Charter Proponents: Another Event of “Bait and Switch”

Lying and twisting facts seems to be s staple among corporate reformers. The problem is that too few  of us can see it when it’s happening. Maryland citizens must become savvy to when they are being “marketed to” under the guise of “expertise”, and when our children are being sold up the river for corporate profit. Take this event for example.

There was a special event hosted on the campus of Towson University the evening of Nov 17th entitled: Signature Forum: Supporting Baltimore’s students from Pre-K through College

Only a year ago Towson held a similar event link which also featured Jason Botel. It also featured Wes Moore. However, this blog focuses specifically on Jason Botel and the issue of charter school policies in Maryland. Botel is a former longtime Baltimore-KIPP Executive Director, Executive Director of Maryland CAN, and school choice expert Read more about him here.

I attended the event with the goal of challenging Botel’s pro-charter message with a basic question:

How do you respond to the enormous body of research which documents how charter schools have 1) been fraught with financial and ethical fraud, 2) the egregious attrition rates cited at charter schools, including KIPP chains around the country, 3) the role charters play in increasing segregation (cited by the Civil Rights Project), and 4) the closure of successful public schools to make way for new charters?

I did not get a chance to ask my question. But for those who did not attend it here’s a recap of what you missed.

The event was sponsored by the “Innovation in Teacher and Leader Preparation Initiative” which receives its support from the St. John Foundation, UTeach, M and T Bank as well as notable individuals Vince Talbert, William Hackermann, and Peter Angelou.

Botel started by speaking on the concerns he had over the “lack of cultural competency” demonstrated by teachers in Baltimore City Schools. I am sure his stint in Teach for America qualifies him as an expert on this subject.

He emphasized the “problems with traditional public schools,” highlighting  the history of the “suppression of African Americans” via public schools, and the lack of “personalization” in schooling. He added we “have a different economy” and a “lack of access to opportunities for children in Baltimore.” He suggested that we need a “customized education” which “breaks the link between poverty and success rates.” He surmised that this is a “structural problem.”

So let’s decode his message:

Poverty doesn’t matter. A customized education means one which can be delivered via online corporate-run education systems. Rather than attending classes with actual human teachers, children living in poverty can be given online “competency based” education delivered by a “personalized” computer program which spits out a certificate or a badge upon completion. Yes. This shall certainly rectify generations of structural inequality and institutional racism.

Botel referenced the low test results for the PARCC tests in Maryland. He stated that while cities like Dallas and Chicago which have poverty rates that exceed those in Baltimore, their PARCC scores were higher in those places because… (wait for it) “they have more charter schools.” I’d like to see the research that provides proof of direct correlations between PARCC scores in those cities and the number of charter schools. I think the communities of Chicago would beg to differ. Yes, I am sure Botel was banking on those low PARCC scores to justify a major increase in charter schools for MD communities. Slam. Dunk.

Botel then twisted the data from a notable CREDO study. He conceded that the CREDO study evidenced that charter schools “don’t do any better”—hit the pause button

Mr. Botel… the actual wording of THAT CREDO report (2009) says that 37% of charter UNDER-PERFORM their public school counter-parts. Botel then switches, without noting he is referring to a DIFFERENT study (published in 2015), defending a finding in that study that says that, “urban charters are by- in- large successful.” Note this second CREDO study had a curious cast of “interests” which may have influenced their findings.

Botel then explained that we need a “fundamental change in central office,” suggesting that charter schools should have their OWN “charter boards for over-site and accountability.” Yes, nothing guarantees real “accountability” like having the same self-serving enterprises watch over their own accountability system. That should rectify the ever-growing number of charter school scandals and questionable practices.

Botel then reviewed the recent law suit being filed against Baltimore City schools over issues of the school funding formula. He contends that city charters want evidence that the monies they are receiving complies with the funding formula. I wanted to ask Mr. Botel if that funding formula takes into account the over 8 million dollars KIPP Baltimore claimed in assets in its tax return for 2013.  Yes, they must be cash starved, poor babies. He asked the audience, “Will this cause some charter schools to fail because funding is not sufficient?”

Gosh. I don’t know.

Does Mr. Botel care to acknowledge that we have starved public schools, especially in urban communities of color, into failure for decades? So, according to him, public schools fail because of a monopoly system, lack of innovation, and unionized teachers. But if charters fail it will be because THEY don’t get sufficient funding? Serious hypocrisy at play.

Botel warned that because of the lack of funding, many “high performing” charters might have to close! Yikes. I am wringing my hands in despair! Mr. Botel, how many high performing PUBLIC schools have been closed in order to make way for privately managed charter schools? What about schools like Langston Hughes? Was closing that school the “choice” of THAT neighborhood?

He doesn’t seem too concerned over the equity and justice and suppression of THOSE “black and brown urban children” and how closing THEIR school will destroy THEIR learning opportunities.

The moderator Dr. Nancy Grasmick  asks, “What are the key things we need to change in teacher preparation?” Botel responded we need “greater calibration between what teachers are learning and what kids need.” Mr. Botel, I wonder how you respond to the question, “Who decides exactly what it is that kids need?” Do they need equitable and fully funded public schools in every neighborhood that provides a rich meaningful curriculum, and a society willing to do serious self- reflection to eradicate systemic oppression?

No. According to people like Mr. Botel, they just need charter schools, rigorous standards, and open- badges. The latter will ensure they take their necessary role as the future workers as designed by the corporate moguls shaping current education policies in order to serve their own economic and ideological interests. After years of zero-tolerance obedience “training” at these charter schools these kids will be prepared to take their place in prisons..whoops…um, I meant…industry.

Finally, after one more leading question about whether or not charter schools are feasible beyond the Baltimore City lines, Botel responded that he sees charter school expansion “as an opportunity for students across the state of Maryland.”

You know who else sees charter school expansion as an opportunity? Two of the major sponsors of the evening’s event.

The Edward St. John Foundation and Vince Talbert a PayPal executive. Both of these moguls essentially pay for Dr. Grasmick’s position at Towson University. According to Mercedes Scheinder, “Apparently Grasmick is garnering additional philanthropic reformer money for her Towson revamp:

Edward St. John, a Baltimore developer and philanthropist, and Vince Talbert, a PayPal executive, have agreed to donate money for the overall program. St. John, a friend of Grasmick’s, is giving $300,000. [Emphasis added.]

Curious how the Edward St. John logo was so much more prominent than all the rest across the banner which ran on a large screen in the background during the entire event:

Scheinder adds that, “Vince Talbert, an active angel and promoter of Ed-Tech, reacted to the PG (Prince George’s) Board’s proposal (that the school system owns the work created by its teachers using school system resources) by focusing on the monopolistic nature of the K-12 industry. According to Vince, “this is just another case of the public school system putting up barriers to innovation to protect the status quo.” Vince continues, “public schools are the only industry I know where the supplier is a monopoly and the customer (payer) is a monopoly and they are the same entity.” As Vince rhetorically asks, “how do we expect our schools to improve when there is no mechanism to raise the bar?” As the students who attend and are supposed to benefit from our public school system investment, Vince concludes, “we need to demand that our elected officials break up these monopolies so that market forces will drive improvement.”

What else should we know about Mr. Talbert? He presented at the New Schools Venture Summit in 2011 at The Aspen Institute.

Meanwhile, real estate mogul Edward St. John donates to KIPP Schools, and Teach for America. In 2013, a new K-8th grade Frederick Classical Charter School in Frederick MD signed a lease with St. John Properties. According to Tom Neumark, school President, “It is clear that St. John understands and values the importance of creating this charter school to better serve the needs of the local community.” With the continuing onslaught of charter schools and education reform initiatives being pushed forward, it is likely that St John properties will be signing many more real estate contracts like this one.

The issue of corporate-style colonization of education is not an issue particular to Towson. It’s far more endemic than one institution. Edward St. John also funds a program called The Edward St. John Teaching and Learning Center at the University of Maryland. This new center will “be home to the Academy of Innovation and Entrepreneurship and the new Teaching and Learning Transformation Center.

What disturbs me more than reformers like Jason Botel, is that in an audience of maybe 150 people, no one seemed interested in challenging what was being said. Most of them will leave thinking that charters are the savior for MD children. Will Maryland educators and parents sit quietly by, being polite, while reformers like Botel receive a red carpet and a microphone? If we don’t start showing up and making some noise and speaking the truth at events like these, we will have to stop blaming reformers for being the self interested creatures they are, and start blaming ourselves for letting it happen.

Published by educationalchemy

Morna McDermott has been an educator for over twenty years in both k-12 and post secondary classrooms. She received her doctorate in education, with a dissertation focus on arts-based educational research, from The University of Virginia in 2001. Morna's teaching, scholarship, and activism center around the ways in which creativity, art, social justice, and democracy can transform education and empower communities. She is currently a Professor of Education at Towson University.

5 thoughts on “Charter Proponents: Another Event of “Bait and Switch”

  1. Excellent and timely response Morna. Thanks. I was there and had my question all ready. But was not selected to speak. The presentation was so dull it had the consistency of gruel. I had to read Lois Weiner’s chapter on neoliberalism to remind myself of utterly insidious neoliberalism sounds on the stage. I have a short piece I wrote that I’ll share. Thanks for speaking up in writing. I strongly suspect we would have been called crazies in that cotton wool environment.

  2. Thanks for posting this-I signed up for the event but in the end had to be with a North Ave “principal training”. I am delighted to have someone call out Mr. Botel and the forces with which he is aligned. No doubt he believes his own propaganda down to the fine details but he is not a listener: he is an idealogue with a particularly ill-conceived and essentially racially hostile perspective. I am uncertain as to what his credentials for knowing everything actually are but, in the end, his recipe for Maryland is not the right one for working class, poor kids, black and white, Latina’Latino, whatever their identify. Now that he hobnobs with the elite, that group that he actually, willingly or not, serves, he is lost to any real sense of “reform”.

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