I was having a conversation about criminal justice reform with a friend last week. With voices as disparate as Michelle Alexander and Charles Koch speaking about the need for change, there seems to be a critical mass in place to roll back some of the draconian drug laws which have devastated black and brown communities over the last forty years and led to the problem of mass incarceration.. However, my friend and I were less enthusiastic. Mass incarceration has generated huge profits for corporations and individuals, from the for-profit prisons which house the convicted to the dozens of tangentially related companies which provide services for exploding prison populations. We reasoned that criminal justice reform could only occur if monied interests allowed it, and they’d only allow it if they’d found another way to make money. Indeed, they have: the privatization of education. Journalists and activists have been writing for years about the money being generated by charter schools, but the educational “saviors” continue to be hucksters looking to make a buck off of black and brown communities in a new way.
Case in point: Yesterday, the media trumpeted the announcement that Sean “Diddy” Combs is opening a charter school in Harlem. Named the Capital Preparatory Harlem Charter School, the school is being overseen by Steve Perry, the founder and former principal of Capital Preparatory Magnet School in Hartford, CT. Diddy is known for his varied business pursuits, including music, clothing and alcohol. Perry was everywhere in the national media for a time, showing up regularly on CNN as a contributor, and even having his own painfully exploitative show for a time, “Save my Son.” Put together a ruthless businessman and an education charlatan, and you have the perfect scheme to steal public money from parents who desperately want a better education for their children.
I don’t know Diddy, but I do know Steve Perry. I was in his Upward Bound program from 2001-2003, where the claim originated that his program sent 100% of the students who enrolled to four-year colleges. He achieved this feat by cherry-picking high achieving students, shunning students with academic or behavioral difficulties which could have jeopardized his golden statistic, and literally kicking students out of the program who he felt weren’t going to a four-year school, or dared to express interest in a different path. I know the students who were kicked out of his program, because they were my friends. I know the students who were pushed out of the original Capital Prep, because they were my neighbors. I know the teachers who used to work for him, such as Ebony Murphy-Root, an English teacher at the elite Thacher School in Ojai, CA, because we bonded over our experiences with him. Perry has been given so many passes by a corporate media machine looking for a black face to sell their agenda of school privatization, despite his comically inflated graduation rates and his abusive Twitter tirades. Even a cursory glance at the way he has conducted business during his time as an educator shows blatant disregard for the students, staff, and communities he claims to serve.
And in the end, that’s what it’s all about: conducting business.
Perry has been angling to turn his school in Hartford into a franchise for years. Jonathan Pelto of the Wait, What? blog has documented his process, although it hasn’t been a secret at all. When Perry stepped down from the leadership of the first Capital Prep, it was well-known that he was doing so to expand his business. His first attempt was to bring another Hartford public school under his private business’s control. He then moved on to greener pastures in Bridgeport, CT , and has landed this third, new school in Harlem, thanks in no small part to Diddy’s lobbying. Yet Diddy is not entering the realm of education because he has a desire to improve education for students in Harlem. Diddy is a businessman, first and foremost. Like so many other business people, Diddy sees the profits that can be made by exploiting poor communities of color who want better education for their children. The partnership between Perry and Diddy is exactly why the phrase “deal with the devil” was coined, except in this case, it’s hard to tell who’s really the Prince of Darkness. Diddy gets the Capital Prep brand to front his school, and Perry gets the star power and support of big business to expand his franchise. All the while, the taxpayers of Harlem will be paying the kinds of gross management fees that are common in charter school scenarios, and watch as public funding is siphoned into a private enterprise for the profit of a handful of people, Perry and Diddy included. It’s a symbiotic relationship that is corrupt to its core.
Steve Perry has been one of the loudest voices in the push to privatize public education, with constant attacks on teachers and their unions (remarks start at 00:01:21), vocal support for vouchers and the other tools of the trade for school privatizers. He helped to create the space which Diddy is stepping into now, where moguls and celebrities can cash in on the latest wave of government money being funneled to private contractors. His reward is an educational franchise built on the exploitation of teachers, students and their families. He will undoubtedly collect a hefty paycheck as the CEO of Capital Preparatory Harlem School, at the taxpayer’s expense. The privatization train rolls forward, and Harlem parents will soon be left holding Diddy’s and Perry’s bag.