A funny thing happened on the way to the New Schools Expo

A funny thing happened on the way to the New Schools Expo

Rahm’s in the news again defending the newly approved charter schools in Chicago. It’s all about choice, he says. All about quality.

Aren’t they just another choice? Aren’t they just another kind of school? Aren’t they like a little leavening to raise the whole level of education in a district?

Yeah. Sure. Sometimes.

Perhaps like you, I don’t think charters are necessarily evil. There are some good ones in Chicago. Who wouldn’t want to go to a school that serves organic lunches and has a little garden with a chicken coop? How awesome is that? (Okay, so I have a serious backyard chicken deficit.)

That kind of setting is what we often think of when we think of charter schools. New ideas. A different way. A fresh approach.

But a funny thing happened between the new idea and the New Schools Expo. You know, that annual thing CPS sponsors to showcase and promote their “new” schools, where “new” means “charter.”

And because here at Chicago Public Fools we are all about education, I want you to know what that funny thing is.

There are three, actually.

The mayor may say it’s all about our choices, quality for our families. But is it? Do we know this? It’s important for us folks in a democracy to have a say, but unless we’re informed, our say is meaningless. Worse, when we think we know what’s going on and we really, really don’t–we’re no longer folks in a democracy, we’re pawns of powerful people.

You don’t want to be that. I don’t want to be that.

Let’s get educated.

What was it that happened on the way to the New Schools Charter Expo?

Probably it was a Massachusetts education professor, Ray Budde, who kicked things off. In 1974 he wrote a paper called “Education by Charter” which was a proposal for a new type of school in which the teachers (regular, degreed, union teachers) would have more responsibility over curriculum and instruction. Such a school would be a model within a district, offering a place to try new ideas and model the effective ones for the other district schools.

No one paid him much attention.

Fast forward to 1983’s A Nation At Risk report, the bombshell expose that informed us our schools were failures, our children were failures, and our nation would fail too unless things changed. Frantic policy makers searched for ways to deal with this verdict. Educators sought fresh ideas. And Budde’s paper was recirculated in 1988.

Things started happening fast then. Albert Shanker, teacher and union president of both the AFT and the UFT, proposed autonomous schools led by teachers in 1988. A Minnesota good-government think tank, the Citizen’s League, pushed the idea and Minnesota was the first state to pass a charter school law in 1991.

So: we have idealistic Minnesotans, unionized teachers, and politicians, coming together to create new kinds of schools where teachers would have more say in their creation and operation.

It was a small crack, really. A pretty small crack in the edifice of the nation’s public school system.

It was big enough, however, for folks who had little interest in school as an educating institution to notice it. And to shove a wedge into it. And to start exerting a lot of leverage.

Very little time went by before legislation was passed to promote charter schools. And very little time went by before legislation was passed that favored business and international interests involved in charter schools.

Let’s look at what those legislators did.

In 1990, a new little type of visa was introduced in the Immigration Act that year. Funny thing #1. Called the EB-5 visa for immigrant investors, it allows for foreign investors to gain visas for their families in exchange for investments of $500K to $1M in many types of job-producing development projects: hotels, ski resorts and such, but also charter schools.

This latter category has become very big business in recent years, with many foreign investors establishing schools in the U.S., the most controversial one at the moment being Fethullah Gulen and his network of 169 Gulen schools, several of which operate in Illinois under the Concept Charter banner. I’ll leave it to others to question the value of these schools (and folks, even the CPS board of ed didn’t want to open more new ones in Chicago–no joke!; too bad they were overruled by Mike Madigan); there are plenty of investigative pieces here, here, and here, and a video of a former Gulen teacher if you care to read up on this. Gulen schools claim to be private on their website; they are, however, like all foreign-based charter schools, funded publicly.

Financial consulting firms refer to foreign charter school investment as “a safe, secure, and predictable investment area” offering “a clear track-record of low loss to investors.” Shepherd Capital Funding assures: “Through the EB-5 Program, the Charter School Industry currently has access to billions of dollars in capital, which we can directly assist you in accessing.”

Well, this is just one step on the path to the New Schools Expo. The EB-5 visa has been in use since 1990. The next step is a little closer to home.

A more recent innovation, funny thing #2, took place in 2000 with the establishment of the New Markets Tax Credit. This thing sounds a little TIFfy, in that folks are incentivized to invest in so-called “blighted” urban areas. These investors get a 39% tax credit that doubles their investment in seven years. Returns compound when that investor is also a real estate developer, profiting from the property in two ways, as charter school and tenant. The profits from these set-ups are vast.

Still think it’s about “the children”? About “choice”? About “quality”? Let’s look at a few financial advisors and their amazing tips for making fantastic profits in today’s tough economy.

David Brain of Entertainment Properties Trust seems like he’s in a video for The Onion News Network, but no. It’s just real live investment tips from a successful pro all about how charter schools are the next big thing. edTech investment banker Victor Hu waxes positively rhapsodic about the future of this investment category in a boostery thrill-ride of charter enthusiasm. I’ll let one paragraph suffice to cover Victor’s ebullient tone.

With close to 80 million K-20 students in the US alone and over a trillion dollars in aggregate market size (with over $40 billion in technology and curriculum spend by US schools), education is already a strategic end market for the world’s largest technology providers. Given the massive changes fast approaching in educational content delivery, assessment and even basic pedagogical models–all of which will be accelerated by Common Core–strategics see an opportunity to bring their technologies and brands to a growth market.

Wow! So exciting for us. And the Common Core even makes a cameo appearance. The Common Core, that is, you know, for the children–to get smarter and have more quality and be fantastic stepping stones in someone else’s investment sche Oops. Sorry. There’s that stepping stone metaphor again.

That path. Remember? On the way to the New Schools Expo? We’ve moved from the formation of charters by activist teachers who wanted freedom to create schools with their own curricula, to the use of charters by the super rich, foreign and domestic, to make money, you know, as a safe and stable investment that promises fantastic returns. It’s an unexpected path, isn’t it? A little twisty and shady.

That Expo was last Saturday. Most of you CPS parents probably received about 5 or 10 robocalls from local celebrities about the event. Once inside, folks were hustled to sign up with schools, several of which are no longer new and some of which are struggling with low test scores. There were a few moms who wanted to share some information with folks who showed up at the Expo. They wanted the attendees to be informed enough to ask questions once inside. They weren’t crazy radical questions; the women–CPS moms all–weren’t unhinged anarchists. They were encouraging parents to ask about special ed policies, discipline practices, backing investors. Things any informed parent wants to know.

This brings me to the third funny thing. You know what they were told, these CPS moms sharing a question sheet?

They were told had to leave because the New Schools Expo was a private event. I guess, bringing so many advantages to so many private parties, investors both foreign and domestic, you could say, in a sense, it was.

If you want a better Chicago Public Schools system please like my Facebook page and join me there for more discussion. You can also follow me on twitter @foolforcps.

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