22 February 2016

Baltimore's Man From Teach for America

With the rather hapless Stephanie Rawlings Blake not running for reelection as Mayor of Baltimore, it it is a bit of a free for all, with pretty much everyone, including her larcenous (she was convicted and served time) predecessor.

Needless to say, there is much opportunity for mischief, and it appears that the hedge funds first choice for pillaging the public school system, Teach for America, has a candidate in the race:
For those who’ve never paid much attention, Teach For America sounds like a benevolent and benign idea: recruit bright college grads, give them some teacher-training and place them in some of the nation’s neediest schools for a two-year commitment to teach kids.

The reality behind TFA’s sunny exterior is somewhat more sinister. Education policy experts today consider the nonprofit founded by Wendy Kopp in 1990 to be at the vanguard of the school privatization movement. TFA is also a media juggernaut in its own right, known for deploying a sophisticated public relations arsenal to advance an agenda focused on crushing teachers’ unions and privatizing public school systems. TFA's funders, including the Waltons, Bill and Melinda Gates and top Fortune 500 corporations, all have plenty to gain from the commodification of public goods and the destruction of public service unions, and its 11,000 corps members provide a valuable service to that end.


When Mckesson announced his campaign for mayor of Baltimore this month, his name topped the list of trending topics on Twitter for several hours. Even without outlining a strategy to defeat better-known, more entrenched candidates, Mckesson received nearly $130,000 in online donations, met with President Barack Obama (who said Mckesson and associates “were better organizers than I was”), and secured his status as one of the country’s most closely watched political outsiders. Headlines appeared across national media, from Slate to the Guardian to the Washington Post, with the progressive online magazine Truthdig proclaiming Mckesson "Truthdigger of the Week."

With his candidacy for a city whose public schools are a key target of the education reform movement, the time seems right to scrutinize Mckesson’s relationship with Teach for America more closely. His high-profile appearance at the TFA gala only days after filing his last-minute bid to enter the race was only the latest collaboration with the organization spearheading a sustained attack on teacher's unions and traditional public schools.


As Mckesson rose to prominence, TFA was there to provide promotion through its powerful PR apparatus.

Mckesson had no connection to Ferguson when he first arrived on Aug. 16, 2014, according to an interview he gave Huffington Post later the same year. But it didn’t take him long to connect with another protester named Brittany Packnett, with whom he began working the same day. The fact that Packnett is executive director of TFA’s St. Louis chapter likely contributed to their immediate rapport.

At the time, Mckesson was senior director of human capital for Minneapolis Public Schools. He says he commuted to Ferguson on weekends before eventually quitting his job to protest full-time.

A Twitter search query produces a clear timeline of Mckesson's subsequent transition from human resources manager to social justice talent, aided by promotion from Teach For America. It begins with a post to TFA’s official blog, in which Mckesson pontificates on his activities in Ferguson. TFA tweeted a link to that post on Aug. 21, 2014, at which point Mckesson would have been in the besieged midwestern town for five days.


I reached Mckesson by phone soon after he announced his candidacy for mayor. When I asked him how he funded all of his travel despite not having a job, he initially replied, “I don’t have an answer to that. There’s an answer in the New York Times article.”

After being informed that the Times offered no such answer, Mckesson stated, “You know, people ask me this, and I haven’t even had to answer this. I, you know, me and you don’t have a relationship. You know, you’re a reporter to me, you know—I’ve answered it many times. I will put that on my list of things and try to double back with you.” Several hours later, Mckesson texted me the link to a Tweet from last spring claiming that his excursions were funded by unnamed “family and friends.”


Mckesson the ruthless administrator is a difficult characterization to reconcile with Mckesson the protester, as he’s typically portrayed in print, nor does it come through in his television appearances. But commentary from some activists who have encountered him on the ground in Ferguson and Baltimore suggests that the public image he’s cultivated is a media fiction.

Baltimore activist Duane Davis, in a tweet addressed to DeRay, says, “[W]e crossed paths. On more than one occasion....you never engaged in conversation. [Y]ou were more focused on media attention.”

In a February 15 interview with Jared Ball on Real News Network, Hands Up United Coalition co-founder Taureen Russell offered a withering assessment of Mckesson’s alleged role as a protest organizer. “I never worked with DeRay. I’m really hard-pressed to find any local people who have worked with DeRay. All the local people that I know worked with DeRay...work with the establishment,” he said. “So when I hear him go on Colbert and Colbert is saying he’s organized protests in Ferguson...I don’t know an action or a protest that he was a part of.”

Russell is a founder of the organization that initiated the protests in Ferguson against the police killing of Michael Brown and the acquittal of the officer who gunned him down. He told Ball he was relieved that Mckesson had moved on to politics because “it makes my job [as a grassroots organizer] a little easier.”

Addressing Baltimore, Russell said of Mckesson: “He’s a proponent for charter schools. He’s not typically a fan of public schools. So the educational issue comes up. His policy, to be honest, most people see as a neoliberal kind of policy. And we know his policy comes from Teach For America.”


Mckesson’s political platform, which he has begun rolling out on the DeRay For Mayor website, seems modeled in part on those who have forced corporate education reforms under big-city mayors like Rahm Emanuel and Michael Bloomberg. Both of those mayors have justified unilateral takeovers of the public school districts in their respective cities using teacher evaluations based on standardized test scores, which have consistently been debunked as unreliable measures of academic performance.

The language in his section on education is typical of school privatization advocates, according to Dr. Julian Vasquez Heilig, a professor of education at California State University at Sacremento who has written extensively about Teach For America on his website, Cloaking Inequity.


The lack of transparency in the DeRay For Mayor campaign means the public will have to wait until March to identify all the contributors to its six-figure finances. But if history is any indicator, we can expect it to include many of the same financial interests that have waged assaults on public school teachers and students across the country. It remains to be seen if Teach For America and one of its most famous cadres will finally be held to account for their privatization agenda, before it begins to take hold in Baltimore.
Yes, I know that this sounds tin-foil hat, until one looks at the history of the charter school movement.

There is a lot of  money to made from sucking the marrow from pub lic education, and when there is a lot of money to be made, people work very hard to make it.

It's basic economics, or to quote Willie Sutton, "Because that's where the money is."

Wall Street is hip deep in privatizing education, and leveraging politics to create ill gotten gains is their "A" game.


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