5:50 p.m. October 11, 2013

Hostage-Taking In The Classroom

For all the hype about America's renewed obsession with zombies, the walking dead have lost their status as the favored metaphor du jour. A quarter century after the Iran standoff and seven months after "Argo" won the Oscar for best picture, the preferred metonym is now the hostage, in all his metaphorically hogtied and blindfolded glory.

Over on the East Coast, for instance, Washington politicians and news bureaus are colluding on "Government Shutdown" - an epic multi-day television miniseries of political pirates, ransom demands and overwrought hostage cliches. Over on the Left Coast, Hollywood is set to capitalize on the zeitgeist with its own scripted look at piracy and hostages called "Captain Phillips."

Meanwhile, few have noticed that off camera, the ascendant hostage meme has quietly transformed from insipid political shorthand and fleeting pop culture fad into the day-to-day governing ideology of the ultimate symbol of Americana: the schoolhouse.

In this standoff, the hostages are public school children. They are being held captive not by a rag tag bunch of Somali buccaneers nor by Tea Party loons with that distinctly wild-eyed serial killer look in their eyes. No, a generation of youngsters is being held instead by pinstriped corporate executives, buttoned-down foundation officers and the local school board officials those aristocrats buy and sell.

Reminiscent of Hans Gruber's high-class crew, this smooth-talking team of bandits is armed with billions of dollars of "charitable" - and therefore tax-subsidized - cash from both brand-name corporate behemoths and individual plutocrats like Microsoft's Bill Gates, insurance magnate Eli Broad, media titan Michael Bloomberg, Enron billionaire John Arnold and Wal-Mart's Walton family. With school districts refusing to adequately fund their education systems, and with a tax code boosting the plutocrats' anti-public-school activism, this rogues gallery is now calling the shots - and demanding ransom. If a community pays the ransom by letting these distant marauders do what they want to the local school, then the perpetrators won't purposely harm any hostages, even though their policies may inadvertently maim a bunch. But if a community defies these moguls' wishes, then open threats against the cute little hostages commence.

The commercial application of this extortion scheme is straightforward. In shock-doctrine-like fashion, the corporate community that typically lobbies against higher taxes to fund schools makes a business opportunity out of schools' subsequent budget crises. Specifically, corporations offer cash to budget-strapped school districts, claiming they are motivated by an altruistic desire to help preserve educational services for the community. But the cash is often contingent on letting those corporations use the public school to advertise products to those kids. If education officials later realize it is a bad idea to turn schools into corporate advertising weapons aimed at captive child audiences, then - poof! - the hostages are harmed as the corporate funding vanishes.

Less straightforward but equally insidious is the concurrent extortion scheme run by politically motivated foundations. More interested in making local schools petri dishes for their half-baked "free market" experiments and their ideological crusades against unions, these foundations masquerade as apolitical charities, while using their vast tax-subsidized resources to strengthen the already outsized political power of their namesake benefactors.

Three of the best examples come from Washington, D.C., New York City and my home city of Denver, Colorado.

Washington, D.C.: "It's Not a Democracy"

Thanks to the boom in lobbying and government contracting, the nation's capital is no longer a town of middle-class bureaucrats - it is now one of the wealthiest places on Earth, and one of the planet's most unequal cities. With the Beltway's rich typically sending their kids to private havens like Sidwell Friends, the D.C. public school system ends up serving a disproportionately low-income student population, which means it needs a lot of money if it has any chance of succeeding. That's because economic status is such an enormous factor in educational achievement and because successfully combating poverty's deleterious effect on educational achievement requires extra resources for "wraparound" services. To help raise that capital, private foundations in recent years swooped in with resources.

It sounded great - suddenly, there seemed to be no need to raise taxes on the cash-bloated multinational corporations stationed in D.C. The celebrated philanthrocapitalists were in the nation's capital to save the day! Except for one problem: the foundation money came with an implicit and then-unprecedented threat. Championing the punitive, unproven and often counterproductive pedagogical agenda of standardized testing, draconian school shutdowns, mass teacher firings and union-busting charter schools, the conservative foundations gave Washington, D.C. residents the hostage-taker's ultimatum: if they and their democratically elected city councilors did not obediently submit to the corporate "reform" agenda of then-Chancellor Michelle Rhee, then there would be consequences. More specifically, if they ever removed Rhee from her public office, then the foundation money would be summarily withdrawn, and kids would be harmed.

Backed by these corporate heavies, Rhee told residents who were critical of her destructive and cheating-plagued term that when it comes to public education policy in her city, "It’s not a democracy." The result of the hostage taking thuggery? As PBS Frontline reported, after Rhee's tenure, Washington is "still among the worst in the nation and D.C.’s high school graduation rate dead last.” And yet while the hostages suffered, Rhee has been handsomely rewarded for her loyalty to the hostage takers, as the same plutocrats bequeathed her a high-paying job and a well-financed corporate front group all for herself.

New York: King Bloomberg's Permanent Reign

In New York, a different but equally harsh hostage situation has been engineered in order to guarantee the permanent dominance of outgoing billionaire Mayor Michael Bloomberg's agenda, even after Hizzoner leaves office. The billionaire media titan and his cronies want to cement his polarizing agenda of demonizing teachers and promoting union-busting charter schools, even though those schools often deliver worse results than traditional schools. As the Wall Street Journal reports (emphasis added):

The fundraising arm of the New York City public-school system brought in a record $47 million in pledges in the past year, a sign that donors want to extend the effects of Mayor Michael Bloomberg's policies past the end of his third term...

While the fund has paid for some traditional projects—such as grants for libraries and after-school programs—it has also quietly bankrolled potentially controversial pilots of new curriculum standards, teacher evaluations and the School of One, an experimental method of using technology to teach math.

Using private money instead of tax dollars enabled the mayor and chancellor, who were wrangling with the United Federation of Teachers in court and on the airwaves, to sidestep controversy while experimenting with new methods. But some critics say this process still cuts out public participation...

"It adds yet another layer of distance between open public decision-making processes and how policies are set in the district," said Sarah Reckhow, an assistant professor in urban politics and education at Michigan State University.

"Experimenting with new methods" is Wall Street Journal-ese for anti-union aristocrats like Bloomberg using children as pawns in an ideological scheme to turn more of the public school system into union-free - and failing - charter schools.

If that wasn't bad enough, get this: though the Journal notes that the Bloomberg-aligned fund finances programs in public schools, "is located inside Education Department headquarters, and the schools chancellor is its chairman," its executives nonetheless refuse to release basic information about who is donating and what it is actually funding. In other words, inside a public school system already plagued by corporate cronyism and a grotesque revolving door culture, there exists a secret privately financed slush fund that is permitted to operate without any public scrutiny at all.

Slush fund officials defend this as an earnest commitment "to safeguarding donors’ privacy" - but such saccharine platitudes obscure bareknuckled political motivations. Basically, Bloomberg and his rich buddies don't like the idea of local communities - especially in liberal pro-union New York City - having control over the city's schools. Thus, they've make a two-fer opportunity out of the city's inadequately funded public school system. Knowing city schools are already being held hostage by meager budgets, they make huge "charitable" donations to the public education system, but make the money contingent on a two-pronged ransom demand: 1) they insist their ideological agenda be followed regardless of whether it actually improves educational results and 2) they insist their specific funding priorities being implemented by the public school system but without any democratic input from the public that is supposed to be controlling that system.

Acquiesce and the hostages are helped. Ask questions and the child hostages are made to suffer.

Denver: Explicit Threats to Harm Kids

Before you can understand the education hostage-taking in the Mile High City, you have to understand that the Denver Public School system is enmeshed in a thick web of corruption. In fact, even calling it a web is wrong. The school system here (as I first learned when my wife ran for school board a few years ago) is more accurately described as being covered in a rancid blob of radical ideology and corporate "reform" propaganda - one that has delivered tragic academic results. This blob is so massive it is hard to know where the private sector stops and the public sector begins.

One way to see this blob is to just behold the absurd amounts of corporate and right-wing money that have been spent to buy the city's recent school board elections. Though school board positions are unpaid, the typical Denver school elections now feature CEOs throwing $25,000 checks at candidates who pledge to suck ever-more public money out of public schools and plow it into the privately run charter school industry - the same industry that has an illustrious history of discriminating against children with special needs.

Another way to see this blob is to look at the school board's breathtaking self-dealing and its rampant conflicts of interest. For example, its current president is paid by a private foundation whose stated goal is to put more public money into privately run charter schools. The board's immediate past president resigned to go work for a private education foundation that does business with the school district. Another of its board members runs a foundation that gets money from the school district. A previous board member went from the board to run a group looking to bring more corporate influence into the school system. And now another leading candidate for a board vacancy, the pro-voucher former lieutenant governor Barbara O'Brien, says that even if she wins the board seat, she will ignore concerns about self-dealing and remain the paid executive director of a pro-charter foundation to which the school board gives public money.

Considering this hideous record, it is hardly shocking that this same school board a few years ago agreed to a Wall Street financing scheme so corrupt it landed on the front page of the New York Times. Orchestrated by then-superintendent Michael Bennet after a stint as a corporate raider for right-wing billionaire Phil Anschutz, the scheme enriched the financial industry that later bankrolled Bennet's U.S. Senate campaign. It also blew a $177 million hole in the school system's budget at a time when that system was already being crushed by the state's pathetic education funding levels. That's when - on cue - the plutocratic ideologues waltzed in to Denver, publicly portraying themselves as benevolent saviors, but privately brandishing political axes.

As the Denver Post reports, since just 2009, "DPS has received $77 million in gifts and grants from private foundations, corporations and individuals" - much of it with ideological strings attached. Bill Gates' foundation, for example, gave the public schools $10 million. The cash was given in exchange for the school board's guarantee that the schools would build a punitive teacher "evaluation" system that conservatives hope will help blame teachers for the school system's systemic problems and then create the rationale to bust the teachers' union.

Likewise, the Walton Foundation gave $8 million to help the city's public schools with budget shortfalls, in exchange for the board reclassifying more traditional public schools as "innovation" schools. To the notoriously anti-union Walton family, that was a great political victory, as the "innovation" classification allows the board to tear up a school's union contract and make teacher's at-will employees.

Not surprisingly, many people in the city are today sufficiently pissed off about what's been going on. So with another board election coming up in just a few weeks, the public threats to harm the hostages have begun.

These aren't just any old threats couched in sententious language, mind you. As a recent piece in the alt-weekly Westword showed, these are egregiously explicit and menacing promises to harm children. In that article, investment banking aristocrat Bruce Hoyt - shocker! a former Denver school board member - issued this stunningly brazen threat to voters:

Hoyt also points out that the district has received millions of dollars in grant money from national foundations over the past several years "because people have such confidence in our reforms." If the district switches directions, "I could see a lot of that money drying up and causing budgetary problems for DPS," he says.
The message from this politically connected financial industry snake is clear: if Denver voters dare even think about challenging the destructive privatization agenda in their own school system, corporate foundations will exact even more painful revenge against the city's children.

There are, of course, plenty of other examples of this hostage-taking extortion. In New Jersey, for example, Facebook's Mark Zuckerberg gave Newark Mayor Cory Booker a secret education slush fund. Booker somehow found time away from leveraging his office for personal cash to then use the money to neuter the local school board and weaken the teacher's union. At the same time, down the road in Trenton, following foundations' efforts to strongarm voters into keeping particular politicians in public office, insurance kingpin Eli Broad's foundation threatened to cut off its education funding for the state's kids if voters dare vote anti-union Gov. Chris Christie out of office.

Across the country in Los Angeles, the hostage taking tactics are even more invasive, as they operate at both the political level and at the school personnel level. As Dissent magazine's Joanne Barkan recounts in her recent must-read article:

Private foundations have used another tactic to exert influence on the Los Angeles Unified School District: they paid the salaries of more than a dozen senior staffers. According to the Los Angeles Times, the privately financed “public” employees worked on such ed-reform projects as new systems to evaluate teachers and collect immense amounts of data on students. Much of the money came from the Wasserman Foundation ($4.4 million) and the Walton Family Foundation ($1.2 million); Ford and Hewlett made smaller grants. The Broad Foundation covered the $160,000 salary of Matt Hill to run the district’s Public School Choice program, which turned so-called low-performing and new schools over to private operators. Hill had worked in Black & Decker’s business development group before he went through one of the Broad Foundation’s uncertified programs to train new education administrators.

A Times editorial on January 12, 2010 asked, sensibly, “At what point do financial gifts begin reshaping public decision-making to fit a private agenda?…Even the best-intentioned gifts have a way of shifting behavior. Educators and the public, not individual philanthropists, should set the agenda for schools.”

Once again, the threat is clear: if the community tries to do something other than the foundations want, the foundations will exact financial revenge on kids by pulling funding from the cash-starved school district.

Barkan notes that in all these hostage situations, there is a symbiotic self-reinforcing relationship between corporatists' anti-tax crusades and their desire to dominate public education policymaking. The less tax revenues that are generated, the less public revenues schools have and the more private foundations can use their money to enact their anti-union, pro-privatization agenda.

"The mega-foundations use their grants as leverage: they give money to grantees who agree to adopt the foundations’ pet policies," she writes. "Resource-starved states and school districts feel compelled to say yes to millions of dollars even when many strings are attached or they consider the policies unwise. They are often in desperate straits."

Over time, as this threat-retribution-acquiescence cycle is institutionalized and as corporate campaign contributions cleanse school boards of pro-public-education voices, a kind of Stockholm Syndrome develops in which substantive questions about failed "reform" policies are no longer even asked. Ultimately, the public is removed from its own public education system and faraway moguls turn education policy into their ideological plaything, consequences be damned. Worst of all, the hostages are left to suffer - and have no hope of ever being released.