HBO’s “Bad Education” Aims at Public School Theft While Ignoring More Frequent Fraud at Charter Schools & Testing Companies

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“Bad Education” is a frustrating movie to watch as a public school teacher.

 

It does a fine job telling the true story of a wealthy New York district where administrators stole millions of dollars for themselves.

 

But it ignores the far more frequent waste and malfeasance caused by school privatization, high stakes testing and runaway ed tech.

 

Maybe I’m being too sensitive, but there is no subject more political than public schools.

 

During the current Coronavirus pandemic, teachers and schools are finally getting some respect from people who are trying to “home school” their own kids while the nation’s classrooms are shuttered.

 

But education budgets are still routinely slashed, and every policymaker from Betsy DeVos to Barack Obama still thinks there is nothing better than closing public schools and replacing them with charter and/or voucher schools.

 

Pundits continually decry low test scores while applauding every means to increase racial and economic segregation. They push every policy to increase the school to prison pipeline for black and brown students.

 

And now HBO drops this movie about Rosalyn School District Superintendent Frank Tassone (Hugh Jackman) who embezzled $11 million from taxpayers.
What happened in Rosalyn was scandalous. But it’s an outlier.

 

Such misappropriation and outright theft rarely happens at public schools. After all, the records are all public. It just takes someone to check up.

 

For REAL theft you have to go to charter and voucher schools where the law literally allows them to spend our money without most of that public oversight.

 

Viewers like me from Pennsylvania still remember Nick Trombetta. The founder and former CEO of the Pennsylvania Cyber Charter School stole a similar sum (at least $8 million), and got much less prison time (20 months vs. Tassone who served 3 years). Trombetta used taxpayer dollars to buy a$300,000 private jet for goodness sake! He bought a $933,000 condo in Florida! He bought $180,000 houses for his girlfriend and mother in Ohio. He did all this and more – and his lawyers got the charges down to tax evasion! Why is there no movie about THAT?

 

Or how about June Brown?

 

As the head of Agora Cyber Charter School, which was part of the K12 Inc. charter empire, she was indicted for stealing $6.5 million from taxpayers. She and her executives were indicted on 62 counts of wire fraud, obstruction of justice and witness tampering. She had a reputation for claiming large salaries and filing suits against parents who questioned her.

 

Where’s that movie?
The history of charter schools reads like a who’s who of hucksters and thieves!

 

Electronic Classroom of Tomorrow (ECOT) the largest charter school in Ohio was forced to shut down and auction off all its taxpayer funded property because administrators  grossly inflated its students body of 12,000 online students to the state.

 

New Jersey charter schools spent as much as $800 million of taxpayer dollars to buy property that they then charged taxpayers additional money to rent from the charter schools, according to an IRS investigation.

 

The Network for Public Education published a report in 2019 detailing more than $1 billion in federal dollars misappropriated by charters – including hundreds of millions spent on charters that never even opened or that closed soon after opening.

 

I think those would make good movies. Don’t you?

 

But let’s not forget the other vulture industries that prey on our public school system without providing much of value in return.

 

If you want REAL fraud, you have to go to the standardized testing and ed tech industry sucking away billions or taxpayer dollars while providing services that are either unnecessary or downright destructive.

 

Why do we give every public school child high stakes tests in grades 3 through 8 and once in high school? Because the federal government says so.

 

These tests don’t tell us how well students are doing in school. We have at least 180 days of classroom grades that tell us that.

 

These tests taken over a period of a few days tell us what the corporation making them thinks is important. And they nearly always show that richer kids are doing better than poorer kids, and that whiter kids are somehow “smarter” than blacker kids.

 

And for this prized data we pay billions of dollars to big businesses every year.
It’s one of the largest captive markets in existence. That’s some 50.4 million children forced to take standardized assessments. The largest such corporation, Pearson, boasts profits of $9 billion annually. It’s largest competitor, CBT/ McGraw-Hill, makes $2 billion annually. Others include Education Testing Services and Riverside Publishing better known through its parent company Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.

 

If many of these companies sound like book publishers, that’s because they are or their parent companies are. And that’s no coincidence. It’s another way they bolster their own market.

 

Not only do many of these testing corporations make, provide and score standardized assessments, they make and provide the remedial resources used to help students pass.

 

So if your students are having difficulty passing the state test, often the same company has a series of workbooks or a software package to help remediate them. It’s a good business model. Cash in before kids take the test. Cash in when they take it. And if kids fail, cash in again to remediate them.

 

Ever wonder why our test scores are so low? Because it’s profitable! The money is all on the side of failure, not success. In fact, from an economic point of view, there is a disincentive to succeed. Not for teachers and students, but for the people who make and grade the tests.

 
In fact, when I sat down to watch “Bad Education” I thought it was going to be about high stakes testing cheating scandals. I thought it was going to be about how the pressure to have students score well on the tests have in some cases resulted in teachers and/or administrators changing answers to inflate the scores.

 

But no. That’s not mentioned at all. There’s talk about test scores but their value is never questioned for one second.

 

Hugh Jackman’s superintendent dreams of leading his schools from getting the 4th highest test scores to having the 1st highest. But nowhere does anyone mention how these tests were literally developed by Nazi eugenicists or how they have been challenged countless times for violating children’s civil rights or even the sizable parent-led opt out movement in the same New York suburbs where the film takes place.

 

Okay.  Maybe I AM being too sensitive.

 

The film does seem to have a theme about how we expect everything from schools and teachers and don’t reward them well enough. But this is undercut by the obvious villainy of people who use that discrepancy to take advantage of the trust the public has placed in them.

 

Public schools rarely act this way.

 

I fear that many people will miss that point.

 

Instead it will be more fuel to the fire that public schools are bad and must be replaced.

 

There’s even a parting shot about Jackman’s character’s pension.

 

I’m all for drama.
But when filmmakers bend over backward to ignore the elephant in the room, I tend to lose my appetite for popcorn.

 

 


 

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What Kind of A—hole Ransoms School Data?

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You’ve got to be a grade A sleaze bag to steal from kids’ public schools.

 

But that’s exactly what a growing number of slime balls are doing when they hack into schools’ computer networks and hold their data for ransom.

 

Even worse – districts are paying it!

 

Just this week the Rockville Center School District in New York state paid an $88,000 ransom to get back files that had been encrypted by Ryuk ransomware.

 

The district negotiated the payment down from $176,000. School directors only decided to pay after realizing it would cost more to hire another firm to fix the problem.

 

Plus the school had insurance that covered ransomware so it only ended up losing its $10,000 deductible.

 

But this district isn’t the only one being extorted by these basement dweller bandits.

 

In July, alone, schools in New Mexico, Nevada, Louisiana, Oklahoma, Alabama, Connecticut and another in New York suffered similar cyber attacks.

 

Nor do they show any signs of slowing down.

 

A report by cybersecurity firm Recorded Future concluded that attacks on state and local governments have reached an all time high. There were 170 cyber attacks since 2013, of which 22 occurred just this year.

 

After years of budget cuts and downsizing, hackers see local governments like wolves see the oldest and weakest animals in the herd – easy pickings.

 

And schools are particularly vulnerable.

 

They often have small IT departments, antiquated equipment and the cheapest cybersecurity.

 

That’s why in recent months schools in Lake City, Fla.; La Porte County, Indiana; and Riviera Beach, Fla. have all paid ransoms to regain access to their data.

 

If you think about it, data is one of the most financially valuable things schools have.

 

Districts are responsible for students’ privacy in so many ways – records of special services, grades, accommodations, discipline, etc. In addition, schools are large employers with privileged information on their staffs including healthcare, finances, insurance, social security numbers, etc.

 

School directors and administrators have a responsibility to safeguard this information. It’s no wonder, then, that many are giving in to these demands, especially when nefarious nonentities ensure payment is cheaper than any other alternative.

 

Even so, what a monster you have to be to squeeze schools in order to make a buck!

 

Every dollar you blackmail away from district coffers is a dollar not spent on children’s educations.

 

That’s less money for teachers, supplies, classes, tutors, nurses, counselors, etc.

 

You aren’t stealing candy from a baby. You are literally snatching away opportunities for a better future.

 

Given the stakes involved, it shouldn’t be all up to individual districts to stop cyber thieves. The state and federal government should be flexing their muscles to help.

 

One thing they can do is toughen laws against using ransomware.

 

Maryland legislators proposed a law to consider ransomware attacks that resulted in a loss of more than $1,000 as a felony, which would then be subject to a fine of up to $100,000 and 10 years in jail.

 

Current Maryland laws define such attacks that extort less than $10,000 as misdemeanors, while only a breach that results in a loss of greater than $10,000 is a felony.

 

But some argue that there are already federal laws on the books criminalizing ransomware such as The Computer Fraud and Abuse Act and the Electronic Communications Privacy Act. Unfortunately, these laws don’t mention ransomware specifically and may be too broad.

 

Federal and state governments could at least offer grants to update school cybersecurity to make such attacks more difficult. Otherwise, the burden becomes an exponential increase in the cost of doing business for schools which can only be made up by increasing local taxes and/or cutting student services.

 

Another option would be setting up a federal program to step in whenever schools are victims of ransomware. After all, these are public schools! If they were under attack by armed terrorists, the federal government wouldn’t think twice before jumping in.

 

With federal resources, perhaps we could stop all schools from ever paying these ransoms again. Because that’s the only way to truly end these cyber attacks.

 

As long as schools and governments are willing to pay, there will be trolls unscrupulous enough to take advantage.

 

Public services set up to meet the public good should never have to shortchange society so they can meet some fool’s ransom demand.

 

Ransomware has been around since at least 2012. The largest incident so far came last year with the WannaCry attack which infected more than 200,000 computers in about 150 countries, including the United Kingdom’s National Health Service, at a cost of about $4 billion.

 

It’s past time we got serious in dealing with these cowards.

 

As technology increases, data crimes have become more common. In fact, there are far too many legal ways to pilfer private data.

 

Schools, in particular, do a bad job of safeguarding student data by entering into unregulated and nefarious contracts with ed tech companies. Contracts with these companies commonly contain loopholes allowing them to take student data at will and sell it.

 

The situation is worsened by the supply-side economic policies governing public schools. There are already numerous roads to privatize public schools and turn tax dollars into corporate profits. Moreover, the standardized testing industry monetizes learning when their services are mandated by the state and federal government. They conveniently offer to remediate the large numbers of students who don’t score well on these same tests and cash in on both ends.

 

With so many fully legal ways to steal education dollars from practices and policies that actually help kids learn, it’s no surprise where these shadow dwellers get their ideas.

 

As repulsive and selfish as these hackers are, they’re only taking the greed of the testing, privatization and ed tech industry to its logical conclusion.

 

What kind of a—hole ransoms school data?

 

The a—holes we allow to get away with it.


 

Like this post? I’ve written a book, “Gadfly on the Wall: A Public School Teacher Speaks Out on Racism and Reform,” now available from Garn Press. Ten percent of the proceeds go to the Badass Teachers Association. Check it out!

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