Thursday, January 19, 2012

Following the Money - Part One

Call me crazy, but when rich white guys start throwing millions of dollars at (supposedly failing) urban schools, I don't always assume they have our children's best interests at heart.  Remember, even dear Daddy Warbucks reluctantly adopted Annie, and only because his PR people wanted to improve his image.  There's a world of difference between generosity and an investment.

Today we'll take a look at two of the men behind the curtain.  Please forgive me for rambling, and ignore errors in spelling or syntax for the time being.  I'll clean this up after I've had some sleep, but this has to be online before we visit with the Board of Regents in a few hours.

Meet Art Reimers:  He retired from Goldman Sachs in 2001.  Mr. Reimers served in various capacities at Goldman Sachs, including as a Partner and Managing Director in the Investment Banking Division, Co-Head and Founder of the Investment Banking Division’s Healthcare Department, and co-head of the Financial Advisory Group (London). Mr. Reimers also serves as Chairman of the Board of Directors of Rotech Healthcare, Inc., and serves on the Board of FBR Capital Markets Corporation.  Mr. Reimers is also a member of the management advisory board of New Mountain Capital, L.L.C., and a senior advisor to the New Mountain Vantage Fund. 
And, most importantly for us, Art Reimers sits on the Board of Directors of ConnCAN.

Next, we'll take a look at Brian Olsen.  He's in his mid-forties, and serves as the chairman of ConnCAN's Board of Directors.  Mr. Olsen, after cutting his teeth at Morgan Stanley and Tiger Management, LLC,  was one of the young co-founders of the multi-billion dollar hedge fund, Viking Global Investors.  He also serves as Chairman of the Board of Civic Builders, a non-profit "facilities director" for urban charter schools. 

Okay, so we've established connection #1 for these two guys: ConnCAN.

And here's the nutshell explanation of how ConnCAN relates to Providence:
The national Campaign for Achievement Now - 50-CAN - is presided over by its founder, Marc Porter-Magee.  50-CAN is the parent organization for ConnCAN, MinnCAN, RI-CAN, and the newly-established NYCAN and MarylandCAN.  Oh, speaking of parents, Marc Porter-Magee and Mike Magee (president of the Rhode Island Mayoral Academies) share theirs.  Their parents, that is.  Get it?  So that's how we make the RIMA-RI-CAN-ConnCAN-50-CAN connection.  But how does Achievement First work its way into this little family business?  Easy.  Meet the Missus, Kathleen Porter-Magee (wife of Marc, Sister in Law of Mike).  She's the curriculum and assessment developer for Achievement First.  She's also a research director at the Fordham Institute.

But that doesn't matter right now, because we're focusing on a couple of puppet masters.  This is how it all works out:

Goldman Sachs created the Urban Investment Group to take advantage of New Markets Tax Credits.  

Basically, investments that qualify for the NMTC receive 39% of their original value in federal tax credits over the course of seven years.  In addition, because these investments are loans, the investment group gets its original dollar amount back - plus interest.  Essentially, you wait seven years and double your money.
So the for-profit Goldman Sachs Urban Investment Group works with the Low Income Investment Fund, whose Board of Directors is led by the manager of the Goldman Sachs Urban Investment Group, Daniel Nissenbaum, to finance the development of facilities for urban Charter Management Organizations like Achievement First and Democracy Prep (remember them?).  
Luckily, we know where to go for charter school facilities.  Civic Builders, of course!

This is my favorite part.

If we were to use a skeletal analogy to describe this money trail (as I choose to), the head bone's connected to the head bone.  The other 205 are just for show.
And, while the convoluted skeleton image is great, these images are better.  This is where you can see the handiwork of a few well-placed venture capitalists.  

Now, before you look, take a moment to reflect on what we've been told about Achievement First.  They're a non-profit organization.  True.  But certain members of the organization will profit - hand over fist profit.  It's a "public" charter school.  Politifact wouldn't even give this a half-true.  Sure, they're going to take money from the public, but they're not accountable to the public.  Why would they be?  Their sole purpose is to last seven years, so their investors can cash in.  They'll "share best practices" with sending districts.  I'm sure all the children of Providence will do very well if Achievement First will share its lobbyists, public relations staff, advertising budget, and ability to lure billionaire investors - because those are the only practices they can prove are working.

So, without further ado, I give you Civic Builders' portfolio.  These are the schools they're building or renovating - and managing.  The Chairman of their Board of Directors holds the same position at ConnCAN (I fear I can't place enough emphasis on this).  

And that's that.
There's a lot more.  Pages and pages more.  But try not to think about it too much.  The last thing this city needs is a bunch of people walking around with their brains all scrambled.

Good night.

Thursday, January 12, 2012

A Few Words on Language

About 16% of Providence public school students are classified as English Language Learners, and the Achievement First Mayoral Academy application indicates their plan to reach out to non-English-speaking families in an effort to create a student body that mirrors the populations of the sending-districts' schools.  ELL students are expected to become proficient in English at a "rapid" pace, and may be provided with supplemental "pull out" or "push in" services up to twice per week.  

Achievement First believes, as a result of their research, that the key to rapid proficiency is full immersion in English.

ALL instruction will be in English.  

The Rhode Island Department of Education's LEP/ELL Advisory Council, having conducted some research of their own, recognizes and endorses the "importance of native language in promoting academic achievement for English Language Learners."  And the RIDE website directs those interested in effective English Language instruction to the National Council of Teachers of English report, which emphasizes the importance of bi-lingual education.

But the Commissioner of Education must not have an awful lot of confidence in her own advisors - probably because she was blown away by the evidence provided in AF's application for their English instruction model.  After all, their "Research on Immersion" takes up almost a third of a whole page.  

The first piece of evidence in favor of immersion is a 1997 magazine article from the Raleigh/Durham Business Journal.  The AF charter application includes a quote from the piece:

"A review of 300 studies of bilingual education found only 72 that were methodically sound.  Of those studies, 83% comparing bilingual to immersion found that kids learn to read better through immersion."

Please take a moment to re-read that quote, keeping in mind that this is Achievement First's primary defense of its immersion model.  Is that even English?

John Hood, author of the tongue-twister above,  isn't just Achievement First's top source for its "English-Only" education model, he's also the president of the John Locke Foundation and author of other fascinating articles like, "Anti-Smoking War Could Deny Consumers' Choice" - an argument against tobacco regulations (did I mention that the John Locke Foundation receives funding from RJ Reynolds?) and "Ban Cell Phones? No Way!" - in response to legislation requiring hands-free cell use in cars.  And Mr. Hood is an outspoken climate-change skeptic, working with funding from the Koch Brothers and Art Pope to create the "illusion of disagreement" among climate scientists.  

Considering the vast amount of research conducted on language instruction in this country over the last thirty or so years, isn't it strange that an education management company would choose to use this article as evidence of the effectiveness of immersion?

The second (and final) piece of research cited in Achievement First's narrative is a book by Bill Honig, "Teaching Our Children to Read."  

It's interesting that Honig would produce a book extolling the practice of English immersion, as a report he released in 1991 claimed that California was suffering from a shortage of bilingual teachers.  While 8.000 of their teachers were bilingual, the state needed at least 14.332 additional bilingual educators to meet the needs of the growing Latino population.  In the same report, he claimed that the U.S. would need 97,000 bilingual teachers by the year 2000.  A Honig-led task force concluded that their "number one priority is to certify and develop and assure that we have enough qualified bilingual staff."  A 1985 LA Times article reported that "Honig challenged Education Secretary William Bennett's contention that bilingual education has been a failure, saying such programs work."  

I wonder if Bill Honig is aware that his book is quoted in an charter school application.  I'm also curious to know whether the authors of the application (or the reviewers, for that matter) have read anything else he's written.  Because, as it turns out, Bill Honig is a pretty outspoken opponent of organizations like Achievement First.  He accused the Foundation for Educational Choice of "attempting to use taxpayer money to breed 'cult schools'."  In June, 1990, his article, "School Vouchers: Dangerous Claptrap" appeared in the New York Times, and for the Winter '90-'91 Brookings Review, he wrote "Why Privatizing Education is a Bad Idea." 

And now here's something you'll really like:
In the January 3, 2011 Initial Renewal Report for Achievement First's Bushwick Academy,  published by the SUNY Charter Schools Institute, inspectors reported that "at the time of the renewal inspection visit, English language learners (ELLs) enrolled in the school were receiving immersion services from the school’s special services team, and in some cases informal pull-out instruction under the supervision of the special education coordinator. The Institute has determined, and school leaders have acknowledged, that this model for providing services to ELL students at the Elementary Academy has been ineffective given the absence of formal ELL program for what is a sizable ELL population. In addition, the perceived treatment provided for ELLs as similar to that for special education students could be seen as a violation of federal law."


It's not good enough for New York, but it's acceptable for Providence?  Are we really willing to sacrifice 16% of a school's students to programs proven to be ineffective?  And I guess what I really want to know is: how has this application managed to move through the evaluation process so smoothly?  Achievement First has been selling itself as the solution to closing the gaps in student achievement, but all I find are the gaps between their pedagogy and their claims of success. 

Monday, January 9, 2012

Providence Students Say "NO!" To the Achievement First Mayoral Academy

In October, a group of incredible Providence public school students organized a rally at the Rhode Island Department of Education in opposition to the Achievement First Charter proposal.

Occupy Providence, then in its first week of existence, voted to join in the protest as their first official direct action.

Hip hop artist, Head-Roc - an outspoken critic of the widespread corporate privatization of Washington DC's school system - came out to support the students and to call out these charter school chains on their racist practices and policies.

Five of the students were invited inside to discuss their concerns with Education Commissioner Deb Gist.  Her feeble attempt to sell them on Achievement First failed, and they re-joined their peers on the sidewalk with an even stronger desire to fight against corporate-driven education reform.

Saturday, January 7, 2012

Board of Regents Meeting - 1/5/12

Yesterday's Board of regents meeting was a joke. Many - myself included - arrived early to sign up for public comment.  And, although we've grown accustomed to squeezing ourselves into wee room 501, few expected to find the room so crammed beyond capacity that those of us who didn't make it in could neither see nor hear what was happening inside.  We were made aware that the Regents had no plan to move the meeting to the large empty auditorium on the first floor.  Public comment - the fourth item on the meeting agenda - began just a few minutes after four o'clock, starting with Mayor Angel Taveras.  I have no idea what he may have said

About an hour into the meeting, two URI security guards interrupted the proceedings to inform the Regents that they were in violation of fire codes and should immediately move to the auditorium.  They explained to Dr. Robert Carothers that a failure to do so would result in police intervention.

The mass of people outside the tiny board room waited for the signal to move downstairs, but it didn't come. The meeting continued as though nothing had happened.  Perhaps all the positive media attention around the Occupy Wall Street movement had motivated the Regents, the Mayor, and the Commissioner of Education to try out a little civil disobedience.  Or maybe they just consider themselves to be above the law.  Either way, it didn't matter, because an anonymous fink dropped a dime on those rebellious hippies and we were down in the auditorium in a flash.

It only took a couple of minutes for us to settle into place, then public comments resumed.  Twenty-two people managed to make themselves heard before George Caruolo, Chairman of the Board, announced that it was 6:00, and they'd barely made a dent in the long sign-up list.  He proposed that they call it quits for the evening and take up public comment where it left off at their next meeting - January 19th.

The blatant disregard for public safety and accessibility at this supposedly Open Meeting is far more interesting than the bulk of public comment, but there were a few highlights.  Only 14 of the 22 people who spoke at the meeting addressed the Achievement First proposal, as public comment is open to all discussion items.  We listened to Joy, who graduated from Cranston East, Tufts, and Temple University. She spoke passionately in favor of an Achievement First Mayoral Academy for Providence.  Since she works for Achievement First, we should probably cross her off the list of concerned Providence parents.  Keith Oliveira (appointed by Taveras to the Providence School Board), Delia Rodriguez (chair of the Providence School Board nominating committee, and appointed by Taveras to the ProCAP board of directors), Nick Hemond (another Taveras-appointed member of the Providence School Board), Dan Corley (member of the Mayor's Education Committee & brother of Taveras' law partner),  and Joe Almeida (appointed by Taveras to serve on his Public Safety committee) spoke in support of the Mayoral Academy.  Am I the only one who wants to cross these folks off the list, too?

To be fair, the Achievement First people would probably argue that public comment by Providence teachers shouldn't be taken into account.  After all, they stand to profit if the Mayoral Academy doesn't open  ---  Oh, wait.  No they don't.  Suggesting that union members are opposed to charter schools because they're a threat to their jobs would be like straight people opposing gay marriage because it threatens their families.  Of course, that's a blog for a different day.

Only two of the voices raised in opposition to AF belonged to Providence teachers anyway:  Dan Wall, a Cranston resident and parent who teaches in Providence, addressed the "big box" model that AF applies to education.  He also relayed a message from Providence Teachers Union President, Steve Smith, who maintains his firm stance in opposition to Achievement First.  Richard Santurri managed to summarize the City Council's report on the Mayoral Academy in just three minutes - focusing primarily on the financial burden such a school would have place the city.  Ed Benson, a Providence resident and Professor Emeritus of French at UConn, questioned the ability of a charter school to boost student achievement when research shows that charter school students very rarely outperform their public school counterparts.  Cranston parent Monica Texiera-DaSouza, expressed her firm opposition to AF, as did State Representative Arthur Corvese.

I probably shouldn't have been as surprised as I was by City Councilman Sam Zurier's statement, but sometimes my own biases come back to bite me.  While I assumed he'd speak in favor of Achievement First, he actually focused on his concerns about the negative financial impact the Mayoral Academy would have on the city.  He suggested that the Board of Regents shouldn't approve the charter as written (a "two school" mayoral academy with 920 students enrolled), but should consider allowing AF one school with a total enrollment of 480 students.  His December 31st commentary in the Providence Journal explains his position.  While I still disagree with the Councilman's proposal, I appreciate his diplomacy.

And now we wait our turn once again.

Between now and the next Board of Regents meeting, the CDPE is having its regularly scheduled meeting on Tuesday, January 10th, 7:00pm at Libertalia - 280 Broadway, Providence.
We've also planned a State House Rally for Monday, January 16th (MLK Day) at 2:00pm.

Wednesday, January 4, 2012

A Brief Introduction

In my secret fantasy life, I'm a girl detective - a slightly off-kilter combination of Nancy Drew, Trixie Belden, and Veronica Mars (& a little Miss Marple, the eccentric knitter).  In reality, though, my sleuthing skills are sharply honed but severely underutilized.   My sixteen year-old daughter is almost too law-abiding for my liking, my dog refuses to sniff out evildoers' secret lairs, and not one of my friends has been framed for murder - yet.  We've been living in a hellishly intrigue-free zone.  Until recently.

A little less than a year ago, the newly inaugurated Angel Taveras (you've surely heard of him - the first Latino Mayor of Providence, who went from Head Start to Harvard - pulling himself up by his bootstraps all the way) unceremoniously fired every public school teacher in Providence.  Then, in a nutshell, all hell broke loose.

Anyone reading this is bound to know that the Providence School Department has been a churning sea of educational hot mess for ages.  In just the decade since my kid started school we've had six superintendents (2 of them interim - but still!).  Our schools have been overcrowded, underutilized, partitioned, repurposed, transformed, reformed, deformed, rearranged, overhauled, underfunded, and closed.  A girl doesn't need a novelty-sized magnifying glass to see the evidence of an attack on public education.  And from 2000 to 2008, we all knew exactly who to blame.  Of course it was the Bush Administration, NCLB, Margaret Spellings, unfunded mandates, and high-stakes testing.

But when our young, progressive, brand-new Mayor - himself a "product" of Providence Schools - sent pink slips to 1,926 teachers last February, it became all too obvious that something was up.  Something big.

And collective bargaining was just a red herring.

So here we are, 366 days after Angel Taveras took office and less than 24 hours before the RIDE Board of Regents will discuss a proposal to open an Achievement First Mayoral Academy in Providence.  And, while I'm not a titian-haired teen or an elderly English spinster, I do have a pile of notebooks filled with suspects, motives, and their crimes against public education.  And there are few people who think it's time to set my scribblings loose in the blogosphere.  So here goes...