Saturday, March 16, 2013

'Closing Schools' is Big Business

First, a little seemingly unconnected history from a history teacher. Bear with me for a moment. 

You've probably never heard of Jacobo Arbenz. He was a pretty cool dude. In the 1950s, after being elected president of his country,  he tried to give over one million acres of farming land to the peasants. The CIA then moved in with a 'black-op' to overthrow his Guatemalan government. When that didn't work, they just bombed the capital. Arbenz  fled and gave up his presidency -and the peasants never did get that land.

What could lead a foreign government to stop a man from giving away free land to poor peasant farmers?

The answer is money. You see, that land had already been owned by Dole Fruit (which was, at the time, known as 'el pulpo' (the nickname for the United Fruit Company).  After complaining to two close friends in the US government that its private, for-profit banana plantations had been taken away (and given to poor peasants all things),  the CIA launched 'Operation PBSuccess'. Plan A of the this operation called for rebels to try to overthrow the government. Plan B was to bomb the capital until the government fell apart. Plan B worked and Arbenz learned an important lesson; that in the United States, 'Bananas' is big business. (see here)

Thanks for letting me talk about history for a while.

Over the past decade, the City of New York has identified roughly 20 schools per year as 'failing' and has closed them. To justify these closings, the city has pointed to data showing that the schools are falling far behind and must be closed (in the name of putting students first).

That a large part of this data has been greatly questioned (see here or here for just two of Gary Rubenstein's brilliant pieces about that data) doesn't seem to matter. That communities and other stakeholders have, in the past, tried their very best to stop these closures (see here) doesn't seem to matter either. Every time they meet, the PEP (the mayor's rubber stamp education committee) votes the way they're told and the schools have been closed. This year, that number is twenty two (see here). That means that twenty two schools are slated for closure at the end of this academic year (see here for Francesco Portelos' awesome post about last week's PEP).

What could lead a local school district to ignore the complaints of so many stakeholders and close, instead of fix, neighborhood schools?

The answer to at least part of that question is money.  What fails to make the headlines each and every year (even on Gotham Schools)  is the sheer amount of money involved in closing a school and opening another -and doing this many times over each and every year.

For instance:

Every book owned by the closing school must be destroyed and new books purchased for the opening school(s).  For a large high school with 2,000 students, this number might be as high as 12,000 (an average of six books purchased for each student). That's 12,000 perfectly usable books which are destroyed only to be purchased again with tax payer dollars as the new schools in that building open up. Why is this the case? Well, because books are owned by the school not by the district.  If there is no school, then there is no legal use for the books. They must be destroyed and new books must be purchased. (Funfact: Chancellor Walcott was so impressed with the person who caught this rule (a principal of one of these closing schools) that he put her in charge of closing schools across the city.)

Every piece of computer hardware owned by the closing school must be destroyed and new computers purchased for the opening school(s). Imagine the cost of laptops for students, and Smart Boards for teachers, then desktops and laptops for teachers and support staff, a new License for CASS, new machines for the the library to catalog the books (which yes, should all (by law) have to be replaced). That's a pretty significant number.

The same holds true for every piece of software. Think of just some of the software that is used for a school. With the exception of Office, Adobe Writer and Photoshop, the licenses are not city-wide, they are classroom or school-based. If the school closes, the licenses are no longer valid. The software must be replaced and re-purchased (with new taxpayer dollars) by the new incoming schools.

Copy (and Riso) machines. These are also licensed to the school. Two things about this type of equipment, 1) Like books,  they must also be turned in and new ones must be purchased 2) The often used model of installing four smaller schools into one larger one requires a few more of these machines to be purchased than the old school needed to have, so this actually equates to new business for that industry. I have a friend who works for one of these copy companies who's supervisor once told him that the school closings had provided enough new work to save his job from layoff.

Furniture must be inventoried and anything identified as 'old' must be discarded. Of course, new furniture will have to be purchased by the new school. While this is largely left up to the leaders of the new school, and doesn't always happen, it's well worth mentioning here.

Oh, and let's not forget consultants to help with new, inexperienced teaching and leadership staff. It's commonly known that much of the staff of the closing schools are let go and, in New York anyway, turned into glorified substitutes. As they take their decades of experience with them, new staff is brought in to take their place and must be trained. They need supports in order to learn their new job.  Those supports come partly in the form of teacher training consultants; an industry that has been identified by this Hechinger Report/Schoolbook piece as "big business" all by itself. It used up $97 million of tax payer dollars during the 2010-2011 school year alone.

Is that big in a school budget that runs as high as New York City's? Probably not (I figure it to be less than one percent of the annual city education spending). But that doesn't mean it's not big business.

And the 'new' stakeholders in the school closing movement -the copy machine and book publishing companies, the furniture and software providers, and those consultants (who may or may not be for profit, but who's leaders still command a salary comparable to for-profit CEOs)- are having their way against the wishes of natural stakeholders -school and community leaders, parents and teachers, honest academics and politicians.

In fact, you might say that they're running the table.

Personally, I don't think they should be allowed to have anonymity as well, but anyone outside of social media just doesn't seem to care that, in New York City, 'Closing Schools' is big business.


  1. Thank you for this lesson because it is chilling to the bone. Can we get the money numbers and sue Bloombucks before he goes? Seriously?

    1. Thanks for the comment! Unfortunately, despite the tons and tons of data drifting around out there, there is requirement for a school to list of assets of books, equipment and the like (odd that the business model doesn't apply here, no?) so I don't think there is a way to figure out how much money is being wasted in this manner

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