A member of the San Antonio Alliance for of Teachers and Support Personnel holds up a sign in protest of Democracy Prep taking over Stewart Elementary School.
A member of the San Antonio Alliance for of Teachers and Support Personnel holds up a sign in protest of Democracy Prep taking over Stewart Elementary School in 2018. Credit: Scott Ball / San Antonio Report

San Antonio Independent School District’s narrative about charter school integration into the district radically simplifies reality in the service of private power.

Superintendent Pedro Martinez says public schools and charter schools should work together. In doing so he seeks to transform a complex, deeply political discussion into a one-dimensional misrepresentation in which “reform” is presented as neutral, natural, and disconnected from social and economic developments taking place throughout the nation.

“School privatization is a hoax, and ‘reformers’ aim to destroy public schools,” says Diane Ravitch, research professor of education at New York University, historian of education, and assistant secretary of education in the George H.W. Bush administration.

Indeed, public schools in the United States are under attack, and charter schools are merely the latest attempt by private corporations to rebrand the school reform movement and exploit public funding for profit. Behind simplistic narratives about reform lies the school-voucher movement reborn and rebranded – the market touted as the replacement for any and all publicly and democratically controlled entities.

Charter schools have less qualified teachers, higher teacher turnover, much higher suspension rates for students – especially children of color and those with disabilities – and they push out students with behavior issues and special educational needs.

Even circumventing the rules and regulations that govern public schools, charters fare no better in measures of student success. Their “no-excuses” frameworks have been described as “militaristic and anti-democratic.”

The idea that we should be working with them is absurd: their goals – and the goals of their advocates – could not be further from our own.

I believe in public schools that are owned and controlled by the people, for the people. They should be responsive to the public will, and their policies, practices, and procedures should be decided democratically by the public and their representatives. Students should have ownership of the spaces in which they learn, parents should have a meaningful voice in their children’s schools, and teachers should have a say in how their workplaces operate.

The movement to privatize public education opposes all of the above because, in the end, it undermines democratic input into public life.

While school privatization “reformers” are backed by big money donors and corporations, opponents include San Antonio’s Our Schools Coalition of community members, teachers, and parents, the Movement for Black Lives, the Network for Public Education, and the NAACP – the nation’s oldest and largest civil rights organization.

It’s big corporate money versus civil rights organizations, community groups, and teachers. The choice could hardly be starker. That’s why charter advocates pretend this argument is about teachers’ contracts and unions that are scared of change: if they were to tell the public the truth, they’d lose the argument before it started.

Who supports Martinez’s plans for charter collaboration in SAISD? San Antonio Charter Moms, an advocacy group for charter expansion, and what is loosely referred to as “the business community.”

Parents, teachers, students, community groups do not.

In fact, in order to hand over Stewart Elementary to a New York-based charter company, Martinez and his board drowned out debate, community and teacher input, and consultation.

Parents, community members, and teachers repeatedly called on Martinez and the board of trustees to consult and partner with them in deciding the future of their neighborhood school. Again and again their calls were ignored by the district leaders whose job is to serve them and act in their interests. Again and again district leaders refused to consider alternatives to plans which had been devised behind the scenes ?many months earlier. While the Stewart community was excluded at every turn, Democracy Prep was being courted by district leaders.

Stewart teachers, parents, and students were effectively dismissed and denied the chance to escape the State’s “improvement required” rating by a district leadership unwilling even to make its contract with Democracy Prep conditional on the school’s failure to meet standards.

But last week, preliminary STAAR scores indicated that Stewart Elementary could obtain a passing, or “met standard” rating from the state, SAISD Deputy Superintendent Pauline Dow said. While final STAAR results and the State’s accountability ratings won’t be released until August, those of us trained on the state calculators for school performance are certain Stewart Elementary will finally emerge from its “improvement required” status.

Regardless, Democracy Prep is slated to take over Stewart on July 1.

A campus that could be safe from state sanction is being dismembered and sold off, all but two of its teachers leaving rather than work for the charter company with high teacher turnover rates (34 percent across all campuses last year), low expectations for teacher qualifications (as few as 44 percent of teachers being certified), and regressive and punitive disciplinary practices (28 percent suspension rate). Many students have opted to leave, even under district pressure to remain, and the campus’s future remains uncertain.

It could have been a different story, and now we have proof that our most underperforming campuses can turn themselves around without the “expertise” of outside charter companies.

San Antonio’s public schools are far from perfect, and we should move boldly to transform them into the schools our children deserve. But handing them over to private, profit-seeking entities isn’t the way to proceed. Powerful forces are doing everything they can to cash in on the privatization of public education in this country. They are desperately working to shape a narrative which – if they succeed – will have you fighting the people you should be supporting, and supporting the people you should be fighting.

Luke Amphlett is a teacher at Burbank High School and a graduate of the Urban School Leaders' Collaborative at UTSA. He chairs the Consultation Team for the San Antonio Alliance of Teachers and Support...