Our most urgent educational priority as a society must be to invest in improving the public schools in our urban communities rather than punishing them, punishing their teachers, closing these schools or privatizing them.
Jeff Bryant, writing for the Education Opportunity Network this morning, points out that we are easily distracted from this goal, if in fact it is really our goal in the first place: “This is what the debate about education policy—and charter schools in particular—so often comes to: So much sturm and drang about a favored trinket from the ‘education reform’ tool box while matters of way more importance get neglected or even abused. What could be more important than charter schools?”
This month New York City has become the microcosm of the national conflict between the rights and needs of children in traditional public schools and the rights of privatizers trying to open and fund charter schools. New York’s new mayor, Bill deBlasio has become a leader assiduously trying to create the public will to address the rights of children whose needs for public services are overwhelming.
Mayor deBlasio has proposed universal pre-kindergarten for New York City, and he has proposed after-school programs for children in the middle grades—programs to enrich the children’s lives, improve their educational skills, and fill the hours between 3 PM and the time their parents arrive home from work—the unsupervised hours when many pre-adolescents can get in trouble. Last week he drew a line, barring politically connected Eva Moskowitz from co-locating (rent-free) a charter elementary school into a building that houses programs for students with serious disabilities. The new mayor barred the formation of that particular charter school and two others, while he permitted many to go forward.
In Bryant’s article you’ll find a link to a short video made by parents at one of the traditional schools where Mayor deBlasio barred the co-location of a charter. The parents speak powerfully about the school’s positive programs for the smiling children who stand nearby. These parents merely ask that their children’s lives not be further complicated by the co-location of another school into the building apparently already occupied by their children’s school and two others.
Bryant raises a number of urgently important concerns about public education in New York City and elsewhere—facilities in need of repair and upgrade—and most important, unequally distributed and inadequate state financing of public schools, a major concern at this time in New York, as the state has never lived up to its obligation under a lawsuit a decade ago when the state’s funding system was found wanting by its state supreme court.
Bryant is correct that the media’s “education reform enthusiasts play up the hysterics of charter schools as an ideological cause.” And this week, as he points out, the proponents of charters have pulled out all the stops in the press—not only Morning Joe, but also Peggy Noonan, and Richard Whitmire (Michelle Rhee’s biographer). Rupert Murdoch, who strongly supported Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s policies (that favored charter schools) and now employs Bloomberg’s schools chancellor Joel Klein in a new “education” division of the News Corporation, has also been vocal this week in opposing Mayor deBlasio.
The biggest cause of last week’s flare up in New York was New York Governor Andrew Cuomo’s support for the rights of Eva Moskowitz and her charter schools and his failure to support Mayor deBlasio and the needs of traditional public schools. Cuomo told thousands of charter school children and parents Moskowitz had bused to Albany for a rally: “You are not alone. We will save charter schools.”
Many have wondered why Governor Cuomo is so anxious to speak up for charters, when the majority of the parents of New York City’s 1.1 million students (and parents across the state of New York)—like those in the video Bryant features—depend on the city’s traditional public schools. For the answer to this question it is essential to follow the money. Cuomo has depended on the pro-charter PAC, Democrats for Education Reform (DFER). DFER was founded by hedge fund managers who have been among the strongest supporters of New York City’s charter schools. According to a January 2014 report from Chalkbeat New York, DFER has contributed $35,000 so far to Governor Cuomo’s re-election campaign. John Petrey, a co-founder of DFER has donated $35,000 and Whitney Tilson another co-founder of DFER, $12,000. Eva Moskowitz’s own PAC, Great Public Schools, has donated $65,000. Members of the board of Moskowitz’s Success Academy Charter schools who have also contributed generously to Cuomo’s re-election campaign include Sam Cole ($30,000), Bryan Binder ($15,000), Jill Braufman ($57,500), Dan and Margaret Loeb ($29,367), Joel and Julia Greenblatt ($75,000), Dan Nir ($35,000), Charles Staunch ($15,000), Jarrett Posner ($2,500), and Andrea and Dana Stone ($75,000). I urge you to check out this report.
Beyond New York City, we should all ask ourselves why we are so willing to give the well-connected like Eva Moskowitz the benefit of the doubt at the same time we easily forget about the students across our big cities where poverty is intensely concentrated and where schools are under-funded. Why are we so taken with so-called “school reform” when it involves closing the public schools and opening privatized alternatives? Are we, too, being gulled by money and celebrity?