Public Education Advocates outraged Mayor endorsed her.
by Gary Broderick & Emma Clark
Across the country students, parents, and teachers are facing off against corporate reformers and their attempts to privatize public education. The United States has seen an explosion of education management companies, chain charters, and software companies who increasingly view this historically-public good as a new market for profit. In big business the losers are the students, particularly those whose families can’t afford to buy in. Democratic city mayors have often played the part of promoting and fostering this privatization. They often face a Republican controlled state-legislature that is starving public education, and under pressure to deliver outcomes and maintain good relationships with the moneyed interests that make political donations, they offer up city schools to corporate control in return for short-term investments.This trend threatens to get worse with Betsy Devos at the helm of the Department of Education.
It was in this context that Richmond’s Public Education movement raised serious concerns about the Mayor’s Education Compact. In its original form, the Education Compact was a power grab away from our communities and our democratically elected school board, reallocating power to the Mayor and unaccountable corporate leaders. The Mayor emphasized repeatedly, in response to concerns, that despite some evidence to the contrary, the Compact was not about privatization or bringing charter companies to Richmond. The Mayor’s point person on education, Thad Williamson, suggested Richmond’s corporate leaders simply wanted to invest without wanting anything in return. This is hard to believe as it is; it has become even less credible since Mayor Stoney launched an aggressive campaign to put corporate reform supporter Cindy Menz-Erb on the School Board instead of a candidate supported by parent and teacher public education advocates.
Public education advocates won significant concessions in the compact’s structure, increasing transparency and maintaining democratic control of the school board. Cindy Menz-Erb supported the original version of the Compact. She had initially told one of her school board opponents, Kenya Gibson, that she intended to support her, even offering to launch the campaign from her home. However, when Gibson joined other public education advocates in pushing for more transparency and checks on corporate power, Menz-Erb recanted. Within the week Mike Doerr, the Mayor’s chief fundraiser, sent an intern door knocking to collect signatures to get Menz-Erb on the ballot.
Menz-Erb has made it clear that she believes corporations belong in our schools. The Sprint Deal touted by her campaign is a perfect example of how corporate reform works. First, we know the deal comes at the behest of a political donor because former School Board member Nadine Marsh-Carter had to recuse herself from the vote on the deal. This was a deal that was reportedly recommended behind the scenes by the Mayor’s office. Where is the study that shows tablets help students with homework? Where is the policy debate around pedagogy, best practices for digital learning, and the like? There isn’t any. Menz-Erb has not suggested any correlating curriculum for use with these tablets and no one has told the public the terms of the negotiations with Sprint. It’s a corporate give-away: Sprint gets access to a new customer base without a clear pedagogical return. Policy and pedagogy were not to get in the way of photo-ops.
Menz-Erb recently posted on Facebook, “I am opposed to the expansion of charter schools in Richmond as I have consistently stated in my campaign, full stop.” The post raises questions, however, as she is on the record as being open to charters in her responses to both the Brookland Park questionnaire and questions posed at the Richmond City Democratic Committee’s forum. Menz-Erb’s work for On-Ramps, which she also defends in her Facebook post, centers on collaborating with charter companies and lobbying organizations that are on the forefront of privatization efforts across the country. One of her clients is Michelle Rhee’s organization “StudentsFirst,” covered by this recent Slate article, “The Schoolyard Fight: Michelle Rhee’s new organization is giving millions to support conservative candidates in dozens of states.” The full list of her clients, including KIPP, are covered in this Huffington Post article, “The Corporate takeover of Public Education.”
Menz-Erb’s campaign has not just received the support of the mayor; she has received financial support from Richmond’s corporate elite and donors, including Jim Ukrop and Mike Doerr’s affiliated PAC Ascend, which is also supporting a corporate education reform candidate in Albemarle Co., Virginia. It’s not surprising. These are precisely the private interests that will hope to expand their market share through our schools and students, garnering contracts for private services and using schools as bargaining chips in their own profit models.
In a recent editorial from the Richmond Times Dispatch, the authors proudly touted that Mayor Stoney “is no Bill De Blasio,” referring to the substantively progressive Mayor of New York City. Indeed he is not. Mayor De Blasio has been willing to take on the moneyed interests and charter companies in the interest of public education and other public services. He put forward a plan for universal PRE-K, paid for by a .5 percent raise on the income tax of those who make more than $500,000 a year. In contrast, Mayor Stoney has become known in RPS for a lot of public photo ops backed by little-to-no action on behalf of our schools. In meetings with Stoney, teachers have urged the Mayor to make increasing teacher and parent voice a priority in his ambitious plans for the schools. Teachers recommended initiatives such as launching a series of politician/teacher conversations to celebrate Teacher Appreciation Week and creating a Teacher Advisory Board for the Mayor’s office. In lieu of these initiatives, he sought to create an Education Compact Team which does more to solicit the input of Richmond’s business leaders than Richmond’s teachers.
Given this type of leadership from the Mayor’s office, it’s more critical than ever that our School Board is tied to the interests of teacher and parent stakeholders rather than corporations.
Gary Broderick is a community organizer who has worked with parents in the 3rd District. He is a former Learning Assistant at Eastway Elementary in Durham, NC. He began his Public Education activism after the City of Philadelphia announced it was going to close 23 schools; he joined 18 others, participating in a civil disobedience to prevent the closings. He also played a leadership role in last year’s #StudentsDeserveMore march demanding more funding for NC Schools from then Republican Governor, Pat McCrory.
Emma Clark is a teacher and public education advocate. She received a Masters in Teaching from VCU’s social justice oriented Richmond Teacher Residency program which seeks to prepare skilled and dedicated teacher-leaders for RPS. She currently teaches 8th grade at T.C. Boushall Middle School and collaborates with other public school advocates to bring more teacher insight to political decision-making in Richmond.