Confessions of an Educational Hit Man

by Ray Guzman

The assault under way in Philadelphia is a textbook example of government and corporate interests superseding the rights of citizens and workers. 

In 2004 John Perkins, a former chief economist at a Boston based consulting firm, wrote a contentious mea culpa titled Confessions Of An Economic Hit Man. If you are unfamiliar with this moniker, I’ll paraphrase a definition offered by Mr. Perkins, “an economic hit man is a generic term for a private agent carrying out government and corporate interests in public spheres”. The publication of his murderous memoir offered many Americans whom may have never lived abroad a perspective into shady tactics. Mr. Perkins describes his salacious services with the carefree pace of a dying man. His tactics targeted foreign leaders. They ranged from enticing presidents with earthly vices to threats of hellish violence. Perkins’ book reveals the extreme, if not criminal duress he and his ilk levied upon these leaders. Confessions Of An Economic Hit Man forces Americans who have lived abroad to reflect on events we may have experienced. In addition, for many of us who are educators as well, we should cogently overlap these experiences with the tactics being unleashed upon public education in the United States. Our reflections, then, must lead us to surmise that there are educational hit men/women among us. I am convinced that another timely murderous memoir needs to be written by a repented “leading education reformer” with perhaps the working title of –Confessions Of An Educational Hit Man/Woman.

I lived in the Dominican Republic during the 1990s. Dr. Joaquín Balaguer, a wily, octogenarian remnant of the Trujillo dictatorship and not of my liking, governed the country. Nonetheless, an interesting episode transpired which has always held my interest. The International Monetary Fund and Mr. Balaguer were embattled in “prolonged negotiations” pursuant to a structural adjustment agreement. The crux of the impasse circled around two key issues demanded by the IMF in their proposed structural adjustment agreement -austerity, and privatization measures. Our ambassador echoed the IMF’s demands that the Dominican government ensure budget cuts and guarantee the privatization of publicly owned sectors in particular, the electrical system. Until that time I had neither heard of austerity nor privatization. Albeit as a naïve American living abroad, I became very interested in the odd, meddling insistence of our American ambassador in the economic affairs of a sovereign country. One would think that such an affront would foster national opposition. –Not quite. A strange coalition of self described liberals, impresarios, and popular opposition leaders lead mobilizations urging Mr. Balaguer to acquiesce. In summary, the delay tactics ceased, and once the agreement was signed, killer cuts left the most vulnerable, completely vulnerable. Dozens died in the protests that followed. I will offer an example as credence to the debacle that ensued. Implementation of the IMF’s structural adjustment agreement, allowed Enron Corp. to become a key looting figure in the privatization of the Dominican electrical system.

Mr. Perkins continues to detail his early beginnings at the Boston based Charles T. Main Inc. He describes the courting and vetting process conducted by corporations via private strategic-consulting firms and their billionaire backers. He enumerates his ever escalating assignments which eventually lead him to a spiritual crisis. In essence, as an economist he was charged with “convincing” elected foreign politicians to accept usury loans, which would then be coupled with repayment guarantees such as killer austerity cuts and privatization measures. Most leaders he “consulted” would accept these terms –for a price. Yet, a patriotic few resisted and would die in plane crashes. Mr. Perkins admits that his personal relationship with the incorruptible Ecuadorian president, Jaime Roldós Aguilera, and his subsequent “accidental death” lead him to renounce his cancerous career and begin confessing his misdeeds in writing.

Akin to Mr. Perkins’ experience, current education reformers are initially courted and vetted by similar corporations via private foundations or billionaire backers. Next, they are invited to attend non accredited institutes funded by the same foundations. They study the rigors of reform and the construction of choice. Upon graduation, they profess the need for REFORM above all policies. By reform they mean fewer rights for workers, namely teachers’ unions. By choice, they mean the expansion of charter schools and vouchers redeemable at private and religious schools. The main distinguishing commonality these economic and educational hit men/women share is their contempt for democracy. These individuals never participate in any election. Yet, they insist on imposing their agendas into public arenas. Ultimately, they adhere to an assassin’s ethos. They view the completion of an assigned mission as supreme. Under this ethic, the mission must be accomplished regardless of formalities or victims.

American educators need to wake up and face this unsettling fact, –hit men tactics have returned home to roost and -of all places– in our public school districts. Here in Philadelphia, both school budgets and the teachers’ union are under ferocious attack. To ensure implementation, Philadelphia has been assigned by -elected officeholders- a committee of educational hit men/women. The non-elected School Reform Commission has been trying to “convince” the teachers’ union to accept structural austerity measures in order to solve the current deficit via 13% salary cuts, loss of seniority rights, higher contributions to health plans and most disturbing of all reduction of staff. They have “consulted” with the teachers’ union. Cynically, they seem surprised by our resistance and voice their frustration to the media. They speak with pained tones, as if they are the ones under duress. And shamelessly, too many in the media continue to promote their sardonic diatribes.

This cowardly, long distance drone assault is being guided directly from Harrisburg. The governor held the disbursement of allotted funds desperately needed to properly staff our schools. He insisted that teachers swallow his hemlock spiked quid pro quo in order to release the funds. One would think that such an affront would provoke Philadelphians’ pride into action and garner a wide coalition against this farce. –Not quite. A stranger still coalition of “non-profits”, impresarios, and elected officeholders has demanded that the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers acquiesce and accept terms immediately. Incidentally, don’t bother looking for neither wily, old men nor self described liberals, and much less popular opposition leaders to come to our aid. Teachers must lead this fight.

It is imperative to note that the fiduciary responsibility of the school district has been under the control of these same non-elected, state and city appointed, private agents for the past thirteen years. In effect, they have allowed a 304 million dollar deficit to balloon and hamstring the school district, while assessing counterfactual blame to teachers for their mismanagement and political chicanery. Interestingly enough, another Boston based firm appears in our negotiations. The current master plan being followed in Philadelphia has been attributed to the Boston Consulting Group. Yes, the same one where a young Mitt Romney cut his fangs.

These killer austerity measures have already traumatized our students. Many of our schools do not have nurses, nor counselors, and scant material support necessary to provide an efficient education. Tragically, these austerity measures may have already contributed to the death of a student. On September 25th Laporcha Massey, a sixth grader at Bryant Elementary School in West Philadelphia, had an asthma attack while in school. Bryant is assigned a nurse only twice a week. September 25th was not one of them. Hence, there was no one medically certified to assist Laporcha. Although the school called her parents and apparently were unsuccessful to speak to them, they also apparently failed to call 911 to avail further certified assistance for the child. An aide drove the child to her house. Once the father picked up his daughter, he took her to Children’s Hospital, then hours into her attack. Despite efforts, tragically, Laporcha died later that night. This outrageous incident highlights the urgency of proper staffing levels at schools in particular at the elementary level. We should also keep present that Laporcha’s classmates have had to return to the same classroom since her death, and ponder her empty seat. One may ask, -does the school have certified counselors available to assist Laporcha’s classmates and dare I add, her teachers as well?

Despite endless attacks on public education, none of these reformist charlatans has come close to offering a confession. At least none has been made in any forum, and much less published. Nonetheless, I would like to believe that these hit men/women are not devoid of a conscience. I hope that they examine their actions. Moreover, I am almost certain that similar to Mr. Perkins some education reformers must be spiritually haunted by the transgressions they have carried out or continue to conduct. They must know that they are guns for hire. I truly hope they find the need for renunciation at some point in their petty lives. A life of endless assignments bent on deconstruction, roaming from one public school district to another with neither connection nor consideration to either pride or place. It is a Dantesque existence free of both, levity or divinity. Think of the pathetic “specialist” Ryan Bingham, portrayed by George Clooney, in the movie Up In Air. Clooney’s character roams the country in swift “fly by hits” for his clients. Ryan Bingham’s sole purpose in life is to fire people –for a price.

The assault under way in Philadelphia is a textbook example of government and corporate interests superseding the rights of citizens and workers. A brave whistleblower or repented technocrat is well overdue. I especially pray that a remorseful, leading education reformer may soon confess his/her misdeeds in writing. And if his/her mea culpa is sincere, I hope that all possible mercy be bestowed upon them.

Commenter Calls Me ‘A Dangerous Presence in the Political Discourse’

by Christopher Paslay

Instead of addressing my arguments, “social justice advocates” attempt to bully me out of the debate. 

Several days ago I posted a blog headlined “Inventing Racism in America’s Public Schools” which explored the notion that there are folks, mainly on the political left, who exploit race and racism in education for their own benefit; the Philadelphia Public School Notebook went on to link the piece in their January 23rd “Notes from the News.”  The blog also talked about the existence of racism in public schools, data on achievement and discipline, and linked no less than 17 sources as evidence—a book on racism, a speech by U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, five education policy reports by Princeton’s Educational Testing Service (ETS) that spanned 25 years of American public education, an interview with a NYT bestselling author on racism, eight newspaper articles, and two public school related websites.

My conclusion was that although episodic racism still exists in isolated cases in classrooms, systematic racism is dying and other causes of the racial achievement gap—such as culture and home environment—should be explored.

Geoffrey Winikur, a White Philadelphia public school teacher, social justice advocate and facilitator for the Philadelphia Writing Project, publicly commented on my blog that I was “a dangerous presence in the political discourse” and claimed I made my arguments “without offering a shred of evidence.”  I guess 17 sources, including five from ETS covering 25 years of public education, isn’t “evidence.”  Winikur also said, “I love it every time you write a new article, because I know I’m in for a good laugh.”  Yes, a highly intellectual response to my arguments indeed.

This, of course, is nothing short of bullying—the kind of thing that happened to Samantha Pawlucy at Carroll High School last fall, the young lady who was asked to remove her Mitt Romney T-shirt by none other than her own geometry teacher because, allegedly, the teacher claimed “this is a Democratic school.”

Ben Shapiro analyzes this topic in his recently released New York Times bestselling book Bullies: How the Left’s Culture of Fear and Intimidation Silences Americans.  In his introduction he highlights how on March 10, 2011, President Barack Obama led a White House conference on the crisis of bullying:

The strategy here was simple. Obama and his friends in the media and on the organized left picked the one thing all Americans can agree on: bullying. They strategically placed President Obama at the head of the anti-bullying cause. Then came the brilliant gambit: they appropriated bullying to apply only to anything remotely conservative.

The Tea Party? A bunch of bullies. Religious people? Bullies. Global warming unbelievers, defense hawks, venture capitalists, fans of voter identification or traditional marriage, opponents of affirmative action, right-to-work advocates, supporters of Israel, haters of Glee? Bullies. Those who dislike President Obama? They were the biggest bullies of all. Liberalism and anti-bullying, it turned out, were—miracle of miracles!—one and the same.

Their twisted logic was deceptively easy. Liberals claim that they are all about protecting victim classes from bullies. Conservatives oppose liberals. Therefore, by definition, conservatives must be bullies. And bullies must be stopped.

The irony here is that the true bullies are the ones who callously attack those who disagree with their worldview, like Winikur’s statement that I’m “a dangerous presence in the political discourse.”

I’m not sure why fighting for colorblindness in society—judging people by their core values and not their skin color—is dangerous.  I’m not sure why treating minorities as equals and not as enslaved and oppressed is so worrisome.  I’m not sure why teaching young people that they are the captain of their own ship and not the victim of a corrupt system is a cause for alarm.  Or why the notion that there exist universal human values that transcend race, gender, sexuality and culture—values such as honesty, respect, integrity, loyalty, and hard work—is “Eurocentric.”

The lack of manners from disapproving social justice advocates didn’t stop with Winikur.  Another commenter wrote, “You’re doing what’s called ‘blaming the victim’ and it’s lame.”  The irony of this statement is that the issue of “blaming the victim” was addressed in the video interview I included with my blog post by NYT bestselling author of The End of Racism Dinesh D’Souza.  Interestingly, neither Winikur nor any of the other commenters took the time to click on the link and watch the video (one did, however, reference an article in The Daily Beast that smeared D’Souza because he had the audacity to respectfully challenge President Obama’s policies in a recent documentary titled “Obama’s America: 2016”).

Since none of the commenters took the time to even listen to what D’Souza had to say before smearing him, I’ll include his quote about “blaming the victim”:

“For a generation, people have said you cannot point at these problems because to do so is blaming the victim.  When Daniel Patrick Moynihan wrote his report on the Black family in the sixties, the illegitimacy rate for Blacks was 25 percent.  He said it was a national tragedy and people said ‘you’re a racist, stop talking about it.’  And he did.  He hasn’t said a word about it since, and the illegitimacy rate for Blacks today is close to 70 percent.   So when these problems are ignored, they metastasize and become far worse . . .”

Another objection made by Geoffrey Winikur (the White uber-liberal teacher who publicly commented that I was a dangerous presence in the political discourse) was one of cultural relativism, that my idea of “colorblindness” was really an effort to push America back to a Eurocentric state.  This was not only a humongous misinterpretation of what I argued constituted colorblindness (I don’t know how judging a person by their actions and values instead of their skin color is “Eurocentric”), but Winikur didn’t bother to click on the link to the D’Souza interview either, which already addressed this objection.  To quote D’Souza:

“That’s the legacy of cultural relativism . . . which says in effect that all cultures are equal and no culture can judge another by its own standards, and cultures should not impose values on each other.  I argue that this relativism played an important historic role . . . relativism was a way to undermine the old racism, which was based on a hierarchy . . . but it’s created a new problem.”

The new “problem” D’Souza explores is one of the functionality of culture, and how relativism has come to hide the dysfunction of some cultures.  Although it may be argued that no one culture is inherently better than another and that one culture cannot judge another by its own standards, things such as quality of life and manageability of life do exist.  I don’t think anyone would disagree that certain cultures in America as a whole have a better quality of life and have lives that are more manageable and functional than other cultures.  The racial achievement gap is one example.  The wealth gap is another.  So are homicide rates within cultures.  So are incarceration rates.  Out-of-wedlock birth rates, quality of nutrition, literacy rates, dropout rates, and the rates of college graduation are still other examples.  (To read the ETS reports on this click here, here, here, and here).

To suggest that all cultures are equal in terms of quality and manageability of life is ridiculous.  To suggest that the differences in quality and manageability of life among cultures is primarily the result of racism is also ridiculous.

In 2009, U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder said Americans were “a nation of cowards” because we were afraid to talk about race.  What he seems to have meant by this was that not enough Americas were willing to talk about how White people oppress minorities.  I’d like to take Eric Holder up on his proposition.  Let’s talk about race in America, but let’s really talk about it—dirty laundry and everything.

But to truly talk about race would mean many folks, like Geoffrey Winikur, would have to address opposing arguments head-on and refrain from attempting to demonize those they disagree with.

Tragically, with the exception of publications such as The Philadelphia Public School Notebook—who have recently had the courtesy and open-mindedness to link my articles in their “Notes from the News” to open-up the much needed avenues of discussion (I’d like to publicly thank them for this, by the way)—it doesn’t appear as if honest and frank talk about race and racism in America is going to happen anytime soon.

Saying goodbye to Arne Duncan (and shrinking the U.S. Dept. of Ed.)

by Christopher Paslay

Next week we will be getting a new president, and with him, a new Secretary of Education.    

With a new president comes a new cabinet.  And since October 17, 1979, when President Jimmy Carter signed into law the Department of Education Organization Act—which brought into existence the overbearing and bureaucratic United States Department of Education—this has included the U.S. Secretary of Education.

Arne Duncan, President Obama’s appointment, has fit the job perfectly, which is to say he intruded on public education like the big government politician he is.  Now, before education advocates start belly aching about the importance of federally funded education programs, know this: on average, the federal government only contributes about 10 percent to a public school district’s budget (90 percent of funds come from state and local government).

Interestingly, this doesn’t stop the federal government from bullying local school districts into following their laws and policies, like George W. Bush’s No Child Left Behind or Barack Obama’s recent “National Reform Model” for overhauling failing schools; the U.S. Dept. of Ed. wants all the power, none of the responsibility, and in exchange covers a measly tenth of the cost.

But back to Duncan.  What has marked his tenure?  Duncan has fought to:

  • Increase the use of data and standardized tests to define student achievement and teacher effectiveness.
  • Use performance pay to compensate teachers based on student performance on standardized tests.
  • End teacher seniority to give principals the autonomy to pick their own staffs.
  • Turn “failing” schools into charters.
  • Overhaul entire staffs of teachers and principals at failing schools.
  • Reduce suspensions and expulsions to deal with unruly and disruptive students.

After four years of such policies, the racial achievement gap is as big as ever, test scores remain flat, graduation rates haven’t moved, and hundreds of millions of dollars went down the toilet via President Obama’s education stimulus package; for those in Philadelphia, think of the three year tenure of Arlene Ackerman, and the nearly $10 billion she spent (stole/wasted).  What does Philadelphia have to show for it?  A gigantic budget deficit.

Which is why a new education secretary is going to be a much-needed breath of fresh air.  The question, of course, is who?  Who will Romney’s education secretary be?

Before that question can be addressed, there is one fact that will make his appointee better off than Duncan: Romney has talked of shrinking the U.S. Dept. of Ed. by combining it with another agency, and this may limit the reach of the education secretary; some speculate that there is still a chance Romney will abolish the Dept. of Ed.—and education secretaries—altogether.

Again, the federal government only contributes about 10 percent to the budgets of public school districts (in Philadelphia it is about 15 percent), so the Dept. of Ed.’s power should be reeled in; it should have a say in only 10-15 percent of public education policy.  But that’s not how big government and big bureaucracies operate.  They want control at all costs, and maneuver their way in via handouts (Race to the Top) and by making false promises; better to give federal education funds directly to the states, and let local districts, school boards, parents and teachers make their own decisions.

It’s interesting more public educators aren’t more agitated by the U.S. Dept. of Ed., by its intruding reach into their classrooms, by its regulations and red tape, by its out-of-touch policies and visions for reform.  Perhaps the most intrusive, frustratingly bureaucratic years in the past two decades in the Philadelphia School District were the Ackerman years from 2008-2011, driven by scripted curriculum and suffocating central office visits from the clipboard wielding Ackerman Gestapo.  This period was the direct result of Obama/Duncan’s “National Reform Model,” AKA: gotcha policies and stifling regulation trickling down from the control freaks known as the U.S. Dept. of Ed.

So who will Romney pick as his education secretary?  Here’s a list of possibilities, according to Education Week: Minnesota’s Tim Pawlenty, Tony Bennett (Indiana’s superintendent of Public Instruction), Tom Luna (the Idaho superintendent of public instruction), Chris Cerf (a registered Democrat who works with GOP governor Chris Christie), Robert Scott (former Texas chief), Paul Pastorek (helped schools in Louisiana recover from Hurricane Katrina), Bill Green (executive chairman at Accenture, a consulting organization), and Joel Kline (former New York City chancellor), among others.  (To read about their backgrounds on education, click here).

But the best hope, of course, is that Romney won’t pick a new secretary.  That is to say, that the newly elected president will make his first order of business to send the U.S. Dept. of Ed. the way of the blue suede shoe, and allow local school boards, parents, and teachers the true freedom to drive policies and reform.

The Romney Education Plan: ‘Get the teacher unions out’

by Christopher Paslay

Mitt Romney’s school reform plan calls for confronting unions, ignoring class size, and discounting teacher experience.    

Mitt Romney’s new message on the education front is his pledge to take on teachers unions in an effort to—cue the Michelle Rhee drum roll—put students first!  “We have got to put the kids first and put these teachers unions behind,” Romney said recently on Fox News Sunday.  “. . . I want there to be action taken to get the teacher unions out and to get the kids once again receiving the education they need.” 

If I didn’t know any better, I’d think Romney had just finished watching Waiting for Superman.  His belief that teachers unions are stopping public school children from receiving proper educations scores a “10” on the cliché meter and shows just how lazy he’s been when it comes to rolling up his sleeves and doing some real, evidence-based research into the many challenges facing America’s public schools. 

Teachers Unions: The Root of All Evil?

Since Romney deals in clichés (and fails to acknowledge all the good things teachers unions have done over the past 150 years, like improve conditions in schools, upgrade curriculum and teacher credentials, and make it so every child can learn to read and write, regardless of race, social class, and gender) let’s analyze the three most fashionable criticisms of teachers unions: that they give bad teachers a lifetime appointment in the classroom; that they receive cushy contracts from politicians in exchange for political support; and that they stand in the way of progress.               

As I’ve written about before (see “Ending the Myth That Tenure Protects Bad Teachers,” 3/20/12), public schools are self-regulating: teacher turnover is costing America over $7 billion annually; 17 percent of all of public school teachers quit every year; 56 percent of America’s new teachers quit within five years; and over one-quarter of America’s public school teachers have five years experience or less.  Where is the “lifetime appointment”?      

Here are the numbers behind the “cushy contracts” garnered by unions: the median salary of kindergarten teachers in 2011 was $31,500; for elementary school teachers it was $49,200; and for high school teachers it was $52,700.  As for benefits, most public school employees contribute to their pensions and medical insurance (teachers in Pennsylvania contribute 7.5 percent of every check to their pension).  This can hardly be considered “cushy”.               

As for standing in the way of progress, teachers unions opposed No Child Left Behind (but this didn’t stop it from being passed), a school reform bill that has been criticized by educational policy experts across the political spectrum for it’s over reliance on flawed test data and the narrowing of school curriculum; Romney himself said it needs to be significantly changed and reauthorized.  NCLB has been in place since 2002—over a decade—and the racial achievement gap hasn’t changed, nor has the achievement gap between the rich and the poor; the wealth gap has gotten bigger.

Teachers unions also oppose taking public tax dollars and putting them into privately operated charter schools (but this hasn’t stopped every state in America from doing it), a practice that has gotten mixed results at best. Charter schools perform no better academically than traditional schools, yet have the luxury of removing failing or disruptive students.  Financial mismanagement and lack of oversight are recurring problems for charters, and growing research is showing they are not equitable—English language learners, special needs students, and minorities are being weeded out.

Is this the “progress” critics of unions are talking about?   

 Teacher Pay: Old vs. New

Romney wants to pay new teachers more.  “We should pay our beginning teachers more,” Romney said at a recent campaign stop in Illinois. “The national unions are too interested in benefits for the older teachers.”

By “older teachers” does Romney mean the ones with the most skills and experience?  The ones that have dedicated their entire careers to their students and survived the poorest neighborhoods with the least amount of resources?  The ones that have for years paid out of their own pocket for classroom materials, endured the insanity of misguided school reform, forged lasting relationships with their students, and saved the lives of some of America’s most troubled youth?  Those “older teachers”?             

By “beginning teachers” does Romney mean the ones with less than five years experience?  The ones that studies show are still learning their craft and struggle with instruction and classroom management?  By “beginning teachers” does Romney mean the ones who enter the profession through Teach for America, over half of which quit in two years?  Or those who enter the field via the traditional route, over half of which quit in five years?    

 Class Size

Romney doesn’t think class size matters.  In other words, he doesn’t feel the need to increase educational funding, or worry about per pupil spending.  “I studied [class size],” Romney said in Illinois.  “There was no relationship between classroom size and how the kids did.” 

Really?  So there’s no difference between teaching a class of 33 or 23?  No difference in classroom management?  No difference in the amount of time for individualized instruction?  No difference in time for grading papers and contacting parents?  Or the money needed for resources and supplies?  Money for paper?  Books?  Laptops?  Field trips?  No difference between 23 and 33, huh?             

There is, of course, plenty of research that says class size does matter, like the U.S. Department of Education’s report analyzing the multitude of benefits achieved via Bill Clinton’s National Class Size Reduction Program.  And then there’s the State of Tennessee’s STAR report.    

From his recent remarks on the campaign trail it’s become obvious that Mitt Romney has limited knowledge of public education in America, and is simply using talking points to pander to his base.  Either way, he’s alienating millions of hard working school teachers across the country, and putting politics ahead of the educational interest of our nation’s children.