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Why Does the US Chamber of Commerce Want to Train or Replace Your Elected School Board, If They Haven't Already?

Ohanian Comment: This is an outstanding expose of what's happening across the country to privatize public education. Don't miss it.

I am the daughter of a man who served 25 years on the school board. He did some heroic things for kids. I grew up hearing the stories. I know there are thousands of other "locals" out there working just as hard to serve the needs of public schools.

By BAR managing editor Bruce A. Dixon

A key role in the elite drive to privatize public education is being played by privately owned school "accreditation" agencies, which are immune from public scrutiny, and under the absolute thrall of pro-privatization forces like the US Chamber of Commerce and the Broad Foundation. Are you hearing stories in local corporate media about your school board being "dysfunctional" and your school systems accreditation threatened? It could mean the US Chamber of Commerce and the Broad Foundation just want to replace them.

There's a not-so-secret campaign underway to privatize public education, an effort that is making unprecedented progress under the administration of Barack Obama. How is such a thing possible? Public education is supposedly a matter of local government, in the hands of thousands of school boards across the country, most of them chosen by local voters?

The representatives of corporations, billionaires, Wall Street speculators, along with their right wing foundations and political tentacles like the US Chamber of Commerce, all of whom aim to privatize education have been allowed to embed themselves in the supposedly impartial processes which evaluate and accredit schools and school systems. From these completely unaccountable positions, they are able to create convenient "crises" at will by making spurious and anonymous accusations against elected local school board members, and threatening to withdraw the accreditation of individual schools and entire districts. When such threats are made, a mayor or governor can appoint extra school board members or as in Georgia this week, replace school board members the voters have chosen with his own pro-privatization flunkies.

Here's how it works. The federal Department of Education is forbidden to tell local school districts precisely what they can and cannot do or teach. But the Department of Education officially recognizes privately owned and operated "accreditation agencies" to decide whether a school, a school board or a school system are up to snuff. There are 6 of these accreditation agencies covering the 50 states, and three of these covering more than 20 states are under the umbrella of something called Advanc-Ed. Being "private" and not-for-profit that Advanc-Ed's processes, educational policies, judgment calls and the rest are completely immune to public scrutiny.

Advanc-Ed's director of public information told Black Agenda Report on the phone that it was entirely funded by the nominal dues paid by school systems for the privilege of accreditation, and that those dues largely paid for its professional development activities, training education leaders, which meant principals, administrators, school board members, interested public officials, and probably members of local business communities who wanted to be more involved in local educational policies. A little digging into the content of some of Advanc-Ed's professional development work revealed a number of other players. A typical one is the Center For Reform of School Systems, a not for profit largely funded by the deep pockets of a longtime major advocate of school privatization, the Eli Broad Foundation. CRSS also appears to be deeply involved in the US Chamber of Commerce's push to "influence" the boards of education in cities across the country.

The Obama administration has allowed these unaccountable forces unprecedented access to federal levers of power. It was the Broad Foundation's consultants, along with the Walton Family and Gates and others, who actually wrote Race To The Top's voluminous guidelines, as well as many of the state level proposals that won the lion's share of funds under the program.

If you live in the metro Atlanta media market you've been bombarded with corporate media news coverage the last month or two of a looming crisis in the school system of suburban (and majority black) Dekalb County, pop. 700,000. The crisis is that the accrediting agency the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools, part of Advanc-Ed, is threatening to withdraw accreditation for the county's entire school system. You can pay careful attention to daily corporate media stories of the crisis for weeks on end without ever hearing what the specific accusations against the board members are. You hear that the board members just don't work together, that they fuss and fight, that they doze off in public meetings, that they may have hired relatives or mismanaged funds, but that they should just step down for the good of the children. The reason news stories can't be any more specific about the accusations that threaten the accreditation of a large county school system is that Advanc-Ed's own report, based largely on anonymous sources, is just as vague, trivial and non-specific. Check it out here.

The accusations may be flimsy, but nothing has to be proven in a court of law. Their purpose is to justify provoking the useful crisis that disaster capitalism requires on the educational front to replace the board members and carry out policies that locally elected officials would not dare dream of. In the last couple years, Georgia's notoriously corrupt legislature has passed laws allowing the state governor, much in the pattern of Michigan, to replace duly elected local school board members with his own appointees, and just yesterday, the governor did just that, suspending 6 of 9 school board members in the state's third largest school district after appointing a black Democrat flunky with no classroom bona fides whatsoever as county school superintendent.

Last year, the same breathless accusations about "not working together" bad manners and infighting were enough for the accreditation agency to threaten the city of Atlanta's public schools with loss of accreditation unless they went along with the wishes of its CEO, former BP executive Erroll Clark. Clark also lacks any classroom experience, and once said in public that he learned all he needed to know about managing a large school district while on the board of BP. Atlanta's accreditation is still on probation. The year before, accreditation agencies sparked a year-long crisis by threatening the accreditation of another large majority black metro Atlanta county, Clayton.

It doesn't just happen in Georgia. The US Chamber of Commerce, the Broad Foundation and other privatizers, in league with the Obama administration are trying the same thing in Seattle, and elsewhere around the country. If you hear chatter on corporate media about your local elected school board being "dysfunctional," you're probably looking at a tentacle of the same beast working your own backyard. Beware. It doesn't mean your current elected school board is a paragon of educational virtue. It does mean that they're probably in the cross-hairs, maybe because they've dragged their feet on implementing this or that pro-charter or pro-privatization measure, maybe just because when the privatization goodies flow to the connected they are on the wrong team.

Essentially we have allowed privatizers, and not for profit bodies funded directly and indirectly by the privatizers to embed themselves in, to actually become the "authorities" which "certify" our school sysems. Neat trick. Our public Department of Education sanctions them, and they do what DOE is legally prohibited from doing -- take the stick to school systems to force the adoption of high stakes testing, common core, and related "run the school like a business" strategies, and ultimately, privatization.

It's time to take the discussion out of shallow waters like whether school closings are "racist" or not, and call the real names and frames of what's happening and how it's made to happen. We won't rescue public education, we have no hope of stemming the wave of high-stakes testing and privatization without killing these corrupt private accreditation agencies, and substituting some transparent, fair and bottom-up system of accrediting schools and school systems.

Congress did not approve Race To The Top, and its attendant wave of teacher firings, school closings and the like. But it's federal policy and it's happening. Lots of Obama apologists excuse his supposed inability to get good things done with the claim that Republicans in the Congress and the media block him. But the lack of a majority in Congress hasn't stopped him from doing some perfectly horrible things, like Race To The Top. The role of privately owned, pro-privatization entities in school accreditation is an object lesson in how the most powerful office in the world can reach around Congress if it wants to, and enforce its will (and the will of the charter school sugar daddies) upon hundreds of local boards of education and hundreds of poor communities across the country. It's time to stand up and enforce some will of our own. [emphasis added]

Bruce A. Dixon is managing editor at Black Agenda Report. A longtime Chicagoan, he now lives in exile near Marietta GA, where he is a state committee member of the Georgia Green party and a partner in a tech firm. Contact him via this site's contact page, or at bruce.dixon(at)blackagendareport.com

— Bruce A. Dixon
Black Agenda Report





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