resistance to reform is what is causing people to want to leave it. "We could make school-based management happen if we want to. They haven't wanted to and as a result, it's all falling apart."

Perhaps. One Snapper Creek Elementary teacher who asked to remain anonymous offers this critique of what happened at the school, and is happening all over the county: "Obviously there are problems with the major system. [The pro-charter forces] have ridden on the coattails of the embarrassment the board has brought on itself, Demetrio Perez and the land deals.... People are fed up. But in privatizing education, they are creating monsters. Money changes the way people work. These [charter school] guys are like vultures. They have all gotten their money out of the public system and now they are coming back to profit from it again. They know the system and how to get what they want. You've seen Snapper Creek. It's a good little school. There was nothing we needed that we could not have done for ourselves. What this is is segregation. The school system has always taken the surplus from schools that have it and given it to schools that needed it. I see this as a way of people preserving their own special interests. But the kids in this county still need so much."

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