As you read this, Michelle Rhee is marshaling the troops to march on for Los Angeles Unified School District students. Because we all know Rhee puts "Students First," right? Here are her public reasons for the march: To drive voter
February 16, 2013

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As you read this, Michelle Rhee is marshaling the troops to march on for Los Angeles Unified School District students. Because we all know Rhee puts "Students First," right? Here are her public reasons for the march:

  • To drive voter registration and turnout for school board and mayoral elections
  • To raise awareness of the unequal access to high quality education and the candidates' platforms
  • To ask our candidates to listen to our community and commit to strengthening our public education system

There's a subtext in those bullets, trying to influence Los Angeles as it has in Chicago or New York or Atlanta or any metropolitan city: Charter schools will solve the problem.

To that end, there's a fierce battle between anti-charter incumbent board member Steve Zimmer and pro-charter challenger Kate Anderson raging right now, so let's also assume the purpose of this march is to spread some love for Anderson and hopefully mount a battle for the entire Los Angeles Unified School District to be charterized (read privatized) sooner rather than later.

If you ever had any doubts that StudentsFirst was anything other than a corporate front, guess again. In 2011, StudentsFirst received $1 million from the Walton Family Foundation, $7 million from the Laura and John Arnold Foundation, and $250,000 from the Doris and Donald Fisher Education Fund. The Walton family are the Wal-Mart founders and owners. Laura and John Arnold are a young couple from Texas with a lot of money and a vision to "go big." John Arnold made most of his money as an Enron trader, so I'm sure former Enron employees are simply thrilled to know that someone who walked away with the big bucks is now looking to score on charter schools. In addition to his charitable giving, Arnold manages a hedge fund now. The Fishers are the founders of The Gap, and spend millions each year toward inserting charter schools in various districts.

More corporate philanthropy funds flowed to StudentsFirst via Education Reform Now, which was used as an incubator for StudentsFirst until their non-profit approval was received. Recently, StudentsFirst replaced their founding board with a new board. Those new members include Bill Cosby, Jennifer Johnson (COO of Franklin Resources, Inc), Joel Klein, former chancellor of New York Public Schools and now Executive VP for Rupert Murdoch's News Corporation (Educational Products Division), and Jalen Rose, former NBA star, ESPN commentator and founder of the Jalen Rose Leadership Academy, a charter high school in Detroit.

Now why on earth are corporations so interested in charter schools? I've said here many times that they see education as an emerging market. Clearly Rupert Murdoch does, and so do many venture capitalists, which is why educational philanthropy grants read like venture capital proposals. Hedge fund managers love charter schools too, as Kristin Rawls at AlterNet explains:

Thanks to a little discussed law passed in 2000, at the end of Bill Clinton’s presidency, banks and equity funds that invest in charter schools and other projects in underserved areas can take advantage of a very generous tax credit – as much as 39% -- to help offset their expenditure in such projects. In essence, that credit amounts to doubling the amount of money they have invested within just seven years. Moreover, they are allowed to combine that tax credit with job creation credits and other types of credit, as well collect interest payments on the money they are lending out – all of which can add up to far more than double in returns. This is, no doubt, why many big banks and equity funds are so invested in the expansion of charter schools. There is big money being made here -- because investment is nearly a sure thing.

And it’s not just U.S. investors who see the upside of investing in charters. Rich donors throughout the world are now sending money to fund our charter schools. Why? Because if they invest at least $500,000 to charters under a federal program called EB-5, they’re allowed to purchase immigration visas for themselves and family members -- yet another mechanism in place to ensure that the money keeps rolling in.

When media makes a big deal out of Michelle Rhee tromping around LA trumpeting about how much she cares for public schools, remember that she is merely facilitating even more big tax breaks for her corporate keepers.

I've been studying patterns of giving to education reform on the right and on the left. They're not much different, largely because their ultimate goals converge. Lefties will make some soft murmurs about keeping schools public while conservatives will say straight out that their goal is breaking unions and privatizing education. If lefties were serious about keeping schools public, they would have gotten behind the idea of magnet schools within existing school district structures and managed by the districts. Instead they've all embraced the sainted public-private partnership as some excuse for handing our kids' education to corporate interests.

The only ones no one is really thinking about seriously are the kids. Common Dreams reports:

Corporate school reformers promote privately operated but publicly funded "charter schools" as one of the key components of their profit-friendly approach to solving what they call the failure of traditional public schooling, but a new investigative report from Reuters shows that many such institutions disregard their own promises of inclusion and equal opportunity by creating barriers to needier students while targeting for enrollment those most likely to pad test scores or otherwise enhance their own promises of "success".

The full report from Reuters is here. It isn't pretty. It certainly lays bare the lies Michelle Rhee uses to get a foothold on the national stage and sell her education reform snake oil.

Hedge funds benefit. Bankers benefit. Philanthropists benefit. Children? Not so much.

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