Ravitch on Charters: NY Review of Books and Bill Moyers Interview

According to the NY Times, a deal has been cut in a New York state budget bill that will stop New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio from charging rent to charter schools and also prevent his halting the practice of co-location (putting charter schools in buildings that already house a traditional public school).  The budget agreement will preserve these policies of Mayor Bloomberg that Mayor de Blasio has sought to end. “Most significantly, the legislation would require the city to find space for charter schools inside public school buildings or pay much of the cost to house them in private space. The legislation would also prohibit the city from charging rent to charter schools, an idea Mr. de Blasio had championed as a candidate for mayor.”

Mayor de Blasio had resisted New York City’s tradition of accommodating charter schools (funded with public money and in New York endowed additionally by wealthy financiers) with rent-free space in public buildings. While he approved the majority of requests for new space from charter schools in February (the charter school co-locations had been pre-approved by Mayor Bloomberg before he left office), Mayor de Blasio attempted to cancel plans for three schools affiliated with a network known as Success Academy Charter Schools.  Two of the schools would have moved very young children into high schools, a situation de Blasio believed created safety issues.  A third would have threatened space currently housing physical therapy and other special services for disabled students.

New York’s governor Andrew Cuomo is known to favor charters.  This blog has tracked his significant campaign finance support from charter operators and wealthy members of their boards here and here.  The NY Times quotes Cuomo on the new budget agreement: “We want to protect and grow and support that charter school movement, and this budget does that.”

The education historian Diane Ravitch, herself a New Yorker, has spoken twice during the past week to clarify the issues underneath the political war over privatization and charters.  In an article published by the New York Review of Books, New York Schools: The Roar of the Charters, Ravitch describes the privileged status of particular charter school chains under former Mayor Michael Bloomberg, the rage of their supporters when someone has the audacity to speak up for the needs of the 94 percent of NYC children in traditional public schools, and the “ardent devotion” of Governor Andrew Cuomo to the charter cause, a devotion that “may have been abetted by the $800,000 in campaign contributions he received from charter advocates in the financial industry.”  Ravitch hopes the public will begin to understand what it  means “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.”  “That lesson may ultimately be the undoing of the 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.”

Then over the weekend Bill Moyers aired a half-hour interview with Diane Ravitch on PBS.  Moyers and Ravitch cover lots of ground—the money behind the movement for privatization of public education, the role of individuals such as  Netflix CEO Reed Hastings, and the role of far-right organizations such as the American Legislative Exchange Council.   Here is part of Moyers’ introduction to the program:

“And whatever you think about the merit of charter schools versus public schools, merit is no longer driving the debate.  What’s driving the debate is money.  The charter movement is now part of the growing privatization of public education, and Wall Street sees an emerging market.  Take a look at this piece published last fall on Forbes.com.  ‘… dozens of bankers, hedge fund types and private equity investors…’ ‘gathered to discuss… investing in for-profit education companies…’  There’s a potential gold rush here.  Public education from kindergarten through high school pulls in more than $500 billion in taxpayer revenues every year, and crony capitalists and politicians alike are cashing in.”

Ravitch declares, “I think at the rate we’re moving now, we will see places like Detroit, New Orleans, Washington, D.C., Philadelphia, Kansas City, Indianapolis, and many, many other cities where public schools become, if they exist, they will be a dumping ground for the kids that the charter schools don’t want.”  Ravitch knows that the competition for test scores set up by No Child Left Behind and programs like Race to the Top puts the schools serving society’s most vulnerable children at a terrible disadvantage, and competition creates incentives for charter schools to make sure they (often subtly) screen out children whose scores are likely to be low.  “So if you’re going to make scores the be all and the end all of education, you don’t want the kids with disabilities.  You don’t want the kids who don’t speak English.  You don’t want the troublemakers.  You don’t want the kids with low scores.  You want to keep those kids out.  And the charters have gotten very good at finding out how to do that.”

Here is the full interview as it aired on PBS.   If you prefer,you’ll find  a transcript here.  And on Moyers’ Public Schools for Sale page, you’ll find additional articles and resources.