AFT exposes for-profit charter school industry

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WASHINGTON (PAI) - The American Federation of Teachers is launching a campaign to expose the for-profit charter school industry as more interested in high pay for its CEOs and profits for its stockholders than it is in teaching kids.

In studies and personal testimony gathered at a section of its website, the 1.4-million member union rips the veil off the profitable firms, their Republican and conservative political backers and - most importantly - how educational tests show virtually no difference between the charters and the public schools.

The website Cashinginonkinds,com "identifies several issues that need to be addressed in charter school policy, including public control, equity, transparency and accountability, and it analyzes the impact of profit-taking and privatization in charter schools, where student results are mixed and mismanagement is widespread," the union says. The site examines five big for-profit charter school chains.

"For-profit charter schools that operate in the dark without basic public transparency and without strong public control too often put their bottom line ahead of the public interest and high-quality education," AFT President Randi Weingarten explains.

The charter school movement, along with vouchers, are a favorite way for the radical right to attack public schools in general and teachers' unions in particular. The charters angle for public subsidies by promising better results, especially for low-income parents, than public schools. They also siphon off millions of taxpayer dollars from the public schools, making the financial crisis at those schools, especially in inner cities, even worse than before.

The for-profit charter schools also trade on conservative political connections to get their cash, AFT says. Former GOP Florida Gov. Jeb Bush is the "poster boy" for the for-profit charters on the union's website. And other examples of political influence-peddling are rife.

For example, one of the five big chains, Academica, which dominates the Florida charter school landscape, trades on close connections with the GOP state legislative majority to get its cash, the website reveals.

"Erik Fresen, the brother-in-law of the company's CEO, not only has financial connections to the charter operator through his architectural firm, but also chairs the House Education Appropriations Subcommittee. Previously, Fresen worked as a lobbyist for Academica in the state," it notes.

"Fresen isn't the only Florida legislator with ties to the company. State Sen. Anitere Flores is the CEO of Doral College, a private college affiliated with a charter school run by Academica. The company's owners curry additional favor through campaign donations. In a 2011 investigation, the Miami Herald noted that Academica's owners, Fernando and Ignacio Zulueta, steered $150,000 in campaign donations to Tallahassee lawmakers and political committees through real-estate companies they control since 2007 and the Zulueta family has donated a further $75,000 in the past five years.

"Academica executives and school contractors donated a further $54,000, records show. During that time, the legislature relaxed rules limiting the size of charter school networks, and passed a law promoting 'high-performing' charter school systems - reforms that could benefit Academica as the company expands."

Whether Academica and the other four big charter school networks benefit the students they claim to serve is another matter. The Miami-Dade school district found in 2009 that Academica was "creaming" students from the area public schools, not helping students who needed aid the most. "The report found advanced students were nearly twice as likely to transfer to schools in the Mater and Doral networks of schools [run by Academica] as to continue in their home schools," the district added.

And studies of charter schools - non-profit and for-profit - in Milwaukee, Cleveland and Washington, D.C. show mixed results at best for students in the charters, compared to those in neighboring public schools. The AFT website also points out that the for-profit charter school systems spend a lot on marketing and pay their CEOs millions.

K12, a for-profit charter chain that operates in 27 states and D.C., reported $708.4 million in revenue in 2012, up from $522.4 million in 2011. Profits rose by $20 million, to $87 million. CEO Ron Packard got $3.9 million in compensation that year, down from $5 million in 2011. USA Today reported K12 spent over $20 million in the first eight months of 2012 alone on marketing. The for-profit charters also push teachers to market, not teach, the AFT says.

Former K12 teacher Darcy Bedortha told Education Week that during her 15 months as a lead teacher at a K12 school, "At first the marketing focus of conversations" at required national staff meetings "turned my stomach, and then it made me furious."

"The conversation was never about how our students were struggling, how we could support those trying to learn the English language, how we could support those who were homeless or how we could support those with special needs. It was never about how we could support our teachers.

"It seemed to me like the focus was often about enrollment, about data, about numbers of students who had not taken the proper number of tests, about ranking schools and ranking teachers. And there was marketing: How to get more children enrolled, how to reach more families, how to be sure they were pre-registered for next year, how to get Facebook pages and other marketing information 'pushed out' to students.

"State-level staff meetings were not much better. Teachers were occasionally bullied and disrespected...During one meeting, to force students to take yet another standardized test, it was suggested we lock students out of their classes until they completed the tests. I spent days each week trying to keep my seniors engaged and working in their classes, they were hanging on by their fingertips, and I knew that if pushed, they would simply give up."

Photo: Rochester, N.Y., public school students. AFT Facebook page.

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