Back in April of 2014, Jim Peyser was managing director of the NewSchools Venture Fund, a group set up to support "venture philanthropy" in the charter school world with grant-funneling, consulting, lobbying, etc. Think of them as bag men and enforcers for hedge funders interested in making a charter school buck or two.
That would make Jim Peyser an ordinary charter-pushing well-connected money man, but that was Peyser in April of 2014. But two days before Christmas of 2014, Santa brought Peyser a gift of the job of Secretary of Education for the state of Massachusetts. Not since the fox was hired to stand guard over the henhouse has a job been so cleverly filled, but Governor Charlie Baker loves him some charters and has thrown open the gate to every kind of charter shilling under the sun.
But the case of Peyser is unique, because as NewSchools Venture Honcho, Peyser laid out his ideas about how the path forward for
He opens by quoting an imaginary friend who bemoans the fact that although charters are swell, they only serve a few students, and in order to "close the achievement gap at scale," the "real work" of fixing school districts must be done.
These friends and allies believe charters have successfully proven that it’s possible to create high-performing public schools in high-need neighborhoods, but now charters need to step aside so that their practices and systems can be taken to scale by enlightened district leaders.
Peyser wants to point out two problems with that view. You will perhaps be surprised to learn that neither of the problems are that charters have not actually successfully proven anything. Okay-- they've proven that with an infusion of resources and a carefully chosen student population, you can test prep your way to higher test scores. But we've known that since before charter schools were a twinkle in a hedge funder's eye.
No, Peyser thinks there are two other things wrong with that.
First, it is based on the Great Man theory of reform, the belief that a really awesome superintendent or principal can Fix Everything. But Peyser says that fans don't reckon with the bump-and-run employment pattern of urban superintendents. In the very next sentence he indicts the "this-too-shall-pass" attitude of "tenured teachers" (though if superintendents leave every three years, this too, whatever it is, really will pass) and "entrenched administrators." See what he did there? Problem administrators are stuck in the mud, but problem teachers have evil job protections.
Second, Peyser lays out what he calls the "twin obstacles to effective and sustainable change: politics and collective bargaining." Those really are the bugbears of the corporate approach to school operation, and they really are twins, because both of them interfere with the leader's ability to do whatever the hell he wants without having to get anybody's approval. "Applying sound management practices" to a big ole school district is hard enough when leadership has the unfettered freedom to Do As He Will. "Doing so in an environment where change must be negotiated with powerful unions and ultimate control rests with an ever-changing cast of politicians and school board members, is next to impossible."
It's a pretty quick, clear explanation of the corporatist view. Get rid of elected officials. Get rid of collective bargaining. Let me run the company the way I think best, based on "sound management practices." These guys really, literally, do not know what the hell they are doing when it comes to schools.
Peyser lists the other problems. The large majority of students are still being educated in the public schools, and "politico-bureaucratic inertia" makes it hard to "right-size a school system that is gradually losing students and resources as charters grow." Yes, those taxpayers can get so grumpy when their neighborhood school is right-sized.
The result is an annual series of budget cuts and a growing chorus of complaint from district employees and parents of district-school students that charter schools are forcing their schools into a downward spiral.
Peyser's feeling about this is not clear. Is he suggesting the death spiral isn't really happening, because that would be a hard point to sell. Does he think people should be happily compliant about the death spiral?
But Peyser does have answers to the Big Picture Issues.
Specifically, district superintendents, state education commissioners, and mayors, in partnership with one another and with charter operators and local and national funders, are developing new systems for breaking down the walls that separate the district and charter sectors, and that reorganize central offices to empower individual schools – both district and charter, alike. This isn’t a veiled attempt to co-opt and regulate the charter sector, in order to “level the playing field” (i.e., force charters to live with all of the dysfunction that district schools suffer under). Instead, it is an effort to liberate all schools from the dead-weight of central management, in exchange for a results-based system of accountability.
Note that he wants to rest assured that this not some attempt to co-opt charters, meaning, I guess, suck them back under some office's control. Instead, he would like to free the public schools from their chains of central office management. Yes, when the charter operators come to take over public schools, they will be greeted as liberators.
Practical steps in this liberation?
Well, Peyser likes a universal enrollment system, like the ones in Newark and New Orleans, where students are thrown in a big single lottery and each student
He likes common school report cards, so that parents can make informed choices about the schools that charter operators will assign students to. Some parents will choose schools with high standardized tests scores, and some parents will decide to send their child to a school with low test scores, I guess. Well, no matter. Newark and New Orleans teach us that most won't get an actual choice anyway.
But common school report cards do help set up another favorite Peyser practice-- bringing charters in to take over or replace "failing" schools. The big bonus here is real estate:
In exchange, the charter schools can lease or buy the school building, a precious commodity for any growing charter operator.
Because the very best school plans make sure to address the needs of charter operators, and students are not nearly as precious as the buildings they occupy. Peyser likes the Tennessee ASD, and he provides this hilariously understated summary of charter real estate grabbing in New York:
Even when a charter school is not directly replacing a low-performing district school, some districts, like New York, have helped find space for charter operators in underserved communities.
Yes. "Find" space. As in, "While we were looking for a co-location site, we just shoved all these public school kids out of the building and-- voila! We found some space!"
Peyser also wants to be clear that in his perfect School District of Tomorrow, there are plenty of opportunities for folks to cash in on the remaining public schools as well. All sorts of school functions can be shifted to outside contractors and new funding formulas can help turn any low-scoring public school into a fiduciary funnel for private operators. And don't forget-- freedom from those damn contract restrictions so that school leaders can flex their autonomy and deal with teachers as they wish.
All of this would be one more set of musings from a corporate-style, pubic-school-gutting, hedge-fund-feeding charter promoter if it weren't for the fact that this is the guy now in charge of Massachusetts' public education system. No wonder charter sharks like Families for Excellent Schools are now churning the Massachusetts waters, and Boston's mayor has laid out a plan for gutting Boston Public Schools. The only good thing about Peyser is that he's already laid out exactly what he has in mind. None of it is good, but like a big truckload of manure driving toward you across a field, you can at least see it coming.