Upon arriving at the OK School Choice Summit last Thursday, I was surprised to see a handful of friends who were denied entry and a larger number of Oklahoma City police guarding Oklahoma City Community College’s performing arts auditorium.
Apparently, about 20 protesters were noisy upon arrival at the summit and had been denied entry, according to a post published during the weekend by Brett Dickerson of Oklahoma City Free Press. Dickerson’s account included the following video of a subsequent encounter:
Although I had registered for the event, the ticket-takers seemed very confused about whether I should be allowed inside. While waiting, I witnessed the protesters chatting politely with the volunteers who had denied them entry.
I asked a couple of well-known choice advocates if I could walk into the auditorium with them. The police said that would be fine as long as the summit people didn’t stop me. I sat down in the auditorium next to an old friend who supports charter and voucher expansion, and we shook hands.
Although I’d mostly come to hear perspectives from charter supporters in the crowd, I found myself instead listening, horrified, as keynote speaker Steve Perry, a former charter school principal-turned-showman from Connecticut, shouted non-stop insults during his entire keynote address.
I’ve seen worse on television, but I don’t believe that I have ever heard such vicious hate speech in person.
Perry’s reputation should have preceded him
Perry has a reputation for failing to respect the regulatory rules of the road and is remembered for calling unions “roaches” in 2013. Worse, his charter school, Capital Preparatory Magnet School, would sentence “even the youngest students in the building” to sit at what was known as the Table of Shame as a form of punishment. His current gig is running Sean “P-Diddy” Combs’ 160-student charter, a Harlem magnet school that recruits suburban students.
Frankly, I’d forgotten about Perry’s somewhat infamous tweet from several years ago. When reacting to the denial of his request to expand his charters in 2013, Perry took to Twitter, posting:
The only way to lose a fight is to stop fighting. All this did was piss me off. It’s so on. Strap up, there will be head injuries.
— Dr. Steve Perry (@DrStevePerry) November 20, 2013
The Washington Post picked up on the story, with education reporter Valerie Strauss classifying Perry as a “scorched-earth” reformer at the time. By 2014, Perry had called educational policy analyst Diane Ravitch a racist in at least 49 tweets.
Allegations of racism punctuate Perry’s presentation
But life is too short to worry about Steve Perry’s past tweets.
At Thursday’s summit, Perry told the audience that charter supporters shouldn’t even talk with people who disagree with them. He also claimed opponents of Oklahoma City’s KIPP expansion are racists. In fact, he said people like me — who display pro-Barack Obama bumper stickers but oppose charter and voucher expansions — are as bad as the worst racists in American history. Perry went on to say that public schools were “designed” to fail in order to maintain Jim Crow and drive the school-to-prison pipeline.
I can’t say I grasped his logic, but Perry apparently claimed that the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka decision, which outlawed de jure segregation, somehow protects charters from political opposition. In reality, charters have increased segregation in Perry’s Connecticut, according to an independent research and advocacy group based in that state.
Facts, data absent from keynote address
Perry said virtually nothing about real-world schools. Instead, he shouted memes that were often incomprehensible. He kept likening charters to the consciousness-expanding “red pill” in The Matrix while calling for an all-out assault on public schools and public school educators who were irredeemable because they had taken the “blue pill” of complacent resignation.
Apparently, Perry is as disconnected from urban education as I am from dystopic-future science-fiction.
Contrary to his imaginary narrative, Perry’s charter has “fewer students who qualify for Free Lunch, fewer kids with disabilities, and fewer kids who are ELL than neighboring high schools in Hartford,” according to data from the National Center for Education Statistics. The charter also has high attrition rates and teacher turnover. Reliable Rutgers University scholar, Mark Weber, in his “Final Debunk” of Perry, further shows how Perry’s charter has lower increases in student performance when measured against comparable schools.
What did local charter leaders expect?
Horrified by Perry’s diatribe, I used Google to find some of his most inflammatory statements, compiled by Connecticut-based education blogger Jonathan Pelto, who has 40 years of expertise with Connecticut’s education issues. They include:
Enough is a damn ‘nuf… Drag sorry principals and teachers out into the street. Kick open the doors in our communities and collar lazy parents. Line ‘em all up on Main Street, snatch their pants down and show the entire world the ass that they have given our kids to kiss. (Excerpted from Perry’s book, Raggedy Schools)
The American Federation of Teachers (AFT) and the National Education Association (NEA) ain’t liberal and they damn sure aren’t progressive. Their drab played out policies are more conservative than the National Rifle Association. The AFT and the NEA make the NRA look like a San Francisco gay pride parade.” (Raggedy Schools)
“Teaching kids is stressful, and we don’t need any punks.” (Excerpted from Perry’s book, Push Has Come to Shove)
We are looking for attractive, smart, interesting people. Yes, I said attractive. Why? Because attractive, smart, and interesting people sell kids everything — from breakfast cereal to Xbox games. That may sound cynical, but it’s the truth. Why should we expect anything different when trying to sell children education? (Push Has Come to Shove)
I don’t know if local charter leaders were fully aware of whom they were hiring to articulate their message in Oklahoma City. I do hope, however, that they are embarrassed by his toxic speech.
Local charter leaders should distance themselves from Steve Perry and apologize to teachers for his outrageous behavior.