School Choice or Extortion (By Wendy Lecker)

Public education advocate and fellow commentator Wendy Lecker has an outstanding piece in this weekend’s Stamford Advocate and other Hearst Media outlets about Hartford’s recent “school choice” debacle.

You can find Wendy’s piece at:  Below is a somewhat longer version.

Both do an excellent job laying out the issues surrounding Achievement First, Inc., Capital Prep and Hartford’s Clark and SAND elementary schools.

The entire story is a great case study in how the corporate education reform industry is trying to destroying our public education system and how parents, teachers and communities can fight back.

School Choice or Extortion (By Wendy Lecker)

Driven by their Madison Avenue advertising mentality, the corporate education “reform” industry’s narrative seeks to convince our nation’s citizens that our public education system is failing,” parents need market-based “ school choice” so their children can escape dismal neighborhood schools.

A primary solution, according to these education reformers is to remove public schools out of the control of local community school boards and hand them over to boards made up of corporate leaders or even hand them over to private management companies.

As a result of this business first mentality, rather than properly fund neighborhood schools, officials in Chicago, Philadelphia, New Orleans, New York and even right here in Connecticut push a political agenda in which underfunded community schools are closed and replaced with privately-run “schools of choice.” In nearly every case, our most vulnerable children are the first to be excluded from these “new” schools, while the remaining students are faced with barely-trained, inexperienced and often temporary teachers.

One of the most interesting developments has been the fact that voters simply don’t buy the corporate education industry’s version of the world.

In a recent 2013 Phi Delta Kappan/Gallup national poll on public education, the largest majority of parents ever recorded gave their community schools a grade of A or B.

The fact is most parents do not think their schools are failing their children. The poll revealed that the majority of parents trust teachers. The most serious problem facing public schools, according to parents polled, contrary to claims by reformers, is the fundamental lack of adequate funding, with school overcrowding being the second most serious concern cited by parents.

Rather than close and replace their schools or fire their children’s teachers, the vast majority of parents in the United States want their schools funded sufficiently so they have the capacity to provide all children with the resources, services and support they need to succeed.

A powerful example of the clash between reformer rhetoric and parent reality can be found in Connecticut’s Capital City.

In recent weeks, parents from two community schools have risen up to successfully oppose proposals by Christina Kishimoto, Hartford’s outgoing “reform” superintendent, and Governor Malloy’s Commissioner of Education, Stefan Pryor to hand over their neighborhood schools over to private companies. Neither school community was consulted before the plans were developed.

The reformers initial proposal was to hand Hartford’s Clark Elementary school over to Achievement First, Inc. the charter school management company co-founded by Commissioner Stefan Pryor.

Almost 18% of Clark’s students have disabilities, and 15.2% are English Language Learners. Clark’s school governance council has begged the district, in vain, for additional resources, including teachers, a psychologist, a guidance counselor and basic school repairs such as a functional heating and cooling system.

Only 6.7% of Achievement First’s students have special needs, 6.7% are English Language Learners. Moreover, Achievement First has the highest rate of suspensions in the state for children under 6 years old, and has been investigated and cited for federal violations in mistreating students with disabilities.

Upon hearing of the proposed Achievement First takeover, Clark’s parents fought back.   They openly feared that their special needs children would “not have a place” at an Achievement First school.  One parent said “Our teachers work very hard and they love our kids.” Another remarked that when children do not listen, Achievement First suspends them. “Our teachers find a way to keep them in school, find out what is behind their [behavior].”  Noting the school was praised by the district in 2013 for its academic progress, a parent declared, “We didn’t ask for our school to be redesigned but only for supports to keep making improvements.”

In the face of the strong opposition from parents, the mayoral-controlled majority of the school board backed down.

The same scene recurred about a week later.  This time the Hartford BOE was presented with a plan to hand the SAND elementary school over to Steve Perry’s new private management company. Perry currently heads Hartford’s Capital Prep Magnet School.  Kishimoto and Pryor tried to shift both SAND and Capital Prep to Perry’s company.

At Capital Prep, 6.3% of the students have disabilities, 3.4% of the students are English Language Learners, and 51.4% are eligible for free or reduced-price lunch.  Mr. Perry bills Capital Prep as a “no excuses” school. The school has a high attrition rate for teachers and students; and allegations of bullying abound.

Mr. Perry has been absent for almost 20% of the year so far, traveling and giving speeches. In one speech, he claimed that public schools are “over-feminized.”

In SAND school, 14.9% of the children have disabilities, 21.4% are English Language Learners, and over 95% of the children are eligible for free-or-reduced-priced lunch.

Parents came out to contest the “hostile takeover” of their school. One student claimed that “Capital Prep does not understand the [SAND] students” and feared that Capital Prep would “kick [neighborhood kids] out.” Another remarked that “We know these teachers and they know us.” He continued,” If you want kids at SAND to learn better, give kids the same support you do at fancy schools like Capital Prep. If I had fifteen kids in my classroom and two teachers, I would learn better too.”

The school board backed down again.

But this retreat may only be temporary. The school board subsequently met in private, in executive session, and emerged with another “turnaround plan.” Digging up an obscure law, the board suggested finding a school to become a “lighthouse” school.  A lighthouse school is an existing school that is “redesigned” to have a specialized curriculum and be open to intradistrict and interdistrict choice.  Such a school would be eligible for additional funding if it is subjected to this “redesign.”

According to approach being taken by the corporate education reformers, the only way parents will get more resources for their inadequately funded schools to acquiesce to a redesign- a redesign that will necessarily disrupt their school community – fire teachers, exclude children.

But of course, that is not really school choice- in the real world it’s called extortion.

It remains to be seen whether Hartford officials will listen to parents- those who know best what their children need. If they don’t, as one parent reminded Hartford officials- “We voted you in. We can vote you out.”

You can read the piece in the Stamford Advocate here:



  • brutus2011

    Schools are NOT under-funded.

    The problem is that the funds are skimmed by administration BEFORE it reaches the classroom or the children.

    It is truly as simple as that.

    Those who would privatize know about the secret bonanza of the public school bureaucracy and want in.

    If we want to end this debacle then we need to elect political representatives with a clear mandate to clean up our public school districts. Make sure the funds targeted to teach our kids actually reach our kids. This will difficult because these wolves who have guarding the chicken coop for so long will not give up their lifestyles easily. And, too many of us are too used to admiring the emperor’s new clothes. In this case, deference be damned!

    Otherwise, it is all sound and fury signifying nothing.

    • Wendy Lecker

      According to an analysis by the Connecticut Conference of municipalities done last year, CT’s ECS (school funding) formula is underfunded by $763 million. And CCM acknowledged that this formula is flawed, thus the real number is even larger. Indeed, the cost study commissioned by CCJEF puts the number above $1.5 billion (and this, I believe, used 2004 numbers, did not account for the economic crisis, nor the additional mandates now imposed on school districts). Thus, while I am sure there are districts where the money is not distributed equitably, there is also a serious and real problem with inadequate state funding of public education in this state.

      • Mary Gallucci

        Absolutely. Although administrators and non-teaching data-handlers and spin-wizards do soak up a lot of district money, this is not the whole story. Those administrators with their high salaries have been hired partly to mask the devastating cuts that have occurred in school budgets over the last decade or so. Their job is to say, we need some professional development; a new curriculum; better tests–but, especially–“better-trained” 21st century teachers who get nice merit incentives rather than strong union-guaranteed contracts with step raises that are honored, etc. These tough, harsh administrators specialize in denuding the teaching corps of their experienced, higher-cost members, so shortly after the new “chiefs” arrival there is usually an exodus of anyone who can get out. Pricey administrators also like to promote the orthodoxy of accountability and standards, getting the public to think that the problem is the teachers, meanwhile they cut out specials and enrichment. Even if we could reduce some of the administrative “fat” that has recently accumulated in, say, Windham, the money recovered could not begin to pay for the programs, services, class sizes, etc., that we should have here.

        So Adamowski succeeds in his quest to extort charter schools and voucher programs, because parents realize that what’s missing will only be replaced piece-meal–at a new magnet school, or over a few districts in Norwich.

        • Bill Morrison

          Let’s not forget; the corrupt corporate education reformers have found the money to pay three or four administrators where we used to pay one. They do so with their creation of small-learning academies, breaking up each school into multiple schools where no student is allowed a complete education (except in the magnet schools and the charter schools). It is called failure by design.

        • JMC

          You are absolutely correct, MG, and the private Charter Administrator subculture still needs to be scrutinized. These admins suck out all the remaining money from private ed budgets, while furnishing Gestapo-like services to their masters, serving to intiimdate, obfuscate, insulate, and prevaricate.

  • Sleepless in Bridgeport

    Odd that Wendy can not be found anywhere in the sister newspaper, the CT Post. Either the powers that be think that Bridgeport readers as Jack Nicholson put it “Can’t Handle the Truth”, the CT Post is duty bound to regurgitate Finchy Bird and Ex-Super Vallas, PR manure, or the Post’s educational editorial pages are the private nesting ground for Linda Lambeck who is probably funded by the Finch and Vallas money tree.
    You know there is just so much damn money floating around that is not finding its way into to city schools where they are needed.

  • Bill Morrison

    I also noticed that she is not covered by the corrupt corporate education reform news rag The Hartford Courant. I am also surprised that she did not emphasize the graft and corruption angle, though she did detail it with the Steve Perry connection.
    The problem is that nobody in the mainstream media is holding the corrupt corporate education reformers accountable for their very obvious business dealings and for their equally obvious lies about education in the United States, a fact that indicates to me that the media is in bed with the corporate reformers. I seriously wonder at how much money is being paid by the reformers to the media. I thought that prostitution is illegal here. Oh, I forgot; that is the nature of capitalism.

    • JMC

      The Courant, like other newspapers I have seen in my own neighborhood, skews its articles toward the folks who buy advertising in their print versions, but particularly online. The reformatizers have bought plenty of ad space with The Courant.

      • Bill Morrison

        As I’ve said, they are prostituting themselves with the corrupt corporate education reformers.

  • Castles Burning

    Wendy’s most recent declaration of extortion is so apt and clear in this particular situation that one might wonder if the crime could be prosecuted. With previous plans failing, finding the “lighthouse” model (whatever that truly means) was fortuitous for those in Hartford intent on privatizing a few schools–no matter what.

    The question of what can be done is often asked here at WaitWhat? and I recommend a review of Wendy’s recent columns for the “Orwellian” (her description in several pieces) picture of what is happening in Connecticut education. A few are listed below (and Jonathan has a wonderful search engine):

    “State-sanctioned child abuse” (11/16)

    “Common Core failing to meet CT constitutional standards” (11/3)

    “Common Core using children as guinea pigs” (10/20)

  • Mary Gallucci

    Steven Adamowski is a past master of extortion! So far no one is really looking all that closely, but in Windham it might be worthwhile seeing who benefits from his new “voucher” choice program (vouchers by lottery and by special dispensation–and you thought only pope could do that!!!)–so that a large percentage of families who have “won” the Norwich Free Academy bonanza are those who sit on appointed or elected boards, or who work in the Town Hall… it’s unclear who got this year’s bonus special dispensation… But one family seems to believe that all of their children will get the NFA benefit–at a cost of over $100K of local taxpayer dollars (with increased segregation and isolation in the impoverished Windham schools). The Parish Hill choice is a consolation prize… although it will be interesting to see if those who start in grade 7 wish to try for the golden prize of NFA for High school; even the districts who make up the Parish Hill regional school bail out for High School. Check out their attrition rate, which Adamowski clearly plans to redress by sending local Windham tax dollars their way.

    • Bill Morrison

      Adamowski continues to sicken me.

  • jrp1900

    Wendy Lecker puts her finger on two things of great importance: first, certain of the power brokers in public education in Connecticut are determined to increase the number of privately managed charter schools, and they are using every opportunity that presents itself— from the Sheff settlement to the Turnaround option in Obama’s Race to the Top–to pursue just this goal; and second, a key factor in the advance of school privatization is “the corporate education ‘reform’ industry’s narrative…that our public education system is failing.” Malloy, Pryor and all the other dismal people who are pushing privatization have no real commitment to the people of Hartford, Bridgeport, Windham, New London or anywhere else. Their first loyalty is to the corporate donors who fund their bids for public office. If local communities counted, school reform would never be a top-down affair; but school reform in Connecticut IS a top-down affair, precisely because dictatorial powers are needed, by the “reformers,” to get around local resistance.

    Ms Lecker speaks of “extortion” and she is not wrong: Mr. Pryor’s preferred option for turnaround in “failing districts” is to have these communities do what he wants or he will impose on them a plan of his own. This kind of dictate makes a mockery of “collaboration” between the local district and the State. The narrative identified by Ms Lecker is a crucial matter because it only makes sense in the context of standardized testing. If the testing were discounted, there would be no sure way to say that a school is “failing” or “succeeding”. Suppose we used the income level in a particular town as the real measure of school quality: it might, then, be possible to say that a certain school in, for example, West Hartford, might be a “failing school,” because even though it has adequate resources, it might not be getting from the students the appropriate academic performance, notwithstanding the results of a standardized test. Then again, a school in Hartford, now judged as “failing,” might be succeeding RELATIVELY, as students might be doing better than expected given the criminal underfunding of their district. Of course, the real point is, apples and oranges are not to be compared. Standardized testing is philosophically a problematic way of measuring academic performance and potential, but, just as seriously, it an ideological means of avoiding the real discussion (that has to take place!) concerning the central role of economic factors in determining school “quality.”

    Wendy Lecker is always informative, clear and incisive in her critiques of corporate school “reform.” But for precisely these reasons it is unlikely we will ever read her writings in a corporate rag like “The Hartford Courant.” In dark times, those who speak truth are silenced in any one of a number of ways; but those who tell lies are invited onto many platforms, where they are feted and honored for their discourse–in truth, for their service to wealth and power!