The Roar of the Charters


In his speech at Riverside Church last Sunday, New York Mayor Bill de Blasio tried to end weeks of attacks on his schools policies by striking a conciliatory tone toward the city’s privately managed charter schools. He used the charter sector’s own rhetoric of “crisis” and “failure” to describe the school system that he inherited from Mayor Bloomberg. He spoke of parents eager to escape failing schools and condemned the “status quo” without noting that it was Bloomberg’s status quo. He opposed the idea that public schools and charter schools are competing and called for a new era “in which our charter schools help to uplift our traditional schools.” According to The New York Times, he called some of the financial leaders on Wall Street, the billionaires who have paid millions of dollars for the ads attacking him, to plead for a truce.

De Blasio decided he could not win this war. The other side had too much money and proved it could drive down his poll numbers. He said that the charter schools could help public schools, but in reality, charter schools could learn a few things from the public schools, like how to teach children with disabilities and second-language English learners. Contrary to popular myth, the charter schools are more racially segregated than public schools and have performed no better than the public schools on the most recent state tests. But what they have behind them is vast resources, and de Blasio capitulated.

The underlying question remains: How did a privately managed school franchise that serves a tiny portion of New York’s students manage to hijack the education reforms of a new mayor with a huge popular mandate?

When Bill de Blasio was running for mayor of New York City last year, he set out an ambitious plan for reforming education. After twelve years of Mayor Bloomberg’s obsession with testing, the public was eager for a fresh approach, one that was focused more on helping students than on closing their schools. Bloomberg’s haughty indifference to public opinion did not endear him to parents. He displaced tens of thousands of students from their public schools, with never a show of remorse, as he opened hundreds of new small public schools and nearly two hundred privately managed charter schools. Bloomberg’s preference for small public schools came at a price; they were unable to offer the full array of advanced courses in math and science, electives, and the choice of foreign languages that larger schools offered. He appointed three chancellors who were not professional educators, one of whom—a publisher—lasted all of ninety days before he removed her. He showed preferential treatment to the hundreds of small public schools that his administration opened, granting them extra resources and allowing them to exclude the neediest students. And he boasted about the explosion of privately managed charter schools, which now enroll 6 percent of the city’s children, on whose boards sit titans of Wall Street, the hedge fund managers who belong to Bloomberg’s social set.

During the campaign, de Blasio wanted to change the subject from Bloomberg’s boutique ideas to a larger vision. He wanted to address the needs of the vast majority of New York City’s 1.1 million students. His big idea was to provide universal access to pre-kindergarten, a research-based program that would give a better start to the city’s neediest children, and after-school activities for adolescents in middle schools. During the campaign, the public widely supported de Blasio’s plans, while Bloomberg’s education policies usually registered about 25 percent approval.

When asked about charter schools, de Blasio made clear that he felt they had gotten far too much media attention, considering that they serve a small fraction of the population. He pledged that he would charge them rent for use of public space and would not allow any more co-locations—the practice of inserting a new school into a building with an existing school—without community hearings. Co-location happens when a charter school is offered shared space in a building with a public school; it also happens when large schools are divided into four, five, or six small schools operating under the same roof. Public school parents strongly oppose these arrangements. The host public school is often forced to give up its art room, its dance room, its computer room, every room used for any purpose other than classroom instruction, to make way for the unwelcome newcomer. The co-located schools must negotiate over access to the library, the auditorium, the playground. Co-locations cause overcrowding, as well as a competition for space and resources among students and multiple administrators within a single building.

De Blasio’s skeptical campaign comments about charter schools unleashed the wrath of New York City’s most outspoken charter school leader, lawyer Eva Moskowitz. Her Success Academy chain of twenty-two charter schools now enrolls 6,700 students. Because she doesn’t have to follow the public school regulations forbidding political activities on school time, she can turn her students and their parents out on short notice for political demonstrations and legislative hearings, dressed in matching t-shirts, carrying posters and banners. A few weeks before last fall’s mayoral election, she closed her schools and led a march of students and parents across the Brooklyn Bridge to protest de Blasio’s criticism of charter schools. She was accompanied by de Blasio’s Republican opponent, Joe Lhota. Voters were unconvinced, however, and de Blasio won in a landslide.

After coming to office, the newly elected mayor focused his energies on trying to persuade Governor Cuomo and the legislature to enact a new tax in New York City to pay for his goal of universal pre-kindergarten. De Blasio called for a modest tax increase for those who earn over $500,000 a year. It would cost each of them, he said, about $1,000 a year, or less than a cup of soy latte every day at Starbucks. The billionaires were not amused. Nor was Governor Cuomo, who wants to be perceived as a conservative, pro-business Democrat who does not raise taxes.

While de Blasio was pressing for universal pre-kindergarten (or UPK, as it is known), he was faced with a decision about how to handle the dozens of proposals for co-locations and new charter schools that had been hurriedly endorsed by Bloomberg’s Panel on Education Policy in the last months of his term. The panel had approved forty-five new schools, seventeen of which were charters. De Blasio decided to approve thirty-six, including fourteen of the seventeen charter school proposals. He did not hold community hearings, as he had promised, so he managed to enrage public school parents whose schools would now suffer the unwanted entry of a new school into their building and, in many cases, an overcrowded building.

The three charter proposals the mayor rejected were part of the Moskowitz charter chain. She had asked for eight new schools—more than any other single applicant—and de Blasio gave her five. Most school leaders would be thrilled to win five new schools. But Eva cried foul and publicly accused the mayor of “evicting” her students. This was despite the fact that two of the three rejected schools did not exist, so no students were affected. The third was Moskowitz’s request to expand her elementary school that was already co-located with P.S. 149 in Harlem; Moskowitz wanted to add a middle school. But adding a middle school meant kicking out students with disabilities in P.S. 149, which de Blasio refused to do.

Moskowitz was ready. Her friends on Wall Street and the far-right Walton Family Foundation paid out nearly $5 million for television ads attacking Mayor de Blasio as a heartless, ruthless, possibly racist politician who was at war with charter schools and their needy students. The ads showed the faces of adorable children, all of them being kicked out of “their” school by a vengeful Mayor who hates charter schools. The ads never acknowledged that the Mayor had approved fourteen out of seventeen charter proposals. Moskowitz, whose charter chain pays more than $500,000 a year for the services of for SDK Knickerbocker, a high-powered D.C. public relations firm, also made the rounds of television talk shows, where she got free air time to lash out at de Blasio for allegedly “evicting” her needy students from “the highest performing school in New York state.” Meanwhile, the Murdoch-owned media—not only The New York Post but also The Wall Street Journal and Fox News—kept up a steady barrage of hostile stories echoing Moskowitz’s claims against de Blasio.

None of the talking heads checked the facts. None knew or acknowledged that approving the middle school Moskowitz was denied would have meant the actual eviction of the most needy students of all—students at P.S. 149 with special needs. Or that her own existing school in that building has no students with high levels of disability, in contrast with Harlem’s neighborhood public schools, where such students account for 14 percent of the school population. Or that Moskowitz’s school has half as many students who are English learners as the neighborhood public schools. Or that her school is not the highest performing school in the state or the city. (In English language arts, Moskowitz’s Harlem Success Academy 4 ranked eighty-first in the city, with 55 percent of its students passing the latest state test; in math, the school was thirteenth in the city, with 83 percent of students passing the state test.) Or that nearly half her students leave within a few years. Or that her schools spend $2,000 more per student than the neighboring schools. Or that Moskowitz is paid $485,000 a year to oversee fewer than seven thousand students.

All of these facts were known by the de Blasio administration. But the new mayor seemed helpless. Somehow this man who had run a brilliant campaign to change the city was left speechless by the charter lobby. His poll numbers took a steep dive. He never called a press conference to explain his criteria for approving or rejecting charter schools, each of which made sense: for example, he would not approve a charter if it displaced students with disabilities; if it placed elementary students in a building with high school students; if it required heavy construction; or if it had fewer than 250 students. Reasonable though his criteria were, they were not enough for the charter lobby. His speech at Riverside Church offered an olive branch, all but conceding that the charter lobby had beaten him. He followed up his conciliatory remarks by creating a committee to review the space needs of the city’s schools and appointed to it representatives of the charter sector, which remains hungry for more free space from the Mayor.

Meanwhile, Moskowitz began using political leverage as well. On the same day that de Blasio organized a rally in Albany on behalf of raising taxes on the rich to pay for UPK, she closed her schools and bused thousands of students and parents to Albany for a pro-charter school rally. Governor Andrew Cuomo stood by her side, pledging to “save” charter schools and to protect them from paying rent; his ardent devotion to the charter cause may have been abetted by the $800,000 in campaign contributions he received from charter advocates in the financial industry.

For its part, the Republican-dominated State Senate demonstrated loyalty to Eva Moskowitz by passing a budget resolution with language forbidding the mayor from displacing a co-located charter school and forbidding him from charging rent to a private corporation (a charter school) using public space. Not only had Moskwitz cleverly portrayed herself as a victim; she had managed to make her narrow cause more important than universal pre-kindergarten and after-school programs for teens. She demonstrated that she was more powerful than the mayor or his schools chancellor. She won the battle of the moment.

But Moskowitz unknowingly taught the public a different lesson, which may be important in the future. Her schools do not operate like public schools. They are owned and managed by a private corporation with a government contract. They make their own rules. They choose their own students, kick out those they don’t want, and answer to no one. No public school would be allowed to close its doors and take its students on a political march across the Brooklyn Bridge or bus them to Albany to lobby the statehouse; the principal would be fired instantly.

Consider the court battle initiated by Moskowitz that played out in the midst of the confrontation with the mayor: a judge in New York’s State Supreme Court ruled, as Moskowitz hoped, that the State Comptroller has no power to audit her schools, because they are “not a unit of the state.” Put another way, her schools are not public schools. And, as the public begins to understand what that means, that lesson may ultimately be the undoing of this stealth effort to transfer public funds to support a small number of privately managed schools, amply endowed by billionaires and foundations, that refuse to pay rent and are devoted to competing with, not helping, the general school population.

What will it mean for New York City to have two school systems, both supported with public money, with one free to choose and remove its students and the other required to accept all students? A recent study found that New York State has the most segregated schools in the nation, and that the charters are even more segregated than the public schools. In 2014, the year that we remember the sixtieth anniversary of Brown v. Board of Education, it is passing strange to find that New York City—and school districts across the nation—are embarked on the re-creation of a dual school system.

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