“Notes from the Front Lines of the War on Public Education”

“Notes from the Front Lines of the War on Public Education”

by Michelle Dillingham

Cincinnati, Ohio has not escaped the ravages of the war on public education. In the last decade we’ve tried to inoculate against the takeovers and privatization we saw happening in other cities; A successful tax-payer funded total re-build of our schools (the “Master Facilities Plan”), passage of policy that every school be a “Community Learning Center” complete with community and parent voice in every building, and a teacher’s union who had successfully negotiated their working conditions – the classroom (class size, teacher ratios, intervention resources…). Victories like these have been significant and important, but are inevitably overshadowed by the war machine that is the corporate education reform movement.

We’re outgunned by a super-majority Republican state legislature, operating under an unjust public education funding model found unconstitutional four times over. We’ve worked hard but lost pro-public education legislation, and watched terrible laws pass swiftly. In 2015 a bi-partisan bill to make community schools a matter of state policy was flipped and turned into a devastating prescription for state take overs. Chamber of Commerce members helped draft a 66-page amendment added at the last hour, resulting in a state-wide “take over” bill, Youngstown being the first to fall into politically appointed CEO-control. The Cincinnati Democrat who had sponsored the bill and worked on it for over 18 months, ended up voting against it.

The corporate reform arsenal has been well resourced and effective: draining the state education budget, high stakes testing, Teach for America recruits replacing certified teachers, vouchers, manipulating and outright falsifying outcomes to benefit e-learning schools, and seeding charters – where private investors make profits off sponsoring schools with no accountability, who expel and suspend their way to higher test scores. Ohio is known as the “Wild Wild West” of charter schools, yet despite every study, every scandal and every fraud exposed – they simply repackage the same “school choice, failing public schools” narrative and re-sell it to local school boards time and again.

In Cincinnati we thought we were safe because of taxpayer investment in our public schools. Support for levies have increased, and enrollment is up; young families are moving back into the urban core and want their children to attend neighborhood public schools. Yet despite proving the value of the Community Learning Center model, and even outperforming every other urban district in the state… We are not safe.

The well-funded anti-public education agenda beats a loud and constant drum, “public schools are failures”. A corporate-backed “Accelerator Fund” was formed last March in Cincinnati, making the case with the help of a “study” that our schools were not offering “quality seats” and parents needed more “choice”. The Cincinnati Educational Justice June 14, 2016 Coalition immediately called them out publically for their pro-charter agenda, which they denied.

Last Wednesday a man in a well-tailored suit gave a 15 minute powerpoint presentation before members of the Board of Education. Mr. Earl Martin Phalen is a fellow at the “Mind Trust” organization in Indiana, the same organization that the Accelerator’s CEO Patrick Herrel was hired from. The founder of Mind Trust, David Harris, is a national leader in the school privatization movement. They actively work for charterization of public schools.

Phalen Leadership Academies has been working to expand their “blended-learning” schools in Indianapolis and other cities, and now they have come to our district to do the same.

Blended-learning incorporates hiring one or two teachers for an entire school and propping students in front of computers for the majority of the day while low-paid staff watch over the kids. Mind Trust specializes in recruiting temporary teaching recruits … their plan? To set up a temporary, low-paid, non-union, deskilled teachers’ workforce to ultimately teach in an all-charter school educational system owned by private and for-profit companies, of course expecting a profit from this “blended-learning” model.

Dr.  Doug Martin from Indiana has written an entire book on this called the “Hoosier School Heist.” A book exposes the corruption, scandals, and campaign financing behind so-called school reform in Indiana and elsewhere.

All legitimate studies confirm that charter schools either perform no better or worse than traditional public schools. In fact, if charter schools were held to the same accountability standards as traditional public schools in Indiana and elsewhere, a good majority of them would be closed down. And, many of them HAVE been closed down right here in Cincinnati.

Daily we hear about the fraud, waste, and failure of the charter school experiment in Ohio. So it’s hard to believe that in Cincinnati, once again, our local school board was considering a “YES” vote on a resolution that would create a new district-sponsored charter company to set up shop in one of our west side neighborhoods.

Some board members said they first heard of the resolution about partnering with Phalen the day before the committee. Three days later a resolution to support the out-of- town outfit to open up a new charter school was before them.

The Cincinnati Educational Justice Coalition sprang into action and worked quickly to get the word out about the resolution. On Monday evening the Cincinnati Educational Justice Coalition invited the public to the meeting to give testimony to reject the out of town privatizers and profiteers, telling us that we are not a quality district.

Speakers from all walks of life testified; a special education teacher, a Dominican Sister, a retired teacher who had mentored children in charter schools, a social worker, a University of Cincinnati professor of education, a parent, a disability rights advocate, an AFSCME member, and more. We testified for over an hour asking the Board of Education to postpone their vote on the resolution that would have Cincinnati Public Schools enter into an agreement with Phalen Leadership Academies to build a new charter school.

We implored them, reminding them of the pervasive fraud, waste, and abuse that is common among charter school operators, that they share with the public, at the very least, the basic information necessary to ensure our children would receive a quality education.

After our testimony the maker of the motion was willing to “soften” the language of the resolution and change it from enter into a contract to “explore the possibilities” of working with the district. In the end Board Member Melanie Bates explained that the resolution before them to enter into “exploring” a contract with Phalen Academies is against board policy. She explained they only have one year of data, which is not enough to evaluate the charter school, a requirement of CPS board policy to sponsor a charter school. Despite this noncompliance with board policy, the board proceeded to vote and pass the resolution anyway, the lone NO vote from Board Member Bates.

We are not sure how it is even possible for the board to move forward with the resolution to work with Phalen, since they do not meet minimum standards according to the board policy on sponsoring charters. The deadline for Phalen to apply for the state funding to open their new charter facility is June 15th. The Cincinnati Educational Justice Coalition will continue to monitor and oppose any proliferation of district-sponsored charter schools.

Despite being outspent, and almost outmaneuvered, the Cincinnati Educational Justice Coalition showed up, responded, and spoke truth to power. Special thanks to all the advocates who came out with little notice on a summer evening and spoke forcefully, and eloquently against the resolution. We are fighting for the schools all our children deserve, but we look for the day when we don’t have to fight anymore.

[Michelle Dillingham is a member of the Cincinnati Educational Justice Coalition. Join us and receive action updates by emailing cincinnatieducationjustice@gmail.com.]