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The Instigator: New Yorker Profile of Charter School Chief Steve Barr is Propaganda, not Reporting


This article was originally published in the print edition of Substance, May 2009.

by Susan Ohanian

The May 11, 2009 New Yorker magazine offers a profile of Green Dot (charter schools) founder Steve Barr written by Douglas McGray, a newcomer to The New Yorker.

The technical aspects of accessing this article turn out to be of some importance. New Yorker subscribers could obtain a digital version a few days before the magazine arrived in the mail, but this version had no cut–and-paste function, so to get parts up on my website I had to retype.

Later, I discovered one can see the article online for free — and with cut-and-paste available — by going to the New America Foundation.

Stay tuned. We’ll get to why this is significant.

Steve Barr, head of Green Dot, the first charter-school-management organization in the country to seize a high school, is "a revolutionary," Nelson Smith, president and CEO of the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools told The New Yorker. Just to keep track of things as we move forward, U. S. Secretary of Education Rod Paige appointed Nelson Smith as one of 21 negotiators who developed federal regulations for the No Child Left Behind Act. Among the Board of Directors for the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools are Joshua Edelman Director, Executive Officer in the Chicago Public Schools’ Office of New Schools, and Joel Klein, Chancellor, New York City Department of Education.

Ask your Chicago and New York teacher friends what these fellows have been up to. Ask yourself the reasoning behind the new Secretary of Education, Arne Duncan’s enthusiasm for committing several billions of dollars of taxpayer money to a Barr-style takeover (or, as Duncan calls it, "turnaround") of schools across the country.

Maybe it’s because:

  • Because Barr is a "revolutionary"?

  • Barr is over six feet tall?

  • Because Barr married his wife, twenty years his junior, three weeks after he met her at a Burning Man festival?

  • Becaus Eli Broad keeps funding his exploits?

  • Because he called the head of the union "a pig fucker?"

  • Or because Green Dot claims a phenomenal success rate?


  • Barr likes to quote from the crude actions of a covert assassin wallowing in alcohol in a "conventionally dopey," "sadistically violent," "mean-spirited," "fascist aesthetic" turning the multiplex into a two tours of a hate movie of "apocalyptic vengeance" "depicting Mexico City as the worst hellhole in the hemisphere?" Over 60 percent of reviewers quoted here said Man on Fire "sucked." Here’s how Rex Reed sums it up: "Suffice it to say nothing about this pumped-up, hyperthyroidal revenge flick makes sense, but it takes two hours to kill off as many people and demolish as many vehicles as Charles Bronson used to do in 30 minutes."

    Surely it is jarring that the fellow who has taken over the Alain LeRoy Locke High school in Los Angeles, named for a believer in the Bahá'í faith, the first African-American named a Rhodes Scholar, the man known as the father of the Harlem Renaissance, points to the scene in a movie where Denziel Washington doesn’t get the answer he wants from the Mexico City police chief and "sticks a bomb up his ass" as his vision of school management.

    Maybe Arne — "Call me Arnie" — Duncan is convinced that Green Dot's claim about its success rate is true.

    Looniness as a substitute for policy

    But those of us who have worked in schools of any stripe know talk about "success rate" after one or two years of operation is worse than loony. It is self-serving and dangerous to the well-being of students. Such rhetoric sounds like the Teach for America version of success: stick it out for two years and you’re ready to be a consultant on education and a public school takeover revolutionary, qualified to receive those billions in taxpayer dollars.

    Longtime Oakland teacher Jack Gerson points out: "Two years ago, Steve Barr and his Green Dot charter schools group engineered a hostile takeover of Locke High School, a large public high school in Los Angeles. Despite the opposition of United Teachers of Los Angeles and the LA Unified School District, Barr was able to convince a bare majority of Locke's permanent faculty (37 of 73) to opt for Green Dot."

    Barr promptly dismissed the entire staff, forcing them to reapply for their jobs. Over 70 percent were not rehired.

    Be that as it may, don't miss (in the excerpt below) the way The New Yorker piece shows how American Federation of Teachers president Randi Weingarten stands up for teachers.

    Or doesn't. Note that posted on the United Federation Teacher website from 2007 is this Steve Barr quote: "Randi Weingarten is one of the most progressive labor leaders in the country."

    The UFT trumpets that "Green Dot was able to achieve these reforms by establishing a relationship of mutual trust with the teachers union . . . ." Randi, what kind of trust is it when you fire all the teachers?

    Note to Randi: Read up on Steve Barr: Start with this tidbit from LA Weekly, Dec. 7, 2006:

    "Says Barr, in his classic no-nonsense style: ‘Where are these shitty teachers going to go? Where are these lifetime benefits going to go? What will happen to all of these groups protecting their interests and their jobs and their construction contracts? The political puzzle of this is really fascinating. But I have no doubt that within five years, you’re going to see our impact. And it’s going to be 0huge.’”

    Bombs up your asses, teachers.

    Randi, think about this: When you start with the vision of shitty teachers with bombs up their asses, then what is next?

    Writing in the Los Angeles Times in August 2008, Ralph E. Shaffer, professor emeritus of history at Cal Poly Pomona, pointed out that Barr wants to make a particular imprint on the curriculum: "In Locke's social studies and history courses, ‘students will demonstrate an understanding of .... and a belief in the values of ... capitalism.’"

    Now we know why the Gates, Broad, Annenberg and Walton families have poured so much money into the charter school movement [and some of them millions into Steve Barr's projects]. Since when do we require our students to demonstrate on a test that they not only understand but believe in capitalism? That ought to go over big among the economically depressed living in the Locke attendance area.

    Is this curriculum vision what Barr means when he promises teachers, "more freedom in the classroom?"

    NOTE: The New Yorker article names Ted Mitchell as president of the California State Board of Education; he's also the CEO of the New Schools Venture Fund (NSVF), whose East Coast operations are headed by Jim Peyser. New Schools Venture Fund is, of course, deeply involved with Broad Foundation largess.

    Reminder: CHICAGO, April 30, 2002 Newswire/ — Chicago Public Schools CEO Arne Duncan, The Broad Foundation Founder Eli Broad, New Schools Venture Fund President Kim Smith, and Ne w Leaders for New Schools CEO Jon Schnur announced a $1.4 million investment to help make Chicago the flagship program of a national effort to recruit and train outstanding new urban school principals. That program is called "New Leaders for New Schools."

    Ask a few of your Chicago teacher friends how this has worked out.

    The Eli and Edythe Broad Foundation has been awarding sizable grants to Green Dot since 2005.

    In 2006, for example, Eli Broad’s foundation announced it would give Green Dot $10.5 million.

    Gates gave Green Dot $1.8 million the same year.

    And now, about Douglas McGray, the author of this piece on Steve Barr: Douglas McGray is a Fellow at the New America Foundation. Located in Washington, D. C. On their website, they point out their "significant presence in California." It’s a small world for foundation folk: Steve Coll, President and CEO of New America Foundation, is a also staff writer at The New Yorker. James Fallows, National Correspondent, The Atlantic, is on the Board of Directors of New America Foundation. Douglas McGray penned an article for the January/February 2009 Atlantic. Sara Mead is Senior Research Fellow, Education Policy Program and Workforce and Family Program at New America Foundation; formerly at Progressive Policy Institute where she remains a nonresident fellow. On my website I issue periodic warnings about this outfit. Maybe it’s enough to say they are welded to the Democratic Leadership Council (DLC).

    Mead told PBS Standardisto lapdog John Merrow, "New America has joined with the Thomas B. Fordham Foundation in advocating high-quality voluntary national standards."

    Camille Esch, Director, California Education Program at New America Foundation, was previously a senior policy and data analyst at The Education Trust-West.

    "You seem to have cracked the code," U. S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan told Barr, in offering several billions of our taxpayer dollars in a Barr-style school stimulus package. Indeed. Green Dot offers no tenure and no lifetime benefits. Teachers, you need professional dignity. And one day you will be old. You will need the "benefits" accrued from a lifetime’s work.

    Bombs up your asses, teachers.


    Excerpts from "The Innovator," The New Yorker, May 11, 2009 by Douglas McGray. Find the full article here.

  • "You ever see that movie 'Man on Fire,' with Denzel Washington? There's a scene in the movie where the police chief of Mexico City gets kidnapped by Denzel Washington. He wakes up, he's on the hood of his car under the underpass, in his boxers, his hands tied. Denzel Washington starts asking him questions, he's not getting the answers he wants, so he walks away from him, and leaves a bomb stuck up his ass." Barr laughed. "I don't want to blow up LAUSD's ass. But what will it take to get this system to serve who they need to serve? It's going to take that kind of aggressiveness."

  • Green Dot's ascent stems mostly from Barr's skill as an instigator and an organizer. Outrageous rhetoric is a big part of that, and it's not uncalculated.

  • "It takes a certain amount of panache to call the head of the union a pig fucker," Ted Mitchell, the president of the California State Board of Education, said. (Those weren't Barr's words exactly.)

  • "Steve has this 'Oh, shucks, you know me — I can't control my mouth' persona. It allows him to get away with murder. But, Mitchell points out, "he's a public curmudgeon and a private negotiator." And he has built Green Dot to be a political force unlike anything else in the world of education. For instance, Barr runs the only large charter organization in the country that has embraced unionized teachers and a collectively bargained contract — an unnecessary hassle, if his aim was to run a few schools, but a source of leverage for Green Dot's main purpose, which is to push for citywide change. "I don't see how you tip a system with a hundred per cent unionized labor without unionized labor," he said. A. J. Duffy, the president of United Teachers Los Angeles UTLA), counters, "Our view of a decent contract is it will provide longevity of teaching staff." Too many charter schools, he argues, churn through young teachers.

  • At his [Barr's] schools, the principals lay out firm curricular guidelines, in keeping with California state standards and Green Dot benchmarks, but teachers are free to huddle, and decide what to teach and how to teach it, for the most part, as long as students pass quarterly assessments.

  • Barr got a call from the new Secretary of Education, Arne Duncan. He flew to Washington, D.C. at the end of March for what he expected to be a social visit. At the meeting, Duncan revealed that he was interested in committing several billion of dollars of the education stimulus package to a Locke-style takeover and transformation of the lowest-performing one per cent of schools across the country, at least four thousand of them, in the next several years. The Department of Education would favor districts that agreed to partner with an outside group, like Green Dot. "You seem to have cracked the code," Duncan told Barr. Duncan was interested in the fact that Barr was targeting high schools, not elementary or middle schools. "The toughest work in urban education today is what you do with large failing high schools," Duncan told me. Those schools get less study and less attention from charter groups and education reformers, most of whom feel that ninth grade is too late to begin saving kids. "Teach for America, New Schools Venture Fund, the Broad Foundation — all these folks are doing extraordinary work in public education," Duncan said. "Nobody national is turning around large failing high schools." When Barr got back to Los Angeles, he told me, "We're being asked, 'Could you guys do five schools in LA next year? Could you expand beyond LA?' If you'd asked a month ago, 'What about Green Dot America?,' I would have said, 'No way.' But if this President wants to get after it I'm going to reconsider."

  • Duncan asked Barr what it would take to break up and remake thousands of large failing schools. "One, you have to reconstitute," Barr told him — that is, fire everyone and make them reapply or transfer elsewhere in the district. "Arne didn't seem to flinch at that," he said. "Second, if we can figure out a national union partnership, we can take away some of the opposition." Duncan asked Barr if he could persuade Randi Weingarten, the president of the American Federation of Teachers to support the idea. I'd love to do that," she told Barr, but she also expressed concerns. "She said, 'I can't be seen as coming in and firing all these teachers.'" So they talked about alternatives, like transferring teachers or using stimulus money for buyouts.
  • Mbr<
  • This month, Barr expects to meet again with Weingarten and her staff and outline plans for Green Dot America, a national school-turnaround partnership between Green Dot and the AFT. Their first city would most likely be Washington, D. C. "If we're successful there, we'll get the attention of a lot of lawmakers," Barr said.

  • Barr's impatience and his willingness to overextend himself are a bigger part of Green Dot's institutional culture than any theory of education.


  • This article was originally published in the print edition of Substance, May 2009. Copyright 2009 Substance, Inc. Reprint permissions are hereby granted to not-for-profit and pro public education groups and for teaching purposes. Please give full credit to Substance, http://www.substancenews.net. Your subscription to Substance helps provide timely and accurate news about the fight to save public education in the face of corporate media lies.

    — Douglas McGray, with comment by Susan Ohanian
    Substance, with New Yorker excerpts

    2009-05-11


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