CTU’s Lewis calls Byrd Bennett scandal, “the tip of the iceberg”

Karen Lewis, president of the Chicago Teachers Union, called on the Chicago Board of Education to revisit all decisions that the board made while Barbara Byrd Bennett was CEO of the Chicago Public Schools (CPS).

Byrd Bennett recently pleaded guilty to taking bribes from her former employer that in 2013 won a $20 million no-bid contract to train Chicago Public School principals in executive management techniques.

She was appointed in 2012 by Mayor Rahm Emanuel to lead Chicago’s public school system. She resigned in June 2015 after being indicted in federal court on 20 counts of taking bribes and kickbacks.

“I am calling for the Board of Ed to overturn every decision she made during her unethical tenure, including closing 50 neighborhood schools, the layoffs of thousands of educators, and the awarding of lucrative contracts to politically connected companies and allies tied to both her and City Hall,” said Lewis. “The disgraced CEO is at the tip of the iceberg. The CTU has been calling for an investigation into the Board’s dealings for several years. It is unfortunate that it took someone going to federal prison for them to take our pleas seriously.”

According to Byrd Bennett’s arrest warrant, she conspired with the owners of the SUPES Academy to steer contracts to SUPES in return she was promised a 10 percent cut of the contracts.

SUPES Academy advertises itself as “a dynamic leadership preparation program for emerging K-12 leaders, aspiring principals, sitting principals, and regional, central office, and cabinet level administrators.” It is owned by Gary Solomon and Thomas Vranas, both of whom have been indicted for bribing Byrd Bennett. Both have pleaded not guilty.

Before the indictments, SUPES was involved in an intricate web of connections to politicians and corporate executives who championed what they call education reform.

Reform for these reformers means replacing public schools with privately operated charter schools.

One of these groups of so called reformers is the Chicago Public Education Fund (CPEF).

According to the Chicago Tribune  CPEF “is made up of influential politicians and business leaders–all of whom have made restructuring education a top civic priority.”

CPEF gave SUPES $380,000 in seed money get its “dynamic leadership preparation program” off the ground.

Illinois Gov. Bruce Rauner is a director emeritus of CPEF and his family foundation has contributed “many millions of dollars to CPEF over the years.”

Rauner has denied any connection to Solomon, Vranas, or the SUPES Academy.

Solomon also is said to be politically connected to Mayor Emanuel; although, the mayor recently denied knowing Solomon.

The Chicago Sun Times reports that Solomon played a key role in the hiring of Byrd Bennett’s predecessor Jean-Claude Brizard, and that Brizard told the Sun Times that Solomon also was instrumental in Byrd Bennett’s hiring. Emanuel appointed both Brizard and Byrd Bennett.

SUPES and Solomon are also linked to the Broad Foundation, the creation of ardent charter school advocate Eli Broad, who Forbes ranks as the 65th most wealthy person in the US.

When SUPES was in its start-up phase it hired Dr. Timothy Quinn to help develop its curriculum. Dr. Quinn also helped Broad create the Broad Superintendents Academy, which trains school superintendents in Broad’s management philosophy.

Solomon is also the head of a superintendent search company called PROACT Search that helps school districts identify possible candidates for superintendent openings.

PROACT draws draws heavily from graduates of the Broad Superintendents Academy when identifying candidates for open superintendent jobs.

Spokes people for Broad have denied any connection to Solomon. Internet links that showed a connection have been deleted.

One of  Broad’s education management philosophies is that public school closures present an excellent opportunity for superintendents to introduce or expand charter schools.

Broad’s education foundation  has even produced a manual that guides school superintendents through the closure process.

In addition to being a former employee of SUPES, Byrd Bennett is also connected to Broad.  In These Times reports that she worked as an executive coach for the Broad Superintendent Academy in 2006.

During her tenure as CPS CEO, she oversaw the closure of 47 public schools, the largest single public school closure in the US.

Most of the closed schools were in low-income, predominately African-American neighborhoods. Of those students affected by these closures, 88 percent were African American.

The closures were met with heavy resistance by parents, students, and members of the communities affected by the closures.

She justified the closures by saying that they were needed to cope with budgetary constraints.

Coincidentally, the Broad manual for school closures is entitled, “School Closure Guide Closing Schools as a Means for Addressing Budgetary Challenges.”

She also approved opening seven new charter schools.

In her comments on the Byrd Bennett guilty plea, CTU President Lewis said that private agendas of Byrd Bennett, Solomon, and their backers brought into question whether CPS board members and its CEO should continue to be appointed by the mayor.

“The mayor’s handpicked CEO’s admission of guilt is an also admission of bad management and the culture of failed leadership that have plagued our district over the last five years,” said Lewis. “This is why we need an elected representative school board.”

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Opposition puts York, PA school privatization in limbo

High school students in York, Pennsylvania recently passed out flyers urging parents to contact the state board of education and voice their displeasure over a plan to have a for-profit charter school company takeover the public schools in York.

The York school district could become the second school district in the US to be operated by a charter school company or companies (the other is New Orleans).

“We care about our school, we love our school and we love public school,” said Ashlee DeSantis, a York high school student to a reporter from NPR. “We don’t want receivership to happen here.”

When the York school district experienced financial difficulties because of state education budget cuts, outgoing governor Tom Corbett put the district in receivership and appointed David Meckley as the district’s so-called recovery officer.

Meckley, who lives outside the district, decided to hire Charter Schools USA (CSUSA), a for-profit company based in Florida, to operate the York schools.

CSUSA formed a foundation and appointed some business people who live outside the York district to serve on the foundation’s board. If and when the takeover is finalized, the foundation will be responsible for overseeing the new charter schools in York and will function as if it were an elected school board.

The decision to privatize York’s schools has drawn widespread community opposition including members of the elected school board, school employees, parents, and students.

As of now, the fate of the takeover remains up in the air.

In December, York County Judge Stephen Linebaugh ruled that Meckley and CSUSA could carry out their privatization plan, but in January, he allowed an appeal of his decision to proceed.

The election of Gov. Tom Wolf, who opposes education privatization, has also left the takeover in doubt.

Opponents of privatization have voiced displeasure with the choice of CSUSA, which operates charters in Florida, Georgia, Louisiana, North Carolina, Illinois, Indiana, and Michigan.

According to its critics, CSUSA has excelled at one thing–figuring out how to make a profit off public education.

Recent reports on the way  CSUSA operates in Florida have shed some light on how CSUSA makes its money.

In Florida, CSUSA has set up a real estate development company, Red Apple Development, whose mission according to a CSUSA investor presentation “is to identify and acquire land or existing schools, develop the land or expand upon the schools, and to create a pipeline of schools exclusively for CSUSA to operate.”

The pipeline of schools are then rented to non-profit foundations set up by CSUSA to operate and oversee its charter schools.

The charter schools have to pay rent and service any debt taken on to build or renovate their buildings.

One of CSUSA’s charter schools in Hillsborough County, Florida pays an interest rate of 8 percent to CSUSA to service the school’s debt.

That school is Winthrop Charter School. For the 2014 school year, Winthrop will pay $125,700 in rent and $2,073,787 in debt repayment.

Winthrop will also pay CSUSA $383,385 in management fees and $56,565 to Connex 12, another CSUSA owned company, for computer services.

In all, 30 percent of Winthrop’s $8.6 million in revenue for 2014 will go to CSUSA or CSUSA related companies.

The Florida League of Women Voters conducted a study of charter schools in the state.

According to the study, Woodmont Charter School, another CSUSA school in Hillsborough County, in 2011 spent 42 percent of the school’s revenue on administrative expenses and only 44 percent on instruction.

“By contrast,” reads the League of Women Voters report. “Hillsborough public schools spent 86 percent of their revenue on instruction.”

While CSUSA has excelled at making money, its academic achievements are at best ordinary.

A few of its charter schools outperform comparable public schools, most perform at about the same level, and some perform significantly worse.

Woodmont, which spent 42 percent of its revenue on administration, received an F for 2013 and a D for 2012, according to the League of Women Voters study.

Six public schools within one mile of Woodmont all had higher scores on Florida’s standardized achievement tests than Woodmont.

CSUSA has figured out other ways to make money.

In Indiana, CSUSA in 2011 took over some schools in Indianapolis, even though John Hage, CSUSA’s principal owner, said that it would be difficult to turn a profit on the schools.

Hage turned out to be partially prescient; CSUSA wasn’t able to make money on the schools until a stroke of good luck happened–the Indiana Board of Education mistakenly appropriated an extra $6 million to CSUSA.

Coincidentally, Tony Bennett, who at the time was superintendent of the state board of education, an elected office in Indiana, received a $5000 campaign contribution from Red Apple.

The board’s mistake proved to be a contributing factor to Bennett’s subsequent election loss, but Bennett landed on his feet, or at least his wife did. She landed an executive position with CSUSA in Florida.

Whether CSUSA will be able to continue its money-making magic in York appears now to be up in the air.

A spokesperson for newly elected Gov. Tom Wolf said that he and his acting secretary of education Pedro Rivera are reviewing the situation. As governor, Wolf has the authority to revoke the petition that led to York being put into receivership, which resulted in the hiring of CSUSA.

The York community itself seems to be uniting behind a campaign to keep the city’s public schools public.

The local NAACP is sponsoring a forum on January 29 to update the community on the events that led up to the district being put into receivership and the possible options that the community has going forward.

The York Education Association, the local teachers union, and York Concerned Clergy on January 28 will be holding a rally opposing the privatization of the city’s schools.

After the rally, the elected school board will hold its meeting.

A statement released by the Pennsylvania State Education Association (PSEA) said that the plan to privatized York’s schools has little local support.

“York’s citizens don’t want this, the elected school board doesn’t want this, and parents and educators don’t want this,” said Michael Crossey, PSEA’s president.

NYC charter schools challenged by union and mayor

The president of the New York City’s public school teachers’ union recently issued a challenge to the city’s charter schools.

If they are really interested in playing a meaningful role in public education, said Michael Mulgrew, president of the United Federation of Teachers (UFT) in a January 14 article in the New York Daily News, charter school operators need to

  • Be willing to serve the city’s neediest children
  • Open their books to public scrutiny
  • Be good neighbors and
  • Stop treating children as profit centers

Meanwhile, New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio’s Department of Education announced that it would divert $210 million budgeted for charter school construction. The money will be used  to ease school overcrowding and to help fund Mayor de Blasio’s planned expansion of the city’s pre-kindergarten program.

The shortcomings of the New York City charter schools that drew Mulgrew’s challenge are amplified in a recent report released by UFT, entitled “Charter Schools: A UFT Research Report.”

Charter schools educate 6 percent of New York City’s public school students and charge the city $13,500 a year to do so.

The report finds that while charter schools characterize themselves as non-profit organizations, they generate generous incomes for their top executives and charge high management fees.

Six of the most prominent charter chains– Achievement First, Success Charter Network, Uncommon Schools, KIPP, Village Academies Network, and Ichan Charters–pay their top executives an average annual salary of $354,500. The highest paid of these six works for Village Academies Network and makes nearly one-half million dollars a year. The next highest paid works for Success Charter Network and makes $475,000 a year.

Theses two salaries and the one paid to KIPP charter schools, ($395,000 a year) are more than the mayor’s or New York City’s Schools Chancellor Carmen Fariña’s, and the executives only oversee a small number of schools.

These same charter chains charged the New York City School District more than $12 million in management fees, 15 percent of the funding they received from the city during the 2011-2012 school year.

The charters claim that they operate on a narrow margin, but the report shows that the six charter chains mentioned above have assets totaling more than $65 million.

How they spend their money isn’t clear because unlike public schools charters are not subject to independent audits. In fact, charter supporters have gone to court to prevent independent audits by New York State Comptroller.

Charters have also been reluctant to throw their doors open to all as public schools must do. In fact, the UFT report presents some evidence suggesting that charters cherry pick students most likely to succeed.

According to the report, “tens of thousands of students at all levels end up on waiting lists or completely frozen out of the schools they would like to attend.”

Despite the screening process, charter students didn’t do any better on recent standardized tests than public school students.

“In reading, charter schools as a whole scored under the citywide average,” reports the UFT.

Charters are required to serve children with special needs and those who don’t speak English as a first language, but many ignore this requirement, said Mulgrew.

“Parents complain that special-needs children and students who struggle academically have been ‘counseled out’ of charters, (and) most of them (end) up in local district schools while the charters hold onto students with better scores,” he said.

Mulgrew also said that charters need to learn to be better neighbors. Most of charters co-locate at public schools but go to great lengths to keep their students from having contact with public school students in the same building.

As a result of these and other problems, Mayor de Blasio while he was campaigning for office said that he would not follow former Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s policy of preferential treatment for charter schools.

In addition to diverting money that Mayor Bloomberg had earmarked for charter school construction, de Blasio said that he would discontinue the policy of allowing charters to co-locate at public schools.

Forty-two new charters are scheduled to begin co-location in September. Those new co-locations are on hold while being reviewed by the city’s education department. No new co-locations will be approved.

The charters pay no rent for using public school space, which de Blasio said during his campaign, added “insult to injury” to public school students, teachers, and the public.

The free rent adds about $650 per child in extra public funding that charters receive from the city.

More recently, he said that the co-location process was “a broken one that didn’t consult with parents and communities effectively.”

Austin charts new charter school territory

Before the Christmas holidays, the Austin Independent School District severed its relationship with a charter school company that had just begun implementing its curriculum in four grades at Allan Elementary, a school in a working class, predominately Latin American neighborhood in East Austin. The decision to cut ties with IDEA, which operates a chain of charter schools in Texas, came after parents, other community members, and Education Austin, the teachers’ union, organized an effective campaign against IDEA’s takeover of Allan.

Hours after that decision, the board approved a proposal to make another elementary school (Travis Heights Elementary) a charter school. The Travis Heights charter school project, also known as the Innovation School Project (ISP) was the culmination of a two-year project organized by Education Austin and Austin Interfaith, a community organization affiliated with the Industrial Areas Foundation. The project was funded by an American Federation of Teachers Innovation Fund grant.

The major difference between the two charter projects is that the Travis Heights project involved the community from the beginning.”We made a concerted effort to make sure that everybody was involved in the process: parents, teachers, the superintendent, her upper-level team, (and) school board members, said Ken Zarifis, co-president of Education Austin. “We were constantly talking to everyone.”

In October, 90 percent of 400 households in the Travis Heights attendance zone were contacted and asked if they supported the conversion of Travis Heights into a campus-based, in-district charter school; 99 percent said yes; 97 percent of teachers and staff also said yes.

IDEA, on the other hand, ignored the community around the two schools that it proposed taking over–Allan and Eastside Memorial High School. Instead, it sought and won support of Austin’s business establishment, and then lobbied the school board and the district’s superintendent.

As a result, IDEA’s proposal, which included taking over grades K-two and grade six in 2012 and then phasing-in the complete takeover of Allan and Eastside Memorial, immediately ran into opposition from parents and teachers at the schools.

Parents objected to IDEA’s pre-packaged, ready-made curriculum that was narrow in scope (e.g., it did not include music or art classes) and emphasized rote drills aimed at improving students’ standardized test-taking skills. IDEA argued that its curriculum would make students college ready by the time they graduated from high school.

Teachers recognized how IDEA’s narrow curriculum would diminish their students’ education opportunity. They also knew that if they were able to retain their teaching positions after an IDEA take over, they would lose their classroom autonomy and their pay and benefits would be reduced.

When the school board held hearings in 2011 on IDEA’s proposal, a broad coalition of parents, community members, teachers, and students turned out to testify and demonstrate against IDEA; nevertheless, the school board approved IDEA’s plan.

The board, however, did allow students at Allan to opt out of IDEA’s charter school and attend other nearby public schools. Of the 350 students affected by the board’s decision, only 46 chose to remain at Allan.

To fill up its charter classrooms, IDEA had to advertise extensively to get students outside of the Allan and Eastside Memorial attendance zone to attend the new charter school.

In November 2012, a slate of school board candidates opposed to IDEA’s plan was elected, giving IDEA opponents a majority on the board. In December, the new majority ended the district’s relationship with IDEA.

At the same meeting, the board set out on a new course by approving the Travis Heights ISP charter.

Travis Heights and Allan have similar demographic compositions. The students at both are predominately Latin American (91 percent at Allan; 68 percent at Travis Heights) and most come from low-income working class families (91 percent at Allan and 77 percent at Travis Heights).

ISP supporters at Travis Heights call their new curriculum service learning. It teaches math, science, language arts, and social studies in the context of solving community problems. For example, a teacher may develop lesson plans around solving a community problem such as water conservation, and students will apply what they learn in class toward solving the problem.

The school will retain and expand its music, art, and physical education programs and look for ways to integrate these programs into the service learning curriculum.  Teachers, staff, and administrators will also be retained and will have the same pay and benefits they now have.

There is also a dual language component to the curriculum. The goal is to make as many students as possible proficient in two languages. Dual language instruction will be maintained at its present level and then gradually expanded.

There will also be an emphasis on teaching digital technology that students will use to help solve problems that they are studying.

“This is the right way to innovate, together, rather than being dictated to,” said Zarifis speaking about Austin’s newest charter school.

Chicago teachers file charges and prepare to strike

The Chicago Teachers Union(CTU) on September 6 filed unfair labor practice charges with the Illinois Labor Board against the Chicago Public Schools (CPS). The union charged the school system with imposing contract changes while negotiations for a new contract are in progress.

The union said that if the negotiations do not result in a fair contract by midnight September 9, CPS teachers, counselors, nurses, and other professionals will go on strike on September 10. In July, 98 percent of the teachers and other education professionals covered by the current contract authorized a strike if a fair agreement could not be reached.

The unfair labor charges were filed after CPS unilaterally canceled longevity pay, discontinued a sick leave benefit, and imposed new teacher evaluation procedures.

CPS’ attempt to impose concessions on the teachers is its latest effort to weaken CTU, which the CPS school board, Mayor Rahm Emanuel, and outside education pundits see as the biggest obstacle to their plans to privatize more of Chicago’s public schools.

CPS’s actions both past and present led CTU President Karen Lewis to call Mayor Emanuel, “a bully and a liar.”

“We did not start this fight,” said Lewis at a huge Labor Day solidarity rally. “But brothers and sisters, enough is enough.”

“The only way you beat a bully is to stand up to him,” said Lewis later in the speech.

Lewis told the 18,000 people at the solidarity rally that the contract negotiations and the possible strike on Monday, “is about the very soul of public education in Chicago.”

On one side, according to Lewis, you have the outsider education pundits like Juan Rangel, UNO charter school operator whose annual salary is $266,000, and Andrew Marcus, a Tea Party activist, and Mayor Emanuel and his school board.

Lewis accused the Mayor of saying that he wasn’t going to waste money on 25 percent of Chicago’s public school students who he said wouldn’t amount to anything. They’re agenda is to defund public schools, close down at least 100, and funnel the money to charter schools.

On the other side are the teachers, other school staff, and their supporters. Their goal is to win real education reform that includes smaller class sizes, an expanded curriculum for all schools that includes the arts, language, and physical education, more student services such as counseling, extra help for students living in high poverty neighborhoods, more teacher preparation time, and decent pay, benefits, and security that can attract and retain high quality professionals vital to the future of Chicago.

At the solidarity rally, the teachers received a stunning amount of support from students, parents, community organizations, and other unions.

“One thing that’s great to see today,” said Chicago Alderman Nick Sposato at the rally. “Is all the kids here fighting for better schools, smaller class sizes, and all the important things about education.”

“We support the Chicago Teachers Union,” said Jitu Brown of the Kenwood Oakland Community Organization, which has been leading the fight to preserve neighborhood schools threatened with closure. “This fight is about more than a contract. This about what kind of Chicago we want to live in.”

Speakers from SEIU, AFSCME, the National Association of Letter Carriers, the National Nurses Union, and the Fraternal Order of Police expressed their solidarity with the teachers and their just demands.

“It is very important that we send a message to City Hall,” said Henry Bayer, president of AFSCME Council 31. “We as public servants stand in solidarity with the teachers.”

CTU is also receiving support from around the country. “The Chicago Teachers Union wants to thank the many organizations who have written letters of solidarity and contributed to our solidarity fund,” reads a statement on CTU’s web site.

Money from the solidarity fund is being used to mount a public outreach campaign that explains the teachers’ agenda for real education reform, which can be found in the union’s newly published report, The Schools Chicago Students Deserve.

Lewis said that those pushing their privatization agenda have been surprised by the solidarity and resistance that they’ve met. “The people from outside Chicago who have come here to destroy us were met with resistance they never thought would happen,” Lewis said. “A little over a year ago, they wrote us off. . . . And what happened? . . . Building by building, school by school, we all came together to stop the juggernaut that doesn’t care about our children, that doesn’t know what we do, and that has written off 25 percent of our children.”