Moskowitz and Petrilli Push Education Model Designed to Serve Strivers and Shed the Rest

It is amazing to watch Eva Moskowitz, New York City’s charter school diva, take on her arch political rival, Mayor Bill de Blasio in a charter school war she wages through histrionics and melodrama.  The two were rivals in New York’s city council, and only recently did Moskowitz decide not to challenge de Blasio for mayor in the next election.  She has amassed a powerful backing—from billionaire hedge fund managers to New York’s governor Andrew Cuomo, who has proven himself responsive to the money Moskowitz’s supporters have donated to underwrite his own political campaigns.

Moskowitz, who eschews the term “brand,” has spent lots of time and money creating one.  It has been documented here and here that she and her supporters have employed the Washington, D.C. communications firm, SKD Knickerbocker, whose managing partner is Anita Dunn, the former communications director for the Obama White House.  One problem Moskowitz may not see, due to her obsession with building the power of her own Success Academy Charters, is that she may be damaging the entire charter school “brand” by persistently demonstrating the ethical problem inherent in school choice: such programs favor the few who are most promising at the expense of children who are more vulnerable and less desirable.

First, a couple of weeks ago, the PBS NewsHour aired a piece filmed by John Merrow on the outrageous suspension rates for children in Kindergarten and first grade at Success Academy Charters.  (This blog covered Merrow’s report here.)  Eva responded, typically, by attacking PBS and John Merrow.  Then last Thursday, Kate Taylor reported in depth for the New York Times on a Success Academy charter school that singled out children for disciplinary action after the school had determined that some children should be on a “Got to Go” list.  Taylor explains, “Success Academy, which is run by Eva S. Moskowitz, a former New York City councilwoman, is the city’s largest charter school network.  It has 34 schools, and plans to grow to 70 in five or six years.  The network serves mostly black and Hispanic students and is known for exacting behavior rules.  Even the youngest pupils are expected to sit with their backs straight, their hands clasped and their eyes on the teacher, a posture that the network believes helps children pay attention… Good behavior and effort are rewarded with candy and prizes, while infractions and shoddy work are penalized with reprimands, loss of recess time, extra assignments and in some cases suspensions, as early as kindergarten.” While Success Academies must follow strict New York guidelines before expelling any student, Taylor reports that, “Success’s critics accuse it of pushing children out by making their parents’ lives so difficult that they withdraw.”  Taylor interviews parents who were called repeatedly to come to school and who were threatened that the school would call 911 if their very young children’s behavior did not improve. The implication, of course, is that if Success Academies can shape their classes by driving out “problem students”  before third grade when federally mandated testing begins, the test scores will be higher.

It has occurred to me to try to put together for this blog a history of the outrageous behavior of Eva Moskowitz, which this blog has covered on many occasions, but Daniel Katz, the director of the teacher preparation program for secondary and secondary special education teachers at Seton Hall University, accomplished just such a project over the weekend.  I urge you to read Katz’s blog post, Eva Moskowitz and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Month.  It is a wonderfully readable profile of Eva and the building of her brand.  Katz begins by filling in some history for those of us who may have forgotten: “Since founding her first school in 2006, her network has grown to 34 schools with 11,000 students, and she is on track for 43 schools by next year with a goal of 100 eventually.  Her school lotteries were portrayed as the only hope of desperate parents in Waiting for Superman, a 2010 documentary/propaganda piece by Davis Guggenheim, and email records demonstrate that the administration of Mayor Michael Bloomberg lavished her with preferential treatment.  When both the state legislature and the office of Comptroller tried to exert legal authority to audit how Success Academy spends the public money it receives, Moskowitz has gone to court to block them – and won.  Her deep pocketed backers can raise millions of dollars on her behalf in a single night, and their donations to New York Governor Andrew Cuomo, along with donations from Moskowitz’s own political action committee, have guaranteed preferential treatment from the Governor’s office…  In July of this year, billionaire hedge fund manager John Paulson, gave a single $8.5 million gift to the network for creating even more schools. My goodness, but it is good to be Queen.  But things have unraveled a bit for Moskowitz.”

In recent days, Eva has called on her supporters to try to help with damage control.  One of them, Michael Petrilli, president of the pro-school choice, pro-charter Thomas B. Fordham Institute, published an op-ed in the New York Daily News last Friday that declares what has has become Petrilli’s argument for charters: that they should be permitted to shun students who pose behavior problems.  The headline screams: The Real Moral Duty of Charter Schools: The Goal Should Be to Create Orderly and Challenging Environments Where Strivers from Poor Families Can Learn.  Petrilli explains that “troubled students have a statistically significant negative effect on their peers’ reading and math test scores.” He continues: “Parents understand this, and the desire for orderly schools with high expectations for student behavior is a major reason they search out high-quality charter schools.”  Petrilli criticizes public school policies: “They have to serve all comers, including students with significant cognitive disabilities and children who can’t speak a word of English.  To accomplish this next-to-impossible feat, (teachers are) told to ‘differentiate their instruction.’  We do this in the name of kindness, liberalism, and above all, ‘equity.'”

Petrilli does not discuss ways that better funded public schools could surround struggling children and families with social services or reduce class size to ensure more personal attention for each child.  Neither does Petrilli admit that what he is advocating is a system of traditional public school districts of last resort for the children who are not to be favored by attending places like Eva Moskowitz’s charter schools.  Perhaps, although he will not admit what may be the ultimate logic of his argument, he thinks there are some children who do not deserve to be educated at all.

School choice has been rapidly expanding now for two decades, and we need to be honest about what is happening across our cities.  If the parents who are the most persistent, savvy strivers opt out of the public schools and the charters find ways to shed the least desirable children, we end up with a nightmare in which parents with grit and children with discipline are are served and the rest of the children warehoused in the poorly funded institutions we require to serve all the children who appear at the door. It is a system based on competition and the exclusion of the children who show the least promise.

We ought to notice and consider the implications when politicians and far-right think tanks advocate through their actions and words that we move away from the ideal of inclusion that has been central to our understanding of public education.  Our society’s concept of public ethics has historically been influenced not only by the secular concept of the social contract but also by the traditional religious definition of justice, which springs from the belief that all are created equal, no person more valuable than another.  At a Washington, D.C. town hall in December of 2011, the Rev. Jesse Jackson warned about the meaning of competitive school choice: “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.”

Another religious leader, the Rev. J. Philip Wogaman, the retired pastor of Washington, D.C.’s Foundry United Methodist Church, defines justice in terms that directly challenge the thinking of Eva Moskowitz and Michael Petrilli as they defend school choice: “(J)ustice is the community’s guarantee of the conditions necessary for everybody to be a participant in the common life of society… If we are, finally, brothers and sisters through the providence of God, then it is just to structure institutions and laws in such a way that  communal life is enhanced and individuals are provided full opportunity for participation.” (Christian Perspectives on Politics, p. 216)

Excluding “Over-the-Counter Children” to Protect Elite High Schools

The first time I heard the term “over-the-counter” children, I was with a group visiting New York City, where we were listening to a presentation on school choice in New York from a researcher who used the term in an off-hand way.  We visitors looked at each other and someone asked, “What are over-the-counter children?”  “They are the children who don’t participate in school choice,” we were told.  “Their parents don’t fill out the high school application, or they arrive after the school year begins, or they are homeless.  They just come to the school and try to register.”

My mind jumped immediately back to January of 1960, when my family moved to Havre, Montana on a day that I clearly remember was 35 degrees below zero.  We spent our first night in the Siesta Motel because our furniture had not arrived.  In the morning my mother took me to the Havre Junior High School to register me for the second semester of the seventh grade.  I was sent immediately to class while my mother went off to get us settled.

I was an over-the-counter child.  So were most of the members of the group at our meeting that afternoon in New York City.  We talked about that term, “over-the-counter children,” during dinner that night.  Isn’t that a derogatory term, a term that commodifies children—sort of like aspirin, something you can buy over-the-counter without a prescription? Shouldn’t parents be able to show up to enroll their children in school?  Isn’t that what “the public” in public education is supposed to be about?  For most adults across America, if we moved as children to a new place, our parents took us to school to get us registered.  I had not realized that the term had become an official designation in New York City until I read a report published last week by the Annenberg Institute for School Reform: Over the Counter; Under the Radar.  The report exposes shocking details about how these children fare in the system despite that it ignores my own concerns about the term itself.

“Every year, some 36,000 students who enroll in New York City high schools without participating in the high school choice process are labeled as “over-the-counter” or OTC students and are assigned a school by the New York City Department of Education (DOE).  These young people are among the school system’s highest-needs students—new immigrants, special needs students, previously incarcerated teens, poor or transient or homeless youth, students over age for grade, and students with histories of behavioral incidents in their previous schools.”  The report explains that the challenge of placing such students has grown under the administration of Mayor Michael Bloomberg, as the number of zoned high schools where neighborhood students could enroll by default has been vastly diminished.  Under Mayor Bloomberg school choice at the high school level has become virtually universal.

School choice plans always do the best job of serving the students who understand or whose parents understand the way the application process works and have the emotional, social, financial, and linguistic capacity to learn the options and complete the application process.  In a report several years ago, the New School Center for New York City Affairs documented that a serious problem for eighth graders in New York City is that middle school counselors struggle to master the vast array of high school options, and anyway case loads for middle school counselors are so large that students who can best navigate the high school choice process tend to be those whose parents are able to guide them actively as they learn about high school options and fill out the application.

In the new report, the Annenberg Institute examines whether students classified as “over-the-counter,” who are assigned by the system to available seats, are being sent to high-scoring high schools or to schools with lower test scores and most especially to schools that have already been identified for school closure.  Here is what the Annenberg researchers describe in their findings:

“OTC students are disproportionately assigned to schools with higher percentages of low-performing students, ELLs, and dropouts.” “Large and medium-sized struggling high schools had, on average, a more than 50 percent higher rate of OTC student assignment than the rest of the high schools.”  “Assignments of such massive numbers of OTC students can quickly destabilize schools’ instructional efforts and dismantle long-established, supportive academic cultures.”  And finally, as New York City has begun phasing out large comprehensive high schools, “During each year of the phase-out process, teachers and support staff leave as the closing school’s student population declines… In seven of these thirteen phasing-out schools, the OTC assignment rate was more than 25 percent.”   The scathing report charges that the New York City Public Schools continue to assign students classified as “over-the-counter”—students who bring enormous needs—to schools that are ill-equipped to serve them. The school district has been protecting the test scores of higher-scoring high schools by neglecting to assign high-needs, “over-the-counter” students to the more prestigious high schools.  At the same time the school district continues to phase out and close low-scoring high schools, where ongoing assignment of the most challenging students further diminishes the test scores and virtually ensures these schools will be deemed “failing.”

The Annenberg Institute report is particularly timely this week in the context of the emergence of an intense conversation in the blogosphere about the morality of what has become a national, corporatized school reform strategy premised on providing escapes for the students who are most motivated or whose parents can successfully negotiate school choice to get them into high-scoring magnet or charter schools.  Michael Petrilli spawned the conversation in his recent post at the Education Week blog, Bridging Differences, The Especially Deserving Poor.  Anthony Cody pushed back, also at Education Week, in his Living in Dialogue post, Social Darwinism Resurrected for the New Gilded Age.  Finally Richard Rothstein at the Economic Policy Institute contributed to the conversation with Does “Poverty” Cause Low Achievement”?  I urge you to read carefully all of these pieces along with the new report from the Annenberg Institute.

Together these thoughtful reflections raise the central moral concern about today’s school reform that devalues all the many children who might be broadly described as “over-the-counter”—society’s least precious—the children we can discount because, we might imagine, they aren’t so likely to amount to much. Once educational opportunity depends on competition for choice slots, the most able children win while those who are most vulnerable are likely to be left out and left behind.  For a vision that lifts up opportunity for every child, check out the new Principles that Unite Us, also released just last week, by the American Federation of Teachers, the National Education Association, the National Opportunity to Learn Campaign and nearly one hundred allied organizations.  And consider the very profound words of the Rev. Jesse Jackson: “There are those who would make the case for a race to the top for those who can run.  Instead ‘lift from the bottom’ is the moral imperative because it includes everybody.”