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Business Elite in Richmond, Virginia, Hires Michelle Rhee Team to Run Its Schools

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Parents and teachers in Richmond, Virginia, are very concerned about their new superintendent, Jason Kamras, who was a key leader of Michelle Rhee’s team in D.C.

Kamras was the architect of Rhee’s controversial IMPACT program, which evaluated teachers in large part by student test scores. Kamras told Richmond educators that he won’t bring IMPACT with him, but he continues to believe that it was “equitable” and effective. Half of his cabinet in Richmond worked with him in D.C. He is still looking for a “chief talent officer.” (Corporate reformers do not employ assistant superintendents, they use corporate titles.)

The Richmond Times reported:

“Since the 44-year-old was named Richmond’s new schools chief in late November, Richmond School Board members, teachers and education advocates have raised concerns about the system, IMPACT, and its relationship to the “worst series of scandals in at least a decade” to rock Washington’s school system.

“It created a culture of fear,” David Tansey, a high school mathematics teacher in Washington, said of Kamras’ program. “Because it was paired with a top-down culture of getting results quickly, it became abused.”

“How Kamras, the highest-paid superintendent in Richmond’s history, plans to assess Richmond Public Schools teachers remains unclear.

“Eight days after the Richmond School Board announced Kamras’ selection in a celebratory news conference, an investigation revealed that fewer than half of students should have graduated from Washington’s Ballou High, previously touted as a bright spot in an ailing system for moving every senior on to college.

“Six days before he was sworn in at the beginning of February, an independent review found that those issues, which stemmed in part from Kamras’ evaluation system, were endemic to D.C. Public Schools as a whole.

“Kamras was noncommittal on teacher accountability when he discussed his plans for moving Richmond Public Schools forward at a community meeting the next month.”

The article quoted admirers and critics of IMPACT.

The recent graduation rate scandal began in Ballou High School, which falsely claimed a graduation rate of 100%. That revelation led to a systemwide investigation, and the discovery that the D.C. schools’ graduation rate was inflated, stemming from the fear induced by Kamras’ IMPACT system.

Richmond journalist Kristen Reed says that the power elite selected Kamras to impose Rhee-style corporate reform on the Richmond public schools. She portrays Tom Farrell, CEO of Dominion Energy, as the leader of the “Gang of 26,” business leaders who tried to eliminate the elected board and have been eager to disrupt democratic governance of the schools.

She writes:

“Farrell, who has led Dominion Energy for 10 years, has a vested interest in promoting the narrative that Kamras is a community hire. Farrell’s broader work in the power industry draws its profit model from seizing unilateral control of democratic institutions under the auspices of “public process” and “public good.” Dominion power has been widely criticized as exercising disproportionate control over the Virginia General Assembly.

“Despite extraordinary public opposition, Dominion has proven itself uniquely empowered to take Virginian land, to custom-draft its own legislation, and to do so at tremendous cost to members of the public, who have no choice but to remain a captive and disempowered consumer base. The broader public in Virginia has thoroughly articulated their reluctance to trust our energy monopoly to govern in lieu of democratic process. Our last election season communicated this message clearly when 13 candidates who ran on platforms that specifically refused Dominion funding won seats in our General Assembly. As the public pushes back, however, Farrell and his corporate colleagues continue to demand disproportionate power over public institutions.

“Farrell is right to be concerned. He not only chaired the committee that brought Kamras to Richmond, he also plays a leadership role in a particular strain of Virginia’s business elite that holds growing investment in bringing corporate education reform to our city. At stake is his long-standing interest in the Richmond public education system, which he has struggled to fully realize. In 2007, Farrell joined a movement of corporate leaders in the city of Richmond who advocated against an elected school board and in favor of a corporate monopoly on school governance.

“The Gang of 26, as they have become known, issued a now-infamous letter that demanded our democratically elected school board be “abolished.” Widespread public outcry, led by African-American education activists and the Richmond Crusade for Voters, pushed back at the prospect of a plutocratic school governance structure. Defeated, members of the Gang of 26 have continued to look for other avenues to disrupt democratic governance of public schools.”

Stay tuned.

Richmond may be the next battle between the community and corporate elites over the future of public schools.

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