Geoffrey Canada is waging a war on teachers unions and public education.

CEO of the charter school Harlem Children’s Zone Geoffrey Canada visited Utica and gave a speech to a large crowd at MVCC on October 17th. Mr. Canada is one of Time Magazine’s “Most Influential People of 2011”, was featured in the film “Waiting for Superman” and is a leading national voice for “education reform”, otherwise known as education privatization. The region was saturated with advertisements leading up to the event, organized by the Community Foundation of Herkimer and Oneida Counties, with the promise that Mr. Canada would speak to local educational needs.

The reactions to the event were mixed. Anne Mahar, who was on the committee to bring Mr. Canada to Utica and is hard at work to open the Mohawk Valley Charter School in Utica, was inspired by Mr. Canada’s talk. “I absolutely think his visit is helpful to the charter school movement locally. I can measure it by how many people have reached out to us.” Trinh Truong, a sophomore at Proctor and Occupy Utica activist who organized a protest against school budget cuts in April was disappointed by the talk. “It was a feel-good speech to give people the allusion that charter schools are the answer. Everyone who was there got duped.”

Outside the event stood MVCC biology professor and NYSUT union member William Perrotti who held a sign that said “Teachers are not the problem. Charter schools are not the answer.” Mr. Perrotti said that Mr. Canada’s talk “was pretty innocuous” and credited Mr. Canada’s charter school system for not having an open door system that accepts all students like MVCC and other public institutions. “If public education needs help then fund it; that’s what I feel. We’ve had urban school systems chronically underfunded.” He claimed that for every dollar spent on charter schools was a dollar taken away from public education.

But why did Mr. Canada come to Utica in the first place? As the Utica City Schools are reeling from budget cuts, mass layoffs and austerity measures this year, does Mr. Canada’s charter school provide a model and a solution? Peggy O’Shea, CEO of the Community Foundation said that Mr. Canada’s model is a “winning formula” and that Mr. Canada can provide “information we can use in the community to better the situation”. But Mr. Canada has a number of controversial connections that both he and the Community Foundation were noticeably silent on during his visit.

Mr. Canada sits on the board of StudentsFirstNY which is connected to the national organization StudentsFirst. The national group was established by Michelle Rhee who, like Mr. Canada, is a national voice for education privatization. Formerly the chancellor of Washington D.C. Public Schools, she now wages a national battle against public education and the teachers unions. During the massive labor demonstrations in Wisconsin in 2011 against Governor Scott Walker’s push to destroy the power of public sector unions, including teachers unions, Mrs. Rhee gave advice to the governor, who is a favorite of the Tea Party.

On the surface, StudentsFirstNY sounds like a pro-education organization but its board of directors is composed of venture capitalists and hedge fund managers that have a decidedly anti-union agenda. The organization, falsely claiming to be a “students union”, was created for the sole purpose to lobby against teacher unions and fight any move in New York City to elect a pro-union and pro-public education mayor. A coalition of unions, civil rights groups and community organizations called New Yorkers for Great Public Schools recently published a report called Romney First, revealing not only the ties Students First has with Wall Street but the fact that the group was created by none other than the controversial investment firm Bain Capital. The report states, “Just as Bain Capital cut jobs, shut down factories, dismantled companies, and drove more profit to top-level managers, so StudentsFirst wants to close schools, fire teachers and other personnel, dismantle unions, and drive more profit to standardized testing, digital education, consulting and for-profit school management firms.” Mr. Canada sits on this board and is leading this drive to dismantle unions and public education in New York. He went on record on April 3rd of this year in The New York Times claiming that when it comes to teachers unions, “someone has to make war.”

The Community Foundation, which has a representative of the financial giant Bank of America on its board, claims to not have any connection to StudentsFirstNY but the foundation’s Facebook page promoted the organization in several posts leading up to the event. As for the local push for charter schools, Ann Mahar stated that the Community Foundation provided her charter school with a letter of support in the long process to officially open, which is expected to happen next year. The foundation is bringing another pro-charter school speaker to the area to push Mr. Canada’s model in early November. Foundation CEO Peggy O’Shea said she wants to continue community dialogue over education and poverty, but the foundation seems to be biased in its push for speakers that bring a message of education privatization backed by Wall Street. It seems to be in their interest, as evidenced by their advocacy for the Mohawk Valley Charter School, to push for privatization.

Absent from the committee to bring Mr. Canada to Utica was the Utica Teachers Association. Union President Lawrence Custodero was surprised to learn that Mr. Canada came to speak. He missed the event because the union was not given any invitation. He claimed that “free public education is in the US Constitution” and stressed that this is something people should continue to fight for. He shared concerns with Occupy Utica activist Trinh Truong and MVCC Professor William Perrotti that Mr. Canada came to Utica on the heels of devastating school budget cuts.

Trinh Truong, who is almost 15, is very concerned with the future of public education in Utica and the kind of dialogue that surrounds it. She stated that what the Community Foundation is pushing is “a lopsided dialogue. There’s no point of having dialogue if just one point of view is pushed.” Is ignoring the union that represents Utica teachers part of this “lopsided-dialogue”?  Judging by Mr. Canada’s anti-union push, it’s no surprise Mr. Custodero and the union staff were not invited. The future of education in Utica, as Trinh Truong fears, is indeed uncertain. Bringing Mr. Canada who sits in a complex web that includes Michelle Rhee, Bain Capital, Wall Street, and the fringe right wing Tea Party is sending a clear message locally from the man who declared war on unions.

Brendan Maslauskas Dunn

This article originally appeared in the print edition of The Utica Phoenix.