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Janresseger: Michael Bloomberg Continues to Invest in Expanding the Charter Schools That Undermine Public Education

In Wall Street Journal opinion piece and a press release last week from Bloomberg Philanthropies, the billionaire philanthropist Michael Bloomberg announced: “Bloomberg Philanthropies is launching a national five-year $750 million effort to support the success and growth of existing charter and autonomous schools, open new high quality charter schools, and create city- and state-level conditions that will help sustain this progress. The plan will create 150,000 additional seats for children in charter schools in 20 U.S. metro areas, including New York City.”

Both versions of the announcement blame problems caused by COVID-19 school disruption on what Bloomberg continues to believe are “failing” public schools: “The past 18 months have shown that the American public education system is tragically broken, and we must act immediately to close the student achievement gaps….” “Instead of giving students the skills they need to succeed in college or in a trade, the public education system is handing them diplomas that say more about their attendance record than their academic achievement.” And he blames the teachers unions: “Charters, which generally don’t operate under union contracts, also have more flexibility to manage staffing, curriculum, testing and compensation.”

These are old, old Bloomberg themes.  Bloomberg was elected mayor of New York City in 2001 and granted mayoral control of the NYC public schools in 2002.  Under the leadership of his appointed schools chancellor, Joel Klein, Bloomberg accelerated school choice in NYC by expanding the number of small high schools, phasing out and closing comprehensive neighborhood high schools and rapidly expanding competition with charter schools, which, beginning in 2005, were allowed to co-locate in public school buildings, often taking needed space from their host public schools.

While Bloomberg likes to be known for accelerating the growth of technocratic school reform based on test scores, school choice, and the expansion of privately operated charter schools, there were overwhelming ongoing problems of unequal access and opportunity for students in the NYC public schools during the period of Bloomberg’s mayoral governance. Here is merely one example, documented in a stunning 2013 report in the last year of Bloomberg’s twelve-year tenure.  In Over the Counter, Under the Radar, the Annenberg Institute for School Reform summarized the history of the school district’s treatment of what were in New York at the time known as “over the counter students.” These are students who do not participate in the annual spring school choice application and lottery process—students who register in the fall or move to the district after school has begun. They include immigrant students and many of the city’s poorest or homeless students.

The Annenberg Institute’s report describes “a persistent criticism of the Bloomberg-era reforms—that the Department of Education (DOE) intensifies the challenges for struggling schools by assigning disproportionate numbers of high-needs students to those schools without providing the supports and assistance those schools need, and that such assignment policies undermine struggling schools’ instructional capacity, reduce staff confidence and morale, lower student achievement indicators, and increase suspensions and other measures of behavior disorder, all of which contribute to the data the DOE uses to target those schools for closing.” “Large and medium-sized struggling high schools had, on average, a more than 10 percent higher rate of Over the Counter student assignment than the rest of the high schools.”  “As recent studies have shown, phasing-out-schools become increasingly less able to meet their students’ needs as their staffs diminish… (T)he DOE continues to assign Over the Counter students to high schools in the process of phasing out… In seven of these thirteen phasing-out-schools, the Over the Counter assignment rate was more than 25 percent.”

In last week’s press release about his coming investment of $750 million to expand charter schools, Bloomberg accuses public schools of widespread failure—compared to charter schools—to raise student achievement as measured by test scores.  It would take a book to document all the ways charter schools have figured out to select their students and shape their enrollments to produce higher test scores. The National Education Policy Center’s Kevin Welner and Wagma Mommandi have just published such a book. In the publicity Teachers College Press released about their new book, Mommandi and Welner explain: “(W)e discovered that the charter school system has in place a variety of incentives and disincentives that actually penalize charter schools if they pursue broad public access. By contrast, charter school administrators inclined to limit public access find their schools rewarded with more prepared students who are less expensive to educate and who generate plaudits from politicians and media looking for feel-good stories about schools with unusually high test scores…. (W)e found that students with special needs are harmed by several… types of practices including: school design and marketing that signals that these students are unwelcome; steering away parents during enrollment in part by explaining that the school has few resources or services that meet the needs of special education students; counseling out enrolled special-needs students; or telling them that if they remain they will be retained in grade; and of course, extreme and burdensome discipline.”

Bloomberg’s support for the expansion of privately operated charter schools and political candidates who support the growth of the charter school sector has been going on across the United States for years. Considerable reporting during Bloomberg’s 2020 Presidential campaign surfaced some of his spending on behalf of charter school expansion. For Time MagazineAlana Semuels reported:

“Bloomberg’s money has gone especially far in California, where two ethnically and economically diverse school districts, Los Angeles and Oakland, have embraced charter schools. He gave $500,000 to the California Charter Schools Association’s advocates Independent Expenditure Committee in February of 2017, which in turn spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on two pro-charter candidates running for the Los Angeles Unified School District school board.  After that race—at the time, the most expensive school board race in U.S. history—pro-charter board members held the majority on the school board for the first time and then appointed Austin Beutner, a former investment banker with no experience running a school or a district, to be superintendent.”

Semuels continues: “Bloomberg’s funding in the Oakland school board races continued in 2018, when he gave $250,000 to GO Public Schools California.  In a 2018 campaign filing, Families and Educators for Public Education said it had received $120,000 from Bloomberg through GO Public Schools California.”  “Bloomberg has also funded political action committees and candidates in school board races outside of California.  He spent $290,000 on political action committees supporting pro-charter candidates in a 2011 Louisiana state school board race…. In 2015, ahead of another state school board race, he gave $1.4 million to Empower Louisiana Inc. ... a political action committee that advocated for pro-charter candidates. Seven of the eight ‘pro-reform’ candidates who supported charter schools won their elections. Bloomberg also gave $400,000 to a PAC backing a former charter school executive in a race for mayor of Newark; $185,000 to committees involved in education-related campaigns in Denver; and $100,000 to a committee supporting pro-charter candidates in a Minneapolis school board race.”

In his new book, Dark Money and the Politics of School Privatization, Maurice T. Cunningham traces the contributions to the campaign for Massachusetts Question 2 in 2016, an ultimately unsuccessful ballot initiative to lift an authorization cap on the number of new Massachusetts charter schools. Cunningham explores gifts to Great Schools Massachusetts, contributions during one sixty-day reporting period: “The report appeared to show that most of the money it raised was coming from out of state including $250,000 from Texan John Arnold and $240,000 from New Yorker Michael Bloomberg.” (Dark Money and the Politics of School Privatization, p. 26)

What does all this history say about Michael Bloomberg’s planned new investment in the expansion of charter schools? It says that Bloomberg has long made the expansion of privately operated charter schools at public expense one of his primary political causes.  Remember:  Bloomberg plans to invest $750 million to start up these schools. Like all charter schools, once they are started up, their operation will be at public expense—from state tax dollars and local school funding diverted from the public school districts where they are located.

It is important to remember the warning of Gordon Lafer, who studied the annual $57 million cost to the Oakland Unified School District of the operation of the charter schools within the district’s boundaries:  “To the casual observer, it may not be obvious why charter schools should create any net costs at all for their home districts. To grasp why they do, it is necessary to understand the structural differences between the challenge of operating a single school—or even a local chain of schools—and that of a district-wide system operating tens or hundreds of schools and charged with the legal responsibility to serve all students in the community. When a new charter school opens, it typically fills its classrooms by drawing students away from existing schools in the district…  If, for instance, a given school loses five percent of its student body—and that loss is spread across multiple grade levels, the school may be unable to lay off even a single teacher… Plus, the costs of maintaining school buildings cannot be reduced…. Unless the enrollment falloff is so steep as to force school closures, the expense of heating and cooling schools, running cafeterias, maintaining digital and wireless technologies, and paving parking lots—all of this is unchanged by modest declines in enrollment. In addition, both individual schools and school districts bear significant administrative responsibilities that cannot be cut in response to falling enrollment. These include planning bus routes and operating transportation systems; developing and auditing budgets; managing teacher training and employee benefits; applying for grants and certifying compliance with federal and state regulations; and the everyday work of principals, librarians and guidance counselors.”

Lafer concludes: “If a school district anywhere in the country—in the absence of charter schools—announced that it wanted to create a second system-within-a-system, with a new set of schools whose number, size, specialization, budget, and geographic locations would not be coordinated with the existing school system, we would regard this as the poster child of government inefficiency and a waste of tax dollars. But this is indeed how the charter school system functions.”

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Jan Resseger

Before retiring, Jan Resseger staffed advocacy and programming to support public education justice in the national setting of the United Church of Christ—working ...