Hostile Takeover

Florida’s Commissioner of Education Richard Corcoran recently blasted Duval County Public Schools Superintendent Diana Greene at a State Board of Education meeting. He claimed to be concerned about the status of some of Duval’s “low-performing” schools—in plain English, schools that don’t do well in high-stakes tests. This wasn’t a matter of two educators disagreeing about what’s best for Duval’s children; it was political theater on the part of Corcoran. Nobody should believe for a second that he cares about the education of the poor and minority children in Northside and Westside Jacksonville.

Corcoran is not even an educator. Before being appointed commissioner, his experience in the education field was limited to, personally, watching his wife run charter schools and, professionally, as a legislator, championing bills that would benefit those schools (and, by extension, his family). Greene, on the other hand, has more than 20 years of experience and has climbed the ranks from teacher to superintendent of one of the largest school districts in the nation.

During the meeting, Corcoran asked Greene why she hadn’t embraced his pet charter program. Greene answered that Duval County already has 40 charter schools. Most of them, however, don’t serve struggling and mostly minority neighborhoods. The ones that did have failed and are now closed. The truth of the matter is, charters that operate in areas mired in poverty often do considerably worse than the public schools there.

Some might point to the crown jewel of the local charter school movement, the KIPP franchise, as evidence that charters can succeed. Wrong. One of the KIPP schools had to merge with another to avoid a failing grade. Its school day and school year are longer, it serves a smaller percentage of free- and reduced-lunch and minority students than nearby public schools, and it spends about a third more per student than do traditional public schools. Despite all these advantages, its grade goes up and down more often than your typical yo-yo.

Corcoran’s goal is not to improve our public schools, but to replace them with charters. He shares that goal with another local politician and political ally: Mayor Lenny Curry.

Curry has never been a supporter of our public schools. Instead, he has funneled hundreds of thousands of dollars to the charter school of his super-donor, Gary Chartrand. He vetoed a City Council resolution asking the state board of education to not change testing requirements that would adversely impact poor and mostly minority students. Earlier this month, instead of supporting the school-infrastructure tax referendum, which would also create jobs and increase property values (something most mayors traditionally support), he undermined the school board’s efforts by directing the city’s legal counsel to issue a laughable ruling suggesting the board must ask the City Council for permission.

Now, with the formation of the Charter Review Commission, a once-a-decade exercise ostensibly conceived to improve city governance, Curry sees an opening to take over our schools and replace them with the charter school network that Chartrand and others have envisioned. If you think this is hyperbole, know this: the proposition was actually floated during the last CRC, when Duval had a mere handful of charters. The Chamber of Commerce has called for school board “reform”—it wants to move from an elected to an appointed school body. Oh, and who works for the chamber? City Council President Aaron Bowman, whose CRC nominees are known enemies of public education.

These state and local moves are part of a coordinated effort to replace our school board and take over our public schools, not for the benefit of students, but for the profit of charter-school shareholders. Their end-game: Corcoran says that Duval County can’t manage its schools, and the Charter Review Commission concurs. Then the mayor, who styles himself as a great man of action, does the deed.