Has America Decided to Educate Promising Children and Leave the Rest Behind?

In what seems to me the most chilling moment in The Prize, Dale Russakoff’s new book (discussed in yesterday’s post here) about the catastrophic five-year school reform experiment imposed by Mayor Cory Booker, Governor Chris Christie, and Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg on Newark, New Jersey’s schools—the moment when teachers at a charter school co-located in the same building as a traditional public school ask Mayor Cory Booker how he plans to help and support the neighborhood school also operating in their building—Booker replies, “I’ll be very frank…. I want you to expand as fast as you can.  But when schools are failing, I don’t think pouring new wine into old skins is the way.  We need to close them and start new ones.'” (p. 132)

This is the same book in which a school administrator admits that charters cream the most able children of striving parents and tells Russakoff that 60 percent of Newark’s children are likely to remain in traditional public schools. What Mayor Booker, Governor Christie and philanthropist Zuckerberg are selling is school reform for the purpose of saving some children and leaving many of the most vulnerable behind. Such a school reform philosophy tacitly accepts the idea that our society is incapable of educating all of our children, and because we can’t save all children, we’ll at least try to educate those most likely to succeed.

While there is considerable research pointing to social and educational programs likely to expand opportunity for a mass of our society’s children, a lot of people can’t think beyond limited programs aimed to lift up promising children.  Others cynically doubt school leaders who outline expensive ideas that are far more ambitious.  I worry about the dearth of leaders willing to ask us to find the will to leave no child behind, and I worry more about broad skepticism when strong leaders do propose promising plans.  Have we as a society lost the belief that we can educate all children?

Skepticism persists about Mayor Bill deBlasio’s education plans, despite the successful launch of a major expansion of pre-kindergarten in New York City. Last week the New York Daily News reported, “DeBlasio boosted the Big Apple’s pre-K capacity from 19,000 seats in 2013 to more than 80,000 seats in 2015 by expanding existing programs and funding a slew of new ones.” “Kids from areas with median incomes that are below the city average of $51,865 account for 62% of registrants in the free, full-day programs that kicked off Wednesday.”  Many have urged DeBlasio and Farina to slow down on plans announced earlier this year for the NYC schools significantly to increase the number of full-service Community Schools that set out to support families with services located right at school that can include medical, dental, and mental health clinics; after-school programs; Head Start and Early Head Start; summer enrichment, and parental job training.

As reported by Chalkbeat NY, in a major address last Wednesday, DeBlasio announced more plans for broad improvements in NYC’s public schools, including expanding the number of second-grade reading specialists across the district and ensuring that children in all high schools have access to algebra by ninth grade and advanced courses in science.  Such reforms are urgently needed in New York, for while NYC’s  previous mayor Michael Bloomberg emphasized small high schools with more personalized services, a July, 2015 report from the New School’s Center for New York City Affairs exposed shocking deficiencies in many of those small schools: “Today, 39 percent of the city’s high schools do not offer a standard college-prep curriculum in math and science, that is, algebra 2, physics and chemistry.  More than half the schools do not offer a single Advanced Placement course in math and about half do not offer a single Advanced Placement course in science…  Students at schools that don’t offer the full complement of college-prep sciences meet the (graduation) requirement by taking one of these sciences, usually biology—or as it’s known in New York schools, ‘living environment’—and supplementing that with courses such as forensics or general science.  The result is an intense bifurcation of the city’s public high school system, one that parents frantic to get their children into top high schools are acutely attuned to.”

Chalkbeat’s article about the new initiatives DeBlasio proposed last week printed a laudatory comment on deBlasio’s announcement from Zakiyah Ansari, an influential parent advocate, but the reporter wonders about the cost—a projected $186 million, and asks: “Will the city be able to pull off the new programs, which will require extensive teacher hiring and training along with philanthropic funding?  And even if the efforts go as planned, will they guarantee that students read proficiently and graduate high school in record numbers? ‘Those are lovely goals,’ said New York University research professor Leslie Santee Siskin, ‘but it would take a lot of work and reconfiguring of practice to make them reachable.'”

Interestingly, Mayor deBlasio and Carmen Farina’s priorities mirror the recommendations of Professor Jennifer King Rice of the University of Maryland, in a brief published last week by the National Education Policy Center. King Rice’s brief seeks a way to restore the mission of public education articulated by Horace Mann, “the 19th century champion of publicly funded universal education,” who “persuasively reasoned that education is the ‘balance wheel’ of the social structure.  He argued that education should be ‘universal, non-sectarian, free, and that its aims should be social efficiency, civic virtue, and character, rather than mere learning or the advancement of sectarian ends.’ While much progress has been made in establishing a universal education system since Mann spoke those words over 150 years ago, substantial disparities in educational resources, opportunities, and outcomes continue to undermine his vision—and ultimately our society… Grounded in the erroneous assumption that schools alone can close the achievement gap, NCLB and the policies in its wake have emphasized high stakes test-based accountability, school choice, school reconstitution, and other largely punitive strategies to prompt school improvement.”

To restore Mann’s vision and close gaps in opportunity, King Rice cites research grounding four recommendations:

  • “Policymakers and the general public should recognize the broad goals of education including civic responsibility, democratic values, economic self-sufficiency, cultural competency and awareness, and social and economic opportunity.  Student achievement, while important, is a single narrow indicator…
  • “Policymakers should ensure that all schools have the fundamental educational resources they need to promote student success: effective teachers and principals, appropriate class size, challenging and culturally relevant curriculum and supportive instructional resources, sufficient quality time for learning and development, and up-to-date facilities and a safe environment…
  • “Policymakers should expand the scope of schools in high-poverty neighborhoods to provide wrap around services including nutritional supports, health clinics, parental education, extended learning time, recreational programs, and other services needed to meet the social, physical, cognitive, and economic needs of both students and families.  Expanding the services and resources offered by schools has the potential to dramatically increase their impact…
  • “Policymakers should promote a policy context that is supportive of equal opportunity: use achievement testing for formative rather than high-stakes purposes, avoid policies that allow for school resegregation, and renew the commitment to public education.”

In a piece headlined, DeBlasio’s Plan to Lift Poor Schools Comes with High Costs and Big Political Risks, Kate Taylor of the NY Times points out that Mayor deBlasio framed his education address last week as a moral imperative: “There is a tale of two cities in our schools….  Each and every child, in each and every classroom deserves a future that isn’t limited by their ZIP code.”  In words I will always remember, I heard the Rev. Jesse Jackson say the same thing several years ago: “There are those who would make the case for a race to the top for those who can run.  But ‘lift from the bottom’ is the moral imperative because it includes everybody.”

Have we become so cynical in America that our default response is to scoff at DeBlasio’s vision as naive and too expensive?  Have we become so unwilling to tax those who can well afford to support public education that we are afraid even to aim for such a vision?

Fight Heats Up in New York Over Politically Connected Charter Schools

I wonder if you have ever been to a hearing at your state capitol when the charter school lobbying armies come to town?  I have, and I must say I found it very intimidating to testify in a room where I was one of only half-a-dozen people speaking for public school funding among hundreds wearing matched t-shirts and trying to protect their particular charter. Can you imagine what people would say about the waste of tax dollars if a public school district closed school for the day and bused all the parents, children, teachers, and school administrators to storm the legislature?

That is what Eva Moskowitz, the proprietor of the Success Academy Charter  Schools did on Tuesday in New York.  The NY Times reports that Moskowitz closed 22 of her schools for the day so that children and parents could be transported to Albany.  Moskowitz was well connected during the Bloomberg era.  The new Mayor, Bill deBlasio, has accused Moskowitz of manipulating NYC politics to deprive the 1.1 million children in New York City’s public schools of funds intended for the public system.  Moskowitz’s $475,000 annual salary is more than double the salary of the school district’s chancellor.

Mayor deBlasio has openly challenged Moskowitz’s power.  “And another thing that has to change starting January is that Eva Moskowitz cannot continue to have the run of the place,” the NY Times quotes deBlasio as having announced at a rally last year.  “I have had a lot of contact with Eva over the years and this is documented.  She was giving the orders and chancellors were bowing down and agreed.  That’s not acceptable.”

The new mayor campaigned on the promise that under his watch the city would stop giving well-heeled charter schools free rent when charters co-locate in buildings that house the city’s traditional public schools.  And last week, while deBlasio and his new chancellor of schools, Carmen Farina, approved several of Moskowitz’s schools for next fall, they denied Moskowitz the right to open three schools because these particular plans would co-locate children in the primary grades into spaces in high schools where Farina believes safety issues could arise or would displace programs for children with special needs.

Moskowitz has been able to manipulate political power on behalf of her charter schools for some time.  For example, back in the summer of 2012, the State University of New York’s Charter Schools Committee granted a 50 percent increase in the tax-generated per-pupil management fee to Success Academy Charter Schools despite that the Success Network had posted a year-end surplus of $23.5 million and spent nearly $883,119 on publicity and student recruitment in the last year including fees of $243,150 to SKD Knickerbocker, a New York pubic relations firm, and $129,000 to a Washington, D.C. consulting firm.  Moskowitz’s well funded schools have resulted in bitterness among parents in the traditional schools where the charters have been co-located, because the public schools lack money to purchase the kind of equipment and programming Moskowitz’s schools provide—right in neighboring classrooms.

Serious questions have been raised over the years about attrition at Moskowitz’s Success Academies as one reason the schools have been able to post high test scores.  It is suspected that children who struggle are being counseled out of school as they move toward the upper grades.  What is known is that the Success Academies serve fewer students with special needs and children learning English.  The NY Times reports that Chancellor Farina recently raised these concerns: “Chancellor Farina said on Tuesday that while some charter schools ‘do great work’ in helping children with special needs, or those with limited English proficiency, Ms. Moskowitz  ‘makes it clear these are kids she cannot help, necessarily, because she doesn’t have the resources for them.'”

Eva Moskowitz clearly has one prominent supporter.  New York Governor Andrew Cuomo showed up at Moskowitz’s Albany rally where he is reported to have declared, “We are here today to tell you that we stand with you.  You are not alone.  We will save charter schools.”

Mayor deBlasio attended another Albany rally instead, a rally of supporters for his proposal for universal pre-kindergarten for all of New York City’s children and for after school programs for pre-adolescents in the city’s middle schools. Governor Cuomo was not in attendance at this rally.

Universal Access and Public Ownership: Charter Schools Don’t Meet These Criteria

This past weekend a friend, realizing some of my concerns about charter schools, said, “Look.  You should go visit my friend’s charter school. He is doing a terrific job. You shouldn’t write off charter schools.”

Let me take this opportunity to go on record: I realize there are a whole range of charter schools including some that do a fine job of providing opportunities for their students.  There are quality charter schools.

But I also know that public school policy must be systemic.  Society can never balance the needs of each individual child and the rights of all children one charter school at a time.  Nor can we possibly achieve justice by creating a set of “escapes from the public schools,” charter school by charter school.  There is a problem of scale for one thing.  Public schools in America educate 50 million children.  The more promising alternative is to set about improving the public schools that struggle.  Struggling public schools are usually located in the poorest neighborhoods of our big cities, and they are almost always underfunded by their state legislatures.

Let me outline more specifically my concerns about relying on charters for school reform. My first concern is about access.  Charter schools serve about 6 percent of our students.  Quality charter schools that provide excellent education are doing so for a tiny percentage of the children who need opportunity. The great advantage of public education is that it is systemic.  No matter where you live—whatever state, city, suburb, small town, or rural area—you are promised a public school for your child.  Yes public schools have reflected the racism and economic inequality of the society in which they are set.  But as public institutions, they have been amenable to improvement by those seeking to make our society more just.

Charter schools are not so amenable to reform… which raises my second concern: public ownership, the right of the public to regulate the institutions that depend upon tax dollars. The public has the capacity to improve institutions that are publicly owned, publicly managed, and publicly regulated.  But charter schools, while they often call themselves “public charter schools,” are public only to the degree that they receive public dollars to operate.  In legal cases when charter schools have been sued, their attorneys have successfully argued that because they are private institutions, they are not publicly accountable.

As institutions funded primarily with tax dollars, charter schools ought to be accountable for protecting the children being educated at public expense, and they should be accountable for careful stewardship of the public dollars being spent.  Yet in too many places public oversight is missing.  While the federal government has been providing huge incentives for states to expand the number of charter schools through programs like Race to the Top, the federal government has no capacity to regulate charter schools.  Regulations must come from the fifty state legislatures, which are affected by politics and the gifts of political supporters.  My state, Ohio, is notorious for poor oversight of charter schools.  Here is the text of an e-mail blast this morning from William Phillis, Executive Director of the Ohio Coalition for Equity and Adequacy of School Funding:

“Charter schools sponsor, St. Aloysius Orphanage of Cincinnati, approved eight new charter schools for this school year. St. Aloysius contracted with Charter School Specialists of Pickerington to manage whatever responsibility the official sponsor has under law. These eight charter schools, named Olympus, applied for funding based on 1,600 students. Ohio Department of Education approved funding (deducted from public school district budgets) for 700 students rather than 1,600. These charter schools received $1.17 million of school districts’ money as of the end of October.  (It would be interesting to know how much of the $1.17 million went to St Aloysius and Charter School Specialists of Pickerington.)  All eight charter schools, with a combined enrollment of 128 students, have closed.  Three of the eight schools had a total of 15 students for which these charter schools received $29,200 per student for two months of instruction or the equivalent of over $130,000 per student per school year.  The spokesman for the Ohio Department of Education (ODE) was asked by a Dispatch reporter if any of the funds could be recovered. The ODE response was that he didn’t know if any individual could be held financially responsible for any overpayment.”  The details of Phillis’ comment are confirmed by the Columbus Dispatch.

For many of us across Ohio, for years there has been a sense of mystery about St. Aloysius Orphanage. How did  this former orphanage get so much power from the legislature to authorize charter schools all across the state?  Whoever ensured that organizations like St. Aloysius Orphanage got approved as Ohio’s charter school authorizers continues to ensure that the same favored authorizers continue to operate.

The Washington Post recently examined incoming New York Mayor Bill DeBlasio’s education platform as a challenge to the education policies of outgoing Mayor Michael Bloomberg.  DeBlasio has expressed concern about public stewardship of charter schools.  One of the things DeBlasio has promised is to begin charging rent when well-heeled charter schools occupy public school buildings. DeBlasio has flatly stated that “programs that can afford to pay rent should be paying rent.”  Earlier this fall  Success Academy charters, which have attracted additional state grants as well as private money, led a protest across the Brooklyn Bridge to protest DeBlasio’s proposal that such charters begin paying rent.  Eva Moskowitz, a well-connected former member of the NYC city council, is being paid $475,000 to run Success Academy’s charter schools.  According to The Washington Post, that is “more than twice the salary of the city’s schools chancellor.”