John Thompson is a historian and teacher in Oklahoma.

He writes:

“Something’s happening here; What it is ain’t exactly clear …”
But, what is it?
A secret plan was presented to the Oklahoma City Public School Board of Education to turn neighborhood schools in the gentrifying areas around the downtown into charters. Given the prominent role of two presenters, principals of “No Excuses” charters, it seems likely that their pedagogy would be mandated for many of the poorest children of color who remain in the upscaling area. Word of the plan leaked out and, as the Daily Oklahoman reported, “tempers flared … and a standing room-only crowd cheered and jeered.”
Singing from the standard corporate reform hymnal, several charter advocates challenged the integrity of the plan’s opponents and the teachers union. The most poignant testimony, however, came from an African-American elementary student, dressed in a smart suit and tie, who personalized the pain felt by kids in the neighborhood school which is apparently targeted for a charter co-location. Even the young child knew what the “No Excuses” structure would do to his classmates who, he says, don’t always do everything right the first time they are told, as mandated by “No Excuses.”



It is no secret why an Oklahoma City elementary student would reveal the same feelings that my students have long expressed to me. The anguish expressed by inner city Oklahoma City students prompted by the “rigor” known as “No Excuses” echoes the cries of humiliated children across the nation. This raises two questions: what is happening here when teachers are commonly taught to speak in a robotic voice, to not say “please” to students, and to demand total compliance in folding their hands properly and tracking the speaker? Second, what is happening here when the nation’s most famous “No Excuses” charter chain, Success Academy, strikes out with such venom after it is caught maintaining a secret “Got to Go” list of students to be pushed out, and this brutal video is released?
Before school systems – from Oklahoma City to Los Angeles – even entertain the mass charterization plans choreographed in the “Billionaires Boys Club’s” public relations departments, they need to “Stop!” and “Look what’s going down.” All stakeholders should discuss the video, as well as the counterattack, led by the academy’s founder, Eva Moskowitz, against the New York Times. The Times reports that the 1st grader in the video “said she did not complain to her mother, because ‘I was scared of Ms. Dial’ (the charter teacher),” and that “asking Ms. Dial to explain something a second time would lead to a punishment. She said Ms. Dial had on other occasions ripped up children’s papers when she thought they were copying others’ work.” The child says, “She used to tell me: ‘I’m never going to get it. I just don’t know. I’m not as smart as the other kids.’”



That leads to the question of what is happening there in New York City when the student’s mother reports that “a public relations specialist for Success drafted an email for her, asking The Times not to publish the video.” According to the mom, “What most distressed her … was that the network and even many of the parents united behind Ms. Dial and did not seem to care about how her behavior affected children.”



The Times reports:


“The teacher had never apologized to her daughter. She said that a public relations specialist for Success drafted an email for her, asking The Times not to publish the video, and that at a meeting Ms. Moskowitz held at the school on Jan. 20, Ms. Moskowitz asked the parents to support Ms. Dial and to defend the school to the paper. Ms. Miranda said that when she stood up, identified herself and objected that Ms. Moskowitz was asking parents to support the teacher without even showing them the video, Ms. Moskowitz cut her off.”



The abuses perpetrated by “No Excuses” charters across the nation explain the danger inherent in what is happening here in Oklahoma City as reformers push to expand charters. But, it doesn’t explain what is happening here in schools that are widely praised but that are targeted to become charters. Wilson Elementary has long been acclaimed for its excellence, its arts education, and its ability to succeed with homeless children as well as more affluent kids. Similarly Gatewood has been effusively praised for its community engagement and progress. Martin Luther King, which had a large and vocal turnout protesting the plan, is enthusiastically embracing the hands-on, project based learning model of The Learner First, which recently received laudatory press coverage. It sounds like reformers have a problem with “Young people speaking their minds.” (See here and here).
The parents’ ratings of the other targeted schools range from four to five out of five stars. So, why are parents also getting “So much resistance from behind?”


I must emphasize that Oklahoma City’s “No Excuses” charters don’t have a record of abuses, such as have become increasing common with other charters. But, neither do they have a track record with elementary schools. Given the OKCPS’s per student funding of less than $9000, the chances of finding charter authorizers with the ability to serve schools that are 97% and 100% low income are slim and none.

Also, what is happening from Oklahoma to Massachusetts when reformers insist that their preferences must be imposed on schools that aren’t broken – with some achieving greatness that few charters can match? For some seemingly inconceivable reason, the “single most successful school turnaround in [Massachusetts] state history: [the] once failing Brockton High School” has been targeted. As Edushyster reports, Brockton’s policy of empowering teachers and students has resulted in graduation numbers that “dwarfs the combined total of grads from Boston’s charter schools.” Even though “the vast majority of the community is against the proposal,” the “new regional charter high school that will compete against Brockton High by offering less—Look Ma, no art or music!—all the while draining an estimated 5% of the city’s total education budget per year.” By the way, the founding board member of the charter, which was designed to replace the traditional public school known for its welcoming culture, is former prosecutor “Maximum Mike” who is known “for packing local kids who’d been brought up on drug charges off to far-away federal prisons for the longest possible prison sentences.”



And, that brings us back to the question of what is happening here in the Oklahoma State Capitol, which is known for policies where, “Step out of line, the Man comes and puts you away.” Oklahoma is #1 in the world in incarcerating women, and #3 nationally in locking up men, and it has cut education by more than 25%. We are also known for facilitating disastrous “Pay Day loans” that lure working and poor people into overwhelming debt.



The leadership of the OKCPS sounds like they view the charter plan as one of those high interest loans with up to 1/8th of the district’s schools as collateral. The superintendent cites the $6 million in cuts this year, and the $24 million in planned cuts, saying he would rather turn schools into charters than close schools and dismiss teachers. Moreover, a bill was snuck through the legislature which allowed for charters to be sponsored without the consent of the district.




How the charterization would save money and jobs is unexplained, unless the goal is to exit teachers old enough to remember Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young, getting rid of their salaries and professional judgments, but a board member says, “One of the alluring things about charter schools is the opportunity to solicit more corporate support, and that will alleviate some of the strain on the district to come up with operational money.”



One can easily understand the dilemma faced by the locally elected School Board. It sounds like they are being presented with “an offer you can’t refuse.” Market-driven solutions are being pushed by national reformers who have no idea which of the schools they want to fix are or are not broken. They are clueless as to how the Oklahoma City charter market has been maxed out for a decade.



I was slow to admit what “was going down,” and to admit that I need to use the word, but now it is clear. Privatization is what’s happening here. Conservatives, who convinced the legislatures in Oklahoma, Kansas, and elsewhere, are not all that we have to fear. “Battle lines are being drawn.” If you live in urban America, Corporate Reform is likely to be coming to your neighborhood.