The fight over Adams Middle School in East Richmond Heights, California, is a microcosm of everything that is wrong with the politics of public education.
I attended Adams over three decades ago. My family had just moved nearby so as to allow me to attend the school, rather than the violent schools available in Richmond’s “Iron Triangle” neighborhood where I had grown up. Adams was not a great school, but it was good. The school was tucked into a mixed-income suburb that attracted students of diverse backgrounds and ethnicities. We had some terrible teachers, but also some great ones. We had some racial violence, but also some cross-race camaraderie. As time passed, however, school attendance declined. Finally, in 2009, the school was closed after 50 years in existence.
The old building was scheduled for demolition, but demolitions are expensive, and the local bureaucracy let time pass. Five years later, in 2014, the school building was still empty and unused, with teaching supplies piled up in rooms and vegetation growing up around the building. On the evening of July 15 of that year, a Tuesday, arsonists thought it would be fun to scale the piping, break into the building, and start some fires. The fire was stopped before it spread to local houses, but not before tens of thousands of dollars of damage was done. The building, which needs both a seismic upgrade and substantial repair, is now a practice site for the local fire department.
What comes next should be a celebration of American can-do and ingenuity, but is turning into a depressing exercise in political selfishness and cowardice.
The issue involves “charter schools.” Started 25 years ago this month, these schools use public funds, subject to public regulations, to educate public school students. To be sure, not all charter schools are great, just as not all traditional public schools are great. On average, however, charter schools deliver better results for students. Today, roughly 6% of public school students attend schools run by charter.
In the case of Adams Middle School, a nonprofit charter named Caliber Schools may restore the building to its original purpose of educating children. Currently, Caliber runs a nearby school in Richmond. The Caliber school, however, has no permanent home. Last year, 585 students and their teachers studied in temporary rooms located on asphalt at the edge of the Richmond-Kennedy High School campus on Cutting Boulevard. (Richmond-Kennedy was one of the high schools for which Adams Middle School was a feeder school.) Caliber is in the process of purchasing the Adams facility to continue expanding their school.
Home run, right? Home run for hundreds of students, as well as for the neighborhood around Adams?
Not so fast. The United Teachers of Richmond, the local teachers’ union for which my mom used to serve as a union rep when she was a teacher, has declared war on Caliber. They hate Caliber and have launched a campaign, in coordination with other local labor unions, to prevent the charter from acquiring the Adams Middle School space (which, not incidentally, is the ideal local space for the burgeoning student population).
As is typical for this type of attack, the teachers’ union leaders have used Orwellian political doublespeak to pretend that Caliber is a bad actor, and the unions are interested in justice. As is also typical, the claims are based on smears and lies.
The unions, for instance, claim that Adams is being “given away” to Caliber because the formal cost of the school will be only $60,000. Conveniently, this ignores the fact that Caliber plans to spend $15-20 million to restore the Adams Middle School building.
The unions also claim that Caliber is draining money from other public schools. At the 25:12 mark of this 30-minute video, for instance, a speaker for the United Teachers of Richmond claims that “an independent auditor did a fiscal impact report” saying that charters entailed “hidden costs” that put the Los Angeles Unified School District at risk of insolvency. Oh, really? That’s interesting. I looked up the “independent auditor” using my own personal Google machine, and learned the teachers’ unions had commissioned the report. Independent experts, such as professor Patrick Wolf from the University of Arkansas, have demonstrated that charters generally improve public finances because they encourage innovation and also take several thousand dollars less per pupil than traditional schools.
The unions also suggest that Caliber is “skimming” the best students from public schools on a selective basis. That is another lie. Caliber is free and non-selective. More parents want to send their children to Caliber than spaces are available, so admission is selected by lottery. Currently, 77% of Caliber’s students receive free or reduced-price lunches, meaning that their families live in or near poverty levels of income. Additionally, 93% of Caliber’s students are from Hispanic, African American, or mixed-race ethnic backgrounds. Forty percent of Caliber’s students do not speak English as their native language. Twelve percent have disabilities that qualify them for Special Education.
More importantly, Caliber brings innovation to their students. As I have written previously, public schools of the future will leverage team teaching, technology, and adaptive learning to bring great education to all children. Caliber is one of the schools trying to reach that vision. Caliber students learn math and English in blended learning projects of the type that might give them a shot at great careers in a rapidly changing world.
This gets to the real reason for the attacks on Caliber. Caliber is working. Charter schools such as Caliber hire teachers without the onerous union contracts that hamper student achievement and diminish the profession throughout California. The more successful charter schools become over time, the greater the pressure will be on teachers’ union officials who claim that their answers are good for schools.
In a desperate ploy to distract from this central truth, the unions have gone all-out to vilify the founder of Caliber, Ron Beller, as a “vulture capitalist” seeking to make money on the backs of vulnerable children. Even a cursory review, however, finds that these attacks are just smears. Yes, Beller ran a hedge fund, but he invested **against** subprime mortgages. In other words, if you watched “The Big Short,” he was on the correct side of history. Yes, his fund later failed, but that is always the risk of running your own fund, and his fund’s failure cost him an enormous amount of money personally. Yes, he was “involved” in scandals at large banks – because an employee **stole money from him.** As for his role in public education, there is zero evidence that he will ever make any money from his work in charter schools. The claims otherwise are tin-foil-hat conspiracies that reveal vast ignorance about how investing works. Yes, Beller appears to invest in education technology companies, and yes his nonprofit charter may eventually receive favorable tax treatment, but those are highly speculative, long-term financial matters that will almost certainly make zero difference in Beller’s long-term personal finances. On the contrary, Beller and his fellow philanthropists are **giving money** to Caliber to help it succeed. Remember how Caliber plans to invest $15-20 million to restore Adams? That $15-20 million is coming from private philanthropic donors such as Mark Zuckerberg of Facebook.
The vilification of charter schools is also a sharp contrast to the ideals of the Democratic Party and progressives generally, who should be celebrating government innovation on behalf of poor children. Recall that charters became prominent due to the leadership of figures such as the late teachers’ union leader Al Shanker and the former Democratic President Bill Clinton. Many up-and-coming Democratic politicians, such as New Jersey Senator Cory Booker, Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti, and Rhode Island Governor Gina Raimondo, have celebrated the potential of charter schools to bring innovation to a crucial public service.
It is time for the leaders—and teachers—of West Contra Costa to stand up to this insanity. While parents and students are on the Caliber wait list, and while current Caliber students study in temp rooms on asphalt, the Adams Middle School lies dilapidated and unused. My Alma Mater Adams deserves better, and so to the students of Richmond.