Sunday, May 10, 2015

The Seven Deadly Sins of Educational "Reform"- A Buffalo Story by Publius

The Seven Deadly Sins (+1) of Educational “Reform” St. Bonaventure is a small, sleepy Franciscan catholic university in Olean, NY. Located among the gently rolling hills of the Allegheny Mountains. There is no prettier part of the country to visit in the Fall. The leaves of the Black Walnut, White Oak, Mountain Ash trees take on the vibrant hues of autumn while the bounty of Red Delicious, Cortland, Paula Red, McInstosh and Ida Reds ripen in the apple orchards. These bucolic surroundings inspire the undergraduates and Friars alike to love learning and to give kindly to their community. The university is named for St. Bonaventure who named by St. Francis of Assisi himself when he proclaimed “O buona ventura” after his prayers healed the young sickly boy. St. Bonaventure alumni include former NBA great Bob Lanier, six Pulitzer Prize recipients and five former Congressman. Bonnies also claims (or maybe disclaims) a former New York gubernatorial candidate whose campaign was derailed by his threatening antics and the release of a spate of emails containing sexist and racist remarks so vile the details are better left to history’s dustbin. That person now sits on the Buffalo Public Schools Board of Education purporting to have a mandate to close “failing” public schools and open profitable charters. That person who has wreaked bad fortune upon the kids of Buffalo’s public and charter schools is Carl Paladino. Nary a board meeting passes without his scripted claim that “I’m here for the children.” Recently, he has stopped making that false claim because the public’s boos and jeers drowned him into silence. To his credit, he marches forward undaunted, brash and loathed. Lying may be considered a venial sin. Lying in vain to claim concern for children as a ruse to profit financially may not be so venial. Educated in the liberal catholic theology of the 1960s, Carl’s sins could betray his alma mater and certainly betray his faith. His actions will speak to the seven deadly sins, plus one. Luxuria. The unbridled desire for money, fame and power. Tapestry Charter School is housed in a building owned by Carl’s son (only recently having been transferred to his possession from Carl himself). This, he and the Buffalo News claim, absolve him of any conflict of interest. Tapestry pays just short of $1,000,000 a year in rent. That’s roughly the salary of twenty teachers not teaching. The building cost $8 million to build, minus approximately $1 million in tax abatements and credits. Add in a 39% tax credit on investments in NYS and whoever owns that building is making a tidy profit. Soon the debt service will be (or already has been) satisfied by public tax dollars. Yet, the public does not and will never own the building. Carl claims Tapestry is a success. That was until, at a Board meeting a local education advocate obliterated this fact noting that minority, lower socioeconomic-status males perform well below state averages. Is using tax dollars to profit at the expense of a poor child’s education and wanting more lustful? Gula: Overindulgence of anything to point of waste, often at the expense of the needy. In addition to Tapestry, Carl’s charter school empire, though murky and hard to pin down includes the Charter School for the Applied Technologies among many others. It is housed in the former Holy Angels academy, another casualty of declining economics, Catholicism and community. It is New York’s largest charter housing grades K-12. In grades K-5, the classes average 140 students. Grades 6-8 average 130. Grade nine averages 120 and the school graduates 110. All the while, CSAT enjoys “not-for-profit” status, pays rent and kicks out the kids who they do not want. Is kicking poor children out of a school while claiming great academic success and reaping great profits gluttonous? Avaritia: A ravenous desire to possess material possessions beyond one’s needs. This winter saw the rebirth of grassroots democracy in Buffalo. Parents, students, community organizers, teachers and administrators alike attended Board meetings over and over. As the Carl’s crew continued to postpone, delay, ignore and obfuscate, the crowds grew larger, more vocal and overtly angered. Their plan was to move Tapestry and other local charter schools into four public buildings for free because the schools are considered “failing.” Even by Carl’s standards, he hit a new low when he called the district’s lawyer and parliamentarian “ignorant.” What great act of ignorance had this woman committed? None. She was and eventually did rule that the Board majority could not close debate as per Roberts Rules without a six-person vote. Carl complained while some stated, “We’ll be here as long as it takes to get this right for the students of Buffalo.” He retorted, “I don’t have all day. I have a business rot run.” The privatizer’s plan thwarted, Carl retreated to pouting and checking his cell phone. Is wanting to kick students in public schools out of their home school so that students in charter schools can have the building for free, while their previous building was slated to house a new rent-paying charter school greedy? Acedia: Failing to do what is right. With such a strong Franciscian education, it is perplexing that his deeds fail to reach the measure of his own education. Carl constantly does what is wrong. He harangues students and schools as failing, only presents a business-minded reform agenda replete with bottom-line favorable “reforms” and absent any initiatives that improve education. But, after all, he is a businessman. If he were an educator, he would defend the students and teachers in the Buffalo Schools; he would defend the public from the avarice of those who would take from the nation’s poorest children only to give more to the very few and sinfully wealthy; and he would suggest real educational reform that improves learning … not just the bottom-line. It is as if he sees the public coffers as his largesse oblige. Is not working in the public’s best interests sloth? Ira: The inability to control feelings of hatred and anger to such a degree that it causes conflict. “No.” That is the terse yet honest response Carl gave to a mother who asked if the Board would allow any public input during the current search for a new Superintendent. Threats to sue for slander are never followed up because even Carl (yes, he’s a lawyer also) knows his case would have no merit. Telling the truth about a conflict of interest causes no injury legally; it does appear to hurt Carl’s fragile ego. When a local African American woman Principal refused to respond to Carl’s personal lawyer concerning a work matter, Carl scribed an epic tirade full of accusations, insinuations and malice. The selfishness of racism and misogyny shown through painfully bright. When the current Superintendent did not do the privatizer’s bidding, Carl whined about his “treachery and betrayal.” Is bullying those who are not compliant to your will wrath? Invidia: Coveting your neighbor’s characteristics, gifts or possessions. For a guy whose income comes overwhelmingly from the public coffers, using one’s position on a school board to direct expenditures to your – I’m sorry, your son’s – real estate company clearly seems incongruous. Bathing in a sea of plenty from high interest rates, buildings sold to charter companies for ten times their market value and a steady stream of public tax dollars rolling in every month, one would think this largesse would satiate. It does not. It begs the question: who is the real welfare queen? Carl was recently asked what he thought of the long-overdue teachers contract and the fact that Buffalo teachers, on average, earn $20,000 less than the average of surrounding districts. When asked what type of raise the teaches should get, he said something like, “They’re not getting another nickel.” Is profiting from a steady stream of public tax dollars while wanting more and refusing to pay employees fair wages envy? Superbia: A sense of superiority coupled with the disdain for other’s accomplishments. Hell-bent on closing public schools, Carl was asked what concern he had for the 249 teachers who were losing their jobs in the schools the Board insists on closing. His curt response was, “I don’t give a fuck.” No question here. This is arrogant hubris. One last biblical sin will bring Carl’s actions and lack of moral character full circle. Vangloria: Unjustified boasting. Culled all together, Carl’s actions as described demonstrate the real dangers of his narcissism and the narcissism of neo-liberal educational “reform.” Last week’s public Board meeting marked an important turning point in Buffalo’s struggle against privatization. The public showed its disdain for the Board majority. It was repeatedly made clear that the public had lost faith in the Board. One speaker demanded that Carl resign, his hate stare was called out directly by another complimented with a “I’m not afraid of you” retort. Compounding this tension, the Board majority stayed mute all night. The longer they said nothing, the more angered the public became. At one point, an impassioned mother put the Board majority on notice proclaiming vociferously: “When you try to take the power from the people, the people will take the power back.” The public was not polite that night. The Board’s collective silence was refreshing, but it revealed something even more powerful. It was one of those we-know-that you-know-that-we-don’t-believe-your-rhetoric-anymore-type of evenings. It was an historic, but dangerous turning point. In 2013, Carol Burris cited internationally renown education scholar Thomas Sergiovanni’s book, Moral Leadership, to make her argument that the New York State Department of Education, under John King’s calamitous leadership, had lost the moral authority to lead. The same argument applies in Buffalo. Carl and his cast of characters have not built a “followership.” Put in other words, they have no public support. One speaker even publicly revoked Carl’s supposed mandate by proclaiming, “Listen to the people here tonight: we are your new mandate.” The absence of moral authority does not mean the majority voting bloc on the Buffalo Public School Board has lost it power. In fact, that’s all they have left: power. They have a 5-4 voting bloc and their loyalty to each other is unyielding. But power sans moral authority renders their power absolute. History is full of examples of those who have usurped the public’s power, tried to silence their collective voice and lost the consent of the govern. Like educational “reformers” across the US, the current Buffalo Board of Education majority has ripped apart the fabric of democracy and shredded the social contract. Lord Acton’s words best describe the fine mess Buffalo’s Board of Education has created; “Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Great men are always bad men.”

Buffalo is a microcosm of what is happening across the US. Fortunately, History also suggests that it is going to get worse before it gets better. Power does not yield power easily. Absolute power is even more resolute in maintaining the status quo. The battle in Buffalo has been long. At this point, it appears the well-funded, well-heeled privatizers are tiring and the battle-tested public is energized, organized and pissed-off. The public is resolute. The privatizers are likely to summons more troops given their support from local media, billionaires, our governor and our president. Wealth and arrogance sustain, but democracy always prevails. Stay tuned. One could imagine St. Francis lamenting in his grave, “O male ventura.”