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Suffering from search engine overload

This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.

Recently I have been suffering from search engine overload. This is an ailment that can cause trance-like behavior on the part of the sufferer. Another common symptom associated with this syndrome is the spouting off of seemingly endless facts about the particular subject the victim has been investigating through online search engines.

It is an exhausting ailment. In my case I contracted this condition as a result of my efforts to become better acquainted with the providers who have been identified as being eligible to manage Renaissance Schools in the School District of Philadelphia.

I cautiously proceed with this post. I don’t wish to infect anyone else with information overload. However this is a very real possibility in that the stories behind those who desire to reshape our public school system are complicated and intertwined.

The primary occupations of many of the agents of the charter school movement are ones that confuse and intimidate ordinary hard working citizens. The cast of the “Race to the Top” initiative, is well populated by hedge fund, venture capital fund, and mutual fund managers, real estate brokers, lawyers who specialize in the creation of start-up enterprises, and the managers of private wealth funds.

We aren’t talking about a handful of people in these fields. We are talking “flash-cash mobs." For example, Young Scholars Charter School has a board of directors composed of 27 members, 18 of whom list their occupations as being in the fields of investing, real estate management, and merger acquisitions.

Determining who is on the board of the Mastery Charter School-Shoemaker Campus is a much more difficult task to accomplish. The information provided by Mastery Charter on its website does not list the names of individual board members. Only by carefully examining the annual reports that Mastery files with the state can you identify who the individuals are who sit on the Board of Trustees at this school. I wonder why this information is so difficult to obtain.

Mastery Charter-Shoemaker Campus listed 11 board members in the state report. Two of the board members are parents. Of the remaining nine members eight list their occupations as in the fields of sales, investment management, or financial services.

This isn’t just a local Philadelphia phenomenon. Heavy-hitting money people are into the charter school and school voucher movement all across our nation. In New York City, hedge fund managers fill charter school boards. A recent article from the New York Times highlights their involvement in the reshaping of the New York City public school system. A glimpse of these finance people is captured in this quote from the article:

“‘These guys get it’, said Eva S. Moskowitz, a former New York City Council member, whom [John] Petry and [Joel] Greenblatt hired in 2006 to run Success Charter Network, for which they provided the financial muscle, including compensation for Ms. Moskowitz of $371,000 her first year. They aren’t afraid of competition or upsetting the system. They thrive on that.”

Petry and Greenblatt are partners in the hedge fund Gotham Capital. Petry also sits on the board of the Democrats for Education Reform (DFER). The DFER is a political action committee that made a major contribution of $750,000 to the gubernatorial campaign of Pennsylvania State Senator Anthony Williams. The money for this contribution came from Joel Greenberg, Arthur Dantchik, and Jeff Yass, managing directors and three of six founders of the Susquehanna International Group, a Bala Cynwyd investment firm. Eric Brooks, another founding partner of Susquehanna International Group, is a member of the Mastery Charter’s Board.

The folks at SCP Partners, a private equity investment firm, also see public education as an area of special interest. Five partners from this firm sit on the Young Scholars Charter School’s board. Individuals from Rosemont Investment, Fidelity Management Trust Company, Dechert LLP, Sage Financial Group, Brooks Capital, New Venture Fund, and Context Capital Partners also sit on the boards of either Young Scholars or Mastery Charter Schools.

These individuals are but a few of a larger group of people who are well versed in the management of wealth and who self-admittedly, are interested in introducing “disruptive technologies” into the management of America’s public school system. They favor supporting and encouraging educational entrepreneurs in order to accomplish their change agenda. More simply stated, they want to create more charter schools, cyber schools, and school voucher opportunities.

An early promoter of this point of view is Kim Smith the founder of the New Schools Venture Fund. In an article published in Philanthropy Magazine she said:

“We want to…acknowledge the power of entrepreneurs, who are a special kind of change agent. That’s obvious to anyone in venture capital but not as obvious to those trying to improve public education. Entrepreneurs create disruptive technologies or ways of doing things that release new energy and insight.”

The New School Venture Fund is linked to the local charter movement in Philadelphia. Jordan Meranus, a partner at the New School Venture Fund, sits on the Mastery Charter School boards. The New School Venture Fund has also provided a major grant to the Mastery Charter Schools. Nationally, the influence of the School Venture Fund is significant. Recently Secretary Arne Duncan selected Joanne Weiss to oversee the Race to the Top Fund. Weiss is a Partner and the Chief Operating Officer at New Schools.

Philadelphia Superintendent Ackerman’s Imagine 2014 plan, which offers the possibility of many more charter schools in our city, is a part of this new tale being spun by wealthy and powerful interest groups.

Benjamin W. Rayer, the individual responsible for implementing the school district’s Renaissance School plan was a former employee of Mastery Charter School. Leroy Nunery, former executive at Edison Schools is the District’s new second in command. Ackerman was formerly a Broad superintendent-in-residence. The Broad Foundation is itself a major player in the charter school movement in America.

All of the organizations and individuals who are the power behind the charter school movement, promote the same story line of serving the educational needs of children living in poorly resourced and underserved communities.

They have created for public consumption a compelling plot line. Yet when you consider the cast of characters involved in this story you have to wonder what stunning plot twist lurk ahead for public education in the story they wish to write.

There is clearly an agenda in play here that is focused on the aggressive creation of networks of charter schools and the possibility of an ever-expanding voucher system. This possibility is one that can affect every citizen in this nation.

Is there a part to be played by teachers, parents, children and administrators who comprise local school communities, in determining the future of our public education system? Or is the script already written that we the ordinary people are expected to follow?

We need to search for answers that will serve the greater good of our society as we confront the thorny issues of school reform. Yes, we all need to search for appropriate answers even if it might mean succumbing to search engine overload.