This article, which appeared recently in the New York Times, describes a case in point:
When the energy executive Dennis Bakke retired with a fortune from the AES Corporation, [get a load of the AES Corporation's Web site!—cft] the company he co-founded, he and his wife, Eileen, decided to direct their attention and money to education. [E]ager to experiment with applying business strategies and discipline to public schools[, t]he Bakkes became part of the nation’s new crop of education entrepreneurs, founding a commercial charter school company called Imagine Schools[,] now the largest commercial manager of charter schools in the country.
Here's a(n ineffective) public relationsy photograph of the Bakkes 'interacting' with the low-income students in one of the schools 'managed' by Imagine Schools:
As education expert Patricia Burch states in an article on the dark and clandestine market forces that are unleashing the worldwide privatization of education and that are misleadingly portraying this widespread, government-coordinated profiteering racket in terms of the benefits of parental "consumer choice" or of the putative benefits of "market competition" upon educational quality, among the reasons that this cynical ploy works is because
we tend to equate the public sector with large bureaucracy and the private sector with more efficient, flexible and network-oriented forms of organization. In fact, the providers now “trading” in the new education market place are situated squarely in the same institutional environment as schools. In broad strokes, this institutional frame reflects embedded routines and rituals for the organization of schooling.Returning to the Times article, we see that the Bakkes epitomize the ways in which the puppet-masters of the charter-schooling racket uses this notion of 'marketization' as a means by which to justify enriching themselves—tax free—to the detriment and even ruin of the urban children they are supposed to be helping:
This institutional template for schooling can have a conservative influence on schools and keep reform ideas from becoming or achieving anything new. In this context, rather than breaking the mold, private firms in the education market can end up reproducing the worst practices of public schooling, offering low-income students “more of the same” and at significant cost. [Access article here.]
Because public money is used, most states grant charters to run such schools only to nonprofit groups with the expectation that they will exercise the same independent oversight that public school boards do. Some are run locally. Some bring in nonprofit management chains. And a number use commercial management companies like Imagine.And if that doesn't sound sketchy enough for you, read on:
But regulators in some states have found that Imagine has elbowed the charter holders out of virtually all school decision making — hiring and firing principals and staff members, controlling and profiting from school real estate, and retaining fees under contracts that often guarantee Imagine’s management in perpetuity.
The arrangements, they say, allow Imagine to use public money with little oversight. “Under either charter law or traditional nonprofit law, there really is no way an entity should end up on both sides of business transactions,” said Marc Dean Millot, publisher of the report K-12 Leads and a former president of the National Charter Schools Alliance, a trade association, now defunct, for the charter school movement.
“Imagine works to dominate the board of the charter holder, and then it does a deal with the board it dominates — and that cannot be an arm’s length transaction,” he said.
Such concerns have thwarted efforts by Imagine to open a school in Florida, threaten to stall its push into Texas, and have ended its business with a school in Georgia and another in New York, as well as other states.
Imagine is not shy about the way it wields its power, which it calls essential to its governing philosophy. “Imagine Schools operates the entire school, and is not a consultant or management company,” its Web site says. “All principals, teachers, and staff are Imagine Schools people. The Imagine Schools culture is meant to permeate every aspect of the school’s life.”
Mrs. Bakke, who is paid $100,000 as vice president of education at Imagine, says it works in “close partnership” with the boards of the schools it manages. “The governing boards are definitely in charge, but they look to us, frankly, because as you know, nonprofit boards are well meaning but don’t always have the experience and expertise running the schools,” she said in an interview.
She said that she and her husband, who is paid $200,000 as the company’s chief executive, sank $155 million into Imagine and that they were able to run schools efficiently. “We offer a great deal for communities and for taxpayers,” Mrs. Bakke said, “because we’re providing education at less than what a traditional school is spending.”
She says the company should be judged by its educational results, not its business and financial arrangements.
Mrs. Bakke said her company “is operated as a not-for-profit.” But Imagine is not a nonprofit group, and it has so far failed to gain status as a charity from the I.R.S.And how about the relationship of Imagine Schools to individual schools and their boards of directors? Read on:
Imagine applied for federal tax exemption in 2005 and has repeatedly said approval is imminent. It typically takes four to six months for such approvals. “We’re not sure why it’s taking so long,” said Mrs. Bakke, who is 56. “We suspect it’s because we’re trailblazers in a sense, and they haven’t had an application quite like this.”
The I.R.S., as is its policy, declined to comment.
And that's only the beginning. I highly recommend reading the entire article, in order to learn about the nature of the Bakkes' company and its shady investment and governance practices. Imagine Schools is basically a giant loan shark.
In Texas, parents trying to open a charter school for elementary school students thought that Imagine was going too far.
“Imagine did a few things that indicated they thought the charter belonged to them, which was not our understanding at all,” said Karelei Munn, who is part of a group working to establish a charter school in Georgetown, Tex., near Austin. “We were looking to control our board, and they were looking to control our board.”
Ms. Munn and other members of the group holding the charter broke their ties with Imagine and are trying to form a school on their own.
Regulators in Texas have been slow to approve a second Imagine school, citing concerns that include an e-mail message from Mr. Bakke to the company’s senior staff members that was reported on by The St. Louis Post-Dispatch last fall. In the message, dated Sept. 4, 2008, Mr. Bakke cautioned his executives against giving boards of schools the “misconception” that they “are responsible for making big decisions about budget matters, school policies, hiring of the principal and dozens of other matters.”
Instead, he wrote, “It is our school, our money and our risk, not theirs.”
Mr. Bakke, who is 64, suggested requiring board members to sign undated letters of resignation or limiting board terms to a single year.
In a statement after the e-mail message was disclosed, Mr. Bakke apologized to board members “who felt offended or maligned,” saying he had “overstated my personal frustration in ensuring that the dedicated, caring people who hold the seats of charter governing boards at Imagine Schools understand and support our mission and operating philosophy.”
As Texas continues its consideration, the e-mail message helped upend Imagine’s plans to open a school in the Hillsborough County School District in Florida, which encompasses Tampa.
“That e-mail was very, very bad for them,” said Jenna Hodgens, the local supervisor of charter schools. “All the things we had been questioning, things about control of the school, he answered in his own words.”
The Hillsborough school board rejected the application in December. “Charter schools are not private schools, they are public schools and are governed as such,” said Susan Valdes, who heads the board. “Some, though, are starting to forget that — and they’re getting away with it. But not here.”
Let's get these sleaze-balls and hucksters away from our schools already.