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School reform players, politics: A view from the left

Editor’s note: This piece was submitted by Angela Engel, the author of the book, “Seeds of Tomorrow; Solutions for Improving our Children’s Education” and the director of Uniting4Kids a new national non-profit promoting quality neighborhood schools through parent, teacher and student leadership.

National interests are investing heavily in Colorado’s school board races. The players are many, the politics ugly, and the possibilities well…

The players

Stand for Children established a Colorado Chapter in 2010 in order to push legislation that tied teacher evaluations to test scores. Their investors include The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, the Walton Family Foundation, and New Profit Inc. – a “national venture philanthropy fund.” Democrats for Education Reform, DFER, is a newer organization that promotes charter schools, alternative certification training, and performance pay, and in addition promote mayoral control. ACE Scholarshipsoriginated in Colorado in 2000. ACE members made significant campaign contributions to the Douglas County school board responsible for directing private dollars away from some of the most high-performing public schools in the state. Several other funders have also joined the ranks, and the one thing they all have in common are trustees and board members with corporate connections and very deep pockets.

The politics

So why are corporate executives and wealthy entrepreneurs suddenly interested in public education? Because they like to make money and recent education reforms along with “new tax credits” and Education Management Organizations, EMO’s, have provided ample opportunity to make a dollar. Here’s how they do it:

Private charters and online schools – Under the guise of failing test scores, Education Management Organizations co-opt community schools or aggressively market for online students. COVA, Colorado Virtual Academy managed by the Virginia based company K12 projected growth in excess of $100 million last year. It’s fair to note that many charter schools are district managed and publicly controlled. Still, Colorado policy makers have created a double standard favoring charter schools. Education News Colorado reported that nearly half of online student enrollments leave before finishing the year. The majority of programs are low performing and operating outside of the accountability mandates required of public schools. Online and charter schools can hire non-licensed and non-certified employees.

Alternative Licensing Programs – have become big business. Teach for America (TFA), reported earnings in 2009 of more than $269 million. Their tax documents list their net assets at $261.5 million. This past July the Walton Family Foundation committed $49.5 million to double the number of Teach For America candidates throughout the United States; $3.1 million was designated for Colorado. Senator Michael Bennet, DFER “Reformer of the Month” and recipient of nearly $500,000 in DFER campaign contributions, is sponsoring the GREAT Act, which calls for taxpayer dollars to fund private revenue generating alternative certification models. In a “Statement of Principles to fix the Elementary Secondary Education Act,” the Senator stated: “We also must support programs like Teach for America…” TFA prepares college graduates in a five-week summer training program. While their results are mediocre at best, TFA candidates are attractive to budget strapped districts. The majority of candidates don’t last and the two year revolving door of cheap labor keeps costs associated with salaries and benefits low. The two year contracts and building transfers allow TFA candidates to maneuver around teacher effectiveness mandates and the accountability required of real teachers.

Tests, text books, and more tests – While education experts and innovators call for personalized learning and differentiated models of schooling, groups like Stand for Children and DFER, support national standards (Common Core is also funded by Gates), and punishments and sanctions tied to test scores. The McGraw Hill (publishers of CSAP) financial fact book mirrors the national education platform. Pearson and McGraw Hill, the largest testing companies in the nation holds a monopoly over all curriculum and assessments. The failed No Child Left Behind Act based on standardization and high-stake testing has cost taxpayers billions and delivered zero in terms of return on investment. Unless of course you are a publishing company – McGraw Hill listed revenues at $2.3 billion in 2009 and Pearson posted $652 million in profits.

The possibilities

While corporate revenues are growing, school budgets across the state continue to shrink. Every child in Colorado will see a decrease of 5 percent in per pupil funding. The millions in cuts and misdirected funding has resulted in larger class sizes, fewer course offerings, reductions in intervention and prevention services, elimination of gifted and special education programs, and fewer college opportunities for Colorado’s children. This election represents a chance for communities to reclaim their neighborhood schools.

So pay attention Colorado. Corporate board takeovers are targeted for Denver, Adams 50, Jefferson County, Colorado Springs District 11, Mapleton, Harrison, Mesa County and Weld County. According to the ACE website, “we encourage everyone to pay close attention to this important election, as the pro-charter, pro-choice, pro-accountability reforms that have taken root in Denver may be at stake. Our friends at Stand for Children are a great resource on the candidates, their positions and the issues surrounding this critical election.”

Stand for Children and their investors will be directing millions at these targeted races. The question is will the money go to our children or will the children go to the money?

About our First Person series:

First Person is where Chalkbeat features personal essays by educators, students, parents, and others trying to improve public education. Read our submission guidelines here.

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