Minivans and SUVs line SW 64th Street, the quiet lane that runs past Snapper Creek Elementary School and into the heart of Kendall. The early evening is softly descending as several dozen parents shuffle in and sit at long rows of fold-up tables with attached benches in the "cafetorium." A few of them, wearing rumpled power suits, carry flyers brought home by their kids: "Please join us," the flyer signed by the school principal and the PTSA (Parent Teacher Student Association) president reads, "to explore the possibility of Snapper Creek Elementary becoming a conversion charter school."
This is a "revolutionary" idea -- the notion that parents and teachers could actually take their public school away from the education bureaucrats and run it themselves. But unlike a true revolution, where radical concepts are fomented by the disenfranchised, this idea is coming straight from the top. The meeting is sponsored by an unlikely alliance -- the powerful teachers union (United Teachers of Dade) and a venture capital-fueled charter school company (Chancellor Academies) run by retired Miami-Dade school bureaucrats.
What the parents didn't yet know on that early-September evening was that their school had been carefully chosen as the test market for the latest attempt to privatize public education. If it worked there, Snapper Creek would be the showroom model used to entice other schools to get with the program.
Quite possibly it could be the vanguard for the wholesale dismantling of the public school system.
A trim, mild-looking man in his late fifties named Clifford Herrman, the Snapper Creek principal, climbs to the stage at the front of the room, microphone in hand. For a moment he stands as still as the well-sprayed minibouffant on his head, surveying the slightly chaotic scene below him -- parents settling into their seats, squads of children galloping through the aisles.... One hand absently brushes invisible specks from his blue pants and white-collared, school logo-ed shirt. When he senses the time has come, he enunciates professionally: "Welcome to Snapper Creek." (Pause.) "A very special school." (Pause.) "What makes us so special is the parents and teachers!!"
Herrman stands in front of a large screen that reads, "Conversion to a Charter School: presented by United Teachers of Dade and Chancellor Academies." A half-dozen representatives of the union and management company smile on cue from their places around the projector. Herrman ticks off the reasons why he's in favor of Snapper Creek "going charter": smaller classes, more innovative teaching, less bureaucracy, et cetera. "We would have the flexibility to be creative in improving student learning," he beams, explaining that these things don't happen in regular schools, because they're tied to unwieldy systems burdened with regulations that demand cookie-cutter teaching methods. Happily many of these boring regs don't apply in charter schools, Herrman assures everyone. Charter schools have to comply with basic health, safety, and public-records laws, but since they're free public institutions run by independents, they are exempt from most other state education rules. Of course, Snapper is already a great place, Herrman exults, but it could be even more special if it were cut free of the bloated toad that Miami-Dade's 300-plus school system has become.
All it would take under state law for this to happen is for half the parents and teachers to vote to convert to a charter deal run by a governing board of their peers. "The bottom line is, is it possible to make things better at Snapper?" Herrman demands, in a fatherly tone that suggests it is.
From there a certain momentum carried the meeting along, as smoothly as a time-share condo pitch. Onstage a panel of "experts" including UTD rep Fred Wallace, Chancellor spokeswoman (and former Channel 10 education reporter) Vicki Frazier-Williams, Herrman, and three pro-conversion teachers laid out a bright future for the little school of less than 600 students. The union would take care of the teachers and the management company would take care of daily operations, while parents and teachers concentrated on the real work of making sure their kids got the best education possible. And since Herrman is retiring at the end of this year, Chancellor (now called Chancellor Beacon Academies after a recent merger with a Massachusetts-based education company) would hire him to stay on as principal! Quel surprise!
The catch was, the decision had to be made right away. If parents wanted to make the switch by next school year, they'd have to file an application with Miami-Dade County Public Schools in less than three weeks. It was then that parents began shifting in their seats and looking skeptical. Ed Lasher, an accountant and the father of a fifth-grader, stood up and asked how the school could afford to hire more teachers to reduce class size and all the other promised goodies. "I'm curious as to how the numbers will work," he inquired, wondering, additionally, where the money would come from for promised new classrooms and teachers, plus a fifteen percent management fee to the private firm.
Herrman assured everyone that all this could be worked out in the charter contract, which parents would help write over a six-month period. "I have no problem with a management fee if a company can come in and show us how to achieve smaller class sizes," he said, smiling. "Right now our school generates $3 million [in state and federal aid for students], but we only get $1.3 million back from the district." (Education funding is based on the number of students in each school. The school district takes a percentage of that money to pay for central services such as transportation, maintenance, administration, and food service.) Herrman explained to the parents that, as an independent charter school, Snapper Creek would get 95 percent of the money its students generate. Herrman further insisted that Chancellor would waive its fee if it can't deliver what it promises within the school's financial resources. (Interestingly, a close reading of the actual contract later drawn up by the company and UTD revealed that Chancellor would defer its fee, not waive it.) Diana Diaz de Arce, a Kendall mom, complained that she felt uncomfortable not having a contract in hand before being asked to vote. "[This is] like, Buy the house. You'll like it when you get it,'" she scoffed.
Speaking in a kindly, patronizing tone from the Mister Rogers school of audience persuasion, Herrman mentioned that he'd talked all this stuff over with members of the PTSA and they were supportive. He didn't mention that the talk occurred a few days earlier over dinner at a local Steak-and-Ale, courtesy of Chancellor Academies. He also praised a five-hour bus trip several teachers had taken (again, paid for by Chancellor) to observe a converted charter school in Polk County. However, a teacher who'd gone on the field trip later wrote an anonymous letter to the Miami Herald claiming the whole thing was mostly a sham. "We never went into, nor had time to see, a classroom, [never] talk[ed] to a classroom teacher or to parents [at the Polk County school]," the letter lamented. "I asked to e-mail a teacher and was told that only the office staff had e-mail addresses. The first [place] we went to see was a Chancellor Academy School and [we] spent most of our time [there]." The point was that although Chancellor has done several start-up charter schools, it hasn't yet converted an existing school.
One Snapper Creek teacher who spoke to New Times on condition of anonymity confirmed the details in the letter are accurate. The teacher further alleged that school administrators were outraged when they saw the letter in the Herald, and that assistant principal Maria Elena Hernandez corralled those who'd gone on the trip and asked them to write a response. "They wrote that letter and then went from teacher to teacher and had each sign it to send back to the Miami Herald," the teacher said.
But little of this interior drama trickled out to the parents at the meeting. Onstage, Ken Delisi, a young instructor at Snapper Creek who teaches students with special needs, expressed his reasons for supporting the change. He said he doesn't trust the school district but does trust his principal. "If we can have the freedom we have right now under Mr. Herrman, rather than the nightmare of principals at some of the other schools, then I as a teacher am sold." A few other teachers remarked that they were willing to try anything that would reduce class size.
Suddenly school board member Marta Perez, who represents Snapper Creek in District 8 (parts of Kendall, Westchester, and Sweetwater), stalked to the front of the room to deliver a characteristically impassioned plea. "I've found that whenever someone wants to sell you something, they say there's an urgency," she shrilled. "What I would like you to do is to have the other side represented, the district to come and explain [the other side] to you."
It was a good point, but her strident tone had an unintended effect. To the roomful of parents who seemed to trust Herrman and their children's teachers, she sounded like a disgruntled politician trying to protect her turf. With this, the battle for the hearts and minds of Snapper Creek's parents had begun. Would they choose the devil they knew, or the one they did not?
Fast-forward to another parent meeting in the same place a week later. It's the time of the September 11 terrorist attacks, a week in which then-superintendent Roger Cuevas had narrowly avoided being fired (he managed to last a little longer). The day before, on September 12, 32 teachers had voted, with 67 percent going for conversion. Parent Addys Alvarez told New Times some of the teachers told her and others they'd felt "compelled" to keep their misgivings about the conversion to themselves. "They were expressing confusion, frustration, and [a sense that there was] deceit -- they were very scared about job security," Alvarez recalls. "A lot of them don't know what the future [would be]. They just blindly followed [Herrman]."
Herrman calls such accusations "hurtful." "If there's any evidence, then it's worth looking into," he allows. "But unless you can say, This happened on this date with this person,' then ..." he finishes the sentence with a shrug.
Several teachers who asked not to be identified described the atmosphere of the school before the vote as "hostile" -- with teachers divided on the charter issue and a full-court sales pitch by the UTD and Herrman beating against their honest doubts. "You were made to feel that if you were against it, you were against Mom and apple pie," grumbles one teacher. "The message was how dare you go against this." Another teacher claims that Herrman removed from teachers' mailboxes an anonymous critical letter asking the administration to postpone the vote. (Some teachers wanted questions answered more thoroughly.) Herrman says that it is standard practice that all notices placed in teacher mailboxes be initialed by an administrator, and any anonymous letters would have been removed. "It's not for screening purposes," he asserts. "Mailboxes are for school business and we just don't want them to be used for ads or that kind of thing."
Teachers also describe a private meeting held by the UTD and Herrman at Snapper in which many vague promises were made to the teachers that weren't aired in the open parent meetings. None were actually written down, but a veteran teacher recalls: "[UTD executives] [Merri] Mann and [Pat] Tornillo were talking bonuses and stock options. As soon as they said that, I saw the dollar signs come in [teachers'] eyes. They don't realize what this would do to the curriculum. It would put a price tag ... on every child's head."
For the September 13 parent meeting, Chancellor and UTD pulled out all the stops. Two state representatives, Republicans Gaston Cantens and Ralph Arza, showed up, stumping shamelessly for the conversion. Union president Tornillo was present with a battalion of UTD and Chancellor reps. The school district, prodded by a handful of outspoken parents, sent its own heavy hitters to temper the marketing onslaught, such as (former) deputy superintendent of education Joe Mathos, (former) Schools of Choice administrator Magaly Abrahante, and the district's chief budget man Stan Corces.
The politicians offered canned platitudes about the need for "choices" in public education; they played up the school district's reputation for waste and corruption. Arza, prowling the front of the room like a football coach before a big game, ultimately concluded that the parents had nothing to lose by just going for it. "This is not like a sex-change operation," he crowed, drawing belly laughs from the audience. "You can go back. You have a choice!"
Still there were concerns. One father in the back of the room shouted his question to principal Herrman. "The charter schools I know of that succeed usually start out by cutting music, art, and squeezing out veteran teachers to reduce salaries," he accused. "What's so different about Chancellor?" Herrman pointed to Tornillo. "The reason is this gentleman right here," he replied. Tornillo, bespectacled, white-haired, and gravelly voiced, played the venerable union grandfather, a kind of tough-guy Ben Franklin. "I want to say, as president of UTD, I would not be standing here and recommending that you consider a charter school if I thought in any way it would be detrimental to the teachers at Snapper Creek," he intoned. "We have no intention of throwing our members to the wolves."
The parents asked the district bureaucrats repeatedly if there was any reason they should not vote to convert their school. The bureaucrats queasily danced around the questions, aware that the state legislators and the UTD were watching closely to ensure they wouldn't say anything that might be construed as pressuring parents. The charter school law specifically prohibits school districts from trying to interfere with the decision to convert. Yet Mathos, Abrahante, and others hinted that the audience might not be getting full answers to their questions. "This is your meeting, not our meeting," Mathos shrugged. "I can't give you the answers. Our [budget] numbers show a deficit [of $500,000 under the company's charter plan] if that's what you want to hear. I can give you another reason -- did you get to vote on Chancellor as the company? I don't think you have all of the information. As far as I'm concerned, those teachers voted without full public disclosure."
A week later, 78 percent of the parents eligible to vote went for the conversion. Some parents and teachers allege that the process was deliberately manipulated by a flyer that was sent to their homes. "The letter read: We need you to come out and vote to support our teachers,'" one instructor, who like others in this story insisted on anonymity, told New Times. "It didn't say, Vote to convert to a charter school.' What parent would vote not to support their teachers?" Others noted the powerful message sent by having the person handing out ballots at the door tell parents to please vote yes,' and by allowing the pro-charter assistant principal to sit at the voting table as parents handed in their ballots.
Tacey Kearin, mother of a fifth-grader at the school, believes the parents were misinformed and rushed into making a decision based on their trust in the teachers and a couple of rah-rah meetings. "Don't sell me on a blueprint that's under negotiation," she charges. "It's like, what are we voting on? No parent was involved on this. The PTSA never voted on charters. People in the community [other than parents] had no say in it, and not only that, they were not even informed about it." Leslie Coller, a parent in Miami Beach who is part of a task force considering Beach charter schools, says she was "shocked" that parents at Snapper Creek could have approved something as complex as a conversion in such a short period of time. "That whole thing was kind of a sham," Coller asserts. "If it's truly for the kids, it's got to be a real research project. I was disappointed in the way the union pushed this thing down those parents' throats." Herrman denies that anything was forced on parents or teachers, but he admits that the process was rushed because of the deadline to submit the application. "If I had it to do over again?" he muses. "Yes, obviously the more time you have to make a decision the better."
But last December the seemingly unstoppable momentum of the Snapper Creek charter school was stymied by the school board, which refused to accept the application after its staff complained that it had too many unresolved questions. Some board members expressed concern over rumors that teachers were pressured and parents were misinformed. Other members took the parochial view that no public schools should be able to convert to charters -- period. "I do not want to see any of my schools convert," sniffed school board member Manty Sabates Morse. "We spent our dollars on this school and then to just turn it over?"
In the press room Tornillo spouted his resigned frustration. "It was interesting to see Manty's reason. I'm not going to approve one of my schools,'" he parodies. "There's no question this board is opposed to conversion charters. We will still appeal [to the state]. I don't know if the appeal will change anything." Then an inscrutable smile appeared on his broad face. After 40 years of fighting the system, he's been around long enough to know this is just the first round. Even though the union and Chancellor lost this one, they still may win in the long run. A largely pro-charter legislature may sympathize enough to pass laws making it harder for the school board to block such conversions in the future.
The fight over Snapper Creek is just the newest version of a rapidly mutating local education system -- an evolution that could radically alter how, where, and by whom Miami's children will be taught in the next decade. Charter schools, seen as the compromise between an underperforming public system and wholesale privatization, will be the main tool of the social engineers. This is because an unprecedented amount of business and political muscle is now making it happen.
Charter schools have been around for more than five years in Florida, but haven't yet made much of a dent in Miami-Dade County's mammoth school system, which has 370,000 children, more than 40,000 employees, and a $4-billion annual budget -- as large as some major cities. In this context 18 charter schools with a total of 5500 students barely register. (Ten more are expected to open next year.)
In the beginning years many observers, including the teachers union and the school system itself, believed charter schools were a fad that would go the way of so many other educational crazes. So went the conventional wisdom, says Ron Book, a prominent legislative lobbyist for both Miami-Dade and Broward counties and a number of South Florida municipalities. "I thought initially that charter schools were going to be a short-run solution to the school problem, but I think they are here to stay," he reflects. "This is a hot issue."
So hot it just may help Miami-Dade County Mayor Alex Penelas revive his Elian-derailed political career. In early February Penelas made county-run charter schools a top priority in his State of the County address, along with universal education for preschool-age children. The next week the county commission voted against Penelas's request to initiate a study on whether the county should open charter schools. However, expect the issue to come back. Penelas's staff says constituent polls show that overcrowded public schools are a big issue for county residents. "We could have told him that years ago," Book laughs.
But the political climate is ripe right now for the county, cities, a teachers union, or the management companies to grab a bit of the very large education pie. The public-school system under new superintendent Merrett Stierheim is fighting on many fronts -- to deal with huge revenue shortfalls and a shrinking budget, massive overcrowding, and a deeply entrenched bureaucratic culture blamed for egregious waste, corruption, and mass stupidity.
In the past two years, the school district's problems have been high-profile: media reports of sex scandals, sweetheart land deals, overpaid administrators, firetrap schools, board member Demetrio Perez cheating poor old ladies out of rent money -- and none of this has inspired confidence in the system. The sacking of former superintendent Roger Cuevas in September and the demotion of most of his inner circle among top administrators in February are only the beginning of a convalescence that will take years to fully heal the district and its public image.
In a December survey ordered by Stierheim, well over 80 percent of Miami-Dade school principals offered the opinion that the administrative ranks of the bureaucracy were filled with deadwood, people promoted because of social or political connections rather than competency. As a result of this organizational culture, many parents and teachers felt disenfranchised. All this on top of the system's legitimate challenges of trying to educate children affected by widespread poverty, and the thousands of non-English-speaking immigrants who flood into the system each year much faster than schools can be built to receive them.
In Tallahassee a strong Republican state legislature under reformist Gov. Jeb Bush has been sharply critical of the district, a position that neatly dovetails with Republican arguments for privatizing many public services. Last year legislative auditors released a report revealing costly problems with the district's land-buying and school-siting programs. Those findings caused the legislature to impose an oversight committee to literally look over the district's shoulder before certain state monies could be released to it. Another report issued early this year found widespread inefficiencies in the district's food service, maintenance, and transportation departments -- meaning that millions of dollars are wasted that could be going into classrooms.
With all this going on, the charter schools are starting to look really good. The seeds of change, initially planted by Bush and other Republicans in 1996 by opening Florida's first charter school in Liberty City, have sprouted. The predominantly black Liberty City facility was both a peace offering to black voters Bush had offended in his first gubernatorial run in 1994, and a platform on which he could build credibility as an education reformer for his successful run in 1998. Once in office the Bush team created a new state test (the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test) that grades schools based on student performance.
Schools that score D's and F's get a little more money initially to improve student performance. But if the numbers don't go up, the state will take the money it was paying the school to teach each student and offer it as a voucher to parents who want to put their children in private schools.
This idea of giving public money to unregulated private schools horrifies many advocates of public education and has galvanized most teachers unions to fight it. But whatever philosophical objections to vouchers the local UTD may have, it is also motivated in a practical sense by the realization that its base of money and power would be diminished by a mass exodus of students from the public schools because unions are not welcome in private schools. Politically savvy Pat Tornillo saw this with the advent of Governor Bush's education plans and quickly adjusted his thinking to embrace the compromise -- charter schools. So, UTD executive Merri Mann explains, the union has taken the unprecedented step of cutting deals with charter school companies. "What we want out of it is to maintain our membership within charter schools so we can negotiate for them," she says. "We don't think these schools should be run on the backs of teachers."
And so charter schools, initially pitched as a way for grassroots neighborhood groups to run their own small public schools free from bureaucracy, have multiplied into the hundreds across the state. But as they've grown in popularity, most of their grassroots elements have been replaced by a new industry of national management companies, many fueled by venture capital and marketing hype reminiscent of the late-Nineties dot-com boom.
The company marketers, savvy bunch that they are, have tapped into a deep wellspring of discontent motivating more and more Miami-Dade neighborhoods to withdraw from the greater, increasingly diverse and problematic, community. It's no coincidence that the same areas at the forefront of the incorporation trend (which will eventually make a city of every square foot of the county) are also the ones looking to open charter schools in their neighborhoods.
It's also unsurprising that many of these neighborhoods tend to represent some of the more affluent areas of the county. Aventura is building an elementary charter school to be run by Charter Schools USA in 2003. Miami Shores will open a high school in 2003 to be run by Chancellor Beacon Academies. The chamber of commerce in Coral Gables is also planning for a new charter school. Miami Beach, with the assistance of state Rep. Dan Gelber's office, is exploring the idea of turning all the schools on the Beach into charter schools, thereby creating a separate education system.
UTD's Merri Mann says there is a real danger that this trend could result in a fragmentation of local education that will ultimately hurt the poorest and neediest. "The reality is, Miami Shores is building a high school because they don't want their kids going to [majority black and Haitian] Edison High, and they don't want to pay for private school," she observes. "I don't want to see communities organize to segregate kids."
Charter schools, management companies, municipalities, and school districts have all lobbied the state legislature for changes in the law that encourages the proliferation of the new facilities in middle-class communities. Last year the state gave municipalities the right to limit enrollment in city-run schools to their residents.
Brian Peterson is an FIU history professor who writes a daily newsletter about Miami's education woes, in particular criticizing the state of the inner-city schools. He favors charter schools because they drive up the overall quality of public education by forcing the school system to compete for students.
But Peterson believes the enrollment-limitation law could be disastrous to the goal of providing equal access to a good education, the main tenet of the 30-year-old desegregation movement. "Unless the law is changed, letting all students go to any school, there will be resegregation," he contends. School district administrator Magaly Abrahante agrees. "That's a very serious concern, and it's something I am not happy about," she remarks. "We have to make sure we don't lose the gains we made [with desegregation]."
The City of Aventura engaged lobbyist Ron Book to help get that limiting provision, as well as another giving municipalities the power to take private land within its borders for a school site through eminent domain. Book rejects the notion that giving cities the option to keep kids from other parts of the county out of city charter schools could result in resegregation. "That is clearly not the goal," he argues. "If that occurs, the legislative leaders will quickly move in and solve that problem." Jonathan Hage, president and CEO of Charter Schools USA, which will run the school for Aventura, admits that the potential for creating homogenous schools is there but no more so than under the current system. "It's that way to a degree in the public schools already," he ruminates. "If you go to Opa-locka or to Pinecrest, how ethnically balanced are those schools? There's the potential of charter schools to go the other way, to break down [situations] where all the white kids go to private schools and black kids go to public schools."
The other major factor that magnifies the potential impact of a municipal charter school movement is that the federal desegregation order under which the school district has operated for 31 years will no longer be in effect as of June. A federal judge declared last year that Miami-Dade had more or less achieved the goal of a single, equal-opportunity education system for all students (despite the ethnic group achievement gaps still horribly apparent to anyone who cares to look at the numbers). This could have a profound impact on the way school boundaries are drawn to include or exclude certain neighborhoods, and on magnet programs and other measures the system currently takes to promote a degree of ethnic balance. "When you try to look at that in terms of the whole is when you ... wonder what the effect will be," says Abrahante. "There are tremendous implications related to the purpose of public education."
Regardless of the uncertainty of this social alchemy, many state legislators see charter schools as a way to force school districts to reform their wicked, wasteful ways or watch as the crucial middle class abandons them almost entirely. "Despite all the rumors about Republicans trying to destroy public education, it couldn't be further from the truth," state Rep. Gaston Cantens told parents at Snapper Creek Elementary. "[But the system] should not have a monopoly." State Rep. Ralph Arza, a teacher and former football coach at Miami Senior High, echoed the sentiment, urging parents to "cut off a lot of the bureaucracy and send that money to the schools. It should be parents, teachers, and that's it, a neighborhood school."
Dan Gelber, a first-term Democrat whose district includes parts of Miami Beach, doesn't agree with his Republican colleagues on a lot of issues, especially on how little they are willing to spend on public education -- about $5500 per year on average. (Florida spends less per student than 37 other states and ranks 49th in national high school graduation rates.) But like them, he believes that the school bureaucracy has gotten so unwieldy that it's lost touch with the needs of individual communities.
So he suggested that a group of parents, children's organizations, and the city create a study group to explore the idea of converting all the elementary and middle schools and Miami Beach High (almost 10,000 kids in all) into a charter school system. "In the Fifties Miami Beach was its own school system, and we were probably the finest in the state," Gelber asserts. "I'm not so sure it's a great idea, but it's a big idea. I wanted to bring citizens together to scrutinize the implications."
"On the Beach our schools are not broken, but we are interested in doing more," offers Karen Rivo, a Beach PTSA mom involved in Gelber's study experiment. "We are very opposed to elitism, which is why we're looking at the whole [system of Beach schools]. It may be that we can focus on a lot of different innovations without leaving the school system."
The Miami Beach effort, with its many implications for the entire school district, could become the model for other communities to force change in their schools. Even if the Beach decides not to go for it, it is likely to get concessions from a school district that would hate to lose the Beach's good schools, not to mention the money and political power that go with them.
But UTD's Mann is concerned that if too many municipalities get the same idea, it could break the current school system into many separate, unequal ones. "When you tear down a [school] district, it's similar to the county dividing into municipalities with the wealthy people on one side and the poor on the other," she opines. "If you divide this district down, it will be rich districts and poor districts. We don't want that to happen. It's a real fear. That's why part of me doesn't like charters."
The Wall Street Factor
The problem with the vision of the "return of the little red schoolhouse" being pushed by would-be charter reformers is that it's being marketed by large management companies with aspirations to operate dozens to hundreds of schools. And in Miami it's the subject of a three-way power struggle among the school board, the state legislature, and the teachers union.
And the profiteers are not always marketing to the white middle class. On several South Florida radio and television stations for the past several months, an organization called the Black Alliance for Educational Options has been running a series of ads pushing private-school vouchers and charter schools. But a closer look reveals that the BAEO is hardly a grassroots local group. A report by the People for the American Way Foundation reveals it to be a national organization funded largely by right-wing donors who favor not only the privatization of education but such anti-minority efforts as the abolishment of affirmative-action programs.
Denise Perry, a member of Power University and Parents in Action, a black and Hispanic group that agitates for better education for Miami's poorer communities, finds the ads deceptive and disturbing. "We started looking into where the money's coming from, and it's coming from the Bell Curve people [the book The Bell Curve proposes that blacks are on the bottom rung of American society because they are less intelligent than whites]," Perry says dismissively. "It's coming from people with real business connections [to private education companies]. They're pimping black people. We're very angry about it. It's gross."
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.
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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."