Archive for August, 2009

What every American should be made to learn about the IG Torture Report

Posted in Welcome to The Machine on August 28, 2009 by CjH

By Glen Greenwald,

I wrote earlier today about Eric Holder’s decision to “review” whether criminal prosecutions are warranted in connection with the torture of Terrorism suspects — that can be read here — but I want to write separately about the release today of the 2004 CIA’s Inspector General Report (.pdf), both because it’s extraordinary in its own right and because it underscores how unjust it would be to prosecute only low-level interrogators rather than the high-level officials who implemented the torture regime.  Initially, it should be emphasized that yet again, it is not the Congress or the establishment media which is uncovering these abuses and forcing disclosure of government misconduct.  Rather, it is the ACLU (with which I consult) that, along with other human rights organizations, has had to fill the void left by those failed institutions, using their own funds to pursue litigation to compel disclosure.  Without their efforts, we would know vastly less than we know now about the crimes our government committed.

Before saying anything about the implications of this Report, I want to post some excerpts of what CIA interrogators did.  Every American should be forced to read and learn this in order to know what was done in their names (click images to enlarge):

Threats of execution

Threats to kill detainee and his children:

Pressure points on carotid artery:

Threats to rape detainee’s female relatives in front of him:

“Buttstroking” with rifles and knee kicks:

Blowing smoke in detainee’s face for five minutes:

More “convincing and poignant” waterboarding of the type we prosecuted Japanese war criminals for using:

Numerous detainee deaths and other abuses:

The IG Report also documents numerous other abuses that have been documented by prior OLC memos, including having waterboarded detainees 82 and 183 times; hanging them by their arms until interrogators thought their shoulders might be dislocated; stepping on their ankle shackles to cause severe bruising and pain; putting them in a diapers and leaving them doused with water on cold concrete floors in cold temperatures to induce hypothermia, etc.  Some of the numerous deaths of detainees during interrogations were also discussed (for details on detainee deaths, see here and here).  After documenting all of that, the IG Report notes:

* * * * *

For all the talk about how clearly legal the CIA methods were — or, at worst, that they mistakenly believed in “good faith” that it was legal — the reality is that even those who participated in the program worried that their actions were criminal, would subject them to prosecution, and would destroy the reputation of the CIA:

Here’s how the IG Report described the conduct of the CIA interrogators — “inhumane”:

Perhaps worst of all, the Report notes that many of the detainees who were subjected to this treatment were so treated due to “assessments that were unsupported by credible intelligence” — meaning there was no real reason to think they had done anything wrong whatsoever.  As has been known for quite some time, many of the people who were tortured by the United States were completely innocent — guilty of absolutely nothing.

Manifestly, none of this happened by accident.  As the IG Report continuously notes, all of these methods were severe departures from long-standing CIA guidelines (if not practices).  This all occurred because the officials at the highest levels of the U.S. Government pronounced that this was permissible, the protections of the Geneva Conventions were “quaint,” obsolete and inapplicable, and the U.S. was justified in doing anything and everything in the name of fighting Terrorists.  As stomach-turning as these individual acts of sadism are, it is far worse to consider that only low-level interrogators will suffer consequences while those who were truly responsible — the criminally depraved leaders and lawyers who ordered and authorized it — will be protected.

The historical record of what the U.S. did during this period is clear and growing.  The only question that remains is what, if anything, we will do now that we are seeing the full picture.


Growing Poverty and Despair in America

Posted in Political Economy on August 27, 2009 by CjH

By Stephen Lendman

In 1962, Michael Harrington’s “The Other America” exposed the nation’s dark underside enough for John Kennedy to ask his Council of Economic Advisor chairman, Walter Heller, to look into the problem and for Lyndon Johnson to say (on January 8, 1964) that his administration “today, here and now, declares unconditional war on poverty in America.”In fact, it was little more than a skirmish that fell way short of addressing the real problem in the world’s richest nation. Today it’s even greater and increasing exponentially under a president who, unlike Johnson, declared war on the poor and disadvantaged to favor privilege over growing needs and essential social change.In his book, Harrington wrote:”In morality and in justice every citizen should be committed to abolishing the other America, for it is intolerable that the richest nation in human history should allow such needless suffering. But more than that, if we solve the problem of the other America we will have learned how to solve the problems of all of America.” Sadly, we didn’t then nor have we now.

Perhaps more than anything, increasing homelessness and hunger highlight the growing problem as, in the face of deteriorating economic conditions and growing human needs, administration policies are indifferent, counterproductive, uncaring and hostile.

In December 2008, Reuters reported that “Homelessness and demand for emergency food are rising in the United States as the economy founders,” according to a December 2008 US Conference of Mayor’s Task Force on Hunger and Homelessness survey of 25 American cities. Chief causes cited were growing poverty, unemployment, and unaffordable housing costs with greater than ever expected challenges in 2009. At the time, it was reported that “Cities continue to develop aggressive strategies to prevent homelessness” and provide other essential services, but that was then and this is now.

An Epidemic of State Budget Shortfalls

As economic conditions deteriorate, the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities (CBPP)’s July 29 report highlighted the growing problem. Titled “New Fiscal Year Brings No Relief from Unprecedented State Budget Problems,” it cited the following issues:

— at least 48 states “addressed or still face shortfalls in (their FY 2010) budgets,” the result of “the worst decline in tax receipts in decades;”

— at issue is a $163 billion deficit or 24% of their budgets, and these numbers keep rising as conditions worsen;

— at least 33 states “already anticipate” 2011 deficits that may exceed 2010 ones; and

— for FYs 2010 and 2011, shortfalls of at least $350 billion are expected, and FY 2012 may bring little or no relief.

In response, deep social service cuts are being implemented, putting the burden on vulnerable Americans to cope and survive. The situation is grave and worsening with at least 21 states cutting “low-income children’s or families’ eligibility for health insurance or reduce their access to health care services.”

Elderly and disabled persons programs are also being reduced or eliminated. So are services for home and child care, rehabilitation, and other essential needs for the poor and low-income households. The most vulnerable of all are affected, yet more cuts are expected as new budget pressures arise.

Pre-school, K-12, and higher education cuts are being made as well. Public payrolls and hours worked are being slashed, exacerbating the growing unemployment problem, worse still by cutting pay for the still-employed. Tax increases may also be considered at the worst possible time.

“Expenditure cuts and tax increases are problematic policies during an economic downturn because they reduce overall demand and can make the downturn deeper. When states cut spending, they lay off employees, cancel contracts with vendors, eliminate or lower payments to businesses and nonprofit organizations that provide direct services, and cut benefit payments to individuals.”

Demand is then reduced because households have less to spend. As a result, the economic crisis deepens. CBPP said federal assistance is crucial, yet the Obama administration declined while providing trillions to Wall Street and other corporate favorites. That’s the state of governance in America today under Republican and Democrat administrations, each no different from the other.

Hunger in America

On its web site, Feeding America (formerly America’s Second Harvest) said in “the land of plenty,” one in eight Americans (meaning millions) face growing hunger problems, and not just the poor and unemployed. They’re “often hard-working adults, children and seniors who simply cannot make ends meet” and have to forego meals at times, even for days.

Hunger and Poverty Facts

— in (pre-crisis) 2007, 37.5 million people were impoverished; they comprised:

— 12.5% of the population and 9.8% of families;

— 20.3 million or 10.9% of people aged 18 – 64;

— 13.3 million or 18% of children under age 18; and

— 3.7 million or 9.7% of seniors aged 65 or older who benefit from Social Security and Medicare.

In addition:

— 36.2 million Americans are food insecure, including 12.4 million children;

— they comprise 13 million or 11.1% of households;

— 4.7 million households experience “very low food security” meaning hunger is a persistent problem;

— households with children have double the food insecurity as ones with none;

— single women-headed households are worst off with 30.2% of them insecure; and

— 53.9% of food-insecure households rely on one or more of the following federal programs – food stamps, the National School Lunch Program, and the Special Supplement Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children (WIC); in addition, Feeding America (in 2007) provided emergency food aid to about 25 million low-income people, 8% more than in 2001.

On August 6, the US Department of Agriculture reported a record 34.4 million Americans (one in nine) receiving food stamps in May as unemployment keeps surging. It was the sixth consecutive monthly record, and every state showed an increase as economic conditions worsen.

On September 10, the Commerce Department will release 2008 census data expected to show around another 1.5 million people added to the poverty rolls over 2007 figures – a total of nearly 39 million representing 12.7% of Americans. According to Rebecca Blank, Economic Affairs Undersecretary, final numbers aren’t yet in and may be worse than expected because of how bad things are for growing numbers in the country. She believes if (U-3) unemployment hits 10% (up from 9.4% now), poverty could reach 14.8% this year and rising because of jobs and homes lost, savings exhausted, and the sharpest ever decline in personal wealth between mid-2007 and December 2008.

Worst of all, conditions for most people are deteriorating as businesses, states, and local governments shed workers and cut budgets at the worst possible time. It promises harder times ahead and potentially millions more impoverished.

Homelessness Facts

Annually, two – three million Americans, including 1.3 million children, experience homelessness and many more are at risk. Most vulnerable are those losing jobs, homes, and the millions of low-income workers paying 50% or more of their income in rent so that a missed paycheck, health emergency, or unexpected financial burden makes them vulnerable to homelessness at a time government aid is being cut.

Criminalizing the Homeless

In the face of a growing burden on society’s most needy, the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty reported that “many cities use the criminal justice system to punish people living on the street for doing” what they must to survive. Local ordinances prohibit sleeping, camping, eating, sharing food, sitting, loitering, and/or begging in public places with criminal penalties imposed on offenders. Some cities even punish organizations and individuals for helping, and the idea always is to keep the unwanted out of sight, mind, and preferably out of cities, at least in or near more affluent areas or business districts.

As economic conditions deteriorate, the problem will grow and so will the plight of the homeless as cities crack down harder in violation of constitutional and international human rights laws.

The OECD’s 2008 Report, “Growing Unequal?: Income Distribution and Poverty in OECD Countries

It states that America “is the country with the highest inequality level and poverty rate” among the 30 OECD countries, ranking only ahead of Mexico and Turkey. In addition, since 2000, inequality grew rapidly, “continuing a long-term trend (going) back to the 1970s” when inflation-adjusted household incomes began falling. Other data cited includes:

— the gap between rich and middle and poorer income groups widened;

— government redistribution of income “plays a relatively minor role in the United States,” partly because social service spending is low and falling; in 2008 America, it was 9% of household incomes compared to 22% on average in OECD countries;

— social mobility in America is low, and children of poor families are less likely to become rich; and

— “wealth is distributed much more unequally than income: the top 1% controls some 25 – 33% of total net worth and the top 10% holds 71%;” other estimates place these disparities much higher and widening as social inequalities increase, high-paying jobs disappear, the middle class keeps shrinking, poverty grows, and federal and state governments cut essential services in the face of increasing need among greater numbers of people.

The Working Poor Keep Getting Poorer

The Working Poor Families Project October 2008 study highlighted similar problems from 2002 through 2006. Titled “Still Working Hard, Still Falling Short: New Findings on the Challenges Confronting America’s Working Families,” it reported:

— jobs paying poverty-level wages rose by 4.7 million;

— low-income working families (earning less than double the Census definition of poverty) increased by 350,000;

— below poverty-level jobs rose to 29.4 million and comprise 22% of all jobs compared to 19% in 2002;

— most disturbing is that this happened during a period of economic growth, but at the same time wages haven’t kept pace with the cost of living;

— low income family numbers rose to nearly 9.6 million or 28% of the population;

— children in them number 21 million;

— 72% of low-income families with working adults in them performed the equivalent of one and one-quarter jobs – a far greater burden than in other OECD countries; and

— income inequality is highest in New York; California is fourth, but all states are in a race to the bottom as conditions deteriorate everywhere, so all rankings are disturbing compared to the late 1990s.

The US Labor Department’s latest productivity report highlights the plight of workers even more. It rose 6.4% in Q 2, the largest gain since 2003, while workers’ compensation fell sharply, 2.2% on an annualized basis. According to Mark Vitner of Wells Fargo Bank, the productivity increase “is almost entirely the result of cost-cutting, not improved ways of producing goods and providing services.” It also shows how powerless workers are at a time of massive job cuts, so staying employed takes precedence over wages paid and benefits. The result is profits up, pay down, benefits disappearing, and American workers transitioning to serfs.

More confirmation comes from the latest Internal Revenue Service statistics for 2007 showing that the income disparity between the top 10% and bottom 90% reached “a higher level than any other year since 1917 and even surpasses 1928, the peak of the stock market bubble in the ‘roaring’ 1920s,” according to data from University of California economist Emmanuel Saez. He noted that “2007 was an incredibly good year for the super rich” and added:

“Based on the US historical record, falls in income concentration due to recessions are temporary unless drastic policy changes such as financial regulation or significantly more progressive taxation are implemented and prevent income concentration from coming back.”

But these are no ordinary times as the US sinks slowly into depression. The super-rich are exploiting it to their advantage, while millions of working Americans are losing jobs, homes, benefits, savings, futures, and safety net protections. The 2007 data reflected the peak of the current cycle. What’s ahead will be far more grim, disturbing, and reflective of an America that is no more.

The Economic Policy Institute’s (EPI) State of Working America – 2008/2009

As the economy contracted in 2008, job losses and unemployment accelerated, but EPI’s report missed the worst of it from early 2009 to the present. It cited:

— wages losing ground to inflation;

— high energy costs;

— the burst housing bubble;

— millions of defaults on home loans followed by foreclosures;

— declining financial markets and frozen credit;

— less health care coverage and fewer higher-paying jobs with good benefits; and

— “for the first time since the mid-1940s, the real incomes of middle-class families are lower at the end of this business cycle than they were when it started;” as a result, “prosperity is eluding working families” as they fall further behind, now more than ever as depression takes hold.

EPI calls family income “the core building block of American living standards.” Yet during the last business cycle, significant productivity growth was accompanied by stagnant or falling real incomes. “That has never happened before.” The latest economic recovery bypassed the middle class and created greater income inequality. The Bush administration’s tax cuts exacerbated the problem by helping the top 1% mostly, the middle class marginally, and low-income families not at all.

Clear racial disparities show whites consistently better off than blacks and Hispanics, men doing better than women, huge class distinctions, and mobility up the income ladder bypasses most at lower levels. One study showed that about 60% of families starting out in the bottom fifth stratum were still there a decade later. At the same time, over half the top income ones kept their position.

EPI concludes that “where you start out in the income scale has a strong influence (over) where you end up (so) the rate of economic mobility is low” in the richest country in the world where the select few alone benefit. All others lose out as their incomes don’t keep pace with inflation and their living standards erode.

Another study implies that a poor family of four with two children needs nine to 10 generations to reach middle-income status. It means where you’re born is where you’ll stay. So-called rags-to-riches tales are just folklore, and stagnant or downward mobility today is more serious than ever.

Wages and salaries comprise three-fourths of family income, and for the middle class, it’s even higher. Yet since 2002, they didn’t grow at all despite historically high productivity, meaning business benefitted, not workers who fell further behind. Women and minorities fare worst plus everyone in lower income categories. During the 2002 – 07 recovery, no progress was made “in reducing the share of workers with low earnings (in) all race/ethnic groups and for both genders….The very highest earners have done considerably better than other workers for at least (the past) 30 years, but they (did) extraordinarily well over the last 10 years.”

In addition, eroding “employer-provided benefits, most notably pensions and health insurance, is an important aspect of the deterioration in job quality (and economic security) for many workers.” Most harmed are young workers facing bleak prospects, older ones losing jobs and not wanted, and the erosion of unionization since the 1950s, especially since the late 1970s.

Overall, 2002 – 07 growth was a jobless recovery followed by the subsequent wiping out of five years of modest gains. From 2000 – 2007, average annual job growth was an anemic 0.6%, well below the 1990s 1.8% figure. In addition, the unemployment rate rose 0.7% from March 2001 (the last business cycle’s peak) to December 2007 even though average workers age increased and the labor force participation rate shrank – “both of which should have put downward pressure on the” unemployment rate. The great American job creation machine faltered badly in the new millennium and now has collapsed.

Net family wealth also determines household well-being, particularly from income and financial assets, including real estate. Yet in America, the top 1% controls more than the bottom 90% combined and the disparity is growing. In 1962, the bottom 80%’s share was 19.1%. In 2004, it was 15.3%, the difference shifting to the top 5%.

In addition, until the current downturn, average household debt grew much faster than income, fueled by increases in mortgages, home equity loans, and high credit card balances. Since the housing bubble burst and home prices collapsed, the damage done has been enormous with still more to come.

The result is growing poverty levels as discussed above with numbers increasing as economic conditions weaken. “The backsliding against poverty in the 2000s is most notable among the least advantaged,” especially blacks, Hispanics, mother-only families, and the poor unable to keep pace.

It shows up in inequality in health security in the form of inadequate or no insurance, lower life expectancies for poor and lower income households, and an eroding safety net for the most needy. Rising health care costs, lost or no benefits, and an economic crisis have increased the plight of millions of the country’s least advantaged.

EPI’s report highlights a nation of growing inequality, lower wages, fewer benefits, diminished worker bargaining power, and disempowered unions v. market fundamentalists, complicit government officials, and their “You’re-on-Your-Own” (YOYO) ideology against which they’re powerless.

They believe markets know best so let them, arguing that alternatives “will create the wrong incentives.” Recent decades reveal the folly of this approach on American workers’ living standards. Exposing the “ownership society” myth, all household security measures, including net worth, have fallen despite a few years of late 1990s progress.

Today, “The macro-economy is in serious disrepair, beset by the spillovers from the bursting….housing bubble, high energy prices, and unsustainable levels of household indebtedness” causing economic collapse and the possibility of a deep, protracted depression. So far, remedial measures have been patchwork and counterproductive as growing millions face greater uncertainties with no imminent signs of relief and federal and state governments not caring or helping.

In 2009, the State of Working America is dire and worsening enough for millions of households to face greater than ever challenges on their own with government indifferent to their plight.

Concluding an early 1980s edition of his book, Michael Harrington sensed what “Other Americans” were up against in writing:

“I end this review, then, on an ambivalent note. There was progress; there could have been more progress; the poor need not always be with us. But it will take political movements much more imaginative and militant than those in existence in 1980 to bring that progress about. Until that happens, the poor will be with us.” And today, in exponentially growing far greater numbers because nothing is being done to reverse them.

Stephen Lendman is a Research Associate of the Centre for Research on Globalization. He lives in Chicago and can be reached at

Also visit his blog site at and listen to The Global Research News Hour on Monday – Friday at 10AM US Central time for cutting-edge discussions with distinguished guests on world and national issues. All programs are archived for easy listening.


Environmentally Friendly Bombs on the Way

Posted in Music, Arts, Culture, Subversion on August 26, 2009 by CjH

It sounds like the worst contradiction in terms: environmentally friendly bombs. And no, it’s not a story from the Onion this time around. Calling something green that’s designed to blow up its surroundings when it hits its target is just – well – dumb. Yet, scientists are working on a bomb that would create less environmental fallout via toxic gases and polluting debris. I guess if we’re going to slaughter people with high impact explosives, we might as well do it in a greener way.

Neoliberalism, Charter Schools and the Chicago Model

Posted in Music, Arts, Culture, Subversion, Political Economy on August 26, 2009 by CjH

Obama and Duncan’s Educational Policy: Like Bush’s, Only Worse

By Danny Weil, CounterPunch

In his first major speech on education since his election and swearing in as President, a speech made to an unscheduled meeting of the Council of Chief State School officers, held on March 10, 2009 in Washington D.C., Barrack Obama repeated the claims heard from many quarters that the United States must drastically improve student achievement to regain lost international standing in the world. He called for tying teachers’ pay to student performance (merit pay) and for expanding charter schools throughout the nation. In calling for merit pay for teachers, Obama argued:

“Too many supporters of my party have resisted the idea of rewarding excellence in teaching with extra pay, even though we know it can make a difference in the classroom.”

The president of the 3.2 million-member National Education Association (NEA), Dennis Van Roekel, weakly insisted that Obama’s call for teacher performance pay did not necessarily signify raises or bonuses would be tied to student test scores under No Child Left behind, as merit pay proponents have consistently called for. According to the NEA president, it could mean more pay for board-certified teachers or for those who work in high-poverty, hard-to-staff schools. However, much to the chagrin of the NEA president, administration officials later clarified the issue, saying that among other things, they most certainly do mean to tie higher teacher pay to student achievement on standardized tests. This clearly seems to signal that the No Child Left Behind standardized testing regime will continue unabated and the ‘average yearly progress’ will continue to serve as the metaphorical educational Dow Jones of ‘measureable outcomes’, not only for teachers and students, but as we discussed in previous chapters, eventually as benchmarks for the ‘charter school providers’ or EMOs themselves.

Besides the usual decades old call for more rigid educational standards on a state to state level and supporting No Child Left Behind, the “other things” the Obama administration alluded to in relation to educational performance have yet to be disclosed as of this writing, but one thing is for sure, Obama is clearly on record as a big time proponent of a national expansion of the charter school market. In fact, Obama is on record claiming “state limits on numbers of charter schools aren’t good for our children, our economy or our country” (ibid), and he echoed in his speech that day the repeated, yet unsubstantiated claim, that many of the innovations in education today are happening in charter schools. Obama also indicated he wants kids to spend more day time hours in school, with longer school days, school weeks and school years, something KIPP charter schools currently require and a similar proposal that the National Council on Economic Education (NCEE) has called for in their report, Tough Choices or Tough Times. He also hinted he might even be convinced to support private vouchers.

It should be no surprise that Barrack Obama supports charter schools. As the junior senator from Illinois he doubled the amount of charter schools in his state, despite reservations from teachers, community leaders and unions. In an interview conducted in Cleveland, Ohio in March of 2009, where Governor Strickland has called charter schools a drain on public expenditures and plans to introduce legislation to reduce state spending for them, Obama harped on the ‘charter schools as innovation’ theme once again and commented on his adamant support for charter schools, stating that the nation needs to:

“… create laboratories of innovation so that in the public school system, we are on a race to the top as opposed to stuck in the old ways of doing things. And so we’ve got to experiment with ways to provide a better education experience for our kids, and some charters are doing outstanding jobs. So the bottom line is to try to create innovation within the public school system that can potentially be scaled up, but also to make sure that we are maintaining very high standards for any charter school that’s created.”

It seems Obama has latched on to the ideological rhetoric that charter schools are somehow engines of innovation that promise to raise all public schools’ performance, even though, the real impetus behind charter schools is not about innovation and improving public schools but about privatizing public schools, replacing them with elaborate associations of state subsidized charter school networks, contract schools and public vouchers run by for-profit and non-profit providers. There simply is no state or national “educational innovation bank” that collects information on charter school curriculum and teaching practices and then disseminates it to traditional public schools.

Never mind that, it looks more and more like the Obama educational agenda is already beginning to shape itself into reality. On July 30, 2009 the U.S. Senate Appropriations Committee voted a $40 million increase in funding for federal Charter School Programs (CSPs), bringing total funding to a whopping $256 million for fiscal year 2010. Also included in the bill were significant educational reform investments strongly aligned with the Obama Administration’s priorities, such as a focus on increasing the number of high quality charter schools, rewarding effective teachers, and turning around the nation’s lowest performing public schools.

Perhaps the best way to understand President Obama’s thinking on educational policies and public policy commitments to educational reform is to go beyond the rhetoric and examine his appointment of Arne Duncan as the Secretary of Education. Reflecting once again Obama’s willingness to compromise with large business forces, Duncan, the former CEO of Chicago Public Schools was tapped, according to Bruce Fuller, a professor of education at the University of California, Berkeley, because “Duncan mirrors the President-elect’s style of governing — get all sides around the table, listen carefully and experiment with meaningful reforms.”

But the story is more complicated than simply sitting around the table and compromising with conciliatory business, unions and public leaders. Since his election, Obama has pledged $100 billion dollars of federal money for a stimulus for public schools throughout the nation. But there’s a hitch; in order to qualify for federal monies the states that apply for the stimulus money must remove any caps they have on the amount of charter schools that can be created in their states and those states that do not have charter school laws, of which there are currently ten, either will have to pass laws allowing the growth of charters or miss out on any stimulus funding. According to Duncan:

“States that don’t have charter school laws, or put artificial caps on the growth of charter schools, will jeopardize their application for some $5 billion in federal grant money. Simply put, they put themselves at a competitive disadvantage for the largest pool of discretionary dollars states have ever had access to.” (The Wall Street Journal)

Duncan elaborated further:

“Maine is one of 10 states without a charter schools law, but the state legislature has tabled a bill to create one. Tennessee has not moved on a bill to lift enrollment restrictions. Indiana’s legislature is considering putting a moratorium on new charter schools. These actions are restricting reform, not encouraging it.” (ibid.)

What the Obama administration is doing, in tandem with the Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, is part and parcel of typical neo-liberal policy making: wielding federal stimulus funds as a financial weapon to force all states to increase the amount of charter schools they host as well as force those states that do not have them to pass legislation authorizing them. Through financial arm-twisting at a time of disastrous economic crisis, the Obama administration plans to use the power of the federal government to create a much larger national market for charter school providers, be they for profit or non-profit, virtual charters, EMOs or single operators.

This is deeply troubling, for many states which do not want charter schools or have found the experiment to be less than adequate and in fact damaging to kids and funding, for traditional public schools will now be forced to choose stimulus money over policy, a form of economic extortion and increased federal and corporate control over decision making, especially at a time when many of these states are literally financial insolvent. This is another example of how disaster politics operates, only this time the disaster is not a natural disaster but an economic disaster that threatens public policies.

Ohio’s Corrupt Charter Schools

Public school advocates, specifically in the state of Ohio where charter school corruption is rampant, but elsewhere as well, say charter schools drain essential resources needed for public schools. Ohio’s Governor Strickland has called them “a destructive influence” on public education for a number of reasons. Consequently, the Governor tried two years ago to restrict the growth of charter schools but failed. This time, however, through a formula in his current budget bill for 2009, he would cut their funding by about 20 per cent and would deny them the chance to get extra government money. Instead he would make this funding available to public schools in Ohio’s poorest traditional public school districts. Virtual online charter schools, the fastest growing sector of the charter school market, would face much larger cuts under the Governor’s proposed budget. When asked about Governor Strickland’s position on cutting charter school funding as it pertains to his own, Obama responded by skirting the issues Strickland raised and alluded instead to the bad-apple analogy:

“I know that part of his concern was prompted by some bad experiences with charters in Ohio that weren’t up to snuff.”

Amanda Wurst, a spokesperson for the Ohio Governor, stated in response to Obama’s support for charter schools:

“The president and governor agree that charter schools are at their best when they serve as centers of innovation and are held to the high level of accountability as the traditional public schools.”

Wurst went on to note that the reason Governor Strickland wants to give extra money to public schools in poorer districts is to help them attract and retain teachers — a problem charter schools don’t have. However, with Duncan’s plan to use federal stimulus monies as leverage to force states to both due away with caps on existing charter schools and allow for charter school legislation in the states where none exists, it could mean Governor Strickland is over an economic barrel and will not have much wiggle room for decision making as to the future of charter schools in Ohio – not if he wants any part of the federal stimulus monies.

When the Wall Street Journal heard the news of Obama’s educational plans to leverage federal money for greater charter school penetration into the market thr newspaper could hardly contain its excitement and enthusiasm. The idea of using the federal government to force state governments to create financial opportunities and markets for the burgeoning souk in education by unleashing charter schools through state legislation was simply more than its editorial writers expected; and all this from a newspaper usually critical of any government intervention. In an editorial regarding Duncan’s plans to withhold federal stimulus monies from those states deemed unfriendly to charter school legislation, the paper’s editorial section commented:

“As a percentage of what the Obama Administration is spending on education, $5 billion isn’t much. But it does give the federal government some leverage, and the best way to use it is for Mr. Duncan to show states that he means what he says about charters.”

Using the government to create market opportunities for business interests is at the heart of neoliberal economic policies and why market adherents both need and relish government; the role of the government being one of legislating and unleashing favorable public policies that benefit businesses’ ability to maximize private capital, while socializing private costs to the public. This is essential for markets to function. Duncan knows this, which is why he was chosen by the Obama administration to head the Department of Education. Furthermore, as Kathleen Kingsbury pointed out in the Time magazine special on the appointment of Duncan:

“One other big plus: Duncan will be sure to have the President-elect’s ear. They are personal friends and often play basketball together, most recently on Election Day. Like Obama, Duncan is Harvard-educated, and his Chicago roots run deep. The schools chief grew up in the city’s Hyde Park neighborhood, where the Obamas have lived for several years. He went to the same private school the President-elect’s daughters attended until recently.”

But the real story and the prospects for the nation’s future educational policy can be best revealed by Duncan’s historical involvement as a technocrat with the neoliberal policies created in Chicago under the Renaissance 2010 project launched by Mayor Daley in 2004; here, Duncan was the darling of business elites and their public policy makers during his seven year tenure as CEO of Chicago Public Schools. Let’s take a brief look at Renaissance 2010 and the role of the new Secretary of Education in this effort in Chicago to enhance our understanding of what the Obama administration’s policies towards charter schools might look like.

Renaissance 2010 is a corporate project that was launched in 2004 to reform both the city and its public schools with the intent of creating schools and geographical spaces that would serve to attract the professionals believed to be needed in a 21st century ‘global city’. It is basically a land use plan for housing and urban development aimed at increasing gentrification, with schools playing a predominant role in maintaining and assuring a healthy urban middle-class and attracting global visitors, tourists and Wall Street financial interests. The city wants to transform itself from a former industrial hub into a global corporate financial and tourism center and to do so the city needs government policies and legislation that are friendly to capital’s goal of downtown land redevelopment and the gentrification of working class and low-income neighborhoods. As the educational authors Jitu Brown, Rico Gutstein and and Pauline Lipman write:

“Quality schools (and attractive housing) are essential to draw high-paid, creative workers for business and finance. Schools are also anchors in gentrifying communities and signals to investors of the market potential of new development sites.”

Renaissance 2010 places public schooling under the control of corporate leaders who aim to convert public schools to charter and contract schools, breaking the power of unions and handing over the administration of the newly created charter schools to ‘providers’ beholden to corporations, philanthropists, and business interests. Duncan, as the former CEO of the Chicago Public Schools (CPS), was an efficient technocrat or manager for the neo-liberal policies and legislative necessities dictated by the elite members of the Commercial Club and he helped to centralize decision-making power in the hands of corporations and their political representatives and then worked to carry out public policy favorable to the plans hatched by this same powerful Commercial Club.

Arne Duncan is part and parcel of an educational movement that we are increasingly witnessing in New York, Washington D.C., New Orleans and Chicago, Texas and elsewhere: a movement towards centralizing decision-making regarding public schools in the hands of an elite autocracy; this is often referred to as ‘mayoral control’. Under this governance structure, a small group of policy makers are then tasked with the job of legitimizing corporate and financial actors to make crucial decisions about public education without the messy problem of public accountability, public transparency nor public input. This represents a neo-liberal turn that goes beyond issues regarding the private operation of individual charter schools and instead twists and turns its way right into the heart of privatizing the public urban sphere in entirety, while making the government simply a boardroom or ‘secret parliament’ for powerful corporate interests.

Secretary of Education Arne Duncan and Renaissance 2010

The story of Renaissance 2010 and the role of Arne Duncan as administrator of educational policies designed to further the urban planning initiative begins in the city of Chicago, with the Commercial Club, established in the 1800s to promote the interests of Chicago’s corporate and business elite. The business ‘union’ has long influenced Chicago’s education policies. It was on June 24, 2004, that Andrew J. McKenna, Chairman of the Civic Committee of the Commercial Club, enthusiastically announced the plan in the Club’s press release:

“Chicago is taking the lead across the nation in remaking urban education. No other major city has launched such an ambitious public school choice agenda.”(Civic Committee Press Release, 2004.)

McKenna’s jubilance was aimed, of course, at Major Daley’s announcement of Renaissance 2010. The plan promised to radically transform public education in Chicago by introducing choice and markets into the Chicago educational arena, shifting control away from elected local school councils and toward the unelected Commercial Club while diminishing the power of the teacher’s union. As part of the plan, the Commercial Club created New Schools for Chicago (NSC), which includes the chairs of the McDonald’s Corporation and Northern Trust Bank, a partner in a leading corporate law firm, the CEO of Chicago Community Trust, the retired Chair of the Tribune Corporation and top Chicago Public School (CPS) officials. The bright side of the suggested educational reforms for the Chicago business community and one reason they are so excited over its prospects is that the new educational plan, with its matrix of non-union charter and contract schools, would also promise to substantially reduce the power of the CPS teachers’ union (37,000 strong) as well as other school employees’ unions (ibid)

The new arrangement had actually been in the embryo stage for some time, as a year earlier the Club’s Civic Committee (the group’s ‘think tank’) issued a report entitled Left Behind, which called for the future “creation of at least 100 public charter schools” in the city. The model that Chicago is embracing is the franchise model for charter schools, the Paul Hill’s Diverse Provider Strategy imposed on New Orleans Public Schools and now managed by Paul Pastorek and Paul Vallas. The franchise, or educational retail charter school model under Renaissance 2010, is expected to have a privatized regional business center to provide services to administrators and teachers, replacing the central public education district office, and the new center will also be expected to handle the daily administrative functions of the retail franchise charter schools.

With the launching of Renaissance 2010, the Commercial Club began developing policies not only central to reforming the schools, but they also began to make key decisions, outside the purview of democratic decision making, regarding the CPS’s day to day operations. According to Pauline Lipman, of the University of Chicago in Illinois, and David Hursh of the University of Rochester:

“Under Renaissance 2010, the Commercial Club gains control over Chicago’s public schools through New Schools for Chicago, a board appointed by the Commercial Club and composed of leading corporate representatives and ‘civic leaders’ including the CPS’s Chief Executive Officer (CEO) and the Chicago Board of Education President. Referred to in the press as a ‘secret cabinet,’ this unelected body not only participates in the selection and evaluation of new schools, but also distributes Commercial Club funds to those schools.

They go on further:

“The Commercial Club, representing the corporate and political elite, has been the central force behind Renaissance 2010. Further, while Renaissance introduces markets and competition into education, it increases state intervention as the Chicago Public Schools administration intervenes in the daily activities of educators by introducing corporate models of governance with standardized testing linked to rewards and punishments.”

The central role Arne Duncan played in moving along the Renaissance 2010 mayoral corporate project is clear. Although he was not the conceptual author of the privatization policies promoted by mayoral control of the Chicago public school system and the effort of the Commercial Club at ‘school reform’, as an enthusiastic CEO and participant in the “secret cabinet”, Duncan displayed a willingness to eagerly align himself with neoliberal policies and corporate interests and push for their implementation through educational policy initiatives. He adamantly supports privately run contract schools and charter schools and makes no bones about the fact that he would like to see these models proliferate throughout the nation.

Duncan is also known to not only be a ardent defender of corporate involvement in, and privatization of, public schools, but he personally oversaw the attempted closing of 20 Chicago public schools in low-income neighborhoods of color in 2004. And he did so with little or no community input – managing, at least for a time, to snub the meddlesome outsiders, like parents and their children, who might have raised objections to the CEO’s plans for the schools, or at the very least offer suggestions in the spirit of community decision making.
During the first half of 2004 before details of any school reform plan under Renaissance 2010 had been announced by Duncan, Bronzeville community members, part of the Mid-South of Chicago, anxiously awaited the release of the Mid-South plan; the Mid-South plan was to be the first in the series of plans which were being hatched by the Commercial Club of Chicago as part of Mayor Daley’s Renaissance 2010. Initially the community was told that a decision had been made by the “secret cabinet” to improve 20 schools between 31st and’47th Streets along the Dan Ryan Expressway east to Lake Michigan. The community and residents of Mid-South complained early and bitterly about being locked out of the decision making processes regarding the schools in their neighborhoods. Ken Calvin, a Bronzeville homeowner, went on the record against any decisions made for the community by the centralized CPS:

“It sounds like Chicago as usual. It was stunning to find out that the working groups consist of institutions that are outside of this community. So how are they included in the planning process but we aren’t as residents and community leaders? That’s a little bit nuts.”

The details of the Mid-South plan as it was known among elite policy making circles, was leaked to the press on July 24, 2009. But the plan leaked to the press didn’t call for any improvements of the public schools in the area as citizens had been falsely led to believe; instead it called for the closure of 20 of the 22 public schools in the community, a decision Arne Duncan as CEO of the Chicago Public Schools was to implement. Even more outrageous was the fact that parents of the children involved in the school closings did not receive any notice of the plan until the final day of school in 2004). This lack of democratic decision-making resulted in angry demonstrations, testimonies at School Board meetings, vocal community hearings and the development of a resistant group called Citywide Action to Revitalize Education or CARE, made up of several community organizations including the SEIU. Bronzeville resident, Brenda Perry, who in July 2004 spoke at a community meeting of local school council members and parents, once the details of the plan to close the 20 schools was revealed by the “secret cabinet, was furious and she blasted the local school council, stating:

“You ignored us for years while scores dropped. Now you want to use us for a social experiment. It’s wrong.”

The community members argued that the plan was concocted and put into place by Duncan to rid the community of its residents in order to further gentrification plans for the new urban land reforms. The evidence for their claims, they said, was the fact that the closing of the schools would mean their children would have to transfer to schools located outside the community, meaning transportation problems which, when added to the lack of affordable housing as a result of public housing demolition and high property taxes, meant that they were being simply pushed out of their communities. Things did not go as planned, due to the volatile and well organized resistance to the 20 school closures the plans for the Mid-South project were scrapped and Duncan and the CPS unhappily bowed to community demands. All this was handled under Arne Duncan’s watch.

But as Brown, Gutstein and Lipman wrote , in all fairness to Arne Duncan:

“….. Chicago Public Schools (CPS) policies are not really about Duncan or his successor. The biggest threat to finally achieving equitable and quality education in Chicago’s low-income African American and Latino/a schools is not the individual who carries out the policy but a system of mayoral control and corporate power that locks out democracy. The impact of those policies includes thousands of children displaced by school closings, spiked violence as they transferred to other schools, and the deterioration of public education in many neighborhoods into a crisis situation.”

Progressive educators see as Duncan as having enthusiastically carryed water for the corporate constituencies and privatized interests seeking to gentrify communities. Their goal is a “business ethos” in schools designed to undermine unions, parent involvement and democratic decision-making, full public disclosure, accountability, transparency and community involvement. As Brown, Gutstein and Lipman write, regarding Chicago Public Schools and the autocratic decisions made by Arne Duncan when CEO of CPS:

“In a democracy there must be opportunities to impact decision-making. CPS has refined sham hearings to a twisted art form. When schools are slated to close, CPS is supposed to hold public hearings (which Duncan never attended) so that a hearing officer and board members (who almost never attend) can engage the school community and listen to their rationale as to why the school should not be closed, or other alternatives should be explored. In virtually every case, parents, students, teachers, and community pour out their hearts. In many cases, they document how their school has been drastically underserved by CPS or that their school has consistently improved. Tears are shed out of fear for their children’s safety or the destruction of a family atmosphere in a school building; yet the CPS Board—on Duncan’s recommendation—consistently votes unanimously to close the school. This has prompted a revitalized effort by community members and organizations to remove the mayor’s authority to appoint the CEO and the school board and move towards an elected school board.”

However, the controversy over Duncan’s policies does not stop with his support for Renaissance 2010. Duncan has also been a strong proponent of school choice when it comes to military schools. He was quoted in the November 2, 2007, issue of USA Today saying: “These are positive learning environments. I love the sense of leadership. I love the sense of discipline.”

In fact, rapid increases in military programs in Chicago public schools actually did occur largely under Duncan’s tenure as CEO of CPS. According to Lipman:
Chicago Public Schools has five military high schools, more than any city in the nation, and 21 “middle school cadet corps” programs. The military high schools teach military history and have military-style discipline. Students wear military uniforms, do military drills, and participate in summer boot camps. The hierarchical authority structure mirrors the Army, Navy, and Marines, with new students (“cadets”) under the command of senior students who work their way up and require obedience from those in “lower ranks.” All but one of the military high schools are in African American communities, and all the middle school cadet programs are in overwhelmingly black or Latina/o schools., and CPS plans additional ones in the future (ibid).

Before Arne Duncan was CEO of CPS, there were procedures in place whereby schools could be put on probation if they had performance problems and they could even be forced to forge alliances with external partners, like mentors, in order to improve their performance. No more; under Arne Duncan’s rule, all this was phased out and now schools that underperformed on standardized tests were to be closed, or “turned around” by private ‘providers’ and ‘turn around artists’ (many of them funded by the ubiquitous deep pockets of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation or the Wal-Mart family fortune). In the turn-around model, the new autocratic accountability regime headed by Duncan drastically increased pressure on teachers and students to perform higher on standardized tests, in accordance of course with NCLB, while at the same time they suspended or in some cases completely did away with extra-curricular activities like art, physical education and recess (Aug. 25, 2008, Chicago Sun Times cited in Brown, Gutstein and Lipman, 2009).

The Obama education policy differs little from the Bush administration’s policy of hitching student and teacher performance to what many in the educational community and beyond call inauthentic assessments that actually force teachers to teach to the test and do little to encourage critical thinking or collaborative problem solving. Nor does the Obama policy seem to differ much in setting goals for the rapid expansion of charter school networks and non-profit and for-profit ‘providers’ to run them.

Where it is more far-reaching than the Bush educational plan, however, is in its commitment to expand the charter school market by forcing all the states in the nation to pass legislation for the creation of charter schools. It also goes further down the road of ‘choice’ by requiring all states to remove all caps on charter start-ups, and then have them unleash some variation of the Diverse Provider Strategy model, a network of retail charter and contract schools accountable and wedded to a system of ‘measureable outcomes’ derived from standardized tests mandated under No Child Left Behind. Add to all of this the fact that Obama has said he might be in favor of private vouchers, his adamant commitment to merit pay based on performance on standardized tests, his suspicion of tenure and seniority and one would think that teacher’s unions would be aghast.

Many are and on July 13, 2009 in San Diego about 2,000 public school teachers gathered at a Washington hotel for the American Federation of Teachers conference to let the Obama administration know it. Present at the AFT conference was the new U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan. Duncan urged the union to join the Obama administration’s push to build support for a new wave of school reform as Congress prepares to reauthorize the 2002 No Child Left Behind law. Seated at the convention on a stool on a stage alongside Duncan was Randi Weingarten, president of the AFT; both of them sported a button on their shirts with the words, “Trust us; we’ll work with you”. Duncan challenged educators to be open to linking pay to student performance on standardized tests and to experiments that could reduce job tenure protections and seniority. He was met with boos by many members. It will be interesting to see how Duncan’s proposals, all of which run contrary to teacher union concerns, will be met in the future when they become actual policy proposals under the Obama administration.

Randi Weingarten made the union’s position on charter schools clear at the San Diego convention in her response to the Obama administration plans for expanding the charter school market:

“Successful charter schools should be applauded and should share their lessons; troubled charter schools that fail their students should be held accountable and closed; and charter school teachers should be supported and given the right to union membership and voice .”(AFT, 2009)

Weingarten also cautioned elected leaders not to walk away from their responsibility to help all public schools succeed “by turning entire public school systems into charter schools”.

Many in the educational community are unhappy with the Obama administration’s commitment to NCLB standardized tests. Diane Ravitch, a Research Professor of Education at New York University and a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution in Washington, D.C., writes a blog for EdWeek where she dialogues with Deborah Meier, a leading progressive educational leader. In early 2009, in a letter posted to Deborah Meier at EdWeek, Ravitch candidly expressed her dismay over the Obama administration’s devotion to NCLB and the direction Arne Duncan was taking the department of education:

“I have been watching and listening to our new secretary of education, trying to understand his views on the most important issues facing our schools and the nation’s children. I wanted to believe candidate Barack Obama when he said that he would introduce real change and restore hope. Surely, I thought, he understood that the deadening influence of No Child Left Behind has produced an era of number-crunching that has very little to do with improving education or raising academic standards.

We truly need change and hope. I thought he understood. He chose to keep his own children far from NCLB. He decided to send them to a private school in Washington, D.C., that shuns the principles and practices of NCLB.
However, based on what I have seen to date, I conclude that Obama has given President George W. Bush a third term in education policy and that Arne Duncan is the male version of Margaret Spellings. Maybe he really is Margaret Spellings without the glasses and wearing very high heels. We all know that Secretary Spellings greeted Duncan’s appointment with glee. She wrote him an open letter in which she praised him as “a fellow reformer” who supports NCLB and anticipated that he would continue the work of the Bush administration. Recall, Deborah, that the media today defines an education reformer as someone who endorses Republican principles of choice and accountability.

Although Obama has said that teachers should not be forced to spend the academic year preparing students to “fill in bubbles on standardized tests” (Weinstein, 2009) it certainly seems that under an Obama administration, save effective organized opposition, NCLB is here to stay.

As I worked on an investigation of charter schools my journey led me through a myriad of think tanks, front groups, advocacy organizations, and reform clubs and associations active in the controversy over charter schools. What I found particularly noticeable were literally hundreds of think tanks, many of which have been active in proposing charter school legislation for decades under the auspices of privatization. I was struck by how large these think tanks were and had become, how well-funded they seemed to be and how they have the ability to create multi-issue networks that can respond on a wide range of issues in a relatively short period of time, a plus in the 24/7 news cycle world within which we live. Many of the think tanks I visited in my research, though not all are also often the same think tanks that promote private vouchers, engage in anti-teacher rhetoric and encourage the privatization of education in general. It is important that as consumers of a great deal of think tank commentary and information about charter schools we take the time to analyze just what a think tank is, why they exist and whose interests they serve.

Just what is a think tank? According to SourceWatch, a project of the Center for Media and Democracy:

“A Think Tank is an organization that claims to serve as a center for research and/or analysis of important public issues. In reality, many think tanks are little more than public relations fronts, usually headquartered in state or national seats of government and generating self-serving scholarship that serves the advocacy goals of their industry sponsors.” (SourceWatch, 2009)

People for the American Way foundation’s (PFAW) library has files on over 800 of what they call “right-wing think tanks”, documenting their activities and providing information about their efforts to reshape society. Many of the think tanks on PFAW’s list are the usual suspects found in charter school debates, school voucher debates and in fact, in all debates over the privatization of schools; think tanks such as The Heritage Foundation, The American Enterprise Institute, Americans for Tax Reform, Black America’s Political Action Committee, Center for the Study of Popular Culture, The Eagle Forum, Focus on the Family, Hispanic Alliance for Progress Institute, Mackinac Center for Public Policy, Manhattan Institute for Policy Research, the Hoover Institution and the list goes on and on as the reader can see from going to PFAW’s website.

In order to assure a healthy debate on issues such as charter schools and educational policy, it is necessary to publicly disclose situations wherein people of wealth and power are manipulating people with little wealth and power, and specifically how the use of language and imagery is used to accomplish these ends. No where can this be seen better than in the debate over health care in the United States and the debate over education and charter schools is no different.

On April 1, 2009, while putting the finishing touches on the second edition of this charter school book, my attention was drawn to a news report in the New York Daily News by the journalist, Juan Gonzalez. The article, entitled “Rev. Al Sharpton’s 500G link to education reform” detailed financial wheeling and dealing, skilled manipulation, personal gain, payoffs through third party intermediaries, front groups, cronyism and rigged public relations campaigns and events designed to influence and manipulate public sentiment on matters of educational policy, especially charter schools.

It should be no surprise that the Reverend Al Sharpton, the self-proclaimed civil rights leader, would be linked to personal financial controversies and political scandals over educational policies in New York City and elsewhere. After all, the Reverend has been a lively and highly vocal figure in the public arena for decades, consistently camera-ready and often rubbing noses with those in power for the sake of personal aggrandizement and questionable financial gain. Yet what should be of interest, if not somewhat surprising, is the exact nature and actual details of the incestuous relationships between so-called community leaders, Wall Street, politicians, conservative think tanks, and well-heeled financial donors, all described by reporter Gonzalez in the New York Daily News piece. The news report detailed secretive dealings and hidden financial payoffs involving Sharpton, the current New York City school Chancellor, Joel Klein, Harold Levy (former New York Chancellor of Education), Joe Williams a strong charter school advocate with his own ‘front group’, Wall Street financiers and the overnight creation of what has come to be known as ‘The Education Equality Project’ (EEP), an ‘educational reform group’ which both Joel Klein and the Reverend Sharpton founded back in 2008.

The new organization, the Education Equality Project (EEP) which Chancellor of New York schools, Joel Klein and Reverend Sharpton set up in 2008 was supposedly put together in an attempt to launch some type of political campaign to erase the historically wide achievement gaps in education between white and black students, or at least that was the stated intent at the group’s announcement ceremony. In fact, at its website, the Education Equality Project proclaims:

“The Education Equality Project (EEP) was founded by Reverend Al Sharpton and New York City Schools Chancellor Joel I. Klein as a national advocacy group focused on closing the achievement gap. Reverend Sharpton and Chancellor Klein are committed to bringing about real equity in public education. Their partnership and shared passion for change is the heart of our organization.” (Education Equality Project, 2009).

What the website fails to mention, however, and what Gonzalez was able to uncover, is that Sharpton’s own organization, The National Action Network, was immediately paid $500,000 for Sharpton’s consent to endorse, involve and partner himself with Joel Klein to launch the new Education Equality Project. The cash no doubt was timely, and quite handy, for at the time of the payment Sharpton’s National Action Network had already agreed to pay the US government $1,000,000 dollars in back taxes and penalties as a result of a criminal investigation – a combination of the organizations failure to follow tax law as well as Sharpton’s own complicity in personal tax evasion. However, the story gets even more bizarre (Gonzalez, 2009).

It appears that to avoid any publicity over the ‘pay for play’ payment that Sharpton received for his alliance with Joel Klein in erecting the new EEP, the $500,000 intended for Sharpton’s group was covertly funneled to Sharpton’s National Action Network by Plainfield Asset Management, LLC, a Connecticut hedge fund. As the story progressed, I asked myself: ‘why was an asset management company chosen to make a payoff to Al Sharpton’s group?’ Perhaps the best motivation could be found in the fact that the former Chancellor of New York Schools, Harold Levy, is currently the managing director of Plainfield Asset Management and a registered lobbyist for the firm. And just what does Plainfield Asset Management, LLC do? The company works closely with Wall Street and other well positioned financiers investing capital here and abroad for maximization purposes. At their website the corporation claims:

“The firm manages investment capital for institutions and high net worth individuals based in the United States and abroad. Plainfield currently employs over 130 people among its three offices in Greenwich, Connecticut, Summit, New Jersey and London, England. The firm’s accountants are PricewaterhouseCoopers LLP. The firm’s prime brokers are Goldman Sachs & Co., Deutsche Bank Securities Inc., JPMorgan Prime Services and Citigroup. The firm’s principal lawyers are Seward & Kissel LLP.” (Plainfield Asset Management, 2009).

Plainfield Asset Management is also a major investor in gaming operations in New York City and the firm is currently pressing city and state officials to authorize two deals worth millions of dollars. Harold Levy, former Chancellor of New York Schools and now a paid lobbyist, has targeted City Hall to privatize the city’s off-track betting operations as well as laboring assiduously in an attempt to win the bidding process for the state’s proposed development of Aqueduct Racetrack (Gonzalez, 2009). The revolving door that allows politicians to become lobbyists once out of political office and then turn around and lobby the offices they once inhabited could not be better illustrated than Levy’s involvement in Plainfield Asset Management and his work on behalf of privatization efforts within the city of New York. In light of all this, as I read on I still failed to understand the connection between Plainfield Management, LLC and the Reverend Al Sharpton, charter schools or privatization efforts in New York schools.

The complex relationships went from murky to clear when the money trail failed to stop with Plainfield Asset, LLC. In a bizarre move that is still left unexplained, what the former New York City School Chancellor, Harold Levy did, was to pay the sum of $500,000 to yet another non-profit organization called Education Reform Now. Education Reform Now then turned around and covertly paid the $500,000 to Sharpton’s group in several installments, knowing that the National Action Network is not a non-profit organization but a for-profit organization devoted to lobbying efforts; this now began to make more sense and rendered all the secretive and tricky financial payments appear both understandable and questionable on multiple levels. To add a twist to the plot, Education Reform Now was then allowed, under IRS rules, to claim the ‘donation’ as a charitable tax deduction (Gonzalez, 2009).

As I continued reading, questions immediately arose as to the status of the non-profit group, Education Reform Now, which served as the pass through or ‘front group’ for the $500,000 to Sharpton and his organization. Who or what is ‘Education Reform Now’ and just what do they stand for and why the subterfuge in paying off Sharpton? I went to their website where the group claims, among other things:

“Although we clearly favor a more rigorous, structured education as providing the greatest benefit for both the individual and society as a whole, the most important principle is freedom of choice. Parents must be free to choose the type and style of education they want for their children, organized and delivered in ways they find most suitable. One of the most pernicious of the mythologies of American public education is that some kind of wisdom resides in the bureaucratic tangles of government that makes it a fit dictator of the right and proper ways to educate children.” (Education Reform Now, 2009.)

Curious, I wanted to know more; like who actually runs Education Reform Now? It didn’t take much digging to find the answer: it was and still is as of this writing, Joe Williams, the former New York Daily News reporter who also directs another educational think tank or front group, Democrats for Education Reform, a leading advocacy group for expanding charter schools throughout New York. Now the whole complex web was starting to make sense and the story eventually came full circle when it was revealed that Joe Williams is also listed as the president and the treasurer of the same Education Equality Project (EEP) launched by Rev. Al Sharpton and Joel Klein in 2008, for which Sharpton’s National Action Network was handsomely paid.

I decided to look up Democrats for Education Reform on the internet to see what exactly they do. The group says it works to foster charter schools throughout New York and elsewhere. They also claim, at their website that:

“We support policies which stimulate the creation of new, accountable public schools and which simultaneously close down failing schools
We support clearly-articulated national standards and expectations for core subject areas, while allowing states and local districts to determine how best to make sure that all students are reaching those standards.” (Democrats for Education Reform, 2009)

Although Joe Williams, head of the group, prefers to remain silent on the matter of the $500,000 payoff to Sharpton, current New York City Schools Chancellor, Joel Klein not only acknowledges the payment but has been busy using his connections and the high-profile Sharpton partnership to raise more than $1.6 million dollars for EEP; no doubt the $500,000 investment in Sharpton’s glitzy media image, political influence and rhetorical support is paying off for the burgeoning New York city think tank and their ongoing efforts in New York to privatize education through charter contract schools, much in the same vein as we see in Chicago, Washington D.C., and New Orleans.

From the point of view of those pushing policies intent on privatizing education in New York or advancing the notion of charter schools, an endorsement from the likes of Rev. Al Sharpton would of course be a blessing. Furthermore, with current mayoral control over New York City educational policies, an ongoing and bitter controversy within the city, having the ‘civil rights leader’ on the side of charter proponents would simply be another public relations coup for the neo-liberal reformers and give their think tanks more credibility in specific communities of color and therefore a larger base and more legitimacy for raising money. Now they would have a ‘community spokesperson’ endorsing their privatization efforts, one very accessible to the corporate media, rhetorically savvy and himself a skilled manipulator. Former New York City School’s Chancellor, Harold Levy partially confirmed the public relations angle when he was confronted with the circumstances regarding the private payment to Sharpton’s group. He simply equivocated at the time, responding:

“Our goal was to increase public awareness of the problems of high poverty schools, particularly in the context of the presidential race.” (Gonzalez, 2009).

As I sat reading the article about the pay-off to the Reverend Al Sharpton for his support for the expansion of charter schools in New York, I could not help but recall the time when Jay P. Greene, Senior Fellow at the Manhattan Institute for Policy Research and a leading spokesman for the privatization of every and all aspects of public schooling, appeared in 2006 on NPR, CNN and PBS to put forth his Hollywood thesis on ‘the drop out crisis’ in public schools (Greene, 2006). The interviews might as well have been staged ‘infomercials’ for his claims, for he was never challenged nor were any alternative points of view introduced to foster debate or cross swords with his key assumptions and claims. In fact, Greene’s claims on the matter (the problem was due to lack of teacher incentives and systemic rot) were later inherited by Oprah Winfrey as a newsworthy story. Winfrey then went on to cite Greene’s work as evidence on her TV show, which has an estimated 49 million viewers; yet nowhere did she present any alternative point of view to challenge Greene’s thesis, nor were there any challenges to Greene’s reasoning and claims (Kovacs, 2007). The whole thing was a staged exercise in propaganda and of course the public was never told that at the time of Greene’s interviews and press rounds that Greene had recently been appointed head of the University of Arkansas at Fayetteville’s new Department of Education Reform. The Department was created and then given $20,000,000 dollars from Arkansas’s other favorite son, Sam Walton and the Walton Family Foundation, a strong supporter and major contributor to charter schools.

The Greene incident also drew parallels with television show 20/20, an ABC affiliate show (home to the Oprah Winfrey show) which in 2006 premiered John Stossel’s special attack on public education entitled, “Stupid in America”. ABC aired the show not once but twice in 2006, without ever letting their viewers know that Stossel, when he is not engaged in media coverage for 20/20, is a close associate of the Cato Institute, a neo-liberal think tank that vociferously targets the termination of public education as one of its main goals. Of course the audience was unaware of either the Cato Institute or Stossel’s ties to the think tank and there was no equal time given to any alternative points of view — nor were there any voices to challenge Stossel’s claims.

Amy Wells, perhaps the most notable writer on the subject ends her book, Where Charter School Policy Fails, commenting that:

“…the only remaining hope for charter school reform to have any lasting positive impacts on the public educational system would be for more progressive members of this diverse and complex movement to recapture the language and symbols of what constitutes a good charter school law. Until that happens, the hopes and dreams of thousands of social justice educators and families engaged in this reform will be marginalized and reliant on powerful and private market agents who have never served the most disadvantaged students well.” (Wells, 2002.)

From the point of view of this author, comparing and contrasting laboratories of learning for purposes of defining deficiencies or inefficiencies in educational settings, be they charter schools or traditional public schools, when those comparisons are based on inauthentic standardized testing is an exercise in futility and more than simply futile, it could be a capitulation or acceptance of NCLB and standardized testing as inevitable. Corwin and Schneider agree with the in-authenticity of the testing, noting:

Comparing the test scores of charter schools with regular schools in Arizona is nonsense if not fraudulent. Rather than perpetuating the nation’s warped obsession with tests, researchers should be cautioning the public about the pitfalls and calling for alternative forms of assessment. But until they arrive, we are stuck with standardized tests to measure academic achievement (Corwin and Schneider, 2005))

They go on to note, that in the beginning of the charter school movement success was based on such things as whether charter schools had waiting lists, whether they were fiscally solvent, whether they met various local and state building codes and whether they could attract students, however as the two authors write:

“But then the rules changed dramatically when charter schools and schools that accepted federal vouchers were caught up in the No Child Left Behind legislation. Suddenly, they too had to test their students and show adequate yearly progress. And the choice schools had to use the same tests that the states developed for all the other public schools in the state. Now for the first time, policy makers, legislatures and parents alike could make comparisons across schools, something that hadn’t been possible before. The hoax of the superiority of choice schools was about to be exposed.”

However, surprisingly, even Corwin and Schneider resign themselves to the testing regime. Commenting on the charter school versus traditional public school performance argument, they comment:

“Rather than perpetuate the nation’s warped obsession with tests, researchers should be cautioning the public about the pitfalls and calling for alternative forms of assessment. But until they arrived, we are stuck with standardized test to measure academic achievement.”

From here, they then go on to argue:

“In any case, not withstanding the criticisms, NCLB has become a fact of life that everyone will have to live with.”

These comments seem not only odd in light of the affirmation that the tests are not authentic but they also represent a capitulation to resignation and despair. For if the tests are inauthentic and if the testing regime is hurting kids and not allowing us to develop best teaching practices for our children, then isn’t resistance to the notion of standardized testing and NCLB what is needed? If charter schools are to be the laboratories of change they disguise themselves as, then won’t these innovative changes be based on more authentic forms of assessment and won’t this require political organization among and between community groups, parents, teachers and all educational stakeholders? If it does, then Corwin and Schneider’s comments above are hardly motivating for those who are working diligently to change NCLB or do away with it in entirety.

However, even if one accepts the underlying assumptions that standardized tests somehow aid and abet student learning and facilitates assessment and better teaching practices, when we compare the standardized testing scores from traditional public school students to student test performance at charter schools, charter schools still come up short. This point was recently brought home by the study done by the Center for Research on Education Outcomes (CREDO), at Stanford University. The scope of the study entitled, Multiple Choice: Charter School Performance in 16 States, released in June 2009, is an exhaustive study of charter schools, the first national assessment of charter school impacts of its kind. The findings from the Stanford researchers must be disheartening to charter school advocates, including the Obama administration, for they conclude from their research that:

“The Quality Curve results are sobering:

Of the 2,403 charter schools reflected on the curve, 46 percent of charter schools have math gains that are statistically indistinguishable from the average growth among their TPS comparisons. Charters whose math growth exceeded their TPS equivalent growth by a significant amount account for 17 percent of the total. The remaining group, 37 percent of charter schools, posted math gains that were significantly below what their students would have seen if they enrolled in local traditional public schools instead.

The national pooled analysis of charter school impacts showed the following results:

• Charter school students on average see a decrease in their academic growth in reading of .01 standard deviations compared to their traditional school peers. In math, their learning lags by .03 standard deviations on average. While the magnitude of these effects is small, they are both statistically significant.

• The effects for charter school students are consistent across the spectrum of starting positions. In reading, charter school learning gains are smaller for all students but those whose starting scores are in the lowest or highest deciles. For math, the effect is consistent across the entire range.

• Charter students in elementary and middle school grades have significantly higher rates of learning than their peers in traditional public schools, but students in charter high schools and charter multi-level schools have significantly worse results.

• Charter schools have different impacts on students based on their family backgrounds. For Blacks and Hispanics, their learning gains are significantly worse than that of their traditional school twins. However, charter schools are found to have better academic growth results for students in poverty. English Language Learners realize significantly better learning gains in charter schools. Students in Special Education programs have about the same outcomes.

• Students do better in charter schools over time. First year charter students on average experience a decline in learning, which may reflect a combination of mobility effects and the experience of a charter school in its early years. Second and third years in charter schools see a significant reversal to positive gains.” (Credo, 2009).

These findings are hardly anything to get excited about, especially after close to 20 years of experimenting with charter schools and they act both as an indictment of charter schools and NCLB, as well as evidence against their hollow claims.

When I think of the Neighborhood Charter School in Massachusetts or the Freire Charter School in Philadelphia, both of which we spoke about in chapter four, I ask: ‘Why can’t all children have this rich, educational experience?’ ‘Why can’t we offer substantial educational experiences to all children, no matter where and how they might live?’ Realistically, although the Neighborhood Charter School and the Freire Charter School along with countless others of similar depth allow us to see what hope, community building, collaborative problem solving, innovation and educational democracy can bring, reality tells us they are really just boutique schools, elite enclaves available only to a privileged or select few.

Rarely are charters schools viewed under any moral lens other than competition, individualism and choice and for this reason it is necessary to spell out what I feel are four primary moral issues that many progressive educators would argue should be used to determine the efficacy and efficiency of charter schools. From here, we can then ask if charter schools, as they are currently developing, meet the moral criteria. The morals I speak of here are solidarity, diversity, equity and equal opportunity, and participation in power and decision making. Let’s look at these morals one by one as they relate to charter schools.


To begin with, take the moral issue that calls for solidarity among school staff, workers, teachers, parents, students, community and administration. Without unity at a school sites, it is argued, democratic governance is simply not attainable nor is authentic student learning possible. Educational stakeholders, from teachers, staff, parents, students, community members and administration must know that they are part of a unified effort to create educational opportunities for all students and they must have opportunities among themselves to discuss their common struggle for human dignity and the problems, dilemmas and successes they face at school sites. The notion that “we are all in this together” is essential if any educational institution wishes to operate democratically and survive; horizontal arrangements among stakeholders at school sites is essential for democratic decision making. Do charter schools meet the moral criteria under the lens of solidarity and unity?

For some charters, like the Neighborhood Charter School and other excellent enclaves of learning the answer is, yes. There are many wonderful charter schools doing wonderful things, this is certainly not arguable. However we have seen how the development of retail franchise chains of charter schools run by for-profit and non-profit EMO’s and independent operators do little to encourage solidarity and unity among educational stakeholders; in fact many of them do the opposite, employing a divide and conquer strategy among and between teachers, parents, community and administrators while centralizing autocratic decision making power in the hands of a small elite group of ‘providers’ and their publicly funded cronies. This hardly promotes the idea that “we are all in this together” and therefore morally fails to create solidarity or communities of democracy and excellence. As Lipman and Hursh note:

“Because charter school employees do not have union protections, they are subject to the same labor abuses, system of favoritism and cronyism, and lack of job security as non-union workers in other sectors. For example at one Renaissance 2010 charter school, teachers negotiate their salaries individually, are not allowed to leave the building during the working day, and have no job security from year to year.” (Lipman and Hursh, 2007).

Promoting such ideas as competition among teachers for merit pay also does little to encourage a learning organization with shared decision making; it pits teachers against each other, as opposed to allowing for collaboration and opportunities to share the best instructional practices and innovations teachers have developed. In fact, the whole notion of competition itself, as expressed by the market fundamentalism of NCLB is arguably antithetical to school governance, effective teaching and student learning. Teaching and learning are cooperative activities, not ‘go it alone’ segregated pursuits that are solely based on ‘measureable outcomes’. What is sorely needed at educational learning sites is the development of collaborative problem solving opportunities for all educational stakeholders and competition certainly does not provide for cohesive collaborative learning, either among teaches or students.

Add to this already volatile equation of educational despair, the explosion of virtual charter schools with for-profit curriculum kits, whereby students and their parents can ‘opt out’ of the public square to pursue their individualized learning at home, and we can begin to see the visible signs of the erosion of civic responsibility and common struggles for human dignity. Ethnic-theme charter schools and gender based charter schools, two other current phenomena that are witnessing huge growth today, also serve to undermine solidarity and like virtual charter schools, are disenfranchising. The return to “separate but equal” surely cannot hope to encourage unity among educational stakeholders in the interest of forging democracy in schools, or society at large. In fact, it can be argued that many charter schools are atomistic forces of disunity and threaten to undermine any common struggle for solidarity and human dignity.


Secondly, we look at the issue of diversity appreciation among educational workers, students and the communities they serve. An appreciation of diversity of thought, race, class, gender, sexual orientation and culture are all important if we are to work together to make democratic decisions regarding the education of our nation’s children; this is true among and between students, parents, administrators, and staff as well as the public in general. Under the moral lens of diversity appreciation, do charter schools make the grade? The answer is generally, no. Harnessed to NCLB and state testing, charter schools do not account for the enormous difference in student circumstances for testing purposes. Furthermore, as we noted earlier, the movement to re-segregate schools, either by race, gender or class through many current charter school designs we discussed is disturbing and threatens a return to the “separate but equal” approaches to education we saw before the Brown v. Board of Education decision in 1954. This can hardly be said to be good policy for democratic forms of school decision making or civic commitments to excellence. Understanding the common struggle for human dignity requires an appreciation of the diversity of thought and “difference” among all educational stakeholders and opportunities to work with and learn about those differences.


The third moral pillar I would argue that is required for successful democratic institutions such as schools is the provision of equity or equitable opportunities for all teachers and children to learn regardless of race, class, ethnicity, gender, gender preference or culture. Without educational equity and the provision of equal opportunities for learning, no educational reform stands any chance of success. Yet as we saw earlier, the burgeoning market in charter schools rests on a high volume business model of garnishing more and more of the ‘subprime’ kids, those on the lower rung of the economic ladder who usually live in highly populated urban centers. In a highly stratified class society such as ours, children who are fortunate enough to attend the Lusher Charter School or the Freire Charter School, just to use two examples, will get a champagne education, while those less fortunate due to class discrimination, gender discrimination and racism will most likely receive a subprime education. Charter schools also restrict enrollment, due to size, preference, burdensome parental contracts and costs. We have to ask ourselves, ‘Do we want lotteries funding our schools and then turn around and use lotteries to decide who gets access to quality public education?’

For teachers, it is also important that they too receive equitable opportunities to enhance their skills, talents and teaching practices. However, with the development of privatized curriculum and the “best practices” model of education the role of teachers is more and more defined as technicians, dispensaries of information for memorization purposes in accordance with the testing regime of NCLB. Peter McLaren and Ramin Farahmandpur ask us to consider the return of the current neo-functionalist organizational model in urban schools:

“Today urban schools are adroitly organized around the same principles as factory production lines. According to [Jonathan] Kozol “rising test scores,” “social promotion,” “outcome-based objectives,” “time management,” “success for all,” “authentic writing,” “accountable talk,” “active listening,” and “zero noise” constitute part of the dominant discourse in public schools. Most urban public schools have adopted business and market “work related themes” and managerial concepts that have become part of the vocabulary used in classroom lessons and instruction. In the “market-driven classrooms,” students “negotiate,” “sign contracts,” and take “ownership” of their own learning. In many classrooms, students can volunteer as the “pencil manager,” “soap manager,” “door manager,” “line manager,” “time manager,” and “coat room manager.” In some fourth-grade classrooms, teachers record student assignments and homework using “earning charts”….[Jonathan] Kozol writes that in the market-driven model of public education, teachers are viewed as “floor managers” in public schools, “whose job it is to pump some ‘added-value’ into undervalued children.” (McClaren and Farahmandpur, 2006).

This description is hardly a characterization of equity in education and charter schools that view and devise education in this light can never qualify as moral leaders, centers of innovation or sites for meaningful reform and student learning.


Finally, any democracy and democratic institution must rest on the moral principle that demands that educational stakeholders be accorded opportunities for participation in issues of power that affect them. Teachers, students, staff, community and parents must have opportunities that allow them to be able to participate in the day to day governance of their schools and in order to effectively do this they need access to information, rules and regulations that allow for democratic decision making, and collaborative problem solving to manage the day to day affairs of schools. Yet charter schools far too often lack transparency, fail to disclose their decision making processes nor provide financial accountability when working with educational workers and their communities. Under such corporate models as Renaissance 2010 in Chicago and elsewhere, neoliberal policies express a preference for the governance of schools by elites and experts, outside the purview of the communities they purportedly serve and without full disclosure, accountability and transparency; with the growth of private charter school providers and EMO’s of all stripes, this can only threaten to worsen, causing morale problems among educational workers, and creating hazards and disharmony among all educational stakeholders.

The Obama administration seeks to encourage the expansion of the charter school market through government legislation and fiscal reform. What this will mean for education is now partially becoming visible, though the outlines are still vague. It could mean the growth of a new national and state-wide school system as we see in New Orleans – a system more and more reliant on a network of charter schools managed by for-profit and non-profit providers subsidized by public funds. This then in turn could mean less fiscal and political attention being paid to traditional public schools, a form of fiscal starvation.

We live in a society highly segregated by social class and race and this is becoming increasingly evident as inequality continues to rise in America, as it has over the last thirty five years. Can charter schools really work to educate students to think critically in light of the tremendous inequality and social breakdown evident in American life, or are they, as author Jonathan Kozol argue “desperation strategies that have come out of the acceptance of inequality” (Kozol, 2005)?

The answer for many progressive educators is, no, the charter school movement cannot hope to cure our nation’s ills and in fact can work to compound them. Charter schools, as their advocates admit, are based on a moral ethic of ‘go it alone individualism’, market fundamentalism, atomization and private choice. These moral values blur the distinctions between public and private efforts at school reform and in doing so charter schools as an educational reform movement create a constriction of democracy that deligitimizes democratic decision making in schools; it does not enhance it. This can hardly be said to be good for democracy, education or the future of our children. If it is really true that the moral importance of solidarity and unity, diversity appreciation, equity and equal opportunity along with opportunities for participation in power are important to building educational sites of quality learning and community, then charter schools may not only not be the answer, they may actually exacerbate the problem of social dissolution.

Our challenge now is a formidable one. In light of the fiscal disemboweling of public schools throughout the nation, the massive teacher lay-offs, the furloughs, and the savage cuts in public educational services the debate over charter schools needs to be seated within a much larger moral consideration regarding educational purpose tied to democratically inspired ethical values, authentic assessment, cooperation among and between all public schools and the notion of democratic decision making itself. Therefore, moral philosophical thinking about education, as Dewey argued, must be relevant in our efforts to reform public education in a way that creates more meaningful and enriched lives by providing real innovative opportunities for public educational centers of excellence. We as a nation must ask ourselves what the goals of education really are in a democracy. For then, and only then, can we begin to develop the morally based educational centers that can foster students’ learning to think critically about the problems that face us individually, as a nation and as a global community.