EDITOR’S UPDATE: Montclair BoE Vice President Shelley Lombard reached out to Barista Kids to offer her personal comment on this MEA Town Hall.
Lombard says she would have found the presentation by Dr. Farrell more meaningful if he had presented data, rather than the Broad conspiracy theory he presented. She added, “I find it very ironic, that many of the same people willing to take education advice from someone who is Professor of Social Work and not education and who has never been a Superintendent, are the same people who complain that Dr. MacCormack, who has a Ph.D in education and has many years of experience and expertise in k-12 education, isn’t certified to be a Superintendent in NJ.”
Dr. Walter C. Farrell, a professor of community management and public practice at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, was the guest speaker at an October 30 town hall meeting at the Montclair Art Museum sponsored by the Montclair Education Association (MEA) on the subject of education reform. His explanation of nationwide reform typified by the changes in the Montclair school district, spearheaded by Schools Superintendent Penny MacCormack, gave a chilling chronicle of the privatization of public school districts that began with charter schools in urban areas. Dr. Farrell claimed that suburban privatization has become the next logical stop for billionaires and special interests hoping to profit from education. It should be noted that MacCormack has publicly expressing her opposition to a charter school numerous times.
“Mainly, that’s where the money is,” Dr. Farrell said of suburban school districts. “The property values are stable, and they’re unlikely to go under. They’re unlikely to become ‘little Detroits.’”
Dr. Farrell stated that the process of privatizing public schools began with President Ronald Reagan and has continued under his successors, both Republican and Democratic. The move to make money off educating America’s children has been a bipartisan effort, with billionaires such as the Koch brothers and Eli Broad giving money to politicians of both parties – including Newark mayor and U.S. Senator-elect Cory Booker – and using influence to get charter schools established in the ostensible public interest of providing education to children. The tactics include demonizing teachers and eliminating their tenure and collective bargaining rights and then replace higher-paid teachers with low-paid graduates of Teach For America (TFA), a non-profit group that has trained teachers for low-income districts in five-week sessions with no certification.
“I was a certified social studies teacher years ago,” Dr. Farrell said with obvious irony, “I needed a lot of help and direction in my first year, and I said, ‘Wow, I wish I could have become a Teach For America teacher, because I wouldn’t have had to go through all those classes in my undergraduate alma mater, and I would have been a star teacher.’”
Dr. Farrell cited various exampled of mostly Republican governors pushing education “reform” as a way of creating new profit opportunities, with special emphasis on New Jersey Governor Chris Christie’s formula for introducing rigorous testing, taking over schools based on substandard scores, outsourcing various services, and undermining teachers’ unions with TFA graduates and “chief officers” whose purpose is to divide education responsibilities in a corporatized manner – a copy of real estate tycoon Eli Broad’s model for introducing a business-oriented, top-down approach to running American public schools with little faculty input. The system being imposed, Dr. Farrell explained, allows charter school boards to award contracts to companies owned by board members and produce huge dividends for the vested interests involved. He said how the testing regimen supported in Montclair by Dr. MacCormack, an alumna of Broad’s namesake superintendent training academy fit Broad’s formula and was also in line with other “venture philanthropists preying on public education.” And he did it with a slideshow, complete with humorous graphics.
Dr. Farrell’s slideshow also demonstrated how charter schools manipulated achievement gaps between white students and black students by using poor black students as a comparison rather than comparing students based on economic conditions over race. This manipulation of data, he said, is used to justify school closures and consolidation and to encourage competition for prizes and grants while allowing the schools to be segregated. In the end, he said only 17 percent of charter school students perform better than public school students, while 46 percent of charter school students perform no better than public school students and 37 percent of charter school students perform worse, even though charter schools can dismiss low-performing students – which is not allowed in public schools.
“All this privatization wouldn’t be so bad if it worked,” he said. “Those statistics are abysmal, but because they get to push out students at will in a short period of time. So . . . you should be doing better than 17 percent.” The student selection lotteries run by these charter schools, Dr. Farrell concluded, are rigged to get the desired amount of students, and with no educational accountability.
Farrell also showed a slide with an excerpt from the blog post written by Montclair resident LynNell Hancock and featured in the October 30 column of education reporter Valerie Strauss of the Washington Post in her column from that day’s edition of the paper. “Data-driven strategies have been enacted aggressively in America for the last two decades,” Hancock wrote. “They don’t work. The race and class achievement gap is as big or greater than ever. MacCormack’s training makes her a true believer in such methods.”
Dr. Farrell said there was a silver lining in the fact that several proponents of corporatized education reform have been forced out of running public schools, most notably Washington, D.C . Schools Chancellor Michelle Rhee, who was forced to resign after the 2010 electoral defeat of mayor Adrian Fenty in part over her unpopular testing approach and closures of schools. He said that Montclair residents have a fighting chance against the corporate takeover of their school district if they continue to push back against it.