The Crumbling of Corporate School "Reform"

Posted on 02 April 2013

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By Randy Shaw

In the past month, 1. Los Angeles voters overwhelmingly rejected a billionaire-backed school board candidate seeking to shift control of the district to anti-union forces; 2. Thirty-five Atlanta educators, including a close ally of prominent "reformer" Michelle Rhee, were indicted for altering students' test scores; 3. Rhee, head of "Students First," was herself caught lying about being a "public school parent" after it was reported that one of her daughters attends an exclusive private school in Tennessee; and 4. Chicago parents came out in force against Mayor Rahm Emanuel's plan for massive school closures.

In addition, after writing about the extreme teachers union bashing in Netflix's "House of Cards" I learned that Reed Hastings, the CEO of Netflix, is an investor in for-profit charter schools and donates to anti-teachers union causes. That's sure a lot of lies and self-dealing for a "reform" campaign. No wonder its failing to turn parents and the public against teachers unions.

There is further crumbling in the mountain of lies surrounding corporate-backed school "reform." The supposed "proof" of the value of such "reforms" - rising test scores - has now been subject to the unprecedented step of having 35 Atlanta educators criminally indicted for illegally improving students' results.

Among those indicted was former Atlanta school district superintendent Beverly L. Hall, who was charged with racketeering, theft, influencing witnesses, conspiracy and making false statements. According to the New York Times, Hall's "focus on test scores made her a favorite of the national education reform movement, nearly as prominent as the schools chancellors Joel I. Klein of New York City and Michelle Rhee of Washington. Like them, she was a fearsome presence who would accept no excuses when it came to educating poor children. She held yearly rallies at the Georgia Dome, rewarding principals and teachers from schools with high test scores by seating them up front, close to her, while low scorers were shunted aside to the bleachers."

Hall joins the other poster educators for corporate-style "reform" whose own "success" was based on cheating and lies. This list includes former Houston superintendent Rod Paige, whose "Texas miracle" propelled him to become G.W. Bush's Secretary of Education; it was only a matter of time before the state's huge decline in dropouts and rising test scores were exposed as based on false data.

Rhee herself is embroiled in a cheating scandal at the Washington D.C. district whose alleged success made her the leading national figure associated with anti-union school reforms.

Preferring Fantasy to Fact

The "miraculous" test performances in Atlanta, Texas and other jurisdictions so exceeded past history as to demand a second look before being held up as a national model. But Rhee and her allies did not apply their own professed rigorous performance standards to such obviously false data. Instead, they sold these false results in efforts to undermine teachers unions.

This aversion to school realities and preference for fantasy helps explain why reformers are turning to Hollywood to get their point across.

For example, when conservative activist Philip Anschutz and corporate interests invested millions to create and promote the 2012 film, "Won't Back Down," many questioned why it was so dependent on outright lies in its attack on villainous teachers unions. After all, if teachers unions are as destructive as Anschutz and his allies believe, why not simply tell the truth about their actions?

But Anschutz, like Netflix's Hastings and other school "reformers," think that with the right mix of star power and advertising, lying about unions will work. Fortunately, the public proved these cynics wrong: "Won't Back Down" set a record last September for the worst opening of a film that was released in over 2,500 theaters.

Hastings' "House of Cards" also lies. Despite African-American parents strongly backing the Chicago Teachers Union in its battles with Mayor Emmanuel - and African-American parents strongly backing teachers unions in labor disputes in other cities - the show in episode 6 portrays such families as gleefully supporting legislation that ends collective bargaining for teachers.

Since the real world does not support Hastings' fantasies of African-American parents attacking teachers unions, he created "House of Cards" to portray it.

The Tragedy of "Reform"

As corporate interests spend billions attacking teachers unions, the real obstacles to a quality public education - poverty, overcrowded classes, and physically rundown schools - are ignored. This tragic misdirection of resources and energies, coupled with financially prohibitive college costs, has plunged public education in the United States into its worst crisis ever.

Yet for Rhee and her allies, this real crisis is a mere distraction from their insistence on ridding the nation of teachers unions. And while the Obama Administration supports more money for new schools and education, its alignment with misguided "reform" forces results in its offering a confusing picture of the educational crisis to the nation.

The mountain of "reformer" lies is crumbling, but the nation's public schools are being left in the rubble.

Randy Shaw is an attorney and the Executive Director of the Tenderloin Housing Clinic in San Francisco. He is also an author and activist, and the editor of the Beyond Chron online journal, where this article was originally published.