By Thomas Ultican / Tultican
Sadly, the Atlantic Public Schools (APS) are careening from one destructive tragedy to the next. On the heels of the great cheating scandal of 2009, APS hired a leader of the destroy public education (DPE) movement as schools’ chief. Her “district turnaround” model includes making APS an all-charter system.
Somehow, I got included in an email conversation between Ed Johnson, a well-known education activist from Atlanta, Georgia, and a group of professors who study education issues. Mr. Johnson who ran for the Atlanta school board and has had opinion pieces published by the Atlanta Journal-Constitution shared data from the just-released NEAP testing. He provided eight graphs supporting the following conclusions:
“This preliminary look at APS offers the immediate data story that, in recent years, APS White-Black academic gaps have been made worse. It is the same data story the Georgia Milestones Assessment System also tells; details differ, of course. So-called school transformation, school turnaround, school reform, school choice, and closing public schools and opening charter schools must be considered negative contributing factors, as they promote bold, disruptive change; scripted teaching; instruction delivery; personalized mechanistic learning; and rigid academic performance. These matters are contrary to purposeful, systemic improvement of APS as a public institution or public good.”
I assume Mr. Johnson would not mind sharing his statement from a private email. He clearly would like this story to be disseminated. On the other hand, I will share non-public statements from the professionals but not their names.
Professor A replied, “Atlanta has a superintendent who favors charters, TFA, Relay ‘Graduate School of Education,’ and all things Reformy. Austin was very happy to get her out.”
Professor B retorted, “Castarphen is a nightmare.”
Professor A responded, “I agree.”
A professional from Georgia noted,
“Yes indeed. She’s all the reform titans’ poster super— and having been in Atlanta a few years now she is very likely to move onto somewhere bigger and for a bigger paycheck soon. Consider yourself warned other major American cities.”
Meria Joel Castarphen
Carstarphen was born and raised in Selma, Alabama. Her mother was an educator who spent 30 years in the classroom. In addition to her mother, Meria was raised by her father, Joseph, along with three sisters. Bearing a light complexion and a magnetic smile, this articulate black woman radiates natural appeal.
She attended Tulane University where she earned a Bachelor of Arts in Political Science and Spanish. Upon graduation in 1992, she returned to Selma to teach middle school Spanish. After four years in the classroom, it was off to Harvard. In 2002, Harvard University Graduate School of Education awarded her a Doctor of Education in Administration, Planning and Social Policy Concentration in Urban Superintendency [I guess that is a word at Harvard].
Carstarphen’s career flourished, going to Columbus, Ohio in 1999 as Special Assistant to the Superintendent. In 2003, it was Kingsport, Tennessee to be Executive Director for comprehensive school improvement and accountability. Then, the District of Columbia Public Schools (DCPS) hired her to be their first ever, Chief Accountability Officer in 2004.
By 2006, the Washington Times reported, “The D.C. public school system’s $170,000 per-year chief accountability officer is scheduled to interview for a job with another school district today, less than 18 months after filling the newly created D.C. position.” The second highest paid employee at DCPS was headed for Saint Paul, Minnesota to be the boss.
Carstarphen the Bully Arrived in Saint Paul
Doug Belden of the Pioneer Press published a postmortem article called “Critics of Meria Carstarphen speak, hoping debate influences who succeeds her at the helm of St. Paul schools.” Belden wrote in an interview with a local long-serving St. Paul Public Schools administrator:
“Mary Chorewycz says she used to tell people she wished Carstarphen had been a principal before becoming a superintendent, so she would have had the experience of not just coming up with a plan but also of working with people to get it enacted.
‘”If you verbally abuse those that must carry through that plan, it really diminishes the amount that is accomplished,’ said Chorewycz, former executive director of research and development, who left in 2007.”
“One of the last straws for her, she said, was when Carstarphen came in one morning and harangued the group of nearly 20 senior leaders for about 40 minutes, telling them in a raised voice how incompetent they were.”
“Chorewycz, an administrator in St. Paul schools for more than 30 years, said no superintendent in her experience “has prevented or inhibited so much through disrespect of people and ideas.”
During the three years from Carstarphen’s arrival in 2006, more than half of St. Paul’s top administrators left. Belden reported that the ranks of senior administration expanded, leading to a 20 percent increase in total administration salaries.
The Pioneer Press article quoted the district’s former Executive Director of Facilities, Patrick Quinn, “Meria’s confrontational style has rendered the administrative work environment toxic.”
Austin, Texas Hired a “Reformer”
To be fair, Carstarphen took on a difficult situation to become the superintendent of Austin Independent School District (AISD). Unfortunately, she used Austin’s financial issues to advance a DPE agenda. The Austin Statesman reported,
“Carstarphen has guided the district through difficult budget years. She and her administrative team inherited a $15 million shortfall in 2009-10 and closed that gap within one year, presenting a balanced 2010-11 budget. That same year, Carstarphen pushed the district to declare financial exigency — a state of fiscal emergency that would give the district greater leeway in terminating employees, including those with current contracts. The board balked at the idea, but less than two years later, in February 2011, followed her recommendation, which made way to ax more than 1,100 positions.” (emphasis added)
The “greater leeway in terminating employees” is a repeating theme for Carstarphen. Getting out from under state education law and gutting teachers’ rights are key levers in DPE aligned “reform.”
In 2011, Carstarphen ignored mandates to consult with the teachers union over school “turnarounds” and signed an agreement to turn the operation of Allan Elementary School and Eastside Memorial High School over to IDEA charter schools. Eastside Memorial High School had struggled for more than a decade to meet the standardized testing benchmarks set by the state of Texas and NCLB. Previously it was the first school in Texas shut down, reorganized and reopened under a new name. Allan Elementary met the Texas benchmarks but this school in a heavily Hispanic neighborhood was also targeted for charter management.
The community near these schools fought back as reported in the Austin Statesman:
“The school board approved the partnership with what critics say was little discussion, prompting a backlash from students, parents and residents who protested outside the board room and marched in the streets. The charter operator also moved into Allan Elementary in the fall of 2012; 85 percent of students transferred out.”
Vincent Tovar a parent whose wife teaches in AISD laid out a timeline of the IDEA debacle in his blog “Walter Crunkite.” The first entry says,
“November 3, 2011: First Community Meeting at Martin Middle School. Tom Torkelson, CEO of IDEA, responds to an Eastside Memorial student’s question about Special Education. Torkelson states that he doesn’t believe in dyslexia. “Dys-teach-ia” is the problem.”
A group of education activists from Tennessee, SOCM, also produced a lengthy document about the IDEA opposition. They said,
“During the forums, it soon became amply clear that IDEA’s “direct teaching” curriculum consisted of little more than constant preparation for standardized tests with the students endlessly parroting answers to questions anticipated to be on the state’s Texas Assessment of Knowledge and Skills (TAKS). IDEA later even admitted that its students in the Rio Grande Valley wore uniforms which were color-coded, not on the basis of grade or age, but on standardized test-score achievement, thus insuring the humiliation of older siblings by their more test-savvy younger brothers and sisters attending the same school!”
A researcher from Penn State University, Dr. Ed Fuller, produced a study that severely undermined the claims that IDEA charter schools were producing miraculous education outcomes.
In the November 2012 elections, three board members were replaced. In December, the new board canceled the IDEA contract but Eastside – because of NCLB and Texas law – required a turnaround plan. The following month, Carstarphen indicated that the district did not have time to create an in-house plan, so a new private operator would be needed.
In 2014, the official annual board review of the superintendent praised Carstarphen for some work but criticized her relationships with community and staff. They did not offer a contract extension.
Vincent Tovar said, “Her corporate-reform-backed agenda didn’t fly here because we fought it, and that’s why she’s leaving.”
Hardcore DPE Style Reform Heads to Atlanta
Mark Niesse reporting for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution led his Carstarphen story with “The probable next superintendent of Atlanta Public Schools is coming off a controversial tenure in Austin, Texas, where public ire over budget cuts and a school closing rose as much as the improved graduation rates and finances.”
Carstarphen found a perfect home. Georgia’s governor, Nathan Deal, is a DPE campaigner. His education agenda pushes the non-democratic takeover of public schools and supports privatizing them.
Carstarphen again encountered difficulties with her new employees. The Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported,
“The lawsuit, first filed in late 2015, contends the school district “has been attempting to replace experienced, higher-paid teachers with relatively inexperienced teachers at entry level salaries” since Carstarphen took over the top post in July of 2014.
“The plaintiffs allege in court documents that the school district conducted investigations, or “witch-hunts,” against long-serving teachers.”
Another Journal-Constitution report says,
‘“After the big cheating scandal they brought in someone and basically her philosophy was, I’m going to change the culture of APS,’ said Lori Hamilton, an attorney representing the teachers. ‘And that meant out with the old.”’
“In a separate pending lawsuit, another group of former Atlanta educators is suing the school district in connection with the decision to hire charter school groups to manage several low-performing schools.”
Atlanta Magazine ran a sponsored article from the Atlanta Public Schools called “Atlanta Public Schools embarks on another full year of its journey of transformation.” The article states,
“As it moves into the 2017-2018 school year, Atlanta Public Schools (APS) continues a journey of transformation that creates choice-filled lives for each and every child in Atlanta.”
“APS is in its second year as a Charter District, … A hallmark of the APS Charter System Plan is the implementation of signature programming for each school cluster, including International Baccalaureate, STEM, or College and Career Preparatory.”
“In addition to the district’s core academic curriculum, APS’ Social Emotional Learning efforts … now span the district.”
Not only does APS now embrace DPE-inspired frauds, like STEM and SEL, it openly partners on the district website with some of the most virulent promoters of privatizing America’s schools. There is a notice titled “Walton Family Foundation to Support Atlanta Public Schools Turnaround Efforts; $2.1 million investment will also expand access to student and school performance data.” The message from the Waltons says,
“We commend Superintendent Carstarphen and APS leadership for taking bold steps to improve schools in Atlanta, and know that students, parents, and educators will all benefit from these initiatives,” said Marc Sternberg, K-12 Education Director at the foundation. “Children win when parents have the opportunity to choose a great school from multiple high-quality options, and cities win when high-quality schools can grow to serve all students.”
“A charter system is a school district that operates under a performance-based contract between the local board and the state board of education. Under the Charter System, Atlanta Public Schools would gain freedom and flexibility from many state education laws and regulations in exchange for increased accountability for student achievement. A key element to charter system is moving decision making closer to where learning takes place. That means leaving decisions to the school system and to the schools within the system. It also means involving more people in the decision-making process.”
Fight for High-Quality Public Schools in Every Neighborhood
Atlanta, Georgia, is losing its neighborhood public schools run by elected school boards, just like Washington DC, Denver, Oakland, and Indianapolis. Many American urban areas are headed in the same direction. New Orleans has already lost nearly all its public schools.
This is a tragedy. A 200-year legacy of quality public schools in every American community and neighborhood is being stolen from the people. The result will be horrible. Government spending on education further reduced and people with children paying out of pocket for competent schools. The unifying aspect of public education will be sundered.
There is a point of view that says, “The top priority of government is education.” Today, wealthy elites for reasons of personal religious view; out of control hubris; and economic greed are stealing this gift inherited from our forefathers.
“We are many, they are few.” People have the power and it is time to use it to end this mindless destruction of our free high-quality and professionally run universal public education system.