Shaming the Devil
Was it Something I Said?
Were you offended when Steve Perry called unionized teachers “roaches”? Oh, c’mon. It’s not like he compared you to Satan.
Me? I can’t say that anymore. What did I do to provoke what he himself describes as a cannibalistic attack?
When I heard that Steve Perry’s Truth about Education Tour would be coming to the College of Charleston, a vision of a flyer came to me unbidden: “The Truth about Steve Perry”.
Spoiler alert: it looked quite different from his bio.
Never heard of Steve? Imagine Michelle Rhee in a bow tie with three less years of teaching experience.
He spent the last decade leading an ostensibly public “No Excuses” magnet school called Capital Prep Academy. He boasts of single-handedly shattering the achievement gap, sending every one of his predominantly low-income minority students to a four-year college.
“People ask me how we, at Capital Prep, pick our kids. I tell them that we get them from the failing raggedy-ass schools.”
Steve has been steadily building his brand with a series of “author-funded” books, a reality show, and a relentless Twitter feed. He recently left Capital Prep to start a lucrative charter chain, of which he is sole owner. The arrangement reportedly skims 10% of school revenue.
His racially-charged mixture of identity, grievance, and teacher bashing inspires a passionate following.
My concern was that his appearance would become a significant civic event, maybe even a turning-point in the tug-of-war over Charleston’ struggling schools. So far, charter-pushers have faced strong resistance from the African-American community.
The audience turned out to be a narrower slice than I’d feared. About 80 people, no policymakers, no media.
I had a hunch that if I laid put out some simple facts, Steve might say and do things that were so outrageous, the audience would see him for what he really is.
Steve came through in spades. His response was completely unhinged and transparently fraudulent.
Where it all fell apart was that the audience loved every minute of it.
Steve’s been playing the messianic educator for a decade, and he knows the moves.
Five minutes in, the crowd was eating out of his hand. How much had I spent on those fliers, again?
His message is timeless:
THEY are the cause of our problem.
In Steve's iteration, the problem is the black-white achievement gap. “THEY” are lazy, uncaring, racist educators, and the unions that protect them.
From one of his screeds:
“Let’s get it straight: schools are failing because of the people who work in them, not because of parents like you.
He argues that poverty is no obstacle to academic achievement. Since low-income minority children can work a smartphone, and he himself has personally put 100% of them into four-year colleges, it is the fault of their teachers if they are not on grade-level.
“There are people working against you. They are the teachers’ unions. We allow organizations to let us believe that there is something inherently wrong in our community.”
“When people get up and start talking about poverty, I need you to understand that that’s just a placeholder for racism.”
If there’s one thing Steve won’t stand for, it’s racism. Odd then to see this recent Twitter attack, aimed at a black commentator caught defending unions:
Multiple flags on the play, Steve.
“There is a system that is designed to destroy you, and every day you participate in it, you are participating in your own demise.”
“There are people who want to convince you that you can’t do it. They need to, because it justifies their failures.”
The solution? Vouchers and charters. If school operators like Steve happen to make windfall profits from your tax dollars, that should be of no concern, because their results will be much, much better.
I have to admit, I was a little confused. We’re not running a shortage of racists down here in South Carolina. Most of the ones I know are very gung-ho on vouchers. Many are openly bitter about paying for schools they refuse to send their children to.
They point to the test scores of high-poverty students left behind to justify their decision to abandon “failing schools”.
We had 16 private schools before desegregation. “Tuition tax credits” helped us get to 200 in just a few years. Today, we have 400.
There is something more than a little bit strange about riding through an all-white neighborhood to get to an all-black school.
There is something more than a little bit strange about an African-American man pounding the podium in support of a tool originally designed to resist integration.
In the end, “school choice” is most often concerned with choosing who your child sits next to.
As we shall see, Steve is no exception.
Where to Begin?
I’d worked out a list of questions for the Q & A. At a loss for things to do during the standing ovation, I crossed out everything that went after Steve directly. They’d seen it all in my flyer. Hadn’t made a dent.
I threw up a polite little Hail Mary, trying to stir some critical thought.
Steve had contrasted South Carolina’s lower-tier academic and economic performance with Massachusetts’ top rankings.
I asked how it is that South Carolina can have high-poverty, low-achievement, and no collective bargaining, while Massachusetts has affluence, high achievement, and 100% unionization?
“How are we being victimized by teachers’ unions here?”
Steve repeated the question to himself, took a breath, and started babbling. He pointed out that Massachusetts has a big achievement gap, so black kids aren’t doing well at all there. South Carolina’s low achievement is explained by the fact that teachers cannot be fired at will.
(No mention of the fact that Massachusetts teachers have stronger rights, but their black students score 12 points higher than ours on NAEP).
I started to counter that it wasn’t just Massachusetts. Union states outperform non-unio…
“I want to make it clear, before you say another word, cause I recognize you were handing out leaflets a little earlier, and you lied on me more than once, and now, now you’re gonna be quiet!!!”
“One of Those Lame Angry ‘Bloggers’ Came Spewing The Lies They Spew”
The centerpiece of my flier was a data set showing that Steve’s school, Capital Prep, was not quite the chest-thumping miracle he would have people believe, a finding first reported by bloggers Jonathan Pelto and Mark Weber.
“I’m not lying about you. The Connecticut State Department of Education is lying about you.”
Steve snapped. He’d had enough.
“See here now, they’re BLOGS. If you’re gonna be a researcher, brother, don’t do BLOGS. So if you want it, I’m here, but don’t go quotin’ things that you don’t know, because your intention is to ensure that YOUR kids go to good schools, and THEIR kids don’t!!!”
Paydirt. He lashed out like a cornered rat without addressing the issue. Dead give-away. He’s mine. He knows it, too. He’s looking around anxiously.
Wait...what’s that sound?
Oh. That would be rapturous applause. The tension drains out of Steve’s face as he starts riding the waves.
“So as long as you, as long as you...No, No, NO...because they didn’t ask you to come here and speak, they asked ME to come here and speak!”
The crowd goes buck-wild. Game, set, and match.
“I don’t usually get to meet people like you, cause y’all usually hide behind blogs, cause you don’t have the courage when somebody confronts YOU with the truth.”
Here’s a screenshot from one of my favorite blogs: the official website of the Connecticut State Department of Education.
Black students’ School Performance Index:
58.3 in Capital Prep
59.7 in Hartford School District.
This comes despite the fact that Hartford has:
twice the free lunch
three times the special needs
ten times the English Language Learners
& a shorter school year.
Accordingly, the state has set higher targets for Capital Prep, but the “failing raggedy-ass schools” of Hartford are much closer to meeting theirs.
With far fewer English Language Learners than the district, it’s no surprise that Steve’s Hispanic population is beating the curve.
Much more surprising... one-third of Steve’s tested students are neither black nor Hispanic, and only 40% qualify for Free and Reduced Lunch.
You can use this page to say he's doing slightly better than district average with Free & Reduced, but other data shows his population skewing heavily away from Free.
You’d have an easier time using this page to show that affluent non-minority kids do much better than others at Capital Prep...just like most places.
Is their affluence simply a placeholder for Steve’s racism?
His black/white achievement gap is huge compared to the district’s. In fact, he appears to be flirting with an official “Achievement Gap” reprimand from the state.
What nothing on this page will support is the entire basis of Perry's schtick:
Since I have solved the achievement gap, anyone could if they just cared enough to try (or quit, or get out of the way of vouchers and charters).
No he hasn't, and no they can't. Good people are pouring blood, sweat, and tears into that problem every day. They’ve steadily shrunk that gap, but it’s still there. A problem that took 400 years to create is taking longer to fix than anyone would like.
Yet Steve has the gall to taunt them when his school did no better.
We’ve made no serious effort to put our most qualified teachers in front of our most vulnerable students. Still, Steve has failed to identify the large group of people with "the true calling" who are currently being kept out of low-income schools.
“SO, Had to Eat Him Up”
Steve was just getting started. I sat back to watch how far this man would debase himself to protect the pack of lies he’d built his reputation on. Pretty damn far, as it turns out.
“The truth is that these families have come too far to allow someone like you to stop someone like me who’s trying to free them from the failure that YOU perpetuate.”
“I’m the problem here?”
My response is drowned out by cheering.
“That you perpetuate to try to discredit our work! The bottom line is this; TELL THE TRUTH, and SHAME THE DEVIL!!!”
Now I’m not just personally responsible for the achievement gap. I’m the Antichrist.
Folks are loving this. Steve should pay me to show up next time.
“Let me explain something to you..our school graduates 97% of the children, that’s the promise of…”
“The ones you allow to stay.”
Turns out, Steve is kind of touchy about the 36% attrition rate that corroborates numerous accounts of parents and students being pressured to leave the school over attendance, behavior, or academic performance.
No doubt, others simply tire of a discipline model that relies on public humiliation and physical distress for minor infractions. My flier went over this in detail.
“BE QUIET SO YOU CAN HEAR!”
He rattles off some more unverifiable stats about college attendance,
“...and 70% GRADUATED, BROTHER!!!”
The flier also quoted charter documents where Steve projected higher earnings for himself from running a handful of schools than the Superintendent of Los Angeles pulls down in a year. That didn’t sit well, either.
“So before you go telling lies about how much I MAKE and what I DO, you need to recognize that I’m valuable BEYOND what I make!”
“I’m sure you believe that.”
Steve aims a steady stream of disapproving rhetoric down the social ladder, often presented as “advice” for people who don’t appear to be in the room. Seen alongside his attrition rate and demographics, these applause lines suggest that distance from the riff raff (psychologically for oneself and physically for one’s children) is part of his appeal.
The rap on charters is that they are undemocratic. While that’s literally true, in practice they democratize school flight and abandonment of the underclass. Steve has said:
“I've seen the right students and the wrong students come to Capital Prep.”
“A small number of students are obnoxious brats…”
“Students and parents know as well, and if they don't like it, they can get out, too. Not every school is for everybody. This cannot be overstated.”
Here, he echoes the notion of a “talented-tenth” who can benefit from a rigorous education. It's a century later, Steve. Let's aim a little higher.
It’s easy to propose dismantling public education when you never actually believed in it in the first place. It doesn’t matter if you’re screening for race, class, attitude, or aspiration level. If your doors aren’t open to everyone, you have no business taking tax dollars.
Steve Perry made me the face of a racist conspiracy to keep black children poor. He himself is the ideal poster boy for the case against the charters and vouchers he promotes.
Privatization doesn’t turn kids into customers. It divides them into assets and liabilities. When data becomes a marketing tool, the truth is never good enough. Taxpayers lose the right to question how business is conducted or where the money goes.
Who Better to Battle Satan than the Messiah?
Having survived an attack by a devious pamphleteer, Steve shamelessly makes the leap to martyrdom:
“Cause this is what y’all don’t understand. This is what I deal with...I’ve had threats on my life for this foolishness.”
He’s willing to die, as long as the audience understands:
“If this be the last day I speak, I want you to know that I spoke what God said to me, that there’s nothing wrong with your kids!”
“Amen!” says the congregation.
I hope we can agree that death threats are unacceptable in a civilized society. For instance, when Steve publicly threatened to shoot Hartford school officials in the head for rejecting his charter scam, that was unacceptable and he should have been prosecuted.
“How can somebody look at me, a person who grew up third generational poverty and tell me that poverty is the reason why?...What level of racism is there that ALLOWS you to look at a black man who is Ivy-educated and tell him that poverty is supposed to stop him?”
I will concede that the public school system set up to destroy Steve has failed utterly.
Before moving on, Steve has a warning for the children:
“I promise you that somebody who seems like he’s on your side, who calls himself a liberal, who says that they’re for children, but they ain’t for kids, they’re for grown people keepin’ their jobs even if those grown people do you wrong!”
Once again, I’m the only one in the ballroom not applauding vigorously.
The audience has allowed themselves to be played by a man so desperate to protect his facade that he's willing to sacrifice his dignity in defense of a story he knows to be untrue.
“These Ppl. HATE Our Kids”
I lock eyes with Steve and think about the fact that I’ve actually done the work he pretends to have been doing. I’ve had the privilege of working with some of the poorest children in America over the last 20 years.
At one point, I rode my bike through a middle class, all-white neighborhood to teach in a successful, high poverty, all-black school. Sometimes, coaxing excellence out of my kids felt like yelling at someone to get up and run after being shot in the leg. I’ve left four schools. That one is the only separation that still hurts.
Now I’m in a school whose demographics are closer to Capital Prep’s. It is in no sense the same job. I’ll gladly be compared to the Antichrist before I let a false prophet make scapegoats out of the folks who stayed behind.
If a solution to the achievement gap exists, it most certainly doesn’t involve beating the hell out of people who struggle against longer odds than Perry and get similar results.
The event had run longer than expected. I didn’t want to give him the satisfaction, but I would be late getting home as it was. If there had been any point in coming, there was certainly none in staying.
By the time I got to my car, I was more confused than bitter. Let’s face it: had it gone the other way, you and I would be enjoying the laughs that were had at my expense.
But why did it feel like I was the only one who noticed that every word out of his mouth screamed, “Fraud?” I don’t know, and I don’t expect to anytime soon.
I do know that you can’t convince anyone of anything unless you connect with some part of them that already wants to believe it.
Who wouldn’t want to believe that the achievement gap can be conquered with a little trash talk and tough love?
Wasn’t that the promise of No Child Left Behind?
Fifteen years of intense focus on that gap has produced little more than a wellspring of shame and resentment in a community that has been maligned for centuries. The notion that this outcome serves anyone’s agenda is ludicrous.
Well, unless you count Steve.
"Let No Man Drag You So Low as to Make You Hate Him" - MLK
The saddest part is that Steve has real accomplishments he could take pride in, but he avoids them like the plague because they undermine the bogus miracle narrative he's been peddling.
He could talk about creating a truly integrated campus, where affluent white families withstand levels of diversity that often induce flight.
That’s no small thing. Achievement gaps are highest for students in schools where poverty is most concentrated. Racism is an undeniable factor in why we have so many.
The formula (harsh discipline and high attrition) might not play as well on the ballroom circuit, but at least it would be an honest conversation.
Even with that 36% attrition rate (and a campus that is 60% middle class), it seems likely that Steve has placed some challenging kids onto college campuses despite a lackluster education. I bet other schools could learn a lot from him if he talked about that instead of slandering an entire profession he has never in his life attempted.
“What Shall it Profit a Man…?” (Mark 8:36)
My eight year-old son asked how the meeting went. Like all kids, he notices what Daddy is saying and doing. One of the most important things in my life is that he never hear less than the truth from me.
"I got pounded.”
I wonder what Steve told his son.
Patrick Hayes is Director of EdFirstSC. He is also a 5th grade teacher in Charleston, SC.
Sunday, Nov. 29th: