SAISD’s deal with nonprofits helps dismantle public education
The decision by the San Antonio Independent School District board of trustees to hand over day-to-day control of 18 schools came as a shock to many of us.
As a teacher at Burbank High School, I had never seen the management agreement for this school, nor heard of the partner organization before the March 25 school board vote. Staff at Burbank knew nothing of the management agreement, which bears little resemblance to the charter on which we voted, and parents were at no point told that the innocuous-sounding “partnership” into which Burbank was entering gave total control over staffing, calendar, scheduling, behavior management, school climate and academic model to Texas Council for International Studies.
Indeed, the “innovative” charter at my school was sold to parents and staff with one argument alone: more money for our cash-starved school. SB 1882 is carrying out the political function that it was designed to do — incentivizing the dismantling of public education.
Certainly these partnerships do not hand over our schools wholesale — they remain ostensibly part of SAISD. But they Balkanize our district and remove 18 SAISD schools from direct control by the elected school board — for all its flaws, virtually our only democratic counterweight to unchecked private power. Our elected board will be replaced, not by a local, “autonomous” board of parents, students and teachers, as one might expect from the rhetoric coming out of district offices downtown, but by an appointed board chosen by the nonprofit partners themselves.
That SAISD trustees, who speak so highly of the importance of “community voice,” had to waive their own parental involvement policy, requiring 67 percent of parents to vote in favor of the charter, in order to enter into the partnerships at Burbank and Jefferson high schools speaks volumes.
More worrying, however, is the stunted, PR-centric conception of community involvement that animates district decision-making. Again and again — at Stewart, Rodriguez, Ogden elementary schools; with any issue involving teacher, student or community voice — district leaders ignore the concerns of those most impacted by their decisions as they push forward on their “innovative” quest to “disrupt” education in San Antonio.
But there’s nothing innovative about ignoring the concerns of the communities who own these neighborhood schools. There’s nothing innovative about handing over control of local public schools to outside management organizations without telling the public or asking teachers and parents, with limited information, to vote on charters that facilitate school takeovers by stealth.
And there’s nothing “empowering” about these charter plans. There are no “autonomies” for classroom teachers, students or community members. No one below the principals stands to gain agency from these partnerships, and no student, teacher or community voices will be uplifted by these agreements.
Finally, there’s nothing innovative about reducing our public schools to the state accountability factories they’ve become. Visit any school at this time of year, and meet with the teachers forced to abandon all that is joyful, enlightening and potentially liberating about education in service of the kind of mechanistic, technocratic measures of success that define education “reform” thinking. Visit us and tell us that the endless data crunching, test prep and end-of-course exam predictions have anything meaningful to do with learning. And try to say it with a straight face.
The criteria we use to determine success matter. They provide the blueprint for the world that we want to build. And if we chose to center our discussions of success in SAISD, as many of us do, on community voice, the lived experiences of our students and their families, shared ownership of our public schools, emotional balance and safety, and on celebrating, rather than erasing, the immense cultural wealth of our communities, things would look very different.
By any such measures, SAISD leaders are failing our students, teachers and families. And only by ignoring such discussions can the superintendent and his billionaire backers claim the transformative story we so often hear.
In a world of hollow corporate PR, their promises — of empowerment, innovation and autonomy for teachers, students and communities — are the most hollow of all.
Luke Amphlett is a public school teacher, a member of the Alliance Consultation Team and social justice caucus, and a graduate of University of Texas at San Antonio’s Urban School Leaders Collaborative.