Thursday, November 3, 2016

Following the money: Vote No On Massachusetts Question 2. Part II.

Is it free-market indoctrination, or just plain
union busting? For 
whichever purpose, corporate America is dropping a ton of cash on Massachusetts ballot Question 2.

In an earlier post I described the support of Massachusetts ballot Question 2 as being ``corporation laden.’’ The relatively superficial digging I’ve done reveals that the pro-Question 2 forces have pumped millions of dollars into their campaign.

If the referendum passes the limit on the number of charter schools that can be established in the commonwealth will be lifted; as many as 12 new charters would be allowed each year. Those in favor say that Massachusetts is loaded down with under-performing schools, and that charter schools are high-quality alternatives.

In August, The Boston Globe interviewed UMass Boston political scientist Maurice T. Cunningham, who had been doing research to find out who the Question 2 backers are. He likened the process to opening a Russian nesting doll.

“You open one doll, and then you open the next one, and the next one, and we can’t actually find out who’s writing the check,” the Globe quoted Cunningham as saying.

Using records from the Massachusetts Office of Campaign Finance’s Web site, I’ve discovered that one of those dolls is philanthropist Alice Walton, daughter of Wal-Mart founder Sam Walton, who put in $710,000. Former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, president of the software company Bloomberg LP, contributed $240,000.

Of course, that comes to only $950,000, which doesn’t come close to the $13.4 million referendum opponents raised last month.

The opposition, a ballot committee called Save Our Public Schools, relies on union support. ** The Massachusetts Teachers Association contributed almost $6 million. The American Federation of Teachers kicked in $820,472.  Save Our Public Schools received another $6.4 million from labor organizations based in Washington, D.C.

Question 2 supporters managed to close the $12.5 million gap.
Some $106,460 was ponied up by employees of Fidelity Investments, which has headquarters in Boston.  Of that, $40,000 came from CEO Abigail Johnson.

In the grand scheme, Fidelity’s total contribution is small. I mention Fidelity, however, because it is one of the investment firms that, according to a report published last month, has taken profits from teachers’ pension funds and contributed it to the anti-charter school effort.

On Oct. 26, David Sirota writing for the International Business Times, reported:

When Massachusetts public school teachers pay into their pension fund each month, they may not realize where the money goes. Wall Street titans are using some of the profits from managing that money to finance an education ballot initiative that many teachers say will harm traditional public schools…. Donors to groups supporting the ballot measure include executives linked to eight firms doing business with (the Massachusetts Pensions Reserves Investment Board):  Fidelity, Summit Partners, Highfields Capital, Berkshire Partners, State Street, Bain Capital, Apollo Global Management, and Charles River Ventures. Together with Charlesbank Capital Partners and Centerbridge — which have other connections to the ballot initiative...

The Massachusetts pension reserves board invests around $61 billion for the state’s retirement system, the Times noted.

Fidelity’s contributions went to Great Schools Massachusetts, the largest of the five ballot committees backing Question 2.
To the pro-charter school campaign, Great Schools Massachusetts has put in $15 million – 85 percent of all contributions combined.

Other investment firms to Great Schools Massachusetts cited by the Times article, and what they coughed up:

·         Bain Capital, the job-killing venture capital outfit started by 2012 Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney, $80,000.
·         Berkshire Partners, $300,000.
·         State Street Global Advisors, 3,000.
·         Highfields Capital Management, 40,000.

Looking at the campaign office’s data, we can that  the bulk of funding in support of Question 2 is coming from outside Massachusetts.

As of October 28, Great Schools Massachusetts had received $17.5 million in contributions.

Of that, $13.8 million came from three contributors that report having the same address in New York City: Families for Excellent Schools, Families for Excellent Schools, Inc., and Families for Excellent Schools Advocacy, Inc.

Education Reform Advocacy Now, which lists an address in Brooklyn, put in $298,127.

The remaining funds came from entities that list addresses in Massachusetts:

·         Expanding Educational Opportunities. Boston. $5.7 million.
·         Strong Economy for Growth, Inc. Lynnfield. $650,000.
·         Great Schools for Massachusetts. Boston. (This entity is separate from Great Schools Massachusetts.) $251,000.
·         Campaign for Fair Access to Quality Public Schools. Brookline. $100,000. (This group donated $100,000 to another Question 2 ballot committee, Advancing Obama’s Legacy on Charter Schools Ballot Committee.)

So why all the corporate interest? I haven’t found an answer that satisfies me.

In her blog, Diane Ravitch, an education historian and former U.S. assistant secretary of education, says,

The free market has been very good to hedge fund managers, and they think that public schools should compete in a free market too. They are not in the game to make money, but to promote their ideology of free-market competition.

I have a hard time imagining that the faculties at the Pioneer Valley Chinese Immersion School or the Pioneer Valley Performing Arts Charter School spend much time if any lecturing their students on the virtues of the free market.

Another argument, that charter schools evade local control and use non-unionized teachers, makes more sense to me. When  I read between the lines of ``schools should compete in a free market,’’ I think or union-busting.

There are a few other organizations worth mentioning:

·         Democrats For Education Reform, comprised of ``hedge fund managers, business executives, and privately-run corporations,’’ part of whose purpose is to defeat teachers’ unions, according to a recent investigation. The authors write:

 DFER billions fund local, state, and federal political races and use “the sky is falling” rhetoric to fuel their continued efforts to control public education. As a result, we have seen elected lawmakers, funded by DFER money, work to slash school aid budgets.  DFER continues to ignore that equity funding is essential to help our most struggling students and schools… The policies DFER lays out for education… are all smoke and mirrors for an agenda that seeks to privatize public education in order to generate massive amounts of profit for their wealthy founders and investors.

·         The American Legislative Exchange Council, better known as ALEC. ALEC holds secret meetings in which lobbyists and legislatures determine the content of legislation before it is proposed publicly.  Ravitch writes that ALEC’s ``model legislation’’ is intended to show

…how to replace public schools with charters and vouchers, how to get rid of unions, how to get rid of teacher certification, how to get rid of teacher tenure.

A footnote:  Wal-Mart, whose Alice Walton donated $710,000 to the cause, ended its ALEC membership in 2012. Said spokeswoman Maggie Sans, "We feel that the divide between these activities and our purpose as a business has become too wide.’’

Whatever that means.

The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People has called for a moratorium of new charter schools in the United States.

In January, the NAACP’s New Area Conference announced it would intervene in a lawsuit that, if successful, would end the limit on charter schools. The Boston Globe reported that the NAACP, along with seven Boston Public School students and the Massachusetts Lawyers’ Committee, argue that charters

divert millions of dollars from traditional public schools each year, but serve far fewer students with disabilities and who are English language learners, as well as impose harsher discipline on students of color.

Enrollment in charters is disproportionately non-white. During the 2015-’16 school year:

·         African-Americans comprised 29.2 percent of enrollments; statewide, they accounted for 8.8 percent.
·         Hispanics made up 30.3 percent of charter school enrollment; statewide they were 18.6 percent.
·         ``Economically disadvantaged’’ students, 35.5; statewide they comprise 19 percent of students.
·         Students whose first language was not English, 25.3 percent; statewide, 19 percent.
·         In the meantime, white students accounted for 32.4 percent of charter students. Statewide, 62.7 percent.

Keep in mind that one percentage point accounts for almost 10,000 students.

Copyright © 2016 Daniel Steven Miller

* I am a substitute teacher at three public school districts in western Massachusetts. As such, I am not part of a bargaining unit. 
** Statistics regarding contributions to ballot committees, spending on advertising, etc., are taken from the Office of Campaign & Political Finance Web site. Information pertaining to the number of charter schools, enrollment demographics, and so forth is taken from the Web site of the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education.
All figures are as of late October.

Monday, October 31, 2016

Vote No on Massachusetts Question 2. Part I.

The debate over the merit of Massachusetts ballot Question 2 has been enfeebled by its he-said-she-said quality. Those who want the referendum defeated, with whom I agree,* have presented their case vaguely; their obtuseness could lead to passage of the referendum to the detriment of nearly a million public school students.

Leading the opposition is Save Our Schools. If Save Our Schools, in its TV ads, would say just a little more, it would make its case ironclad.

It would also expose the corporation-laden opposition’s cynical assumption that a significant number of voters will, for whatever reason, accept uncritically any assertion made on a TV ad as fact. 

If passed, the ballot question would remove the limit on the number of charter schools that can be established in the commonwealth. Those in favor say that Massachusetts is loaded down with under-performing schools, and that charter schools districts offer high-quality educational alternatives.

The referendum calls for licensing of no more than 12 new schools each year. Seventy-eight operate now.**

Charter schools are private, and they have disparate foci. For instance, the Pioneer Valley Chinese Immersion Charter School and the Pioneer Valley Performing Arts School are located in Hampshire County.

When a child transfers from his or her public school to a charter school, the money budgeted to educate the child is transferred from the public school district to the charter school.

What we have seen on TV has boiled down to this:
·         Save Our Public Schools has spent $714,400 on advertising to inform the public that charter schools take money from public schools.
·         Not true, asserts Great Schools Massachusetts, which has spent $10.8 million on ads to assert that the more charter schools there are, the more the state funds public schools. 

In January the truth, in all its complexity, was reported by The Boston Globe:

``When a student enrolls in a charter school, state law requires that the public school district in which they reside pay the student’s tuition costs. The state is then supposed to reimburse that cost. But that doesn’t always happen.’’

So, what Save Our Public Schools has failed to spell out is that Massachusetts makes some reimbursements to public schools, but not remotely enough to cover the difference.

For the fiscal year that ended June 30, charter school tuitions totaled $486, 259,852. The state reimbursed $73,448,032. Public schools had to cover the difference -- $412,811,820.

Charter school proponents, also citing education department figures, have appealed the public to consider the 32,646 students who are on waiting lists to get into charter schools.

That sounds like a lot of students, but keep in mind that that leaves exactly 917,007 public-school students who don’t wish to transfer. So of all public school students, only 3.6 percent want to get out.

Another way to illustrate the discrepancy is to point out that 32,646 would fill 86 percent of Fenway Park’s 37,949 seats. While the charter school waiting list equals less than one Fenway Park, 917,007 would fill 28 Fenway Parks.

I don’t mean to make light of any student’s desire to go to a school that is better than the one they are in now, but 3.6 percent just does not justify removing, year after year, hundreds of thousands of dollars from public school budgets.

The more charter schools there are, the worse that problem will get.

* I am a substitute teacher at three public school districts in western Massachusetts.
** Statistics regarding spending on advertising are taken from the Massachusetts Office of Campaign & Political Finance Web site. Information pertaining to the number of charter schools and enrollment are taken from the Web site of the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education.

Copyright © 2016 Daniel Steven Miller

Saturday, October 15, 2016

President Trump's dream: his very, very own news empire, where anything could be true

         The media coverage of Donald J. Trump’s presidential campaign has had a one-thing-after-another feel. An inundation of bigotry, misogyny, Islamophobia, and a discussion, albeit in coded language, about the size of the would-be presidential ding-a-ling. More recently, revelations regarding Trump’s taxes and his bragging about putting the moves on women.
The experience of taking it all in has been dizzying, like being stuck on an islet, watching a twister blow around and around the land for months on end. The results have been noise and murky water.
However, from the pattern of the sediment that has settled on the shore, I discern a plan for something more sinister than a rash of chauvinism and boorishness. There are signs that if Trump wins, he will establish a state-run medium – in other words, an administration-run propaganda organ.
This is not far-fetched, so don't touch that dial.
For starters, in May, Vanity Fair reported that Trump may consider starting a cable outlet. The magazine quoted an anonymous source close to the campaign as saying that Trump’s thinking is 
``(W)in or lose, we are onto something here. We’ve triggered a base of the population that hasn’t had a voice in a long time.’’1
(The source does not answer the question of whether Trump would wait until his presidency is finished before setting up his cable network. It also does not say what kind of content it would broadcast. A Trump spokeswoman said the Trump circle has given ``not a thought’’ of going into media.)

If current trends continue, a Trump Administration outlet could come to pass.
·         The administration of President George W. Bush provided fake news segments to TV outlets. Some of these were broadcast, with no disclaimer that they were the product of the administration.
·         In early 2015, Trump’s running mate, Indiana Governor Mike Pence, initiated ``Just IN,’’ which would have provided local news outlets with prepared stories, but scrapped the project after public outcry.
·         Roger Ailes, the Fox News founder who works for Trump, proposed to President Nixon the idea of setting up a GOP TV channel. Nixon rejected the idea.

            The fact that none of those enterprises took, at least not for long, may not discourage Trump from trying.  It is less likely that negative public feedback would kill a Trump Administration media initiative. Trump is stubborn; he
Lifted from Facebook on July 7, 2017. Meme by New Century Times
doesn’t like to be seen as a quitter.
            Most people know that Trump hates what some call the``mainstream'' media. He claims that election coverage has been rigged against him. He has described reporters as ``the lowest form of life.’’
            Further, his antipathy and his actions show that he will do business only with journalists who agree with him all the time. It follows that as president he would establish a media channel that would transmit only the information he wants the public to know.
Trump has hired Ailes, fired from Fox News amidst charges of sexual harassment, to be a consultant to the campaign. The campaign hired as its CEO Stephen Bannon, the head of Bretibart News, a right-wing Internet news site. Bannon and Ailes are aligned ideologically with Trump; they could provide him with with considerable business and technical expertise.
            Ailes’ "A Plan For Putting the GOP on TV News,’’ according to Gawker reporter John Cook, who broke the story five years ago, was ``a plot by Ailes and other Nixon aides to circumvent the `prejudices of network news’ and deliver `pro-administration’ stories to heartland television viewers.’’
              The memo is not signed, but Cook, who examined hundreds of pages attributed to Ailes, said the copy that the Nixon Library provided to him ``literally has Ailes' handwriting all over it.’’
              The memo states: ``Today television news is watched more often than people read newspapers, than people listen to the radio, than people read or gather any other form of communication. The reason: People are lazy. With television you just sit—watch—listen. The thinking is done for you.’’
In a piece that appeared August 17 in the conservative journal, The Weekly Standard, Stephen F. Hayes wrote that by taking on Bannon, Trump has chosen to live in Breitbart’s ``alternative reality.’’ Hayes writes: ``When Trump can't explain his own words, Breitbart faults the journalists who have asked the questions.’’
Armed with a state-run news outlet, Trump would not have to explain his words. Broadcast anchors or reporters would speak for him – no questions, please.
The platform would allow the administration to broadcast, with a straight face, assertions as staggering as Trump’s remark that Ted Cruz’s father was with Lee Harvey Oswald shortly before Oswald was shot, or that African-Americans are living in the worst time of their history, ``ever, ever, ever.'' Skeptics would not be allowed airtime.
After a while, the members of an audience loyal to Trump media would start to see the world through a prism of deceptions and of propaganda. They would come to live in a reality alternative to those who got their information from other sources. And even though myriad other news outlets exist, a state-run channel could have a large, loyal following. Witness the adherence to Fox and Breitbart.
The idea of a media-generated alternative reality reminds me of ``1984,’’ George Orwell’s tale of a dystopia in which the only public information is generated by the government. 
Winston Smith, who works for the Ministry of Truth, wrestles with his work. Orwell writes:
 Anything could be true. The so-called laws of nature were nonsense. The law of gravity was nonsense. ``If I wished,’’ O’Brien had said, ``I could float off this floor like a soap bubble.’’ Winston worked it out. ``If he thinks he can float off the floor, and if I simultaneously think I see him do it, then the thing happens.’’ Suddenly, like a lump of submerged wreckage breaking the surface of water, the thought burst into his mind. ``It doesn’t really happen. We imagine it. It is hallucination.’’ He pushed the thought under instantly. The fallacy was obvious. It presupposed that somewhere or other, outside oneself, there was a ``real’’ world where ``real’’ things happened.         

Winston Smith is tasked with planting in the public accept the slogan ``two plus two make five.’’

The arithmetical problems raised, for instance, by such a statement as `two plus two make five’… needed… a sort of athleticism of mind, an ability at one moment to make the most delicate use of logic and at the next to be unconscious of the crudest logical errors. Stupidity was as necessary as intelligence, and as difficult to attain.
        Under those circumstances, it would become hard to think straight. 

During the 1930s,  ``2 + 2=5’’ was the slogan of  the Five Year  industrialization plan of the Soviet Union under Josef Stalin. The idea was that the Soviets would achieve their goals in four years instead of five. From Eugene Lyons, an American journalist working in Moscow at the time:
``It seemed to me at once bold and preposterous. The daring and the paradox and the tragic absurdity of the Soviet scene… 2 + 2 = 5: in electric lights on Moscow housefronts, in foot-high letters on billboards, spelled planned error, hyperbole, perverse optimism. ’’3
A concept central to ``1984’’ is the Memory Hole, which the Ministry of Truth uses to destroy information the government no longer wants its citizens to have. Once placed in a Memory Hole, things that had happened or had been said no longer exist, and no one remembers them ever existing.
Of course, the Memory Hole is a metaphor; today the world has YouTube and is loaded down with cell phones and security cameras. The disappearance of any piece of public information would impossible.
Not that Trump hasn't tried. In March, he said Japan and South Korea should have nuclear-weapons arsenals to defend themselves against North Korea, China, Pakistan and Iran. In May, he denied making those remarks even though they had been recorded. And during the September 27 presidential debate, Trump denied ever saying that global warming was hoax perpetrated by China, even though he had posted that  assertion on Twitter in 2012.

If he could, Trump would immobilize reporters.
        Seeking to limit coverage from press organizations that have run stories that Trump found disagreeable, he barred about a dozen of them access to himself and the inside of his campaign airplane. Those banned included BuzzFeed, The Washington Post, The Daily Beast and the Huffington Post. In early September, he lifted the ban.
            Trump has also stated that he would revise libel law to make it easier for him to sue media organizations that disenchant him.   ``We're going to open up libel laws and we're going to have people sue you like you've never got sued before,’’ he told a rally in Fort Worth, Texas.
Libel protection is intended to safeguard the reputations of private citizens so that they can continue to earn a living and, in general, stay in their neighbors’ good graces. News outlets may report, without legal consequences,``provably true’’ damaging material about private persons. But libel protections do not apply to public figures; among these are politicians and eminent people in business. Trump is one of each.
Yet this month Trump threatened to sue The New York Times after the paper ran a story that quoted two women as saying that Trump had touched them inappropriately. Trump’s attorney said the timing of the article was politically motivated. The paper’s lawyer said the Times ``welcome(s) the opportunity to have a court set him straight.”
A final signal that Trump sympathizes with state-owned media is his tacit support of those in Russia and North Korea. Both nations, by way of their media organs, have endorsed Trump. He has not disowned the endorsements.
In September, Trump granted an interview with RT America, which is owned by the Russian government. In it, he said American media will ``take a statement that you make which is perfect and they’ll cut it up and chop it up and shorten it or lengthen it or do something with it.”
 This month, the Obama Administration confirmed that last year hackers who work for the Kremlin knocked France’s TV5Monde off the air.
How can we know that Russia would not, at Trump's request, do the same thing to a station in the United States?
Recall that Trump said Japan and South Korea should develop nuclear arsenals to defend themselves from North Korea. If North Korea is so bad, why has Trump not repudiated its endorsement?
Because the man finds it hard to think straight.
Stay tuned.

1 Although Vanity Fair does not identify the speaker, I trust the editorial staff of the magazine to have vetted the source and found it credible.
2 Orwell, George. 1984. New York: Signet, 1949.
3Lyons, Eugene.  Assignment in Utopia. London: Harrap, 1938, in Tzouliadis, Tim. The Forsaken. New York: Penguin Press. 2008.