Current Affairs

When Charter Schools Meet the Military Industrial Complex

Of all the corners we cut when distributing public funds, the effects on education may be the most insidious and unjust.

Earlier this year, the first charter school in Rhode Island permanently shuttered. Situated in a former church school building surrounded by houses, apartments, and shops in Providence’s West End, the Academy for Career Exploration (ACE) had been terribly underperforming for years. Finances weren’t the problem: the school received more than $32 million in public money over the past decade, in addition to corporate donations that launched and sustained the school as a quasi-independent entity in Providence Public Schools. The reasons for this school’s collapse run deeper, however, than the typical charter school combination of corporate abandonment and financial misuse. The story of ACE is the story of how educational inequality, austerity, and the military-industrial complex together propagate misery not just in a single charter school, but in the rest of the United States and abroad as well. 

Founded in 1997, ACE was originally known as the “Textron Chamber of Commerce Academy.” Textron, a Providence-based industrial conglomerate that manufactures everything from Cessna prop-planes to bombs, poured over one million dollars into the new charter development. (The conglomerate later won an award from the Association of Fundraising Professionals for its “philanthropic” efforts with this charter school and a pioneering welfare-to-work program in Kansas.) The Textron school, initially quite successful, was quickly authorized under the Rhode Island Board of Education Act, which enabled the school to receive state and federal funding. 

Renamed ACE in 2011, the school had been intended as a career-oriented technical high school, focused on earning students real-world qualification in a variety of fields. By the end, ACE’s sole offering was an information technology program, and the curriculum was largely identical to a normal high school, save for the specialized information technology and computer science classes. ACE maintained that its curriculum offered the same educational quality for traditional subjects, while supplementing them with skills-based curriculum that would prepare students for the workforce, and providing more personal attention to a smaller student population (about 145 students last year). In practice, the school failed to meet these goals, and test scores fell well below many other struggling Providence schools.

Charter advocates rarely tout schools like Textron/ACE nowadays, and with good reason. However, the school’s once-enviable college placement rate and test scores were used by advocates to lobby for charter expansion in Rhode Island. In theory, a small school detached from the financial burdens of the wider school district should be, as charter advocates frequently argue, better able to provide for its students. 

For all the initial excitement, the school’s performance quickly fell. In a notable incident from 2006, a Providence mother was arrested for sending her son to nearby Cranston East High School rather than Textron, citing the poor educational quality and threats to her son’s safety. Twice, the school’s CEO and corporate leadership attempted to break the Providence Teachers Union’s collective bargaining agreement under the pretext that a seniority rule was creating disruptive turmoil at the school. Teachers disagreed, and voted two to one to remain in the union. In response to the teachers’ refusal to leave the union, the school’s CEO, who had previously worked as an investment banker, resigned. In 2009, the school attempted to withdraw from Providence Public Schools in a further attempt to avoid the union’s collective bargaining agreement. The school was nearly shuttered by the city and state in 2012, but was given another chance after a change of leadership and a PR campaign.

Following a short respite from poor performance, the school backslid to become one of Providence’s worst schools. The school’s 2018-2019 report card shows only 20 percent of ACE’s students are considered proficient in English and language arts; an abysmal 4 percent are proficient in math. A technical school ostensibly provides students with professional qualifications to attend technical college, an apprenticeship program, or enter the workforce with solid information technology skills and qualifications, yet none of ACE’s recent graduates received any technical or trade certification through the school. The Providence Journal reported in March that students told the State Department of Education that they  “didn’t understand their graduation requirements, didn’t know how to choose courses and didn’t have enough adult help in applying to college.” 

Considering that Textron/ACE served primarily students of color, most of whom came from an economically disadvantaged background—just like the majority of Providence public school students—ACE further entrenched educational inequity among Providence’s most vulnerable students. On the other end of the spectrum, Providence is home to several private Catholic schools and prep schools like LaSalle Academy, Moses Brown, and the Wheeler School, all of which charge somewhere between $15,000 and $49,000 a year. While these schools do not draw their student bodies exclusively from Providence, students from the city and its suburbs comprise a significant portion of the student body. The diversity of these schools is also considerably lower than for Providence schools: only 28 percent of Moses Brown’s student body are students of color.

Were these problems limited to ACE, the school’s closure would be a tragedy and an injustice for those students that it served, but not necessarily a problem for Providence’s other students. But because ACE siphoned millions of public dollars, it effectively stole from the rest of the city’s schools and their students. While ACE did receive a cool million dollars from Textron in the late 1990s, and even more after, the bulk of funds came from public finances. In FY2010, the school received over $2.2 million in grants from the State of Rhode Island, as well as hundreds of thousands in federal grants, including ones allocated for disadvantaged students. 

This leads us back to the origins of the school. As mentioned earlier, ACE was originally named after Textron, a publicly traded company that made significant donations to the school. Like many companies, especially in the aerospace and defense sectors, Textron receives tax breaks and subsidies, as well as other forms of aid from the federal government and various states. Despite posting nearly $14 billion in revenue and $1.2 billion in profit in 2018, Textron has benefited from government aid to the tune of $2.6 billion since 1994. The value of these subsidies outstrips the corporation’s donations to ACE many times over. 

All of these subsidies are merely the direct aid provided to Textron from public finances. It completely ignores the artificial demand that keeps Textron solvent in the first place. As a defense contractor, much of Textron’s business comes from the sale of weapons, aircraft, and other military hardware to the United States Department of Defense and other countries. According to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, a full 29 percent of Textron’s revenue comes from its defense business. The United States continues to use Textron as a contractor despite years of legal disputes involving the company’s systematic overcharging of the federal government

Such behavior is not uncommon for defense contractors, nor is Textron alone among defense contractors in funneling donations to public schools and charter experiments. Lockheed Martin has an entire application system for STEM funding grants. The SEEKnns program run by Huntington Ingalls Industries focuses on expanding STEM education in public school classrooms. Raytheon funds a program called MathMovesU in order to remedy “the current Math education crisis in the United States.” Education spending is a common trend in the defense industry. It’s an attempt to sell the notion of corporate citizenship to the public, even while corporations receive massive sums of public money that typically don’t face austerity measures

Textron is in many ways a prototypical cog in the military industrial complex, albeit a smaller player than giants like Raytheon, Lockheed, and Boeing. This is fitting for a company headquartered in the smallest state in the union. While Textron has a number of subsidiaries, its reputation has long been associated with its munitions wing, Textron Defense Systems, due to controversy surrounding the weapons it produces. This subsidiary is perhaps best known for its production of the CBU-97 family of cluster munitions. These weapons feature prominently in military arsenals from the United States to India, despite the fact that all of the United States’ NATO allies are signatories to the Convention on Cluster Munitions, which prohibits the use of bombs like the CBU-97 and the upgraded CBU-105. 

One of Textron’s most enthusiastic customers for CBUs is the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. The Saudi Arabian Air Force has put Textron munitions to use throughout their war of aggression in Yemen, during which they have massacred thousands of Yemeni people with bombs including the CBU-97/105. In 2013, Textron was awarded a $641 million dollar contract to provide Saudi Arabia with 1,300 CBU-105s. While Textron claims that the upgraded CBU-105 is not in fact a cluster munition like the ones banned in the Convention on Cluster Munitions, the weapons have been described as such by organizations like Human Rights Watch and the Department of Defense. The bombs themselves are indiscriminate and contribute to mass civilian casualties when dropped on residential areas. What’s worse is that they come with the added terror of unexploded ordnance. Unexploded bomblets lie and wait to be disturbed by passersby, and often maim curious children or others who do not know that the metal spheres are bombs. 

There is a perverse irony that money paid by a petro-theocracy to conduct atrocities against children in Sana’a would be used to prop up a failing school in Providence. But while this relationship may initially seem strange, it reflects the way that in contemporary politics, injustices tend to coalesce in a way that trends towards the deepening of inequity and human misery. As one example, consider how free trade agreements and policies designed to benefit corporations have led to the offshoring of millions of American jobs, effectively gutting manufacturing for the sake of shareholder profits. Of course, those supply chains had to move somewhere, and they generally ended up in countries with lower wages. Factory collapses, worker suicides, and the use of actual slave labor are a testament to the bloody connection between the betrayal of American workers and the subjugation of workers elsewhere in the world. To add to this hellish relationship, offshored businesses also save money thanks to non-existent environmental enforcement, which not only ruins the environment and health of people in the countries where these corporations set up shop, but has the additional side effect of accelerating our planet’s spiral towards ecological and climatic catastrophe. In this case and others, deference to profit not only justifies cruelty towards one vulnerable group, but to many groups (or, in the case of climate change, to nearly everyone). This is not to say that the shareholders and executives of the corporations necessarily like taking away jobs, enslaving people, or destroying the planet in their own right. They support these evils because they are incidental to making money. 

Our current economic system cannot prioritize any goal beyond profitability and return on investment. Since this same logic has poisoned the way we govern, it is natural for the shortest path to profit to prevail in public life as well, irrespective of who or what gets bulldozed in the process. The governing elite need not even be aware of these relationships to perpetuate them; Rhode Island’s Secretary of Education in 1997 would have had no way of knowing that the money they and their successors took from Textron would be financed by Saudi war crimes against innocent Yemenis. But this ignorance should not be mistaken as a lack of culpability. These same officials knew full well what it is that Textron does, and they chose to accept their money and continue to underfund Providence public schools because it was easy. It comports with pro-capital policy choices that have dominated governance at home and abroad for years.

Many schools across the country have suffered from this kind of mismanagement. In Providence, schools have been squeezed financially and chronically underprovisioned, especially relative to the need demonstrated by the student body. Wealthy families can send their kids to private and magnet schools, while the city and state’s working residents are pressed simultaneously by inadequate schools, intense economic and racial inequality, and the highest rates of poverty in New England. This further reduces accountability, as materially secure residents either vote for leaders who slash funding or ignore the issues plaguing their less fortunate neighbors, like crumbling school infrastructure and basic access to housing. With scarce funding divided between real schools and failing charter projects, these issues get compounded until the inattentive state government intervenes to “fix” problems it has fomented for years. The fact that a state capitol would rely on weapons manufacturers to directly finance education is a level of austerity-driven neglect so mundane in its malice that it would seem more at home in bad satire than real life. 

The death of ACE will do little to help Providence’s students. Schools will likely remain underfunded. Teachers, still reeling from the terrible benefits deal struck during the last financial crisis now face the specter of COVID-19 related layoffs and continued budgetary restrictions. Schools are literally crumbling on the students they shelter. Rhode Island’s pro-business austerity politics trap poorer communities in their current state of deprivation. Poverty and underfunded social services are known factors in the deterioration of academic performance, issues that are compounded by the fiscal ligature suffocating public schools in Providence and elsewhere.

The story of ACE speaks to the rot encouraged by a politics that values the interests of business over the lives of people at home and abroad. The same country that demands superhuman self improvement and work ethic from poor families also lifts billion-dollar companies on sedan chairs at the expense of public finances. The same country that will send a disproportionate number of Latinx and Black Americans, who form the majority of Providence students, to prison supports the Saudi government’s war in Yemen instead of using public money to improve social services and education. ACE is a monument to a political and economic system fueled by agony. 

But ACE also offers a useful window into what often feels like the hopeless complexity of contemporary political problems. Exploitation in American political life succeeds because it has many allies, some unwitting, some not. Isolating issues to a single political tendency, or a single issue, does little to help unpack just how interconnected these problems are. Without understanding how different political failures, bad policies, and deliberate acts of abuse create each other, affect each other, and sustain each other, any effort to create a better world will inevitably fall short. 

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