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Educators: Beware “The City Fund” and Its Many Tentacles of Privatization

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This article was co-authored by a group of educators who oppose privatization. They have identified the primary driver of privatization in their different communities: The City Fund, subsidized primarily by corporate “reformers” Reed Hastings and John Arnold. The City Fund is led by experienced privatizers who have tried their hand in places like Tennessee and New Orleans, where the PR was great but the results were not. It opened its operations with $200 million in hand from its funders. Lots of money, no members, and a charge to go out into the nation and find cities where they could disrupt the local school board elections by underwriting advocates of privatization. They are undermining public schools and democracy at the same time. They should hang their heads in shame. They won’t.

The authors of the following are: Dr. Tracee Miller was an elected member of the St. Louis Board of Education. Dr. Keith Benson is president of the Camden Education Association. Christina Smith is Secretary of Indianapolis Public Schools Community Coalition. Dawn Chanet Collins, East Baton Rouge Parish School System Board Member and Candidate for Metro-Council 6. Bobby Blount is a San Antonio Northside ISD Trustee. Don Macleay is a member of Oakland Public Schools Action 2020.

They wrote the following article:

Education Privatization: Eerie Similarities in Stories from 15 Major US Cities

A new education reform movement has made its way across the country whose goal is not reform, but privatization. That coalition is led by billionaires forcing their extreme market bias onto our school system. Its framework steers tax dollars away from the public schools and toward their chosen consultants, partner groups, curricula, and other products and services without oversight from elected officials. The movement manifests in the expansion of charter schools and their enrollment, division of public districts into factions, incubation of community advocacy groups, promotion of anti-public school legislation, and influencing of state and local campaigns. 

To say that the proponents of this model engage in deceptive tactics would be a gross understatement. Aside from disguising their approach with buzzwords like innovation, transformation, and social justice, they funnel money through PACs, then through individuals and groups, to make their funding difficult to trace. This shroud of financial and ideological secrecy also makes the money, desperately needed in public education, easier for schools and organizations to accept.

One major national funder of this reactionary education philosophy is The City Fund. The City Fund distributes money from corporate school reform philanthropists, such as John Arnold and Reed Hastings, to local city organizations to accomplish the goals listed above. Its political organization, Public School Allies, makes campaign contributions to local school board candidates who are likely to adopt the same philosophy. “Reform” money has changed what used to be $1,500 local campaigns into $20,000 races for school board.The model being promoted by The City Fund and its affiliated organizations has been seen nearly to fruition in New Orleans and Indianapolis, and the stories being played out in other cities where The City Fund operates are eerily similar. 

We are education experts and advocates who represent cities and schools across the country that are being impacted by this movement and we refuse to be complicit. Our stories from Camden, Oakland, Indianapolis, San Antonio, Baton Rouge, and St. Louis account for only a fraction of the cities where these movements are underway, and we hope that sharing our experiences will help others recognize the tactics wherever they appear.

Recent articles about The City Fund and its influence in St. Louis and in local school board races inspired us to contact each other. What we discovered is unsettling. The organizations funded by The City Fund present themselves as local grassroots organizations when nothing could be further from the truth. While propping up these local organizations with millions of dollars, The City Fund also places its own supporters on the organizations’ boards to influence their ideology and decision-making. These groups and their partner community advocacy groups have equivalents in at least 15 cities. A few examples of umbrella groups sponsored by The City Fund include The Mind Trust in Indianapolis, the Camden Education Fund in Camden, City Education Partners in San Antonio, redefinED in Atlanta, RootED in Denver, The Opportunity Trust in St. Louis, San Joaquin A+ in Stockton, REACH in Oakland, and New Schools in Baton Rouge. 

Naming more equivalent organizations here would be unhelpful, but recognizing their actions is critical to identifying their influence. In addition to the strategies listed earlier, organizations affiliated with The City Fund have engaged in a variety of similar behaviors. In most locations they have created a school-finder tool and promoted a common application for traditional and charter schools. These groups host community events or support the publishing of reports where skewed data imply the deterioration of public education, and often push the idea that charters are the only solution. They make similar demands of school boards and of individual board members to conform with their ideals, and react with similar misinformation when confronted by the public or the media.  The uniformity across cities is so striking that on several of our joint calls there was audible relief when one of us realized we weren’t the sole target of this deception.

These organizations are not home-grown local groups established to solve local problems, but are experts at pretending to be. While they employ well-meaning advocates who  are energized  by words like equity or opportunity and promote themselves as organizations who seek to understand community sentiment, these groups are the local arms of The City Fund, whose model seeks to, and has experienced frightening success in, advancing the privatization of public education. With privatization comes the loss of local control and democratic ideals. 

The City Fund does not make it clear when it is investing in a city; fortunately, we have the opportunity to learn from each other and to stop the corruption before it becomes so deeply embedded in our systems that it can’t be reversed. The individuals peddling their agenda under the guise of education equity will continue to steer public dollars toward their private programs and gain financial and political capital until we decide public education is too important to jeopardize for a scheme. We are all complicit in the perpetuation of inequity if we choose to let this continue now that we know the truth.

Co-authored by: 

Dr. Tracee Miller, former member of the Board of Education for St. Louis Public Schools; 

Dr. Keith Benson, President of the Camden Education Association and author of Reform and Gentrification in the Age of #CamdenRising: Public Education and Urban Redevelopment in Camden, NJ; 

Christina Smith, Secretary of Indianapolis Public Schools Community Coalition; 

Dawn Chanet Collins, East Baton Rouge Parish School System Board Member and Candidate for Metro-Council 6; 

Bobby Blount, San Antonio Northside ISD Trustee; 

Don Macleay, Oakland Public Schools Action 2020.

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