Gambling Away Our Children’s Future

by Suzanne C. Mann

The Boston School Committee incurred the legitimate wrath of students, parents and teachers in its recent decision to close, merge, and allow charter takeovers of schools. But that decision took place in a broader political context. At the end of the night, the committee was playing the cards it was dealt.

Where the committee members let down the city’s school children was by failing to challenge the cynical education policies that forced their hand. They failed to expose the very policies that are draining millions of dollars from the BPS and every other urban system in the state. In short, they failed to explain who’s been dealing the cards.

Public school children, and democracy itself, are being sold out to charter schools, and the larger push to privatize and re-segregate education along lines of class, language background, and “ease-to-educate” criteria. Powerful forces want to reduce public oversight of schools, push out labor unions, and create business opportunities for school management companies.

This year alone, the BPS is projected to lose $64 million, minus some short-term reimbursement, to charter schools, $1 million more than the entire short-fall facing the district. And the damage could reach a staggering $130 million within the next five years.

Who are the powerful dealers that have rigged the game? The Boston Globe, especially editorial writer Lawrence Harmon, would be near the top of any list. For 15 years, the Globe has relentlessly attacked anyone–parents, students, teachers, or elected officials–who has dared to question charter schools on the basis of their spotty academic record, exclusionary practices or unequal funding advantages.

Next to the Globe put the old-money, anti-union Boston Foundation and its director, Paul Grogan. Add the right-wing “free-market” Pioneer Institute (with its easy access to the Globe’s editorial pages), the Boston Chamber of Commerce, and the influential Massachusetts High Technology Council, bankrolled by military contractors, pharmaceutical companies and the financial sector, and you have a nexus of power intent on institutionalizing a two-tiered educational system: Charter schools for activist, relatively more affluent families and public schools serving a higher and higher percentage of students from low-income families, children with special needs and children learning English as a second language.

This is educational apartheid but the Boston School Committee has let it go unnamed.

Dismantling public schools has been accelerated by passage in early 2010, of the so-called Achievement Gap bill. Largely authored by the charter lobby, the bill will actually increase the achievement gap by allowing charter schools to take up to 18 percent of Boston’s public school budget. The law also allows networks or chains of charter schools to be run by a single management company, a giant step toward privatized school districts. And to help charter schools more easily pick apart the public system, the law requires school districts to provide the names and addresses of their students to charter marketing companies.

The broader context is a massive push for charter schools as embodied in the federal Race to the Top initiative, which formed the backdrop for the Achievement Gap bill and similar pieces of legislation around the country. RTTT promised millions of federal education dollars – proponents such as the Globe claimed Massachusetts would receive $450 million – but only if states changed laws restricting the growth of charter schools. Massachusetts bowed to the pressure but received less than $250 million, and the costs are sure to far exceed any purported benefits.

Public education began in Boston 375 years ago, but the vision of greater opportunity is quickly fading with the push for privatization. Instead of settling for a pat on the head from the Globe or the Chamber of Commerce, the School Committee ought to advocate for the children it was appointed to serve. Public education is a noble cause. The fate of 56,000 deserving children hangs in the balance. It’s time for political leaders to show some gumption and take back the deck.

–Suzanne C. Mann is an education activist and CPS member.

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