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Friday, February 14, 2014

The corporate reform movement is thriving in Jacksonville.

In education there are basically two camps. One loves standardized tests because it provides a metric they can see and they feel if students aren’t reaching a particular level then it is the teacher’s fault and the union’s fault for protecting the bad teachers. They also feel like the public sector through charters and the use of vouchers can better educate our children. This in a nutshell is the corporate reform movement.

On the other hand we have the supporters of public schools who feel like high stakes standardized tests are a poor way to measure progress and they also believe poverty and a lack of resources are what is holding our system back, not teachers.  

In Jacksonville Florida the corporate reform movement is winning.

It didn’t happen overnight. Several former school board members Nancy Bronner and Betty Burney either worked for or were trained by the Broad Foundation, a corporate group who believes in closing low performing schools and firing the teachers who worked at them. They are a no excuses outfit. We have also had charters here in town for over a decade though they have had mixed success as ten have failed over the years.

A couple years ago with the addition of the KIPP charter school, which received the lowest grade of any school in north east Florida in it’s first year and would have fallen to a D or worse had the Department of education not put in place a rule that says schools can only drop one letter grade this past year, a rule Gary Chartrand voted for and Teach for America an outfit that takes non-education majors puts them through a five week boot camp and then into our neediest classrooms where they are supposed to serve two years, it really picked up.  Both were brought to town by the aforementioned Gary Chartrand who is a grocer by trade. Now with superintendent Vitti, Chartrand’s handpicked superintendent the corporate agenda is racing full speed ahead.

A dozen more charter schools have been approved under Vitti’s watch, he has hatched on a merit pay scheme which sounds impressive but has no data backing it up and he has opened Jacksonville’s door to Michelle Rhee, Bill Gates and the Walton Foundation, three of the biggest players in the corporate reform movement when he invite the New Teacher Project to come in and examine our human capital. That’s what teachers are now by the way, human capital.

The New Teacher Project, funded by Bill Gates who has spent nearly 200 million promoting common core, is a common core-promoting group whose starting position is there are lots of bad teachers in the district and if we can replace them things will improve. This is the foreword to their study titled the Widget Effect: “There are at least ‘several hundred’ incompetents now in the school system [says the superintendent]. Other observers think there are several thousands, while still others insist that ‘several’ would be nearer the mark. Whether these incompetents were unfit to teach at any time, or have been rendered unfit by the passing years, is a matter of opinion. The question is, why are they allowed to remain?” So wrote The New York Times—in 1936.

From there they say not much has changed and teachers have just gone from human capital to widgets.  

The corporate reform movement is also for merit pay despite the fact there is no evidence that says it works and against smaller classes even though there is lots of evidence that says it does. More insidious is they are also bound and determined to turn teaching from a profession to a service industry job that people might try for a year or two. The powers-that-be have gotten rid of tenure and have brought in hundreds of Teach for America recruits to take the jobs that professional educators may have otherwise taken.

Undoubtedly the corporate reform movements’ crown jewels are charter schools and vouchers.
First let’s look at charters. In Florida over 250 charter schools have taken money and closed wasting hundreds of millions of dollars and kneecapping children’s education. Then the Stanford Credo Charter project says kids as a group at charter schools are lagging behind, not that things like facts and evidence have slowed down the reform movement. Look at Vitti’s bombshell talented teacher transfer initiative that plans to put our best teachers in our neediest schools. The department of education did a study where they filled 88 percent of the openings at poor performing (re they don’t do well on standardized tests) control schools with the best of the best and where there were gains in elementary schools there were no gains in middle schools and as soon as the money turned off teachers left in droves. Vitti while continuing to ignore poverty is prepared to gamble forty million dollars on a corporate reform hunch. I wonder who will get the blame if it fails. I do think we need our best teachers at our neediest schools but I also think the gains will be small and brief unless we put in supports for teachers and kids too but then again I don’t think poverty is an excuse and many experts agree saying it is the number one measurable statistic in education. Children who live in poverty as a group don’t do nearly as well as those who don’t

Now private schools that take vouchers: some pay their uncertified teachers twelve dollars an hour, others teach creationism as science (12 schools in Jacksonville do) and according to school board member Jason Fischer that’s just fine. In fact he has gone as far as saying they don’t need to have the same accountability measures that public schools have to have. Then despite being able to pick who they take and keep they aren’t doing any better than public schools. Fischer might point out that they vouchers are only worth 55 percent of what public schools get for educating kids but I want to remind you nobody forces a private school to take a voucher and wasn’t that, among several others, one of the selling points of vouchers and charters, that they could do it cheaper and better.

First however vouchers and charters were about getting kids out of failing public schools but when it turned out the public schools were doing better than private schools that took vouchers and charters they changed the narrative to one that emphasized competition. The reasoning was that competition would make everybody better. Well charters and vouchers as a group didn’t get that memo as one scandal after another has made the headlines and quite often the only thing they made better were the bank accounts of charter school operators. 

Now they have changed the narrative once again calling for a Kumbaya moment as both charters and private schools that take vouchers and public schools let their differences go, hold hands and come together to address what’s best for children. Gone are the failing public school and competition narratives almost like they never existed. Why talk about the past? In the end it doesn’t matter what narrative they use the truth turns is you get what you pay for and when you do it on the cheap, you get a substandard product.

If Vitti had to run for superintendent something I am not advocating by the way I doubt he would have been elected with the message, we need to replace a lot of our teachers and outsource our kids education to corporations and schools that don’t require certifications and who resist accountability.     

He didn’t have to run though; instead he was the handpicked by Gary Chartrand, the grocer who is running our schools. Chartrand has never taught, he has never worked in a school either and he sent his children to exclusive prep schools too but that incredible lack of experience and institutional knowledge hasn’t stopped him from assembly an impressive education power base. He is on the board of the Jacksonville Public Education Fund, KIPP jax, he brought the professional educators’ network, a scab teacher’ organization and Teach for America to town and he is also the chairman of the state board of education. Furthermore his protege Ashley Smith Juarez is also on the school board having raised hundreds of thousands of dollars most of which came from people who didn't have kids in public schools and both she and Jason Fischer school board district 7 were endorsed by Jeb Bush the founder of the corporate reform movement. Chartrand is the equivalent of a plumber who watched a lot of Law and Order becoming a Supreme Court justice.    

It was also one of the worse kept secrets in town too him wanting Vitti for super. I remember watching the other candidates for superintendent come in and thinking what a waste of time as I had known for some time it would be Vitti.I don't know about you but I wanted a superintendent who was pro-public education and who was interested in improving things not replacing things.

Yes there are problems in education and yes some teachers need to think about finding a different job but at the end of the day public schools are by far the best things going and public school teachers are the tops in the field and unless you think crippling poverty is just some excuse then all the evidence concurs.

Jacksonville is at a crossroads we can ignore poverty, blame the teachers and go full speed ahead with replacing public schools with charters and private schools that take vouchers and professional teachers with an ever revolving door of novices and hobbyists or we can put in place supports for both teachers and students alike. We can replace the institution, public education that arguably made this nation great or we can roll the dice and hope the corporations can do a better job and that they will put the future of our children ahead of profits. 

Which side are you on? It is becoming more and more clear which side Vitti is on.


  1. Are you referring to PEN? What's wrong with it, because I am so frustrated with DTU, that I'm thinking about joining. DTU does nothing to protect me and I'm not a bad teacher. I have lots of experience and good test scores. Please respond. I need to know if PEN is no better.

  2. PEN can't do anything for you. They are here to hurt the union and even though I agree there are problems with ours hurting the union hurts all of us.