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Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Will Emeryville Join the Rest of the Bay Area? Will Taxes Reflect Our Worth?

How Much Should We Charge Business to Operate in Our Town? 

Should There Be a Rational Basis?

The City Council has been looking into raising revenue from lots of different sources recently after Sacramento two years took away the Emeryville Redevelopment Agency, formerly City Hall's main funding source.  Emeryville is left with drastically reduced revenue but the same old list of required maintenance expenditures and discretionary capital improvement projects.  It's caused the Council to think outside the box as far as new revenue is concerned.  What was formerly off limits for this Council majority; making businesses pay more including looking at raising developer impact fees the City charges, is now openly being bandied about.
These public investigations into our revenue streams has laid bare just how low taxes are for Emeryville business.  When it comes to revenue, Emeryville stands alone; business here pays far less than in neighboring cities.  It's the same story across the board: from the hotel occupancy tax to the business tax rate to the real estate transfer tax to impact fees and to outright give-a-ways like the business tax cap which allows the largest corporations in town to pay taxes at a much lower rate than smaller businesses do.  It's sort of a Robbin Hood in reverse thing going on.

"We should charge what 
the market will bare"

Make no mistake, this 'lower by orders of magnitude' taxation culture at City Hall is not an accident, it's not an oversight; it represents the will of this Council least up until now.
But besides being plain old bad public policy, this low tax thinking has no rational basis.  For rationality to be at play, there needs to be some evidentiary demonstrability in effect.  It needs to be measurable.  But there seems only to be vague and unsubstantiated ideas of the ambiguous benefits of low taxation for business driving the three person majority.  Republican Party folklore about Adam Smith's invisible hand seems to be the animate force guiding this.  The only thing missing are the normally ubiquitous 'trickle down' and 'all boats rising' memes being trotted out.

There's simply no good reason to charge so little.
A rational basis argument for how we can set business taxes in Emeryville would take into account what the prevailing rates are plus the value specifically we represent for business.  Value can be defined in numerous ways like location, access, crime, resident demographics, government services and the local neighborhood desirability in terms of restaurants and parks and the like.  The knee-jerk 'we must keep business taxes low' mantra takes none of this into account.  To set business taxes with these factors accounted for would be to levy taxes based on what the market will bare.  It represents a rational basis that businesses understands.  It's a basis we understand.  To put it simply, we should charge what we can get.  To charge any less is to give a gift of public money to business that's not warranted.

We charge far less than what Oakland charges.  There's something obviously wrong with that.

Another rational basis would be to take into account our 'positives' but charge a little less than what the market will bare.  This argument makes sense if we're trying to pump up the business sector in our town due to some previous deficit.  But it's hard to make this argument in Emeryville, being so laser focused on attracting business as we have been for the last 25 years or so.  The deficit we face can be found in livability, not attracting business.  Among the many metrics, Emeryville is below our neighbors in acres of parkland per resident; far below.  That's a manifestation of a livability deficit.

But what's impossible is to make a rational argument for what the Council majority has been doing until now: giving away the store.  Just watch Council Members Nora Davis and Kurt Brinkman especially.  They arrive at each Council meeting with a barely hidden agenda of 'how can I serve Emeryville business today?'  At almost every turn they devalue the commons to the benefit of business, especially big business. But the loss of funds at City Hall is getting existentially hazardous. The new paradigm of post Redevelopment is something they're clearly struggling with.  When the Council voted to look into raising the transfer tax on March 18, Mr Brinkman almost went out in a blaze of glory; voting NO to even consider allowing Emeryville residents to vote on the idea in November.  But the specter of a 4-1 vote on the Council dais, with Kurt Brinkman standing alone against democracy with this vote as he faces the electorate this fall, brought him back.  Councilwoman Davis to her credit seems to be taking the financial threat at City Hall more seriously; she's been a bit more pragmatic.

However, while we're busy comparing Emeryville's low business tax guiding principles to Adam Smith and what's going on in red states nation wide, we should consider how American worker's dramatic productivity gains over the last 30 years have not been matched in wage gains.  Indeed, wages have been flat or even falling despite labor's prodigious productivity rises.  We're still the wealthiest nation on Earth but the plutocrats have pocketed all the gains....done by design.
It's like what's happened to Emeryville during the same time period; as our desirability here dramatically increases, City Hall is stuck.  We're not benefiting; we can't seem to enjoy anything that we've worked for.  All the gains go to businesses...again, done by design.

It would appear a new majority on the Council is rising up and they're not willing to see the town sink.  They're at least now talking about securing enough revenue to keep us afloat.  So that's encouraging.  But as far as employing a rational basis for determining how to set business taxes in Emeryville, that would require a leopard changing its spots.  Rationality in business tax policy here is going to have to wait.  It's going to have to be imposed by the ballot box...this November.  Kurt Brinkman will be seeking re-election and the idea of raising real estate transfer taxes will also be on the ballot.  We're going to have to make the right decisions amid the coming flurry of propaganda from the Chamber of Commerce.

Monday, April 14, 2014

RULE Meeting

Residents United For A Livable Emeryville

Come and meet your progressive neighbors and help make your city grow in a good way!
Next regular meeting:  Saturday, April 19
10:00 - 12:00
Doyle St. CoHousing, 5514 Doyle St., 1st floor common room

  • Putting Charter City initiative on the ballot
  • RULE endorsement of Sam Kang
  • Sherwin Williams project update
  • Reports
  • How to recruit more members
  • Prepare for interviews of potential School Board candidates

Bring breakfast snacks
Coffee and tea provided

Letter To The Tattler: Shirley Enomoto

The following letter has been received from Emeryville resident Shirley Enomoto:

After five years of squabbling with two superintendents of the Emery School District (John Sugiyama and Debbra Lindo),  going through two attorneys who found the issue with merit but later advised that there was a "conflict of interest," and retaining one attorney who finked out after he became attorney for Central Valley ranchers opposing the high speed rail, the Emery School District has agreed to the following:

-Every two years a mass mailing will be mailed to all Emeryville taxpayers regarding the senior exemption for Measure A, the school parcel tax approved by the voters in 2003 and extended to 2019.

-Those who file for the exemption will automatically receive each year a reminder with an application for the  exemption. (I received my notice April 12.)

-Notices will be posted in the Emeryville electronic newsletter, the Oakland Tribune (now the Bay Area News Group) and the [Emeryville] Senior Center newsletter, "The Link."

I was not successful in obtaining refunds for seniors who overpaid the parcel tax after turning 65 because of no knowledge of the exe

Shirley Enomoto has lived in Emeryville for 18 years and has been a "trouble maker"she says, to City Hall for as many years.  A member of Residents United for a Livable Emeryville (RULE) and a long time volunteer for the schools, Ms Enomoto has also long rallied for fair treatment for senior citizens.  She discovered the School District wasn't properly telling senior citizen property owners they could file for an exemption to pay their Measure A tax, a provision by law but widely unknown by Emeryville seniors and until now the District has been uncooperative to a fix.  
Emeryville is lucky to have citizen activists such as Shirley Enomoto keeping vigil. 

Saturday, April 12, 2014

City Looks at Increasing Impact Fees

Emeryville's Anemic Impact Fees
Existing Residents/Business Subsidize New Business

News Analysis
Last week, the Emeryville City Council engaged in some very unusual behavior when they conducted a study session with an eye to possibly raise the City's fee schedule on new business and development, known as impact fees.  The April 1st meeting was the first time since 1998 the Council has looked critically at its compliment of impact fees, a turn of events brought on by the demise of the Emeryville  Redevelopment Agency and the resultant hit the City has taken on its finances.
Any rise in these impact fees would bring Emeryville closer to closing the considerable gap that's grown between what's charged here versus neighboring cities.  Every city in the Bay Area charges impact fees and the study session revealed that Emeryville as it stands now, is the cheapest place around to do business... by far.

Paid at the time of development by the developers, impact fees offset costs associated with providing public services to new development and paying for capital improvement expenditures due to population growth (for residential projects).  These fees provide a way for municipalities to ensure new comers not financially burden those here already.
As with so many other of its other business generated revenue streams, business friendly Emeryville has the lowest impact fees around; putting existing businesses and residents on the hook for helping provide public services for these new arrivals.  The result is a depleted capital improvement fund, making it more difficult for Emeryville to pay for existing services let alone provide new services citizens (and businesses) want.
The services impact fees pay for in Emeryville are earmarked for transportation, parks & recreation and affordable housing.

Ultra Low
Emeryville's ultra low Impact Fees are not a accident.  They're the conjoined work of the the Emeryville City Council majority and the Chamber of Commerce.
A manifestation of the Council's pro-business, pro-developer ideology, the impact fee schedule at City Hall falls behind neighbors Oakland and Berkeley in every single category.  Not just behind in most cases but far behind.
The staff presented the Council at the April 1st study session, with information that was revelatory.
Among the findings are the following impact fee comparisons with our neighbors:

Existing Emeryville Impact Fees*
(dollars behind average of Berkeley, Richmond and Alameda based on per unit/square feet/or room)

Housing Blocks:
-Multi Family  $13,543 per unit less than neighboring cities
-Town Homes  $22,668 per unit less

-$2,377 per room less

Office Space:
-$7.50 per square foot less

Research & Development:
-$5.34 per sq ft less

Retail/Mixed Use:
-$5.80 per sq ft less

Of course impact fees are just one way in which Emeryville charges business far less than what neighboring cities charge.  When it comes time to leave Emeryville, businesses get a nice parting gift from City Hall with its business friendly real estate transfer tax.  At $.55 per $1000 of value of real estate, the anemic transfer tax, paid primarily by business, falls far below all the neighboring cities including Oakland and Berkeley who charge $15 per $1000; some 2700% more than Emeryville, enabling those cities to pay for public amenities such as sidewalk repair and new parks.

The April 1st presentation is found HERE
 *page 13 of introductory staff report to City Manger Sabrina Landreth from Director of Economic Development Helen Bean and head of Planning Department Charlie Bryant

Friday, April 11, 2014

Emeryville History 2004-2014: City Hall in the Tank for Pixar

OOOPS!  Ten years later, the hyperbole is revealed to be.....hyperbole.

Here's City Manager John Flores, in 2004 in the tank for Pixar as that company sought voter approval for a major campus expansion.  The Tattler has shown how the pitch from Pixar (and City Hall) for Measures T & U were vastly overstated including how Pixar was going to benefit the schools and the community. But what we got for our permission to vastly increase their campus instead is a giant corporate tax cheat and no money for the schools coming forth from the fenced off and secretive private Pixar compound.

In addition to giving credence to the absurd claim that Pixar would flee Emeryville unless it got everything it wanted (and write off its billion dollar initial investment), Mr Flores, supposedly representing our interests, tells us that Pixar would be a "major benefactor to the Emeryville community including the schools".
Pixar for its part, told voters in 2004 that they (Pixar) would tremendously benefit the Emeryville community but instead of putting that in writing as the T&U opposition wanted, they should simply be taken at their word.
And the rest is history as they say.

Video from the Emeryville Property Owners Association

Sunday, April 6, 2014

Former Emery School Superintendant Tony Smith: Teachers Unions Must Be Destroyed

The Long Shadow Cast By Tony Smith
"We're Doing What's Best for the Children"

Remember, I only want what's
best for the children.

(Repeat often)
Recently there's been a national debate begun about public education and while charter schools, most operating at the expense of public schools have proliferated and teachers unions have come under attack on many fronts, public education supporters have begun to push back against this concerted push to privatize the nation's public schools.  At Emery Unified School District however, the course was set years ago and Emery has played its own small role in this conservative attempt to cripple public education, especially where that attempt seeks to destroy teachers unions.  To see this one only needs to look to the legacies of former superintendents of its schools Tony Smith and the recently deposed Debbra Lindo.

Even though they had the same goals in mind, of the two former superintendents, the great mentor and architect-in-chief of Emery's slide into it's current anti-teacher state of affairs is inarguably Tony Smith.  His shadow is long and even though he left Emery years ago to command Oakland Unified and has since left there amid a witness tampering scandal, Tony Smith and his school privatization philosophy continues unabashedly to serve as guiding principles for Emery.  The School Board here is quite clear about their tutelage by Tony Smith, proud even.

While at Oakland, Tony's divisive anti-democratic program of cutting, shutting and chartering schools while taking on the teachers caused a massive grassroots citizen's push back.  He is revered nonetheless by the Emery School Board and they have even picked up some of his affectations: think the oft publicly repeated and ever popular "we're doing what's best for the children" as a way of shutting down those who would disagree, as in; what YOU'RE advocating then must therefore be by definition NOT what's best for the children.

After Tony left Emery, the School Board looked to find a permanent replacement and they ultimately found a near carbon copy in Debbra Lindo (except she lacks Tony's easy going and chipper personality).  Tony's influence was evident as Debbra Lindo and her Board surrogates began their siege against Emery teachers following the release of the Teachers Resolution in 2012.

Mega ditttos.
The Emeryville duo Tony 'n Debbra have now very publicly entered the national debate with their support in the Los Angeles Superior Court's infamous Vergara case.  They tell us that everything will be great if we just tie teacher's pay to high stakes 'bubble' test outcomes, kill due process for teacher's employment and make their jobs teeter on the whims of unelected superintendents.  We'll get the best and the brightest apparently if we de-professionalize teaching: sever their job security, cut pay and make their fates dependent on things beyond their control.

Below is a recent letter to the Oakland Tribune from Tony Smith (filled with right wing memes and dog whistles) that might seem sincere to the uninitiated. To those following the Emery School Board (Tony's begats)  however, it's just part of the continuing attack on and privatize of public education.  Here is Tony Smith, the Great Man to Emery Unified continuing to release his toxic brand of divisive politics even as he has decamped to Chicago, some 2000 miles distant:
Guest commentary:  
Let's start protecting all of our students
By Tony Smith, guest commentary © 2014 Bay Area News Group
POSTED:   03/30/2014 04:00:00 PM
California's education laws are currently designed to almost unconditionally protect a group of adults -- teachers -- at the expense of our children.
And students living in poverty -- those most in need of every opportunity our public schools can offer -- are being disproportionately punished by these laws. The system tells them: sorry, teachers' jobs are more important than your education and your future.
Is that right?
No, it isn't, say the nine students who brought the Vergara v. California case, currently awaiting a ruling in Los Angeles Superior Court. The students are suing the state because five state laws are denying them -- and the other 6.2 million California public school students like them -- their constitutional right to a quality education.
If the court agrees, then the dysfunctional statutes controlling teacher tenure, dismissal and layoffs will be struck down, creating a transformational opportunity to design a new system that puts students' needs first, ensures a high-quality teacher in every classroom and helps all Californians see a better future.
Supporting our teachers really matters. Effective teachers are essential for a well-educated California. Under current laws, though, the system fails to make effective teaching a priority, creating an environment that's bad for both hardworking teachers and students.
The tenure law forces administrators to grant lifetime employment to new teachers after less than 16 months in the classroom. I am aware of no other profession where someone is granted protected status in such a short time and without any real evidentiary basis for the decision.
Once permanent employment is granted, it is nearly impossible to dismiss ineffective teachers for any reason other than criminal activity. The dismissal process is so cumbersome and costly that in the past 10 years, only 19 teachers out of California's 1,052 school districts have been successfully terminated through the dismissal process for reasons including unsatisfactory performance.
When funding reductions instigate layoffs, administrators are not allowed to base staffing decisions on the quality of a teacher's service to children. The primary factor that may be considered is how long he or she has been employed by the district, so every year a district has layoffs, children lose passionate, hardworking, effective teachers -- just because they lack seniority.
As superintendent of Oakland Unified School District, I had to explain why excellent teachers were being let go, while parents pleaded and begged, saying, "Please, please keep this teacher. You don't understand what this year has been like for my child. This is one of the most extraordinary educators I've ever seen in my life."
But under the law, there is nothing we can do to keep that extraordinary educator.
Is the system I just described a system focused on what's best for children?
Not to me.
A system that prioritizes meeting the needs of California's students -- as the state constitution demands -- would focus on enhancing educational quality before protecting seniority.
A system that truly puts students' learning first would evaluate how well our students are doing and how much growth they are making.
We would discuss how to help teachers develop their practice, using growth in student learning as the primary data guiding our efforts.
When teachers demonstrate effective work in service of students, we would do everything in our power to enhance that work and reward those teachers. And when a few adults are consistently failing our children in the classroom, we would hold them accountable.
In a district like the Oakland Unified School District, where I served as superintendent for four years, 70 percent of students come from low-income households. Our students face serious challenges outside of school. For many students, the road leads either to graduation or incarceration. Having caring, attentive, effective teachers along the road makes all the difference.
Let's not lose sight of the goal of our public schools: to ensure that every child in the state has access to a good education, so every child can participate and thrive in our society.
I hope the Vergara student-plaintiffs are victorious in court. I hope the Vergara case marks a turning point in the trajectory of public education in California. Let's make a true commitment to current and future students: educational excellence, starting with an effective teacher in every classroom.

Tony Smith is a former superintendent of Oakland Unified School District.

Tuesday, April 1, 2014

Letter to the Tattler: Sam Kang

The following letter to the Tattler has been received from Emeryville resident 
Sam Kang:

Dear Emeryville neighbors,

My name is Sam Kang, an Emeryville resident and Democratic candidate for Assembly District 15 in the state legislature.  Our assembly district is one of the most diverse and progressive districts in the state. District 15 stretches from north Oakland and Emeryville, through Berkeley, Albany, El Cerrito, and Richmond, all the way up to Hercules.  Our little corner of California is one of the most vibrant communities in the state.
I'm running because I won't be just another reliable Democratic vote in the state legislature.  This district demands far more.  It demands a leader who stands up to powerful interests and knows how to win. This is what I do every day as a civil rights organizer in Berkeley for an organization called the Greenlining Institute.  We help communities all over California to stand up to powerful interests and advocate for better schools, a healthy environment, and affordable access to health care.

I'm the only candidate in this race with actual experience writing and advocating on state legislation.  I've personally worked on legislation that aimed to end fracking, challenging health insurance companies when they impose excessive rate hikes, and fighting cuts to financial aid for college.  Taking on big fights is what I do best.  I was an amateur fighter for 10 years, so fighting comes naturally.

I became a civil rights organizer and advocate because this country gave me so much.  I immigrated to the United States from Korea when I was four years old.  We didn't have much, so my parents worked 16-hour days, seven days a week.  Despite how hard my parents had to work, I'm so grateful because this country gave us a fair shot to achieve our American Dream.  That's why I've committed my life and career to giving back to my community.

My history of fighting for communities is why I'm endorsed by the Chairman of the Courage Campaign, California Small Business Association, California Insurance Commissioner Dave Jones, Emeryville Mayor Jac Asher, and community leaders across the state.  I would be honored to have your support.
The primary election is on June 3rd. Please visit my website at and learn more about how you can become a part of this campaign.

Warmly yours,

Sam Kang
Candidate for Assembly District 15
(Cities of Albany, Berkeley, El Cerrito, El Sobrante, Emeryville, Hercules, Kensington, North Oakland, Piedmont, Pinole, Richmond, and San Pablo)

Sam Kang lives with his wife Akiko in the Triangle neighborhood of east Emeryville.  Sam has been a long time Emeryville activist.

Sunday, March 30, 2014

Long Awaited Pickleworks Path May Finally Connect Neighborhoods in East Emeryville

Use EBI Money to Open Pickleworks Path

The single most widely recognized barrier to walkability in Emeryville has long been seen as the ever anticipated but never arriving 'Pickleworks path' proposed to connect the Doyle/55th Street dogleg with 53rd Street.  If the path was open to the public, as backers are wont to say, a six block detour for north/south traveling bikers and pedestrians would be removed and Emeryville would move a click or two towards validation for its claim of being "a connected place".
The path, starting on the north end between two buildings at the Doyle/55th corner and opening out into a parking lot off 53rd Street connecting north Hollis area with the residences at EmeryBay Village, was formerly accessible but closed when a private developer acquired and rehabbed the 'Pickleworks' building in 1999.  At the time, the City neglected to require the developer to open the path as a condition of approval for the Pickleworks project bringing howls from residents after the popular cut through was closed and gated. The developer has since resisted all attempts by a chastened City Hall to buy the land and re-open the path.  Calls have been made from residents, including from the Tattler, for the City to acquire the land by eminent domain but where City Hall once entertained the idea years ago, the latest Emeryville Capital Improvement Program didn't even list Pickleworks as a consideration.
Looking south through the normally closed
Pickleworks gates.

This ped/bike neighborhood connection path at Pickleworks is even more important now.  With the building of the Center of 'Community' Life on 53rd Street and Emeryville children from the North Hollis residential area detouring east to busy San Pablo Avenue to get to school, the City of Emeryville, who's General Plan cover page refers to the town as "a connected place" must finally open this vital neighborhood connection.

In another area of town, Emeryville fans of walkability lost another big battle a year ago.  That's when the City Council majority amended the City's General Plan to remove a required pedestrian path connecting 45th and 47th streets east of San Pablo Avenue, after a new private school, EBI on San Pablo Avenue, appealed to be let off the hook for building the required path as a negotiated part of their Planning Department approval process for their campus construction. At the time, EBI agreed to spend the money it would have spent on the 'EBI ped path' instead on some other unidentified pedestrian improvements along San Pablo Avenue.

We say EBI should instead pay for the connection at Pickleworks.  The City has a chance with this to correct a past mistake made by the City Council when they voted to reduce pedestrian connectivity by killing the EBI path and now move to greatly improve pedestrian and bike connection in our town at Pickleworks.  Let's finally bring this important neighborhood connection.

Emery School District Contributes to the Right Wing Anti-Public School Culture

Emeryville is trendy.  It seems like with every emerging bad public policy trend, Emeryville is right there at the front of the pack...or at least right behind the trend setters in the Bay Area. With its 'cut, shut and charter' mindset and its virtual war on teachers, the Emery Unified School District is acting the foot soldier in the right wing privatization play for America's public schools.  The Yes Magazine article below tells the sad tale of what's happening nationally, while here in Emeryville the School Board is also playing its part.   

As you read the Yes story, remember how the School District here has shut down the Ralph Hawley Middle School and now is ready to shut down Anna Yates Elementary School.  Both these school campuses could sit idle or underutilized and will be subject to take over by private charter school concerns because the law says that any underutilized surplus school district property is subject to any private charter school moving in by State sanctioned seizure.  There's no way Emery could stop this eventuality even if the District were of a mind to stop it. 
With the EBI private school already in place on San Pablo Avenue right across from the future Center of 'Community' Life and its Kindergarten through 12th grade school, combined with the former school sites as possible sites for charter schools, Emery is primed for ongoing existential threat.  Charter schools and private schools thrive by only accepting the best and the brightest students, culled from the local public schools leaving them with what's left; driving down test scores and further feeding the loop for public school abandonment and disinvestment. 

Adding to this culture of stoking privatization forces, the Emery School Board has entered into a program of wholesale teacher marginalization after the Board last year very publicly abandoned the teachers in favor of former Superintendent Debbra Lindo in the infamous Teachers Resolution dust up.  The School Board willingly destroyed their relationship with the teachers in order to support the now fired Debbra Lindo.  What's left besides teachers feeling used, abused and unsupported is a further cheapening and erosion of public good will towards teachers.  Our School Board told us in a clear and unified voice that teachers are not worth listening to.  

Insofar as the Emery School Board recalcitrance in the Lindo case has added to the chorus of right wing voices about teacher incompetence and irrelevance nation-wide and as far as the Emery School District's part in the right-wing's anti-public school, anti-teacher paradigm has seeped into the collective mind-set of the citizenry here in Emeryville with its anti-democratic school closures,  we cry foul.   Regardless of what's happening nation-wide, we want our public schools valued and our teachers supported.  They're part of the commons and we're protecting the commons from attack, be it from the City Hall/business nexus or from the School Board/cut, shut and charter nexus.  We want the Emery Unified School District to start acting more old fashioned and stop being so trendy.

Here's the Yes Magazine story:  

The Myth Behind Public School Failure

In the rush to privatize the country’s schools, corporations and politicians have decimated school budgets, replaced teaching with standardized testing, and placed the blame on teachers and students.
Document Actions
Photo by hxdbzxy/Shutterstock
Until about 1980, America’s public schoolteachers were iconic everyday heroes painted with a kind of Norman Rockwell patina—generally respected because they helped most kids learn to read, write and successfully join society. Such teachers made possible at least the idea of a vibrant democracy.
69 Cover
Since then, what a turnaround: We’re now told, relentlessly, that bad-apple schoolteachers have wrecked K-12 education; that their unions keep legions of incompetent educators in classrooms; that part of the solution is more private charter schools; and that teachers as well as entire schools lack accountability, which can best be remedied by more and more standardized “bubble” tests.
What led to such an ignoble fall for teachers and schools? Did public education really become so irreversibly terrible in three decades? Is there so little that’s redeemable in today’s schoolhouses?
The beginning of “reform”
To truly understand how we came to believe our educational system is broken, we need a history lesson. Rewind to 1980—when Milton Friedman, the high priest of laissez-faire economics, partnered with PBS to produce a ten-part television series called Free to Choose. He devoted one episode to the idea of school vouchers, a plan to allow families what amounted to publicly funded scholarships so their children could leave the public schools and attend private ones.
You could make a strong argument that the current campaign against public schools started with that single TV episode. To make the case for vouchers, free-market conservatives, corporate strategists, and opportunistic politicians looked for any way to build a myth that public schools were failing, that teachers (and of course their unions) were at fault, and that the cure was vouchers and privatization.
Jonathan Kozol, the author and tireless advocate for public schools, called vouchers the “single worst, most dangerous idea to have entered education discourse in my adult life.”
Armed with Friedman’s ideas, President Reagan began calling for vouchers. In 1983, his National Commission on Excellence in Education issued “A Nation At Risk,” a report that declared, “the educational foundations of our society are presently being eroded by a rising tide of mediocrity that threatens our very future as a Nation and a people.”
It also said, “If an unfriendly foreign power had attempted to impose on America the mediocre educational performance that exists today, we might well have viewed it as an act of war.”
Sandia InfographicFor a document that’s had such lasting impact, “A Nation At Risk” is remarkably free of facts and solid data. Not so the Sandia Report, a little-known follow-up study commissioned by Admiral James Watkins, Reagan’s secretary of energy; it discovered that the falling test scores which caused such an uproar were really a matter of an expansion in the number of students taking the tests. In truth, standardized-test scores were going up for every economic and ethnic segment of students—it’s just that, as more and more students began taking these tests over the 20-year period of the study, this more representative sample of America’s youth better reflected the true national average. It wasn’t a teacher problem. It was a statistical misread.
The government never officially released the Sandia Report. It languished in peer-review purgatory until theJournal of Educational Research published it in 1993. Despite its hyperbole (or perhaps because of it), “A Nation At Risk” became a timely cudgel for the larger privatization movement. With Reagan and Friedman, the Nobel-Prize-winning economist, preaching that salvation would come once most government services were turned over to private entrepreneurs, the privatizers began proselytizing to get government out of everything from the post office to the public schools.
Corporations recognized privatization as a euphemism for profits. “Our schools are failing” became the slogan for those who wanted public-treasury vouchers to move money into private schools. These cries continue today.
The era of accountability
In 2001, less than a year into the presidency of George W. Bush, the federal government enacted sweeping legislation called “No Child Left Behind.” Supporters described it as a new era of accountability—based on standardized testing. The act tied federal funding for public schools to student scores on standardized tests. It also guaranteed millions in profits to corporations such as Pearson PLC, the curriculum and testing juggernaut, which made more than $1 billion in 2012 selling textbooks and bubble tests.
In 2008, the economy collapsed. State budgets were eviscerated. Schools were desperate for funding. In 2009, President Obama and his Education Secretary, Arne Duncan, created a program they called “Race to the Top.”
It didn’t replace No Child Left Behind; it did step in with grants to individual states for their public schools. Obama and Duncan put desperate states in competition with each other. Who got the money was determined by several factors, including which states did the best job of improving the performance of failing schools—which, in practice, frequently means replacing public schools with for-profit charter schools—and by a measure of school success based on students’ standardized-test scores that allegedly measured “progress.”
Since 2001 and No Child Left Behind, the focus of education policy makers and corporate-funded reformers has been to insist on more testing—more ways to quantify and measure the kind of education our children are getting, as well as more ways to purportedly quantify and measure the effectiveness of teachers and schools.
For a dozen or so years, this “accountability movement” was pretty much the only game in town. It used questionable, even draconian, interpretations of standardized-test results to brand schools as failures, close them, and replace them with for-profit charter schools.
Finally, in early 2012, then-Texas Education Commissioner Robert Scott kindled a revolt of sorts, saying publicly that high-stakes exams are a “perversion.” His sentiments quickly spread to Texas school boards, whose resolution stating that tests were “strangling education” gained support from more than 875 school districts representing more than 4.4 million Texas public-school students. Similar, if smaller, resistance to testing percolated in other communities nationally.
Then, in January 2013, teachers at Seattle’s Garfield High School announced they would refuse to give their students the Measures of Academic Progress Test—the MAP test. Despite threats of retaliation by their district, they held steadfast. By May, the district caved, telling its high schools the test was no longer mandatory.
Garfield’s boycott triggered a nationwide backlash to the “reform” that began with Friedman and the privatizers in 1980. At last, Americans from coast to coast have begun redefining the problem for what it really is: not an education crisis but a manufactured catastrophe, a facet of what Naomi Klein calls “disaster capitalism.”
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Look closely—you’ll recognize the formula: Underfund schools. Overcrowd classrooms. Mandate standardized tests sold by private-sector firms that “prove” these schools are failures. Blame teachers and their unions for awful test scores. In the bargain, weaken those unions, the largest labor organizations remaining in the United States. Push nonunion, profit-oriented charter schools as a solution.
If a Hurricane Katrina or a Great Recession comes along, all the better. Opportunities for plunder increase as schools go deeper into crisis, whether genuine or ginned up.
The reason for privatization
Chris Hedges, the former New York Times correspondent, appeared on Democracy Now! in 2012 and told host Amy Goodman the federal government spends some $600 billion a year on education—“and the corporations want it. That’s what’s happening. And that comes through charter schools. It comes through standardized testing. And it comes through breaking teachers’ unions and essentially hiring temp workers, people who have very little skills.”
If you doubt Hedges, at least trust Rupert Murdoch, the media mogul and capitalist extraordinaire whose Amplify corporation already is growing at a 20 percent rate, thanks to its education contracts. “When it comes to K through 12 education,” Murdoch said in a November 2010 press release, “we see a $500 billion sector in the U.S. alone that is waiting desperately to be transformed by big breakthroughs that extend the reach of great teaching.”
Corporate-speak for, “Privatize the public schools. Now, please.”
In a land where the free market has near-religious status, that’s been the answer for a long time. And it’s always been the wrong answer. The problem with education is not bad teachers making little Johnny into a dolt. It’s about Johnny making big corporations a bundle—at the expense of the well-educated citizenry essential to democracy.
And, of course, it’s about the people and ideas now reclaiming and rejuvenating our public schools and how we all can join the uprising against the faux reformers.

Dean PatonDean Paton wrote this article for Education Uprising, the Spring 2014 issue of YES! Magazine. Dean is executive editor of YES!