What’s Behind the Netflix CEO’s Fight to Charterize Public Schools?
Brett Bymaster, a Silicon Valley electrical engineer, was optimistic when Rocketship Education, a non-profit charter school chain, began building its flagship Mateo Sheedy elementary school next to his San Jose home in 2007. He and his family lived in a lower-income community, so he figured the new approach could help local kids. “I didn’t know anything about charter schools, so I thought it was a good thing,” he says.
But the more he learned about Rocketship and charter schools, which receive government funding but operate independently of local school boards, the more concerned he became. He was struck by the school’s cramped quarters: over 600 students on a 1-acre campus, compared to the 9.2 acres per 450 students recommended for elementary schools by the California Department of Education. All those students meant big classes; last year Mateo Sheedy had one teacher for every 34 students, more than the maximum allowed for traditional elementary schools under state law.
The teacher deficit seemed to be compensated for with screen time: Thanks to its so-called “blended learning” approach, Rocketship kindergarteners were spending 80 to 90 minutes a day in front of computers in a school learning lab, nearly the daily maximum screen time recommended by the American Academy of Pediatrics. And when the kids weren’t in front of computers, they seemed to be getting disciplined throughout their extra-long school days. Bymaster says he’d constantly see teachers yelling at students. “It’s a military-style environment,” notes Bymaster, who spearheaded a 2013 lawsuit that caused Rocketship to scrap one of its planned San Jose schools. “It’s really a kill-and-drill kind of school.”
Rocketship, which now operates 16 schools in the Bay Area as well as Tennessee, Wisconsin and Washington, D.C., has been praised for using technological innovation to improve test scores andother education measures for its largely low-income and Hispanic student bodies. But its stringent, tech-heavy approach has drawn criticism, while some of those lauded test scores have started to dip. (A Rocketship spokesperson did not respond to e-mailed questions by press time, but the operation published a lengthy defense of its program after an NPR feature detailed Rocketship criticisms this summer.)
Concerns about Rocketship extend to its most prominent backer: Reed Hastings, CEO of Netflix, who has heavily supported the charter chain, including a $2 million donation last year. Rocketship is far from Hastings’ only charter school effort. The one-time California Board of Education president, who declined to be interviewed for this story, helped launch the powerful EdVoice pro-charter lobbying group and so far this election season has donated more than $3.7 million to the California Charter Schools Association (CCSA)’s political action committee. But critics worry that the sort of technologies and efficiencies Hastings used to build his Silicon Valley empire and is now applying to education reform might not work for the nation’s schoolchildren.