What We Can Learn From Dallas' Fight Against School Privatization

An example from an unlikely place shows it's possible to stop public schools from becoming private enterprises.

Few people in New Orleans have forgiven US Secretary of Education Arne Duncan for once declaring that Hurricane Katrina was the "best thing that happened to the education system in New Orleans." He later apologized for the remark. 

But the truth is, Katrina really was a boon for at least some people. Among those who benefited most from the natural disaster were folks who are intent on turning public schools into private enterprises.

As the short video Perfect Storm: The Takeover of New Orleans Public Schools documents, Katrina’s devastation gave politicians at the state and federal levels the opening they needed to take control of the district, eliminate most public schools, fire all the teachers, get rid of the teachers’ union, and install charter schools and Teach for America. The rush to privatization ensured tax dollars intended for public schools would go to privately operated organizations, including charter schools, charter management organizations (for-profit and not for profit), and in Louisiana at least, private schools that enroll students with school vouchers doled out by the state.

Today nearly every school in New Orleans is a privately managed charter entity and advocates for school privatization have chalked up a huge victory.

Privatizing schools is a threat to the nation's education system for a number of reasons. First, the results haven't been very good. Perhaps more important, privatizing a public system like our schools immediately makes them less democratic and reduces the voice that students, parents and teachers have in school governance. And when privately operated schools decide things aren't going their way, they can simply walk away, leaving students and families stranded, taxpayers stuck with unexpected costs and communities bereft of important neighborhood institutions.

Nonethless, since Katrina, efforts to privatize public schools have become ubiquitous. What took hold in New Orleans is now gaining a foothold elsewhere -- using a very familiar playbook. But not every city is greeting these new developments with open arms.

As Privatization Schemes Multiply, So Does Dissent

In the years since Katrina, the privatization movement has fomented false disaster crises of various kinds in communities across America, and then charged into the breach with proposals to “solve” the crisis through privatization.

With the help of right-wing think tanks like the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), deep-pocketed foundations, billionaire business leaders and investors, and feckless political leaders shilling for campaign money, the privatization movement has scored success after success in communities across the country. In big-city school districts like Newark, NJ and Philadelphia, PA, state governors have used legislative decrees to declare city schools a disaster, void local governance and impose new non-elected authorities who have the power to transfer school management to privately operated firms.

A number of states have either adopted or are considering a plan to maintain a standing state agency to take over struggling districts and govern them in perpetuity—which is what Louisiana's School Recovery District did to New Orleans after Katrina. That model has been adopted by Tennessee, whose state-run takeover agency is called the Achievement School District. ASD takeovers of school districts in Nashville and Memphis have led to local schools being put under the management of nationally operated charter schools organizations such as KIPP, Yes Prep and Rocketship that aren't even headquartered in Tennessee. 

Recently, Georgia also adopted the "school recovery" model invented in Louisiana to boost that state's privatization effort.

Bu notably, as privatization schemes have multiplied, so has the dissent in communities affected. Once awakened to the danger of having their school systems sold off without their involvement or consent, teachers, parents, students, and public education activists have begun rallying their neighbors, educating the community, packing public meetings, and pressuring local politicians and government officials to slow the privatization train. Armed with the right information and driven by the right coalition of grassroots forces, they're proving that opposition to school privatization schemes can be effective even in the most unlikely of places—like Dallas, Texas.

'Home Rule' Comes to Big D

The privatization scheme in Dallas has been one of the most creative attempts in the country. As George Joseph reported for an investigative piece for In These Times, wealthy business leaders in that North Texas community attempted an end-run around democracy to take over the city’s school board and then “take advantage of the obscure state provision” called “home rule” that would essentially “transform the whole district into a ‘charter district.’”

Joseph recounts how Dallas’ business community formed an astroturf group called Support Our Public Schools, to push the district to adopt a “home rule charter” that would essentially let a sympathetic mayor evade the entire range of state regulations from “teacher salary minimums, to start dates, to having a school board at all. Among the options, according to the Texas Association of School Boards, would be for the proposal to turn some or all schools over to private charter-school operators.”

The home rule campaign received strong backing from the state's business elites, including mega-wealthy financier John Arnold, famous for, in Joseph's words, "looting" $3 billion from the pension fund of Enron, the scandalous utility company known for massive shareholder fraud.

As Joseph explains, "A complete charter school takeover of the district … could mean hundreds of millions in revenue.… The Dallas Independent School District’s estimated tax revenue for the 2014-2015 school year amounts to $1.3 billion—which could flow to charter operators, were the district to be privatized."

Anatomy of a Pushback

Education professor Julian Vasquez Heilig, then at the University of Texas, called home rule, "the newest neoliberal assault on democratically controlled public education" on his personal blog. In the post, Heilig provides a policy brief titled "Dallas Home Rule Takeover Q&A" that grassroots groups began circulating in the neighborhoods most affected by home rule: communities of color and low-income families.

The brief warned parents and voters the likely outcome of home rule would be a school system similar to Chicago's, where a conversion to mayoral control by Rahm Emanuel has led to widespread school closures that disproportionately affected communities of color. Community meetings organized throughout the city by public and civil right activists, including Texas Organizing Project, the NAACP, the League of United Latin American Citizens and Alliance-AFT, featured Heilig and helped circulate the brief.

Heilig's message was "the upper crust of Dallas and Houston are in the process of spending hundreds of thousands of dollars to deliver a Home Rule takeover." 

"Instead of moving around the chairs at the top, and turning over a $1 billion budget to a non-elected body," Heilig argued, "the Mayor should ponder what new financial investments the city can make in partnership [of] Dallas ISD and the broader community to support low-SES students."

The coalition behind the opposition to home rule was composed of parents, teachers and minorities, according to a report in the Dallas Morning News. Hispanic groups were particularly outspoken, according to another report from the same source. Local pastors joined in the coalition as well, speaking out in support of public schools.

Low-income communities in the city, Joseph writes, were not only concerned about the potential harm home rule could do to their children's education, "but also have fought back against home rule in part out of fears that it could help real estate developers … The district’s buildings would have a total replacement value of over $8.13 trillion, a source that charter school entrepreneurs or real estate developers could tap into on the cheap if able to push through mass school closures."

The agitation coming from the ground drove "numerous protests, community forums, and packed town hall meetings opposing home rule," according to Joseph.

Protests Have Effects

"Perhaps no single event signaled the community’s opposition to the home rule campaign more," Joseph writes, than the results of a run-off election held after the push to privatization was well underway. That election pitted a well-funded supporter of home rule against a long-time incumbent who had battled school closures in the neighborhoods of her constituents.

The challenger was backed by over $104,000 in campaign donations but lost to incumbent Joyce Foreman, who lacked in funding but rallied voters against a home rule plan that "was rolled out against the people.” The vote wasn't even close—65 percent for Foreman—and home rule suddenly looked like an unpopular measure.

Likely feeling the heat coming from the populace, a newly created commission expected to approve a home rule charter ended up resoundingly voting it down. "I never heard an outpouring of support for this,” said one of the commissioners who voted no.

The commission's chair ended up calling home rule ”a very bad piece of legislation,” according to the Texas Observer.

Still, efforts to privatize public schools in Dallas are not going to end because of the defeat of home rule. As education historian Diane Ravitch explains on her blog, the current superintendent seems intent on "disrupting" the system with an array of confusing policies and actions. The state also is in the process of enacting a new system of school vouchers that would threaten public schools across the state with defunding and direct more taxpayer money to private schools.

But the important lessons from Dallas hold: namely, that resistance to privatization can indeed be effective when it is well informed and built from a strong, grassroots coalition.

Making Crucial Connections

The form of coalition-building among educators, parents and social justice and civil rights groups in Dallas follows a new brand of movement-building born in cities like Chicago and Philadelphia and now spreading to communities around the nation.

In another recent post, Ravitch explains how a similar coalition helped defeat a recent privatization scheme in Little Rock, Arkansas. She writes, "Allies of the Walton family [of Walmart fame] proposed a state takeover of the Little Rock School District, because 6 of 48 schools were low-performing. Advocates for the takeover wanted to turn the district into an all-charter district, like New Orleans. But community resistance was strong and the proposed legislation was withdrawn."

She points to a local news source that explains, "The Alliance to Reclaim Our Schools (AROS), a national community/labor table that fights for the public school system … helped the Arkansas coalition with information about the New Orleans School Recovery District, a long-term privatization failure."

Chicago community organizer Jitu Brown is also quoted: "We were proud to be able to connect parents in New Orleans and Chicago with parents in Arkansas. From now on, we want the great organizations and coalitions who are fighting to save public education to have connections with their brothers and sisters across the country who have learned from the battles.”

Add Dallas to the list.

Jeff Bryant is director of the Education Opportunity Network, a partnership effort of the Institute for America's Future and the Opportunity to Learn Campaign. He has written extensively about public education policy.


Sign Up!
Get AlterNet's Daily Newsletter in Your Inbox
+ sign up for additional lists
Select additional lists by selecting the checkboxes below before clicking Subscribe:
Election 2018