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Facts Belie Notion That Malloy Wants Others To Profit From Schools' Pain

By Rick Green

April 24, 2012

Democrat Dannel P. Malloy is really about privatizing your public schools.

That's the absurd territory we have lurched into in the debate over how to fix the state's urban schools where children don't learn to read and high school kids don't graduate.

And yet, increasingly, you hear that teachers and union leaders are worried that Malloy's school reform plan means turning public schools into private profit centers, a proposition that would be impossible under state law.

"It's opening up privatization opportunities for business,'' Tom Dillon, a very reasonable-sounding technology education teacher from Milford, told me at Tuesday evening's large and enthusiastic Connecticut Education Association rally at the Capitol. "I'm worried about the future of teaching."

Opponents point to wealthy and corporate backers of school reform groups and charter schools as evidence of a darker motive despite the fact that the reform here is led by a Democratic, union-supporting governor.

"In state after state,'' the respected author, professor and scholar Diane Ravitch wrote recently in Education Week, "men with vast personal fortunes invest in campaigns to end teachers' tenure, end seniority and clear the way for private takeovers of public schools."

"The pattern on the rug is clear,'' Ravitch wrote, pointing to Malloy and other "right-wing governors" pushing reform agendas. "For-profit companies will make large profits."

There is no evidence that anyone is poised to make piles of money off Connecticut's failing schools.

"The governor is trying his best to fix what's broken in our public schools. That's his motivation, plain and simple,'' Malloy strategist Roy Occhiogrosso said. "People who suggest he's trying to privatize education know that's not the case; they're simply trying to scare people into maintaining a broken status quo."

In Connecticut, Malloy's opponents tell us, the stage is being readied to turn public education over to sinister corporate raiders who will use charter schools and other turnaround models to funnel public money into their pockets. One first-year teacher at Tuesday's rally, who said he was too worried about keeping his job to give me his name, said this was what many teachers worry about.

"There is a reason the corporate elite and outside groups are spending so much money to get Malloy's bill passed,'' blogger Jonathan Pelto wrote recently. "When all is said and done, we aren't talking about tens of millions of public dollars; we are literally looking at hundreds of millions of taxpayer dollars at risk."

The problem is, the facts don't back this up. Charter schools, the designated threat in this reform debate, are public schools by law in Connecticut. They are supervised by local boards or the State Board of Education.

Running schools for profit, as some in Hartford will recall, has been a miserable, colossal failure. But that doesn't mean people haven't been making money off public education for generations. Private companies from the folks who sell textbooks and software to Apple computers to the contractors who build schools have grown wealthy off our public schools. Teacher unions, justifiably, negotiate contracts that give their members the best compensation and most lucrative health and retirement benefits they can come up with. That's the way the system works.

Among Malloy's proposals is a plan to target the lowest performing urban schools the source of the achievement gap and figure out a better way of running them. This could mean university-run schools. It could mean nonprofit school management companies. It could conceivably mean teacher unions would bring their best ideas to school management and run a turnaround school.

It does not it could not, under state law mean that schools will eventually end up run by the likes of Greenwich hedge fund billionaire Ray Dalio, who supports Achievement First, one of the leading charter school operators in Connecticut.

Malloy's plan would expand funding for charters, bringing them closer to what traditional public schools receive. It won't benefit Stefan Pryor, Malloy's education commissioner and a former Achievement First board member, despite the arguments of blogging conspiracy theorists unwilling to envision anything but more of the status quo.

Privatization is "a brilliant smoke screen. It sounds so awful,'' said Dacia Toll, president and a founder of Achievement First, which solicits contributions from some very wealthy people in order to run schools in neighborhoods where failure has been the rule. "Is there a single example of profiteering? There is not a single donor who is benefiting."

"Right now there are some generous people giving money away to help needy kids. They have to do it because charter schools are systematically underfunded,'' she said. "Charter schools are a money losing opportunity.''

All sides are going to have to compromise on a school reform plan that the legislature, the governor and teachers can support. Misleading arguments won't help us get there.

Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant. To view other stories on this topic, search the Hartford Courant Archives at http://www.courant.com/archives.
| Last update: September 25, 2012 |
     
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