Charles Siler had excellent credentials to work in the privatization movement. In this article, he explains why he switched sides. To learn more about Charles Siler, watch this video in which I interviewed him.

Confessions of a Former Privatizer Why I Don’t Want to Eradicate Public Schools Anymore

I spent years working to privatize public schools. I realized that I was wrong, and am now proud to call myself a public education advocate.

By Charles Siler

Nearly all my life I believed public schools were obstacles to success, achievement, and social mobility for individuals and our society as a whole. And it wasn’t just schools. This was my belief about nearly all government activity. I saw government agencies as little more than hives of self-serving bureaucrats looking for ways to increase their budgets by robbing more and more money from taxpayers, all while standing in the way of innovation and success.

My view of government, including “government schools,” was in many ways a reflection of my upbringing. I was raised by evangelical Christians, with a father who descended from slave owners and who attended schools in Mississippi before the state had fully integrated them. The words “[Robert E.] Lee surrendered, but I didn’t!”were emblazoned on a trinket that hung off the family car keys. This tongue-in-cheek joke that wasn’t entirely a joke captured the ethos of our familial and social circles.

As we saw it, a strong government meant outsiders imposing limitations on us and got in the way of people living their lives. A strong federal government, after all, had freed our slaves. That same strong federal government told us how to run our elections and forced us to integrate our schools.

I left home and joined the military before heading to college. By that time my anti-government views had transitioned from general critiques steeped in the Lost Cause myth I’d grown up with to economic and social policies that I could back up with evidence and reasoned philosophy. I was drawn to libertarianism, so I headed to George Mason University to study economics. It was a fitting choice, as the department had been designed to develop young talent who could recast the Republican Party’s Southern Strategy, including the school choice fight against desegregation into clinical academic language, bolstered by dispassionate “evidence.”

I was only 30 years old but I’d already had a lifetime of conditioning, some I was born into, much I’d sought out on my own. I was convinced that people were their most liberated and most able to define their own lives when they were given as much individual freedom as possible without the intervention of governments or the “whims” of majority rule. A common refrain I heard and was fond of repeating was that “Absolute democracy is four wolves and a sheep deciding what’s for dinner.” Unions were just as much part of the problem as far as I was concerned, as they enabled people to form large groups and decide what others could or couldn’t do.

To me, public school represented everything that was wrong with our society. Our K-12 schools were a massive government bureaucracy staffed by union members that children were compelled to attend and adults were forced to pay for with their taxes. If I was going to help make the country a better place for everyone, I had to pitch in and help take down public schools. 

By now you’ve probably noticed that I brought a certain arrogance to my mission. That’s because I was convinced that I was working to make people better off. But I was also frustrated by the positive opinions that so many people seemed to have about public education as well as government programs, including Social Security and Medicare. People didn’t understand what was truly best for them. And that arrogance defined my work and the privatization movement more generally.

Even as I pursued my mission with zeal, I was beginning to experience doubts about whether the policies I was pushing really were improving people’s lives. For one thing, the “evidence” that I was so fond of pointing to when I argued with public school defenders was actually pretty hard to find. That’s because pro-privatization groups like the ones I worked for and alongside fight with incredible vigor to block any efforts to collect data on privatization programs. When data was available, I could see for myself that the programs I was selling rarely seemed to produce academic benefits for students, even as they increased inequity. I knew that data could always be cherry-picked to make pro-privatization arguments—it was what I did for a living—but it was increasingly hard for me to deny what I could see with my own eyes: privatization is bad for students, for communities, and economies.

Confronting the reality of the work I’d been doing in conservative/libertarian policy circles wasn’t easy. Fortunately I had a network of friends who supported me through my crisis of conscience. But it was a chance encounter that really pressed me to deepen my reexamination of my beliefs and would lead me to become an advocate for public schools. One evening I dropped by a public debate on privatization in order to catch up with a former colleague who advocated for school vouchers. I ended up running into Dawn Penich-Thacker, my former supervisor when I’d worked in public affairs for the military who’d since gone on to co-found Save Our Schools Arizona. 

More than a decade had passed since we’d worked together, and here we were on opposite sides of school voucher expansion in Arizona. That encounter marked the resumption of my friendship with Dawn. It also forced me to engage in a much more critical examination of school privatization than I’d ever done before. Here was someone who I liked and respected, and who believed passionately that privatizing schools wasn’t empowering parents at all, and had reams of data to back up her argument. Study after study showed a lack of academic improvement for students in school privatization programs, school privatization programs increased segregation, they increased discrimination, they were more succeptible to fraud, and so on. I had no choice but to admit that I’d been wrong.

I’d reached a turning point in my life. When Arizona legislators passed a universal school measure, something I would have cheered as a privatization advocate, I joined the opposition. I signed up with Save Our Schools Arizona, becoming one of the countless volunteers who helped defeat the voucher measure at the polls in 2018 by a 2-to-1 margin. I also did what I could to support Save Our Schools’ policy efforts, using the lobbying and communications skills I’d honed as a privatization advocate on behalf of public education.

Working with SOSAZ was profoundly inspiring to me. It is an incredible organization of volunteers, and seeing so many people pouring so much of themselves into fighting for their communities has galvanized me to become more deeply involved. It has also been incredibly frustrating to encounter the political machine I used to be a part of. The movement to privatize schools and indeed all public goods can feel overwhelming with its persistence, its reach, and its political influence.

Despite this, I have a lot of hope for the future. The politicians that the privatizers bankroll have gone too far, and people are getting more engaged, not to mention enraged, as a result. In other words, I am seeing cracks in the privatization army that I used to be part of. And as grassroots resistance gets stronger, the movement is gasping for wins. They’re also having to attack democracy itself in a more coordinated effort just to hold onto the gains they’ve made. Sensing that the door is closing, they are grasping for as much as they can before it’s too late. That’s why there is so much frenetic activity at the state level right now. These are the desperate reaches of a movement in crisis. 

I’m convinced that the pendulum is set to swing back in support of public institutions and public schools. While the fight is exhausting and often dispiriting, this is actually an exciting time to be an advocate for public schools. Diverse communities are more engaged than ever and are helping shape conversations about the future of public education. People are paying more and more attention to local elections, including school board races.

There are many of you reading this who have been fighting for public schools way longer, and more effectively, than I have. While I can’t know the exhaustion and despair many of you must feel at this point, I hope that you see the light ahead. Hopefully together we can turn the tide on school privatization. I’m proud to finally join you in fighting for our communities and our future.

Charles Siler formerly worked for the pro-voucher Goldwater Institute in Arizona. He now advises pro-public education groups and candidates.

A month ago, I wrote to tell you that I was going to the hospital for open-heart surgery. I lined up guest bloggers who filled in for me in my absence, and I thank them all for keeping the conversation going.

I checked into the hospital in NYC on April 7. Surgery was early the next morning. I had an ascending aortic aneurysm and a leaky heart valve that had to be replaced. The surgeon explained that he would cut upon my breast bone to gain access to my heart.

Needless to say, I have no recollection of the surgery or its aftermath. I was sedated for five days. One member of my family was allowed to visit each day. When I was finally allowed to regain consciousness, I had no voice (due to intubation), a bad cough, and could not walk. I spent two weeks in the Intensive Care Unit, two days in regular care, then moved to the Rehabilitation Unit, where I am relearning how to walk.

I’m going home on May 7 and bringing a walker with me until I have fully regained the use of my legs and can walk without fear of falling.

I want to express gratitude to the many friends who sent good wishes my way.

I want to thank the great doctors and nurses who made sure I pulled through an arduous procedure.

I thank Medicare, an incredible federal program that assures that everyone enrolled gets the same quality care. Wouldn’t it be great if everyone could enroll in Medicare?

And of course I thank my sons Joe and Michael and my partner Mary, who were always there for visiting hours and always brought a CARE package of a favorite food.

Several years ago, the Walton Family Foundation and the Gates Foundation decided that it was not enough to open new charter schools. No, they had to devise mechanisms to make sure that school officials put charters on an equal footing with public schools and that the public didn’t care whether schools were run by their elected school board or a private board of directors.

The Gates Foundation created something called “the Gates Compact,” paying districts to treat public and charter schools the same.

The Waltons played a different angle. To advance their agenda of embedding charters and wiping out any differences between public schools and charter schools, they pushed for the adoption of a common enrollment form. The two sectors are intermingled, and neither students nor parents know which schools are public and which have private or corporate management.

In Oakland, where a slate of pro-public school parents won the last school board election, the board voted to eliminate the OneApp system.

Jane Nylund, a parent activist in Oakland, sent the following report:

Elections matter. In a complete turnaround to the common enrollment momentum that we have seen since 2015, our newly elected school board voted by 4-3 to pass the Enrollment Stabilization Policy, which eliminates the ability of OUSD to participate in marketing and supporting charter schools with our tax dollars. The policy ends the shared enrollment system put into place in 2015 by former superintendent Antwan Wilson, who had actively steered the district towards a common enrollment system. When the board voted it down, Antwan Wilson, undeterred, supported the implementation of an electronic school finder, Schoolmint, which combined both district and charter schools on a single platform, thus placing both types of schools on the same footing, which was the intent all along. Families searching for schools using their neighborhood zip codes, would often find charter schools at the top of their search feed, rather than the neighborhood school within their boundary.

Key point of the Enrollment Stabilization Policy: “This prohibition applies (but is not limited) to OUSD’s enrollment system, school maps, family guides and other enrollment materials, any OUSD website, OUSD facilities, enrollment fairs, and teacher recruitment events. Competing schools shall not be invited to participate in or be included in OUSD- or site-run recruitment fairs or OUSD- or site-run enrollment events or to recruit students on OUSD-operated campuses.”

For the first time, district legislation is acknowledging that marketing and competition vs. “quality” are the key strategies to the growth of charter schools in Oakland. While charter proponents have argued that the district is trying to “hide” “quality schools” and that families can pick whatever type they want (district, charter, or private), that’s not the reality of what families do. According to OUSD feeder patterns, it is clear that charters are marketed aggressively as “high quality” from the elementary schools onward and that elementary charter enrollment is the key to future charter school demand at the secondary level. Charter proponents have always known this and have relied on the “all charters are high-quality” tag line to sell this school model to families.

None of this would have happened without constant vigilance and involvement from teachers, as well as support from grassroots parents’ groups such as Parents United. For too long, charter schools have had it both ways: operate like a business with all the usual trappings, but pretend to be a public entity for purposes of revenue generation. If charters want to be in the education business using marketing and competition as proxies for authentic “achievement”, then they need to play by the rules of that game and find their own customer base using their own funds (our taxpayer dollars). While much work remains to be done to defeat privatization in Oakland, the days of feeding at the OUSD trough at the expense of our own district students are finally coming to an end.

Michael Sean Winters of the National Catholic Reporter expressed my reaction to President Joe Biden’s speech to Congress. No boasting. No narcissism. A strong assertion that government must work for the people and use its resources to improve the lives of the people.

The most abnormal thing about Biden’s speech, however, was how normal it was. After four years of Donald Trump spewing his particular brand of dyspeptic, self-absorbed oratory, it felt a bit unfamiliar, and a bit exhilarating, watching Biden calmly discuss the challenges and the opportunities facing the nation, and discuss how he proposed to confront the one and exploit the other. A sense of déjà vu does not usually mix with the emotions kindled by promise, but when they do, the experience is centering. The speech felt like the country was getting back to normal. 

The United States, in normal, pre-Trump times, believed democracy worked. Regrettably, Ronald Reagan pitted democracy against government, and set the terms of public policy for 40 years. The pandemic brought into sharp relief what had long been obvious to those of us schooled in Catholic social doctrine: Reaganism hollowed out the government’s ability to achieve its foremost objective, the common good. 

But, the will of the people continued to voice skepticism about government overreach and the most memorable line from a State of the Union speech by the first Democratic president after Reagan, Bill Clinton, had the flavor of capitulation: “The era of big government is over.”

Biden announced that government focused on the common good was back and that the democratically expressed will of the people insisted on a more activist government.

Kathleen Cashin has been a teacher, a principal, and a superintendent in New York City in high-needs districts. She is currently a member of the New York State Board of Regents, which sets policy for the state.

In this article, which appeared in the New York Daily News, she explains her hope that school district will use their new money to invest in most successful school reform that works: reduced class size. (Mayor de Blasio, by contrast, says he wants to pour $500 million of the city’s windfall into more testing and tutoring.)

Cashin writes:

In 1999, when I was superintendent of the city’s District 23 in Ocean Hill Brownsville, fourth graders had to take a multi-faceted standardized state test for the first time, which included reading, writing and listening. The first thing I did was to reduce class size as much as possible.

The results were astounding. Not only were there significant gains in test scores the following year, but I noticed a stunning development: Students were able to forge closer relationships with their teachers, and their teachers had their morale lifted because no longer did they have an overwhelming number of students with high needs to address.

Most disciplinary problems vanished overnight, even among students who were most prone to act up. Teachers were now keeping their doors open, and welcoming administrators and other teachers to visit, because their classes were running smoothly, and it was evident how much learning was going on. They were no longer fearful that someone would notice chaotic classrooms and blame it on them. They began to enthusiastically collaborate with each other, and this collaboration helped to further sharpen their skills and fostered a strong sense of professionalism.

In 2003, I was appointed Superintendent of Region Five, encompassing Districts 19 and 23 in Brooklyn and District 27 in Queens, including some of the poorest neighborhoods in the city. Aided by a state program that helped fund class size reduction, I lowered class sizes in as many schools as I could. Over the next three years, our elementary and middle schools achieved the greatest test score gains of any region in the city.

It was a revelation. And now for the first time, NYC has the opportunity to transform all our schools and classrooms in a similar fashion.

New York City will receive about $7 billion from the federal government over the next three years to help our schools reopen to in-person learning safely, with additional support students will need to recover from more than a year of disrupted learning and the losses that so many suffered due to the pandemic. President Biden has also proposed to more than double Title I funding, which could mean an additional $700 million annually to the city’s schools.

In addition, after many years of reneging on their promise, the state has now pledged to provide the city with full Foundation Aid, starting at $530 million and increasing over three years to about $1.3 billion in annual funding. This is the result of the Campaign for Fiscal Equity lawsuit, in which the excessive class sizes in our schools were central to the judgment of the state’s highest court that students were deprived of an equitable opportunity to learn. In 2003, the New York Court of Appeals wrote: “[T]ens of thousands of students are placed in overcrowded classrooms…and provided with inadequate facilities and equipment. The number of children in these straits is large enough to represent a systemic failure.”

Unfortunately, class sizes have only increased since then, particularly in the early grades. More than 300,000 students were in classes of 30 or more last year, with average class sizes 15% to 30% larger than those in the rest of the state.

Research shows that while all children benefit from smaller classes, those who make the greatest gainsare students of color, those who are economically disadvantaged, English Language Learners and those with special needs. These students collectively make up the majority of students in the NYC public schools.

The City Council has now proposed that $250 millionbe spent on a targeted program to lower class size next year. This is a good beginning. I hope Mayor de Blasio and Chancellor Meisha Porter will enthusiastically accept this proposal, so that class size reduction can begin to be phased citywide over the next three to four years.

We have a crisis in teaching, with high teacher attrition rates, particularly in those schools with the most disadvantaged students. This emanates in part from these teachers having class sizes too large. Educators are not being provided with the opportunity they need to succeed in their jobs.

It’s simply too difficult for one person to handle 30 young students and know all their abilities and disabilities, no less be able to address them effectively. But if you have 20 students or fewer, and in the upper grades 25 or fewer, suddenly what was impossible before becomes possible.

Poverty drains everyone it comes in contact with. But when children are provided the chance to have the close personal attention and connection with their teachers, made possible by a small class, it can change their lives. We believe they deserve that chance.

Cashin represents the borough of Brooklyn on the state Board of Regents.

During the Obama administration, Roberto Rodriguez was the White House advisor on education. He vigorously supported the Race to the Top program, the Common Core standards, and high-stakes testing. All of these initiatives failed to improve student test scores and wasted billions of dollars.

Andrew Ujifusa wrote in Education Week (April 28) about the return of Rodriguez. He joins former Obama official Carmel Martin, another zealous advocate of those failed policies. Basically, they are switching places, with Rodriguez taking the job that Martin held, and Martin moving into the slot previously occupied by Martin. There is no indication that either has modified their support for the Bush-Obama bipartisan agenda.

President Joe Biden announced Wednesday that he plans to nominate Roberto Rodriguez, one of former President Barack Obama’s top education advisers, to lead one of the most important divisions of the U.S. Department of Education.

Biden wants Rodriguez to lead the Education Department’s office of planning, evaluation and policy development. Rodriguez, a former special assistant to Obama on education policy who also previously worked in the Senate, is currently the president and CEO of Teach Plus, a teacher-advocacy organization.

The office Rodriguez would lead, if confirmed, has played a significant part in past presidential administrations. For example, Carmel Martin, who oversaw the development of the Race to the Top competition and the expansion of School Improvement Grants in the early part of the Obama administration, led the office. Under former U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos, the office was led by Jim Blew, who came to the department after many years of working to promote school choice.

As a deputy assistant to Obama, Rodriguez played a major role in developing and advocating for the president’s K-12 policy priorities.

Rodriguez defended Race to the Top in a 2012 Education Week article, saying that it was sparking major shifts for schools, such as the adoption of the Common Core State Standards. Both Race to the Top and the standards, of course, became controversial as time went on, and attracted criticism from Democrats as well as Republicans.

It would be gratifying to hear either or both explain why they the multi-billion Race to the Top failed, why Common Core had no impact (yet cost hundreds of millions) to implement, whether they have changed their views about VAM (evaluating teachers by student test scores) and charter schools.

It appears that Rodriguez and Carmel Martin will make policy, not Secretary Cardona or Deputy Secretary-designate Cindy Martens.

Biden is looking to the future with his sweeping domestic policy plans. But in education, he is looking in the rear-view mirror to the architects of Obama’s failed programs.

The Mind Trust in Indianapolis has been the central engine of charter creation in that city and holds itself up as a model charter authorizer.

Until it was “deceived” by a would-be charter operator with a rosy vision, according to this story by Stephanie Wang in Chalkbeat Indiana.

She begins:

To launch a “transformational” middle school in an overlooked eastside neighborhood, Indianapolis charter advocates turned to a man students call Coach T.

For two decades, Tariq Al-Nasir ran his Stemnasium enrichment programs with a mission of helping Black and brown students realize their “superpowers” in science, technology, engineering, and math. With a resume boasting advanced degrees from MIT and Stanford, Al-Nasir put forward a vision of education in which hands-on lessons in coding, flying drones, and tinkering with robots could change children’s lives.

Calling him “brilliant” at working with students, the influential charter incubator The Mind Trust gave Al-Nasir a two-year, $800,000 fellowship last summer to develop Stemnasium Science Math Engineering Middle School.

But a Chalkbeat investigation found that the rosy charter pitch painted over troubling details — lawsuits, financial troubles, questionable academic credentials — that escaped notice by city charter officials and The Mind Trust.

A bankruptcy filed six months before Al-Nasir won the prestigious fellowship showed that he had accumulated hundreds of thousands of dollars in debts while running the programs that inspired his charter proposal — including a nearly $500,000 judgment in a lawsuit that alleged Al-Nasir wrote bad checks to cover outstanding Stemnasium bills.

His resume lists a bachelor’s degree from New York University, a master’s from Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and a doctorate from Stanford University — each earned at times when the employment section of his resume placed him at jobs in other cities. All three of those institutions told Chalkbeat they had no records of Al-Nasir’s attendance.

The lawsuits and financial scandals did not deter The Mind Trust but lying about his academic credentials did.

The Mind Trust cancelled his fellowship.

What is even more shocking than the candidate’s misrepresentations was The Mind Trust’s failure to conduct a review of his background.

Without the inquiries from Chalkbeat, it’s unclear whether Al-Nasir’s money troubles or unsubstantiated educational claims would have come to light. The Indianapolis mayor’s office, which oversees more than 40 charter schools in the city, is often named among the strongest charter authorizers in the nation. But its director acknowledged that officials don’t vet new applicants’ financial histories or even run a simple free search on a public database of court records that would reveal lawsuits.

The Mind Trust displayed neither accountability nor transparency. Its naïveté and gullibility embarrassed the candidate as well as the organization. It failed to vet him or to conduct due diligence.

Jennifer Berkshire and Jack Schneider explore what happens when a state government is taken over by a combination of libertarians, who want to diminish government and taxes, and Republicans, who have spent decades attacking government as “the enemy.” It turns out they are indistinguishable. .

This is a don’t-miss edition of their reader-supported “Have You Heard” podcast (with transcript available).

Among the services cut were garbage collection and animal control. So people in the state are getting used to seeing bears ransacking their garbage.

The situation is growing dire for the state’s public schools. The libertarians want to eliminate public education. They want to replace it with charter schools, vouchers, home schooling, and pretty much anything that a parent wants to do.

Under the leadership of Governor Chris Sununu and Frank Edelblut, the home schooler he selected as state commissioner of education, the state is well on its way to its goal of privatizing and/or abolishing public schools.

Federal officials arrested Seth Andrew, founder of the Democracy Prep charter chain, accusing him of taking money from the schools’ bank account to lower his mortgage rate on a new home. Andrew launched Democracy Prep in 2005; he left in 2013 to work the Obama Department of Education but retained financial ties with the charter chain. He severed his ties with the chain in January 2017.

Federal officials say he withdrew more than $200,000 from one of the schools’ accounts in 2019.

He is accused of wire fraud, money laundering, and making false claims to a bank.

CNBC reported:

Andrew, 42, was busted in New York City, where he and his wife, CBS News anchor Lana Zak, have a residence valued at more than $2 million. 

The founder of Democracy Prep Public Schools is accused of using more than half of the allegedly stolen money from that network to maintain a bank account minimum that gave him a more favorable interest rate for a mortgage on his and Zak’s Manhattan residence. Zak was not charged in the case.

Prosecutors said Andrew in 2019 — more than two years after severing ties with Democracy Prep — looted a series of escrow accounts he had previously set up for individual schools within Democracy Prep’s network, and then used their funds to open a business account in the name of one of the schools at a bank...

Andrew’s criminal defense attorney, Michael Yaeger, told CNBC that Andrew “will be entering a plea of not guilty” in the case. He declined to comment further.

Arne Duncan, who as then-President Barack Obama’s Education secretary supervised Andrew, declined to comment on the criminal case.

Minnesota was the first state to pass a charter law in 1991. As blogger Sarah Lahm wrote in the Progressive in 2019, the new charters were exempt from most state regulations, including desegregation. A number of its charters are segregated by race and ethnicity, intentionally so, because the charter industry believes that segregation is culturally affirming. This situation led to a lawsuit to assure the rights of children of color in the state.

So now leading figures in the state charter lobby want to pass an amendment to the state constitution that would make segregated schools acceptable, while adding that school quality would be determined by standardized tests.

Blogger Rob Levine explains:

The Page Amendment is best understood if you recognize these foundations’ overall public education strategies. For 30 years the Minneapolis Foundation and its allies have been creating, funding, and persuading the legislature to loosen requirements on charter schools in the state. Over that same period, they have been pushing for data (test) driven education policies. The proposed Page Amendment would enshrine standardized test scores in the state constitution as measure of educational quality, and remove language courts have used to fight school segregation. So for the foundations the proposed amendment is a two-fer. But it’s even more than that…

One need only look at the two charter chains that get the most money from the foundations – Hiawatha Academies and KIPP Minnesota – to understand that threat. Hiawatha is a chain of five charter schools based in Minneapolis whose student population is about 88% Hispanic, in a city that is about 10% Hispanic…

It’s a similar story at the foundations’ second-most funded charter school chain, KIPP Minnesota, where the school population is 96% Black in a city that is less than 20% Black, and has been that way since it opened in 2008…

The proposed amendment both adds and removes language from the section of the Minnesota Constitution that involves public education. Currently, Article XIII, Section 1 of the Constitution provides, in part:

“…it is the duty of the legislature to establish a general and uniform system of public schools. The legislature shall make such provisions by taxation or otherwise as will secure a thorough and efficient system of public schools throughout the state” [emphasis added]

The Minnesota Supreme Court’s ruling in July, 2018, sending the Cruz-Guzman case back to the district court, said this when ruling for the plaintiff’s motion to proceed with the case, writing:

“It is self-evident that a segregated system of public schools is not ‘general,’ ‘uniform,’ ‘thorough,’ or ‘efficient.’” [emphasis added]

But the proposed Page Amendment removes the words general, thorough and efficient, and recasts “uniform” as the results of standardized tests.

So this is what corporate reform has wrought in Minnesota. A renewed belief in racial segregation and a determination to enshrine standardized testing in the state constitution.