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Est. April 5, 2002
September 24, 2015 - Issue 622

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The African American Role
in the
Privatization of Public Education:

Notes from the Field

"Condoleezza Rice, who coauthored a report
championing school choice and privatization...;
Gen. Colin and Alma Powell who promote choice
through their America’s Promise non-profit; and
the Hon. Andrew Young, Congressman Charles Rangel,
Martin Luther King, III, Robert Johnson, founder and
former CEO of BET, and Will Smith, the actor, all of
whom have served on the National Advisory Board of
the Children’s Scholarship Fund, a major private-funder
of vouchers for urban school children of color."

Note: We welcome Dr. Farrell as a BC columnist.  His writings will appear on a regular basis.

Public education has historically served as a lifeline for the educational, economic, and social uplift of the African American Community. It was viewed as so essential that South Carolina Reconstruction-era black legislators, many of whom were newly freed slaves, made it a major priority. They took the lead in establishing a system of statewide free public education, and this accomplishment ignited a movement that led to the national system of public education we have today. This method of schooling created the middle-class infrastructure that gave rise to Dr. W.E.B DuBois; the first black Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall; former Congresswoman Barbara Jordan; Patricia Roberts Harris, former Secretary of the U.S. Departments of Housing and Urban Development and Health and Human Services; Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.; Nobel Laureate Toni Morrison; Federal Judges Constance Baker Motley and Amalya L. Kearse; Stokely Carmichael, co-founder of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC); former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and U.S. Secretary of State, Gen. Colin Powell; former U.S. Secretary of State, Dr. Condoleezza Rice; and numerous others. Thus it is interesting that many of today’s local and national African American leaders are working in concert with those who are privatizing and dismantling this critical link to social justice for the black community. Although this phenomenon is of recent vintage, it is having a devastating impact on African American and other students of color across the nation, especially in urban school districts, where they are the majority of students enrolled in public education and the majority of students targeted for enrollment in voucher and charter schools.

The privatization Cartel and its allies (the Koch Bros., Wall Street firms, and major corporations, and foundations, etc.: see BCDismantling Public Education… “, September 17, 2015) have adroitly drafted black leaders to carry their choice agenda since the 1980s. But the facts are clear: (1) there has been no conclusive research evidence that voucher and charter schools or schools administered by Education Management Organizations (EMOs) perform any better than traditional public schools for poor students, special needs students, or working- and middle-class students, and when positive outcomes do occur, they are the result of the voluntary or forced withdrawal of higher-performing students and more involved parents from public schools with slick marketing techniques and the closing of low-performing and/or successful public schools and turning them over to charter companies, respectively, and (2) the continued under-funding of public schools in urban and rural areas has been a key factor in their declining academic performance. But most importantly, those African American leaders (and other leaders of color) who support the school choice agenda are not doing so on any evidenced-based research or practice, and they tend overwhelmingly to be funded by the Cartel as politicians, consultants, or as heads of ethnic organizations.

In 1995, Dr. Howard Fuller, who had resigned as Superintendent of the Milwaukee Public Schools (MPS), was selected by the Bradley Foundation, a Cartel member, to replace Wisconsin State Representative Annette Polly Williams as the primary national black spokesperson for the school choice agenda. Bradley was disappointed by Representative Williams’ refusal to endorse publicly-funded private school vouchers for Catholic and other sectarian schools. Williams, who had been a single mom on welfare and had gone on to earn a college degree and be elected to office, was originally viewed as having the best affinity to carry the choice message to poor, urban inner-city parents. But her unwillingness to carry the full choice agenda, without equivocation, after Bradley had made her the black public face of the school choice program, was unacceptable. In addition, the Foundation was changing its choice marketing strategy to be inclusive of both majority and minority communities. Earlier, it had spent millions of dollars to lobby the Wisconsin legislature to change state certification requirements for the Milwaukee Public Schools (MPS) Superintendent’s position and to influence the majority of MPS school board members to appoint Dr. Fuller superintendent in 1991. He spent four years privatizing MPS system via vouchers, charters, and contracting out individual schools to be managed by private and public entities.

He was forced out in 1995 after the school board transitioned to being pro-public education. On the day of his resignation, Fuller released a pro-voucher/privatization paper, disparaging the public schools, co-authored by a Cartel-funded professor at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. Formerly known as Owusu Sadauki, when he was in the Black Power Movement, Fuller was the perfect candidate to replace Polly Williams. He is well-educated, articulate, charismatic, and a spell-binding speaker. He is also a former black militant who gave a keynote address to the 1972 National Black Political Convention in Gary, Indiana, and he had personal relationships with grassroots African American activists in every urban community in the nation. The Bradley Foundation created an endowed professorship and a school privatization-focused Institute for The Transformation of Learning (ITL), at Marquette University, to provide Dr. Fuller with a platform for his new role. For the last twenty years, he has supported and given legislative testimony and speeches for numerous minority and majority elected officials and Cartel leaders, and those aspiring for office, at the local, state, and national levels, and he has supported elected officials who promote privatization and school choice from Oregon to North Carolina—including former Gov. Tommy Thompson (R-WI), former President George W. Bush (R), former Mayor John Norquist (D-Milwaukee), Gov. Scott Walker (R-WI), former Gov. Jeb Bush (R-FL), newly elected U.S. Senator Thom Tillis (R-NC), and many others.

Fuller’s wife, Dr. Deborah McGriff, was deposed as Superintendent of the Detroit Public Schools in 1993, after two years in office, for pushing these same privatization initiatives. The day after her notice of resignation, Benno Schmidt, then CEO of the now defunct Edison Project, flew into Detroit and announced McGriff’s hiring as a Vice President of the Edison Project, which transformed to Edison Schools and then to Edison Learning after failing in its attempts to privately manage and/or charter public schools. She later became a partner in the New Schools Venture Fund after leaving Edison Learning, and along with her husband, serves on the Boards of national charter school companies and associations. As a school choice power couple, Fuller and McGriff have become millionaires from investments and income generated from the privatization of public schools largely populated by students of color. Dr. Fuller also serves as a mentor and advisor to other Black elected officials who have been recruited and funded by the Cartel, the more prominent of whom have been Kurt Schmoke, the first elected African American Mayor of Baltimore, Maryland, U.S. Sen. Cory Booker (D-NJ), former Mayor of Newark, and Adrian Fenty, former Mayor of Washington, D.C.

Kurt Schmoke, while working in the Administration of President Jimmy Carter from 1977-1980, as a domestic policy advisor and later as Assistant U.S. Attorney in Baltimore, laid out his career plan, “I am going to indict a few bad guys, make some connections in the corporate world, and run for office” (see Gwen Ifill, The Breakthrough, 2009). The Cartel and its allies were at the ready to assist Schmoke in achieving his goals. (A review of Federal Election Commission records show that more than two-thirds of funding for his four campaigns, one for Baltimore City States Attorney in 1982, and three for Mayor, 1987 to 1995, came from this group.) During Schmoke’s second term as Mayor, he became an aggressive advocate of vouchers and privatization, awarding Educational Alternatives, Inc. (EAI), a private-sector education management company, a $180 million contract to manage nine under-performing Baltimore public schools from 1992-1997.

He was forced to cancel the contract in 1995 due to black community pressure concerning EAI’s termination of teacher assistants and its falsification of test scores for the students in the schools under its control. Schmoke also had to confront an unexpected challenger who threatened his reelection to a third term. In addition, Baltimore’s black Superintendent Walter Amprey, who was appointed to the position by Schmoke, worked as a consultant to EAI, using his vacation time, to market EAI to his fellow African American superintendents. After the festering of these issues in the black community, along with Schmoke’s attempt to legalize drugs and reduce black teen pregnancy with a Depo-Provera shot that had negative side effect for adolescent girls, Schmoke’s political career came to an abrupt halt after he completed his third term in 1999. In his final years in office, he tried to make a case for privatizing public education at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore and at the conservative Manhattan Institute in New York City and made no impact. At the outset of his political career, Schmoke had been touted as becoming the first black governor or U.S. senator from Maryland and the first black U.S. president, long before Barack Obama burst onto the national scene. He involuntarily returned to private life in 1999 where he has held a series of high-level positions in public and private-sector organizations, but he retains little political influence, and he no longer publicly advocates for the school choice agenda.

Current New Jersey U.S. Senator Cory Booker was tapped by the Cartel in 1998 to run for the Newark, New Jersey City Council against a four-term incumbent, George Branch. With a four-to-one campaign spending advantage and funding a slate of City Council members which gave him a Council majority, Booker won in an upset. He had lived in Newark less than two years. After one term, he ran for Mayor against another four-term incumbent, Sharpe James in 2002, and he again had a larger campaign war chest than his opponent, courtesy of the Cartel. Losing narrowly, Booker ran for a second time in 2006 and won in a landslide after James dropped out of the race thirty days before the election. (Mayor James was later indicted for corruption and sent to jail for two years.) Four months after his election, Booker sent a letter to all Assembly and Senate members in the New Jersey Legislature asking them to pass a statewide voucher bill (which failed in Committee). At the beginning of his second term, Booker received a $100 million matching grant from Facebook founder, Mark Zuckerberg, to revolutionize the Newark Public Schools. He cooperated with Republican New Jersey Governor Chris Christie to turn the Newark Public Schools into a charter school district similar to New Orleans. But Newark parents and the larger black community had no input into Booker’s privatization scheme. Millions of dollars were disbursed to consultants and corporations in the name of education reform, and Christie and Booker traveled the country extolling what they were doing to improve the education of low-income African American and Hispanic children. After five years, even Zuckerberg came to see the failure of his well-intended initiative (see Dale Russakoff, The Prize, 2015). Booker would go on to win a special election for the U.S. Senate, still lauding what he had done in Newark. The Cartel has continued to fund his political ambitions as he is a valued member of its bipartisan coterie of Democratic and Republican elected officials at every level of government.

Adrian Fenty, a black Washington, D.C. City Councilman, ran for Mayor in 2006 and won by a substantial margin with the support of a socio-economic cross-section of D.C. voters. Immediately upon taking office, he began to push for an increase in charter schools and unilaterally hired Michelle Rhee as Chancellor of the D.C. Public Schools. Rhee’s only administrative experience was as CEO of the New Teacher Project, a non-profit that provided alternatively-trained teachers to urban school districts after serving as a Teach for America (TFA) teacher in Baltimore, and her primary qualification was that she came out of the Cartel network. (Later it was discovered that she had misrepresented her success in raising standardized test scores for the low-performing students that she taught.) Nevertheless, she and Mayor Fenty were successful in increasing the privatization and chartering of the D.C. Public Schools. They fired hundreds of teachers, claiming a budget shortfall (later found to be untrue) and replaced them with TFA teachers. The community became so alarmed at the duo’s school privatization efforts that it backed a candidate to unseat Fenty when he ran for reelection in 2010. Although Fenty outspent his opponent by more than six- to-one, his campaign never caught fire. In the eleventh hour, a group of Fenty’s Cartel supporters, who were also major contributors to the 2008 Obama campaign, met with the President in the Oval Office and asked him to endorse Fenty in the Democratic primary, believing that Obama’s popularity would put Fenty over the top. Although the President was a personal and political friend of Mayor Fenty and had sanctioned his approaches to education reform in the Obama Race to the Top (RTTT) legislation, he declined to endorse Fenty, recognizing that to openly opposed the political wishes of D.C.’s black voters could have negative, national repercussions as he was gearing up for his own reelection to a second term in 2012. To make his position clear after Fenty’s defeat, the next morning President Obama dispatched Attorney General Eric Holder to visit Fenty’s opponent, Vincent Gray, to congratulate him on his victory and to state publicly that he had voted for him.

The aforementioned elected officials—Schmoke, Booker, and Fenty have been advised by Dr. Fuller on a regular basis during their time in office. Fuller, as a surrogate of the Cartel, has encouraged and assisted them in their privatization efforts and was available to speak to community groups in their cities and states and to serve as an interlocutor to black radicals and grassroots activists. At the same time, the Cartel and its allies acquired the assistance of other well-known black leaders to promote their cause: Condoleezza Rice, who coauthored a report championing school choice and privatization for the Council on Foreign Affairs; Gen. Colin and Alma Powell who promote choice through their America’s Promise non-profit; and the Hon. Andrew Young, Congressman Charles Rangel, Martin Luther King, III, Robert Johnson, founder and former CEO of BET, and Will Smith, the actor, all of whom have served on the National Advisory Board of the Children’s Scholarship Fund, a major private-funder of vouchers for urban school children of color.

What has occurred, and is occurring, is that the Cartel is simultaneously pushing its school choice agenda on multiple fronts via a diverse and expanding coalition of sponsors at every level. It has quietly insinuated itself into the circle of public education stakeholders: unions, teachers, and the general body politic. In addition, the Koch Bros. have softened their image by aligning with its erstwhile enemies on issues of critical public policy. For instance, after spending a billion dollars to defeat President Obama in 2012, they are now collaborating with him on criminal justice reform. A Koch Bros. representative has been meeting with Valerie Jarrett, President Obama’s closest advisor, on this issue during the past year. In his historic visit to the federal Oklahoma prison on July 16, 2015, President Obama applauded the Koch Bros., by name, for their efforts. The prevailing question is: can public education withstand this growing multiracial privatization onslaught by such wealthy and politically savvy adversaries? Only time will tell. Columnist, Dr. Walter C. Farrell, Jr., PhD, MSPH, is a Fellow of the National Education Policy Center (NEPC) at the University of Colorado-Boulder and has written widely on vouchers, charter schools, and public school privatization. He has appeared on the Today Show with Matt Lauer and National Public Radio’s The Connection to discuss public school privatization, and he has lectured to parent, teacher, and union groups throughout the nation. Contact Dr. Farrell.

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David A. Love, JD
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