The Weekly Update for the news and views you might have missed

Alice Walton of the Walton family, who are big contributors to the proliferation of charter schools and vouchers, is the same Alice Walton who has contributed $1.7M, and counting, to the charter school Initiative 1240 in Washington State. The Walton’s are investing heavily now in Louisiana where school vouchers are now legal and the Walton’s, along with some of the other wealthy few, want to ensure that charter schools not only remain in place but proliferate as the article in The Nation below describes. See the Walmart 1% for additional information on the Walton’s involvement in public education.

From The Nation, an excerpt:

Why Do Some of America’s Wealthiest Individuals Have Fingers in Louisiana’s Education System?

Last fall, a coterie of extremely wealthy billionaires, among them New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, turned the races for unpaid positions on the Louisiana Board of Elementary and Secondary Education (BESE) into some of the most expensive in the state’s history. Seven pro-education “reform” candidates for the BESE outraised eight candidates endorsed by the teacher’s unions by $2,386,768 to $199,878, a ratio of nearly twelve to one. In just one of these races, the executive director of Teach for America Greater New Orleans-Louisiana Delta, Kira Orange Jones, outspent attorney Louella Givens, who was endorsed by the state’s main teacher’s unions, by more than thirty-four to one: $472,382 to $13,815.

To support Orange Jones’s campaign against Givens, Eli Broad, billionaire head of the education reform organization the Broad Foundation and a major trainer and placer of school superintendents, chipped in $5,000. Reed Hastings of Netflix kicked in the same. Houston energy hedge fund billionaire John Arnold and his wife Laura gave a total of $10,000, as did Walmart heiress Carrie Walton Penner and her husband Greg. New York City’s second-wealthiest man, Michael Bloomberg, contributed $10,000 as well.

Kira Orange Jones wasn’t the only candidate for the Louisiana Board of Elementary and Secondary Education who received previously unheard of levels of out-of-state cash. K12 Inc., an online education company, gave at least $12,000 to pro-reform BESE candidates and PACs. Siblings Alice and Jim Walton of the Walmart fortune gave more than $150,000 to candidates and PACs, and Michael Bloomberg gave a total of $330,000. In the end, only one candidate opposed by Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal and education reformers actually won: Lottie Beebe, a public school personnel director who spent less than half of what her opponent spent. Compare this to the last BESE elections, in 2007. The total spent by all candidates in contested BESE races that year was just $258,596—roughly one-tenth of the 2011 total.

Why would out-of-state billionaires care about Louisiana’s Board of Elementary and Secondary Education? The state board must approve the governor’s nominee for the powerful state superintendent of education by a two-thirds majority, and the 2007–11 board would have been unlikely to approve Jindal’s nominee, John White. White had been in Louisiana for less than a year at the time, after coming from New York City to head Louisiana’s Recovery School District, which the BESE directly supervises. A Teach for America alum, White had previously spent five years working as a deputy chancellor for the New York City Department of Education under Michael Bloomberg. Louisiana’s education superintendent administers the state’s educational system, but of particular interest to wealthy donors, the superintendent recommends which schools should be eligible for accreditation and state support to the BESE, which ultimately approves. In the past decade or so, that has meant that the state superintendent and BESE discern which charter or voucher schools are eligible to provide instruction in the state of Louisiana.

The article continues:

….Jindal’s reform plan hit the ground running. State Representative Steve Carter introduced two bills modeled after the proposals in Jindal’s January speech on March 12, the first day of the legislative session. The two bills, now known as Act 1 — Talent, and Act 2 — Choice, are multifaceted. Act 1 deals primarily with limiting school boards’ ability to give tenure to teachers, as well as increasing the usage of teacher evaluations in making hiring decisions and giving superintendents considerably more latitude to hire and fire without the approval of their school board. (It is for this reason, among many others, that the Louisiana School Boards Association vehemently opposed both bills.) Act 2 focuses on the expansion of charter schools and vouchers. Under this new regime, nonprofit organizations can be given the authority to become charter authorizers, bypassing elected and public bodies. And any child below a certain income level attending a school rated C, D or F can receive a voucher to go to a private or parochial school. Act 2 also allows Louisiana businesses to receive funding from the state to provide apprenticeships, and allows charter and private schools to recruit uncertified teachers.

The legislative action on the bill was short but hard-fought. An estimated two thousand teachers rallied against the bill on March 14, but were not let into the committee room, which Karran Harper Royal, a leading activist who is a mother of a child with disabilities, told me was unprecedented in her years of advocating before the legislature. Michael Deshotels, a retired Louisiana educator, wrote on his blog that he witnessed only one teacher testify in favor of the bills.

Note: Parents Across America member Karran Harper Royal is running for school board. Her opponent is backed by some of these same wealthy individuals. Anyone who can, please consider a donation to Karran.

Now, on to charter schools.

The reason that the Washington State PTA decided not to support Initiative 1240 was because there would be no public oversight of charter schools, the charter school authorizers or the charter school commission. The  Office of the Inspector General, a branch of the US Department of Education, recently published results of its audit on the oversight of charter schools.

Diane Ravitch provides some interesting details regarding the audit.

Audit Blasts Lack of Oversight of Charter Spending

The U.S. Department of Education’s Office of the Inspector General issued a stinging audit, showing a near absence of oversight of charter school spending in the three states studied: Florida, Arizona, and California. On the same day, the California charter schools association celebrated another big expansion of the charter sector in that state. There are now more than 1,000 charter schools with nearly half a million students in them, and the state department of education lacks the staff to monitor them. Some of the schools never open; some open and close within a year or two. Some pay outrageous executive salaries.

The main focus of the audit was the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Innovation, which awarded over $1 billion to spur the growth of charter schools. It is headed by James Shelton, formerly of Edison Schools, McKinsey, the NewSchools Venture Fund and the Gates Foundation. He is an avid proponent of charter schools.

Expecting Shelton to monitor the growth and oversight of charter schools is like calling out the fox who is guarding the hen house and expecting him to be more vigilant. His job is to increase their number, not to monitor their quality.

Please pay attention, folks. The U.S. Department of Education is doing whatever it can to spur competition in the education sector by funding entrepreneurs, Gulen schools, no-excuses schools, and anyone who wants some federal money to go into business with no regard to quality, longevity or soundness.

This is the next big Gates’ roll out, mining student data and selling it to the highest bidder.

Parents, do you know where your child’s data is? My interesting but not reassuring afternoon with the Gates Foundation’s Shared Learning Collaborative

An excerpt:

Sharren Bates

Yesterday, I spent several hours at the Shared Learning Collaborative “camp” held in midtown, where the Gates Foundation people invited teachers and  developers to brainstorm new “learning apps” to take advantage of all the confidential student data that they will be “holding” in their “data bank”.  (See our press conference, media coverage, and videos, during which we released a letter to the State Attorney General and the Regents, protesting the unprecedented agreement of NYC and NY State to provide confidential teacher and student data to this data bank without parental consent.  Four other districts and states, including Illinois, Massachusetts, and Colorado are also participating in this project, and Delaware, Georgia, Kentucky and Louisiana have agreed to follow soon.) 

The Gates Foundation identifies their role as “facilitating” the transfer of this data to commercial developers so they can invent learning products aligned with the Common Core; to aid in encouraging “efficiency” in “addressing the individual learning needs of students.”

I walked in late to the morning session, and after asking a question about the risks to student privacy, they seemed to identify me as a person of interest.  I’m not sure if they recognized my name when I signed in, or realized this from my question, but after the session was over,  someone from their PR firm buttonholed me and asked me if I wanted to speak privately with Sharren Bates, who is one of the leaders of this project for Gates Foundation.  I said sure.

I had asked my friend Justin Wedes to attend this “camp” too, who is a techie and has done work for Class Size Matters.  The two of us sat in a room with the PR rep and Sharren, and we tried to explain our myriad privacy concerns, both the risk of unauthorized data leakage but also why the transfer of confidential student information to commercial enterprises without parental consent is not okay.   

I repeatedly asked why they needed this confidential data to build their “learning tools”, and Sharren said something about “modular” and “interoperability” which I didn’t understand.  She said all this was being done to “personalize” instruction, and I said I agreed with the goal but not the way they were doing this.  (Of course, the Gates Foundation has opposed class size reduction, which is really the best way to achieve personalization; instead, they seem to think that technological tools can somehow substitute the direct contact between teacher and child.)

In response to our questions, Sharren told us that would be housing the “data store”, and a firm called OmniTI would be in charge of operation of their API (Application programming interface) – managing help tickets, debugging, etc.  Murdoch’s Wireless Generation has also been involved in helping to build the structure (to the tune of $44 million!), but Sharren insisted that they would not have access to individual student data— that is, I suppose, unless they contract with DOE to build some learning apps, which seems quite likely.

We went over our concerns again and again, which related to both the risk of data leakage but also the “authorized” transfer of our children’s confidential information to commercial enterprises, without parental knowledge or consent. I asked what information would be available to these vendors in their “data store.”

She said that student test scores, grades, their special education status and IEPs, as well as disciplinary records would all be included, and all of this shared with for-profit corporations, as long as the district consented.  I asked about student medical and/or counseling records, and economic data included in free lunch forms.  She said that would be essentially left up to the district, but anything that might be “helpful” for teachers to know about their students could and should be part of the “data store” and made available to vendors. 

She also insisted that the district would continue to “own” the data and that it already makes much of it available to vendors. I said that even if this is true (which I don’t know is the case), this did not make us feel better; and that the Gates’ role in facilitating the process of data sharing with multiple vendors  would likely exponentially increase the chance of this data being misused.

When she asked us what process we would want them to follow instead, Justin said the legal process now required in sharing medical records:  i.e. no information about our kids should be shared with any third parties without our consent.  Sharren looked very blank at that moment and seemed averse to discussing this possibility any further.

At one point after talking about their “customer” which is the “district,” I asked her exactly what she meant by the “district” and she said the superintendent.  I said, you must mean the chancellor in NYC, because here superintendents have completely been stripped of their powers.    I then assumed she was not familiar with DOE and the way things work here.  I tried to explain to her why her statement that they would leave it up to the district to decide which vendors get this data did not help allay our concerns, since parents do not trust DOE officials and do not think they act in our children’s interests.

I described how parents feel totally disempowered and disrespected by DOE, assuming she was not aware of these issues.  I even mentioned the $80 million boondoggle that is ARIS.  However, when I got home I looked her up and it turns out she had worked for DOE for almost two years and had been in charge of the ARIS project.  Oops!

She did say that soon, she will post new documents that will describe in more detail the project’s privacy protections, and after that, she would be willing to talk again with me and/or other parents about these issues.

When I mentioned how this was all being done behind our backs, she suggested that perhaps there could be an “app” that would inform parents what data is being housed at the SLC, and which data is being shared with other companies for what purpose.     I don’t know if she was trying to quiet me down or co-opt me, but when she asked me if I would stick around to help develop the idea I agreed.

She then brought in one of their consultants from Alvarez and Marsal to “work” with me. After I explained to the consultant our concerns, it was clear he had never thought any of this through (he is new to the project).  He seemed honestly floored that the Gates people were intent on sharing all this stuff with third parties without parental consent. He said he used to work for a telecom company and no sharing of confidential information was allowed without the customer’s affirmative buy-in.  But the problem in this case is they consider the “customer” DOE, not us! 

To read this article in full, go to NYC Public School Parents.

Bill Gates says that class size doesn’t matter but parents, teachers and students know better.

Class sizes of 36, 50 and 62 in Beaverton, Oregon and yet the appointed school board wants to spend $1M on virtual charter schools and more testing. Parents in Oregon are angry.

Karyn Servin brought her two children and four other students to ask how OEIB can make expensive proposals that sell more expensive testing without making education better.

Thanks to Save Our Schools Oregon for the video.

And on the college front, Wesleyan College just changed their policy and now when a student applies to the school, the school wants to know if the student can afford the $60,000 tuition.

From Democracy Now:

Students at Wesleyan University in Connecticut are continuing to protest against the school’s decision to change its admission practices by ending what is known as “need-blind admissions” to all applicants. Qualified students now face possible rejection if they are deemed unable to pay full tuition, now around $60,000 a year, making it one of the most expensive schools in the country. Students say the new policy will target the poor and middle class.

And this is a video made by two financial aid students to illustrate the importance of a “need blind” admissions policy at Wesleyan University.

What’s happening in our country?!

I came across this website and it is obvious to see that what is happening in the US  is happening globally and students around the world have taken notice and are taking action.

From the International Student Movement:


   November 14-22, 2012

We are calling for a Global Education Strike. It is the first time that an education strike is being coordinated worldwide.

We will UNITE in solidarity, because no matter where we live, we face the same struggle against national state and profit driven interests, and their hold on education. Increasing tuition fees, budget cuts, outsourcing, school closures, as well as other phenomena are linked to an increasing commercialization and privatization of education. Only by uniting globally will we be able to overcome these and enable free emancipatory education for all.

We are all struggling against cuts in education. Most of us are drowning in student debt. The increasing pressure to perform just makes us sick and the restrictions on education and ever-increasing tuition fees, among other barriers, make us angry!

Everyone must have access to education no matter their monetary or social status.

We have had enough of the pressure to measure everything – even the  unmeasurable! We are sick and tired of competitiveness being the only criteria dictating everything! It is about time that we do something about this together – UNITED!

Much to think about this weekend.

Have a good one.