Elected School Board member Alturrick Kenney and Milwaukee Teachers Union President Bob Peterson respond to Netflix CEO Reed Hastings call to abolish elected school because they impede charter school growth
JAISAL NOOR, TRNN PRODUCER: Welcome to The Real News Network. I’m Jaisal Noor in Baltimore. In news from the world of public education, billionaire Netflix CEO Reed Hastings became the latest mega-wealthy business executive to expound his thoughts about how to improve the country’s schools. In a speech at the 2014 California Charter Schools Association conference in San Jose, he suggested elected school boards are a major obstacle to increasing educational outcomes and need to be abolished.
REED HASTINGS, NETFLIX CEO: And so the fundamental problem with school districts is not their fault. The fundamental problem is they don’t get to control their board. And the importance of the charter school movement is to evolve America from a system where governance is constantly changing and you can’t do long-term planning, to a system of large non-profits that develop and have great professional development.
NOOR: He went on to tout New Orleans, which is the only school district in the country with a majority of students in charter schools, as an example to be used around the country.
HASTINGS: But the most important thing is they constantly get better. Every year, they’re getting better because they have stable governance. They don’t have an elected school board. And that’s the real tough issue here.
Now, if we go to the general public and we say, here’s an argument why you should get rid of school boards, of course no one’s going to go for that. School boards have been an iconic part of America for 200 years. And so what we have to do is to work with school districts to grow steadily.
NOOR: So we’ve reached out to Reed Hastings for an interview to discuss his comments, but he didn’t respond. So instead we invited an elected school board member and a teacher’s union president.
We’re joined by Alturrick Kenney. He’s the current elected member of the Newark public schools advisory board. He’s a former deputy mayor of the city of Newark and a longtime education advocate.
We’re also joined by Bob Peterson. He’s a teacher union activist, writer, organizer, president of the Milwaukee Teachers Union, and an editor of Rethinking Schools.
So, Alturrick Kenney, let’s start with you. Give us your thoughts about and your response to what Reed Hastings had to say. He said the problem with education are elected school boards, and they’re an obstacle to progress, they’re an obstacle to expanding charter schools, which he says are a panacea to fix public education’s problems around the country.
ALTURRICK KENNEY, FMR. OFFICIAL, NEWARK PUBLIC SCHOOLS: [snip] giving me an opportunity to have an opportunity to address Mr. Reed Hastings and his current beliefs that an elected school board, which is a Democratic right of most individuals throughout this country, to talk about how do people in their cities get their chance to discuss, you know, what their city and their education looks like. And Reed Hastings, based on his own comments, is totally out of the box in terms of knowing exactly what a school board is supposed to do.
What our responsibilities are is to make sure that we provide a qualified, highly qualified education for our children here, not only in the city of Newark, but throughout the country, whatever school board it represents. So in the city of Newark, we actually have the benefit of having one of the young ladies who actually came from New Orleans, Ms. Tiffany Hardrick, who is actually one of our special superintendents. And she’s one of the individuals who’s helping create a lot of division and a lot of chaos in our school district by identifying young, inexperienced not only teachers but also principals taking over school buildings. And the only fight that we’ve actually had here in the city of Newark has [incompr.] like this school board, as well as some of our politicos in the city of Newark, who gave us enough wherewithal to say that what is happening in the city of Newark is tantamount to what’s happening in New Orleans, the city that she came from, and also tantamount to what’s happened in District 79 with Cami Anderson, which is where our superintendent came from. So an elected school board is not only necessary and critical, but we also see in the city of Newark we have a number of school buildings have closed, you know, as the result of Cami Anderson and Dr. Hardrick in their inability to fully empower our residents here in the city of Newark and the schools that they have in their neighborhood.
NOOR: What Hastings and many other sort of business types that have gotten into public education–we’re talking about foundations like the Gates Foundation, the Broad Foundation as well–what they really advocate for are the expansion of charter schools. And a big reason for that, and as Hastings said in his speech, is because they’re not accountable to the public the same way that elected school boards are. And so, I mean, what he’s saying is that they don’t go through changes, they’re stable, and so, therefore, they can provide–they have certain advantages that elected school boards don’t have. Now, there was just some data released, I believe, by the Economic Policy Institute about how charter schools have fared in Milwaukee. Can you give us your response as well? And talk about what the data shows in Milwaukee especially.
BOB PETERSON, PRESIDENT, MILWAUKEE TEACHERS UNION: Right. Reed Hastings is echoing what many corporate leaders and right-wing ideologues have been saying the last couple of decades. You have everybody from the Bradley Foundation here in Milwaukee, the Walton Foundation, amplified through their ALEC network at the state legislative level, funded both by, like, the Koch brothers and Americans for Prosperity, and people like Betsy DeVos, who works with this group called American Federation for Children. Her husband is Dick DeVos, who is a billionaire Amway cofounder. All these people are fundamentally attacking democracy. They’re attacking democracy by trying to eliminate elected school boards. They tried to do that in 2009 in Milwaukee. We fought back and defeated that, despite the support by Arne Duncan and our Democratic governor and mayor.
But they’re also attacking democracy by trying to destroy the very foundation of it, which is the public school system, by promoting privately run charter schools, which are not run democratically, have very little accountability. Or in Milwaukee’s case, where they promote a private voucher program, we basically see the demise of the Democratic input on the part of either elected school boards or on the part of participants–the parents and teachers in those schools.
This is part of an international plan. I mean, I’m not a conspiracy theorist, but let’s be Frank. The 1 percent on this planet are trying to destroy the public sector. They do that through programs of austerity. Under Scott Walker, for example, we have the largest cuts in public education since the Great Depression. Once you cut the public sector, make it more difficult to function properly, then it’s easy to come in and say, well, the solution is privatization, the solution is competition, when in fact we know that the public school system in Milwaukee or Newark is the only institution in these cities that has the capacity, commitment, and legal obligation to serve all kids. These charter schools, voucher schools, they are quick to dismiss the special needs kids, kids with who are learning English as second language, or kids who misbehave. That’s not the case with public schools. So this is a direct attack on democracy.
They have a 20-year experiment here in Milwaukee with the voucher schools, but in fact there’s nothing to show that these voucher schools are doing better, even though they serve a lot less special needs kids, nothing to show that the charter schools are doing better, even though they serve a lot less special needs and ELL kids. So what you have is a failed experiment that is so promoted by the billionaires and the right-wing foundations that it continues to have some staying power amongst this nation. It’s a travesty. And, quite frankly, Reed Hastings is right in the middle of it.
Interestingly enough, he’s one of the people on the board of this new Rocketship franchise charter school. They have one school here in town. And it’s interesting. Just think about this. He is on a nonprofit board, and yet he’s invested in–along with another person on that board, $14 million into a for-profit company called DreamBox. It’s a math program that anybody who isn’t part of Rocketship has to use. So they give money to a nonprofit to support new charter schools, and yet these charter schools then are going to be buying the technology from the for-profit firms that somebody like Reed Hastings has investment in.
NOOR: You see around the country now, thanks to the Citizens United decision and other decisions, is that wealthy billionaires such as Mr. Hastings, they do have more influence than democratic decisions. You know, he just poured a ton of money in the elections in L.A. that shaped the outcome of what the school board looks like there. And what a lot of people don’t know about public education around the country is that while a lot of suburban school boards are democratically elected, most urban school districts do not have that same level of democratically participation. Give us a picture of the level of democracy in a Newark or a New York City or a Baltimore or a Milwaukee. What kind of participation to citizens get to have in how their community schools are run?
KENNEY: Well, in the city of Newark, we’ve actually had two tragedies happen in the city of Newark. We’ve had Cory Booker, who was elected in the city of Newark, and we also had Chris Christie, who became governor in the state of New Jersey. So Cory [Booker,] with the money from the Zuckerberg funds, which promised to contribute $100 million to Newark Public Schools. And many folks thought that Newark Public Schools meant to the locally elected Newark Public Schools and their school boards, which is really a shadow for money that was being dumped into tho charter schools, which can see money to those charter schools primarily TEAM Academy, which is KIPP Academy, as well as North Star Academy, which [incompr.] schools. So those two schools’ districts received–they received money that our school district never received at all. So most of the money did–not only did not go into the classroom, but those monies were primarily to consultants.
That money was also used to subvert the power of locally elected school districts. For example, when we were deciding on teachers contracts–and so what Zuckerberg, and Cory Booker, and Chris Christie were starting to do [incompr.] $34 million [incompr.] teacher contracts to settle the long-term losses that was put on hold by the Newark Teachers Union. They gave them x amount of–they gave than $34 million for money that was being used. But as the years progressed, in the next two to three years, out of a district of 4,000 teachers, we have 1,170 teachers that will be losing their jobs in the next three years.
On top of that, when Cami Anderson and Chris Christie first came into office with Cory Booker, we lost ten public schools. And next year we’ll lose we’re losing  public schools. All the schools that we’re talking about are being repurposed into charter school founders, in charter school districts. And most of our district right now, we’re losing a lot of our public schools because of the charter school [incompr.] and because of Zuckerberg, and because of Cory Booker. And they have inadvertently impacted the amount of people who come out for school board elections. For example, we have 142,000 people that are registered voters here in the city of Newark. Forty-one hundred decided to come out for the last school board election, because most people feel that they don’t have any input as to the direction of the school district, the education, the academics, the school buildings remaining open, school buildings being targeted for closure.
NOOR: One of the primary features of most charter schools is that they have nonunion teachers. Now, you’re a longtime union activist. Talk about what that means, what kind of impact that has for a school district, when you’re taking in these nonunion teachers. You see a lot of Teach for America. And so the proponents say that these are the hungriest, most highly educated teachers that are going to come in. And, you know, for teach Teach for America, it’s, like, a few-year commitment. And they have, what, five weeks of training. And so proponents say that these are the top candidates that are working at the most disadvantaged schools. What’s your response?
PETERSON: Well, my response is it’s not really Teach for America; it’s teach for a resume. I have nothing against the students who go into that. I think that’s fine.
Interesting. The new study by EPI that was just put out on Milwaukee showed that for the last ten years, the teacher of the year in Wisconsin, all the teachers of the year average 18 years of experience. And yet a charter school like rocketship has 75 percent of their teachers is Teach for America, just one or two years experience. They–basically, the parents and students are getting ripped off by this national plan to get rid of experienced teachers and put in sort of a temp agency to run our schools.
This corresponds to a vision of teaching which is really not teaching. It’s an attack on the profession, it’s an attack on the craft of teaching, and it’s a replacement with technological drill sheets, with, you know, endless testing and data collection. And it really cuts the guts out of what I would call an education of the whole child.
So what we see is really definitely an attack on the profession of teaching. In cities like Milwaukee and others where the charter school and voucher schools are increasing at a rapid pace, what it means is less and less teachers are involved in the union, less and less are involved in a public school system. And so the legacy costs and other costs associated with public service fall on a smaller group of students and schools, and it’s making it reach a tipping point in some of these public school systems. And that’s exactly what the folks on top want to say.
But I want to close by saying one thing. It’s not just teachers, but it’s community people and parents that have to work against this. We have a coalition with Milwaukee called Schools and Communities United, and that coalition’s sponsoring a major kickoff event on May 17, the 60th anniversary of Brown v. Board. We’re saying, we’re demanding that the promise of Brown but be fulfilled by dismantling segregation on the base of race in economics, dismantling inequality, and that it’s really the only way forward is for teacher unions, community groups, parents groups, religious groups, to fulfill the democratic aspirations that are the foundation of this country. And right now, if we don’t do that, we don’t step up to the plate right now, this country and our democracy, that which remains of it, it does not have long to last.
NOOR: And it’s worth noting that this is the trend of community and teachers coming together to oppose these policies. It happened in Chicago. And we’re soon going to be reporting about what’s happening in L.A., where a community-backed teacher coalition is about to take over the leadership of the L.A. teachers union, the second-largest teachers union in the country.
So I want to thank you both for joining us. Alturrick Kenney is an elected school board member at the Newark public schools. And also Bob Peterson: he’s a longtime teachers union activist, an editor for Rethinking Schools and he’s the president of the Milwaukee Teachers Union. Thank you both for joining me.
PETERSON: Thank you.
KENNEY: Thank you.
NOOR: And you can follow us @therealnews on Twitter. Tweet me questions and comments @jaisalnoor. Go to TheRealNews.com for all of our coverage of public education issues around the country.
Thank you so much for joining us.
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