Weekly privatization report: VA privatization on the horizon? | Koch bros on education | and more

Here’s our weekly analysis of privatization in the news and in communities nationwide, in order by state. Not a subscriber? Sign up here.

This week’s highlights:


1) National: The Department of Veterans Affairs has released a proposal that could lead to the widespread privatization of health care for veterans. The proposal seeks to implement the VA Mission Act, and final rules are expected to be published this coming June. “Critics have expressed concern that expanding private health care could drain resources from improving the VA system itself, undermining the system and ultimately leading to full privatization. Some veterans groups and lawmakers have also said the VA did not consult them during the process of drafting the new rules. (…) ‘We are deeply troubled VA has not consulted Congress about the access standards being considered and their projected costs,’ 28 Democratic senators led by Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee ranking member Jon Tester” wrote in a letter to Wilkie. 

2) National: The Department of Homeland Security’s inspector general has released a harshly critical report on Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s oversight of its eight contract detention facilities. “Between October 1, 2015, and June 30, 2018, ICE imposed financial penalties on only two occasions, despite documenting thousands of instances of the facilities’ failures to comply with detention standards,” the report said. “Instead of holding facilities accountable through financial penalties, ICE issued waivers to facilities with deficient conditions, seeking to exempt them from complying with certain standards,” the IG reports. “However, ICE has no formal policies and procedures to govern the waiver process, has allowed officials without clear authority to grant waivers, and does not ensure key stakeholders have access to approved waivers. Further, the organizational placement and overextension of contracting officer’s representatives impede monitoring of facility contracts. Finally, ICE does not adequately share information about ICE detention contracts with key officials.” This despite ICE’s elaborate structure for supposedly responsible contract management and oversight (see the organizational chart on p. 4 of the report). 

ICE is currently embroiled in a controversy over force feeding protesting detainees inmates.

3) National: Charles Koch, who has funded a slew of pro-privatization efforts for a generation, is launching a major initiative to get involved in K-12 politics. “The announcement was made during a private retreat for wealthy donors who have committed to giving at least $100,000 annually to the sprawling Koch network of political, policy, educational and philanthropic organizations. (…) Longtime Koch network donor Frank Baxter, a former charter school executive in California, said he was thrilled the organization was digging into K-12 issues. He said private school scholarships, charter schools and online learning could be important avenues to reform failing schools.”

4) National: The Associated Press’ Sally Ho has reported on efforts by heirs of the Walmart fortune to use their money to influence debate over charter schools in the black community. AP reports that “Andre Perry, an education policy expert at the Brookings Institution, said the Walton foundation’s reliance on black faces to makes its case for charters suggests that they’re exploiting black people for a ‘white agenda.’ ‘It’s a sad thing that education reform is about how much money you have and not about what connection you have with black communities,’ Perry said.” 

5) National: Education Secretary Betsy DeVos has proposed loosening standards on subcontracting to unaccredited colleges. The proposal “would remove restrictions on accredited colleges to contract out entire educational programs to unaccredited education providers. That would be a big shift from the policies already in place, which cap the amount of outsourcing that colleges and universities can do with outside providers at 50 percent.”

6) National: Education blogger Nancy Bailey warns that “there’s new school management these days that might seem nice, but scratch beneath the service and it is privatization and the theft of America’s democratic public schools.” The mantle of “community school” is at stake. She asks “could our trust in community schools be used by the charter school industry to co-opt public schools? Charter schools are not community schools. And any school relying heavily on partnerships with business threatens to take the ‘public’ out of public schools.” Writing in Forbes, Peter Greene says “charter schools are not public schools.” He point to a lack of transparency, weak or nonexistent subjection to state law, expulsion of students, and a lack of local control.

7) National/Louisiana: In the Public Interest’s Jeremy Mohler explains how, in an exercise of organized grassroots people power, a budget-strapped local school district fought back against the staggering amount of tax exemptions that ExxonMobil has benefitted from over the years—and won. “A teacher walkout threat set the stage in Baton Rouge. Last October, teachers and school support staff voted overwhelmingly to hold a one-day school shutdown to demand that the school board reject ExxonMobil’s request. Within hours, the requests were taken off the agenda for a forthcoming board meeting. Then, after last week’s board vote, ExxonMobil dropped the bids for good.” 

8) National: So at least one Wall Street analyst considers mass incarceration practices in the U.S. as “tailwinds” that “benefit private prison operators GEO Group (GEO) and CoreCivic (CXW).”

9) National: The GEO Group has announced it will release its “earnings” figures before markets open on February 14, and hold a conference call at 11AM Eastern that morning. In September, the DHS inspector general released a report on horrific conditions at GEO’s Adelanto immigrant detention center. Today News Channel 3 will air a report in which Madison Weil “goes in-depth on the human rights violations happening at Adelanto and speaks with a former detainee and volunteers looking to help those detained inside. Watch ‘Detained and Afraid’—Monday at 6 PM [PT] on News Channel 3. Volunteers say their biggest challenge is finding legal and financial resources to help represent people inside. To donate, click here. And to get in contact with the group, you can email hcruz@im4humanintegrity.org” 

NPR has sued Adelanto over public records access. “The suit alleges the city unlawfully denied NPR reporter Tom Dreisbach access to public records he sought regarding living conditions at the Adelanto Detention Center. The lawsuit asks the court to order the city to release the records.”

10) National: The Ford Foundation shares a brief videoof author and Harvard Law professor Susan Crawford, who is fighting back against the digital divide by questioning the monopoly that private, for-profit companies hold over the service, quality and availability of fiber optic internet services. Crawford is concerned that “we’ve lost the idea that government actually helps people have better lives.” Crawford “is part of a growing community working to make technology serve the greater good. We call it #PublicInterestTech! More at fordfoundation.org/tech.” 

11) National: Private companies such as Securus and Global Tel Link are marketing technology that enables prisons to build databases of inmates’ voice prints. “Why am I giving up my rights because I’m receiving a call from somebody who has been convicted of a crime?” asks Jerome Greco, a digital forensics attorney at New York’s Legal Aid Society. “Michael Lynch, an intelligence coordinator for the Alachua County Jail in northern Florida, confirmed that his county recently agreed to purchase Securus’s voice recognition program. Lynch said that the voice prints produced by the program will be permanently archived at Securus’s facility in Texas.”

12) National: Education Week takes a look at New Jersey Senator Cory Booker’s support for vouchers and charter schools. Booker just announced he is running for president. “In general, he hasn’t talked as much about his support for choice in the last few years, especially his previous backing for vouchers. It will be worth watching to see if Booker is pressed by allies and the media about his record on vouchers and his previous relationship with DeVos.”

13) AlabamaAlabama’s laws and regulations for approving charter schools are being blatantly ignored for Montgomery, John Moon of Alabama Political Reporter says. Some say the state is behind it. “And now, the approval of four conversion charters has been pushed through, despite that plan also failing to meet NACSA’s approval and despite the Montgomery County School Board failing to vote for the charters’ approval. ‘The (Alabama State Department of Education) is pulling another fast one to get this approved,’ said former MPS Board member Larry Lee, who began raising questions last year about the way the conversion charters were approved. ‘Simply put, the state is forcing this conversion charter (plan) on MPS.’”

14) California: The Los Angeles school board has approved a resolution calling for a moratorium on new charters. “Only the state can change charter law, so the 5-1 vote directs the district to ask state leaders to study potential changes to the law and to impose a temporary moratorium on new charter schools in the district while the eight- to 10-month study is conducted. (…) A board vote on a moratorium was a key element in last week’s agreement that ended the six-day teacher strike, though it’s not mentioned in the actual contract and there was no guarantee it would pass.The teachers union listed the deal first in its summary of what the agreement had accomplished.” 

15) California: The California Department of Education says San Diego-based Thrive charter schools “should not be renewed for another five years” because of “poor academic performance.” The state board of education’s Advisory Commission on Charter Schools will meet tomorrow to review the issue. Agenda items and documents for the meeting can be downloaded here (docx) and here.

16) California: The results of the Oakland teacher strike vote will be announced today. “Oakland in particular seems to hold special significance for charter school boosters. The city has drawn a deluge of money from pro-charter billionaires that is rare to see in municipal elections. Last year, Michael Bloomberg donated $120,000 to an independent expenditure committee connected with GO Public Schools, a nonprofit organization that organizes and advocates on behalf of charter school expansion, which went on to drop more than $150,000 on a single 2018 Oakland school board race. The investments have paid dividends. Out of the seven seats on the Oakland school district’s board, five are occupied by GO Public Schools-endorsed candidates.” According to research conducted for In the Public Interest by Gordon Lafer, “the proliferation of charter schools in Oakland costs the school district $57.3 million per year, yet the district cannot take into account the impact a new charter will have on the finances of existing schools when deciding on an application.” 

17) Illinois/National: The contract of Chicago’s teachers is up at the end of June and it remains to be seen whether charter schools will become an issue along with other demands. “The CTU did manage to get a cap on charters as part of their 2016 contract negotiations. But then CPS CEO Forrest Claypool said that there was room for charters to grow under the cap.” Meanwhile, tomorrow is also a moment of truth for charter operators and educators.  “Teachers at four charter schools operated by Chicago International Charter Schools have announced a strike date of Feb. 5 if they cannot reach a contract deal with the school. Those teachers are also part of the CTU.” 

18) Illinois: William Daley, the brother of former mayor Richard M. Daley of Chicago parking meters privatization fame, is running for mayor of Chicago. Asked if he might, for example, consider further asset privatizations, like that of the Chicago Skyway, Daley said “I am open to privatization, but I don’t have any current plans to privatize Chicago assets.” Stay tuned.

19) Louisiana: The charterization of New Orleans has not just affected in-class education, it’s also hollowed out school bus safety. David Hammer of 4WWL Eyewitness News reports that “Charter school bus firms [are] cutting corners to save money.” Hammer says this week, “the New Orleans City Council is expected to debate stepping into the regulatory void created after Hurricane Katrina, when charter schools began replacing the city’s traditional public schools and centralized school board functions like providing citywide school bus transportation went by the wayside. Now, with the local school boards and the state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education offering no direct oversight over charter schools’ bus contracts, charters are essentially on their own to provide free transportation for tens of thousands of children. Critics say that has created an ad-hoc bus system comprised of private vendors that have skimped on safety to save cash.”

20) Massachusetts: The director of a proposed charter school in Lawrence has pulled his application for state approval “following the uproar when the leaders of several community organizations accused him of faking their names on letters to the state supporting his application.” Lawrence Teachers Union president Frank McLaughlin said “Let this be a warning to those who think they can come to Lawrence and con us in to accepting something we don’t want or need.”

21) MassachusettsA parent at Nathan Hale Elementary School in Boston says, “It is unacceptable that charter schools are receiving $167M in state aid, covering 100% of their budgets, while only $53M in state aid is going to BPS, covering 5% of our budget.” 

22) New York: New York City Schools Chancellor Richard Carranza is taking a tougher line on charter schools sucking resources from the public school system. “A week after warning charters to stop disparaging traditional public school academic performance, Carranza urged Bronx parents to agitate against the sector in Albany at a meeting Tuesday night. Carranza made his remarks after a parent objected to state law that obligates the city to pay rental costs for charters that are denied space in public school buildings. The schools chief said he gets between 250 and 400 emails a day—and that many of them object to the financial and space burdens imposed by the sector.”

23) New York: The chronic lack of infrastructure investment in public transportation has created dangerous conditions in the New York City subway. Last week, “a young mother from Connecticut died when she plunged down the stairs at a subway station in Manhattan while holding her 1-year-old girl in her stroller, authorities say.”  Currently, just 118 of the city’s 472 subway stations have elevators. 

24) West VirginiaA teachers’ work stoppage may be coming over charter schools, education savings accounts, and other issues. “Representatives of the West Virginia Education Association, the state chapter of the American Federation of Teachers and the West Virginia School Service Personnel Association, held a press conference Friday morning at the Capitol in Charleston where they announced ballots will be sent … to union and non-union teachers and school service personnel in every county to vote to authorize union leaders to call a work stoppage should circumstances surrounding Senate Bill 451, the education omnibus bill, merit such an action.” Though efforts to strip out the charter school and other provisions failed Friday night, a veto threat against the bill by the governor is still out there. [For more on S. 451 see below in Legislative Issues]

25) Wisconsin/national: After a rocky week in which a long-planned major investment by Foxconn backed by public subsidies and tax breaks looked as if it was going to be radically downsized, the deal looks like it may be back on—though MarketWatch says “the devil is in the details.” While seeming to make a turnaround on Friday after an intervention by Trump, Foxconn’s walkback announcement “did not make any mention of job numbers or what exactly would be manufactured. ‘We look forward to continuing to expand our investment in American talent in Wisconsin and the US,’ said the statement.” The silver lining? “There are a lot of bad programs out there that should go away and we should be upfront about that,” said Greg LeRoy, director of Good Jobs First, a group based in Washington, D.C., that tracks corporate subsidies.

26) Think tanksCharter schools are more likely to ignore special education applicants, according to researchers from Columbia University and the University of Florida. “The study found that charter schools were 5.8 percentage points less likely to respond to a query claiming to be from a parent of a student with severe disabilities. So-called ‘no-excuse’ charter schools, which serve predominately low-income minority students in a strict, college-prep academic environment, were 10 percentage points less likely to respond.” See the 50-page report, Education for All? A Nationwide Audit Study of Schools of Choice, by Peter Bergman and Isaac McFarlin.

Legislative Issues

1) National/Think tanks: The Center for American Progress is recommending that funding for immigration beds (many in facilities operated by private, for-profit companies such as the GEO Group and CoreCivic) be cut in the 2019 bill now before Congress. “For starters,” CAP says, “the fiscal year 2019 bill should contain no funding for additional detention beds and should reassert Congress’ prerogative to decrease detention capacity. This was Congress’ stated intention with the FY 2018 bill, which established detention funding levels that would “require ICE to reduce the number of detention beds.” Instead, ICE has since increased the average daily population by nearly 20 percent and, incredibly, added thousands of beds over the course of the shutdown. Detention funding should be decreased. Furthermore, the bill should contain no funds to increase the number of Border Patrol agents or ICE officers or weaken integrity requirements integral to the hiring process. Finally, the final bill should contain no funding to build an unpopular and unnecessary wall.”

2) ArizonaA bill to rein in charter operators has big exemptions for major players such as Basis Charter Schools and Great Hearts Academies. “State law doesn’t prohibit conflicts of interest in charter-school contracts or impose the strict reporting of expenses as it does for district schools. Charter school boards can also be staffed with the friends and relatives of school executives. And there’s no limit on how much money charter schools can spend outside the classroom.”

3) California: LA schools superintendent Austin Beutner calls for a careful legislative process to develop any changes to California’s existing charter school law. “The law is almost two decades old and it makes sense to me to pause while experts, not advocates, study all of the issues and propose what adjustments, if any might be appropriate to the law to provide a path for the next 20 years. The implementation of most laws, especially one as complicated as this, have impacts, good and bad, intended and unintended, and it’s just plain common sense to take a careful look.”

4) Idaho: Lawmakers heard a report on the performance of Idaho’s charter schools prepared by Stanford’s Center for Research on Education Outcomes (CREDO) last week, and the results were mixed. “The nine-month Idaho study received support from Bluum, a Boise-based school-choice nonprofit. Bluum hopes to use a $17.1 million federal grant to create 8,200 new charter school seats, primarily serving rural and disadvantaged students. Bluum hopes to use the CREDO research as a ‘baseline’ for this effort, Bluum CEO Terry Ryan told Senate Education.”

5) Illinois: With the replacement of pro-privatization Republican governor Bruce Rauner by Democratic Governor J.B. Pritzker, the legislative landscape on charter schools has changed in Springfield. “Pritzker said on more than one occasion during the campaign that he would support a moratorium on charter schools. And the pro-union Democratic Party now has a supermajority in the General Assembly.”

6) West Virginia: An intense battle has broken out over an education bill (S. 451) supposedly addressing demands from the teachers’ walkout a few months ago but also loaded up with a right wing wish-list of anti-worker measures. While the legislation includes a pay hike, “it also includes controversial provisions, such as allowing charter schools, creating education savings accounts, instituting paycheck protection, eliminating seniority as a key factor in reductions in force and transfers, and making central office administrators at-will employees.” Attempts by Democrats to strip out the provisions failed on Friday, some on 18-16 votes. “An amendment from state Sen. Robert Plymale, D-Wayne, tried to strip the public charter school language from the bill. Plymale, a former chairman of the Senate Education Committee prior to the Republicans gaining the majority in 2014, said the plan needs more time for study and discussion.”