The power to stop the charters?

March 24, 2014

New York City Mayor Bill De Blasio promised he would stop giving charter schools a free pass. Don Lash reports on what it will take to stop the charter takeover.

THE ELECTION of a new mayor who signaled his intention to be less accommodating to charter schools in New York City has resulted in a full-blown political battle, with the well-heeled charter lobby and its supporters in business and government going on the offensive to protect the privileges the charter school movement has come to expect as its right.

Even before Bill De Blasio was elected, his victory in the Democratic primary and status as presumptive victor over a weak Republican opponent raised fears among the most politically powerful charter school operators. De Blasio said he opposed the practice of his predecessor, multibillionaire Michael Bloomberg, of "co-locating" charter schools in public school buildings by giving the charters free space.

In response, Eva Moskowitz, a former City Council member who has created a network of 22 "Success Academies" occupying public space, essentially called a one-day strike on October 8 of last year, canceling classes and pressuring parents, students and staff to march on City Hall in a display of power ahead of the election.

Eva Moskowitz
Eva Moskowitz

Typically, co-location takes space away from public school students, forcing schools to restrict access to libraries, take away space for art, music and special education therapy providers, and eliminate special programs such as robotics. Some schools have had to tell young children they must change floors to use a bathroom, or eat lunch at 10:30 a.m. Often, the charter school begins with renovated space, new computers and books, and preferential access to shared resources.

Under the Bloomberg administration, co-location often went in tandem with school closings, with "successful" charter schools being brought in to occupy space vacated by "failed" closing schools, with the charter adding grades and taking more space as the closing school eliminated grades. The co-located schools were serving very different student bodies, however, as charters serve significantly fewer students with disabilities and emerging bilingual students.

Even studies sympathetic to charter schools have had to acknowledge the disparities. A 2013 report from Stanford University, financed by the wealth generated by Walmart for the Walton Family Foundation, noted that New York City charter schools had fewer than half as many students classified as English Language Learners and around 30 percent fewer students designated as a special education students than in traditional public schools.

Even the lower percentage of students receiving special education services is misleading, however, as charter schools--unlike the public school system--are not under any obligation to serve all students with disabilities. Those with a need for extensive, specialized services can be excluded from charters because they don't have the special classes and services recommended to meet the students' needs.

A charter school student can also be pushed out by a recommendation for more extensive services not available from the charter school, forcing the parents either to forego the services or remove their child from the charter. Another strategy for push-out of students deemed undesirable is accelerated suspension and constant calls to the parent to come and take the child home.

While charter schools have long denied that push-outs occur, one parent from one of Moskowitz' Success Academies made secret recordings of school administrators employing both strategies in an effort to force her to remove her son.

Charter school push-out practices are extremely effective. In January 2014, the city's Independent Budget Office (IBO) found that only 1 in 5 students with disabilities who enrolled in a charter school for kindergarten were still there three years later.

CHARTER SCHOOLS have pushed the claim that they are public schools, and are therefore entitled to free space. Unmentioned is the provision of state law defining charter schools as "non-public" schools for purposes related to special education. Moskowitz sued the state to prevent the controller from auditing her books, successfully arguing in court that they are not public entities.

Charter schools are determined to have it both ways, being public schools when it comes to consuming public resources, and private schools when it comes to accountability.

The IBO, a fiscal watchdog independent of City Hall, has consistently found that co-location results in charter schools receiving higher public funding per pupil than public schools. In addition to public funding practices that favor charter schools, some--but not all--are backed by the wealth of the financial elite.

Sometimes, support is direct, as in corporate raider Carl Icahn's endowment of a network of Icahn Charter Schools in the Bronx. Charter school boards of trustees include hedge fund managers and corporate officers, who often make sizable donations and fund-raise among their peers. Charter schools also benefit from networks of foundations, think tanks, lobbying organizations and "education reform organizations" pumping money into controlling the future of charter schools and public education.

The money available for charter schools has supported bloated salaries for administrators. Moskowitz' salary is just shy of half a million dollars for heading a network of 22 schools--more than double what public schools Chancellor Carmen Fariña is paid for running a system of some 1,500 schools. Another charter school founder, Eddie Calderon Melendez, paid himself a similar salary for running three schools--until he was accused of failing to file tax returns and using a school credit card to finance a trip to Europe.

Eventually, Calderon pled guilty to tax evasion and agreed to pay his taxes. While corruption is certainly not limited to charter schools, their independence and lack of oversight creates opportunity for both legal and illegal graft.

The lack of accountability means that charter schools can operate like private businesses, financing professional marketing efforts. Moskowitz' Success Academy network presumably has the distinction of being the first publicly supported school system to be a finalist for the Best Use of Mobile Marketing Award from a cell phone marketing association.

DE BLASIO has not taken aggressive action to challenge charter schools' selection and push-out policies, or proposed changes to make them more transparent and accountable, but he did pledge soon after taking office in January to halt future co-locations, including by canceling some that have not yet occurred but were agreed to by the Bloomberg administration.

Even as he announced the changes, slick, professionally produced commercials began airing throughout New York City. The commercials are paid for by Families for Excellent Schools, a non-profit lobbying entity founded by Wall Street figures in 2011, which has the same mailing address as the New York office of StudentsFirst, the lobbying arm of national corporate reform advocate Michelle Rhee.

Further proof of the big money interest in preventing any challenge to the privileges of charter schools was provided when New York state's Democratic governor chose to go public with his opposition to De Blasio's decision against new co-locations. At first blush, it might seem remarkable that a governor would decide to involve himself in a local school building allocation dispute, and his choice of venue might also seem remarkable.

On February, 24, at a private breakfast roundtable for business leaders at the Harvard Club, where public school parents are most likely to be found staffing the waffle station and clearing tables, Cuomo announced that he would support state funding to replace any loss of subsidy caused by the end of co-location.

Of course, both the message and the venue seem less remarkable in light of the volume of campaign contributions Cuomo received from charter school board members and backers, including more than $375,000 from Moskowitz' board members alone.

Cuomo's next demonstration of support for charters was more public. In a remarkable act of political theater, Moskowitz called another one-day strike for March 4, this time loading parents and students into buses rented by her backers for a drive to the state capital in Albany.

The rally was timed to compete with--and overshadow--a much smaller rally in Albany that De Blasio was holding to generate support for his plan to tax earnings over $250,000 to finance universal pre-kindergarten services. Cuomo appeared at the rally and pledged his support for co-location. The pro-charter media focused primarily on the optics--highlighting the larger crowd at Moskowitz' rally and praising Cuomo for skillfully upstaging De Blasio.

A few progressive journalists have raised questions about who bankrolled the Moskowitz rally, and pointed out Cuomo's financial ties to the charter school lobby. Others have pointed out that advocates of mayoral control of schools under Bloomberg seemingly turned into opponents as soon as De Blasio issued a tentative challenge to the power of charter schools.

Nevertheless, the money and corporate interests backing charter schools translate into formidable power to disseminate a message.

WHAT IS needed in New York City is a mass movement of parents and educators demanding quality schools for all students in all neighborhoods. The charter school lobby threatens to undermine the potential for such a movement by trying to pit parents against one another--Black parents discouraged about the prospects of improving their neighborhood schools against parents of English Language Learners, and parents of general education students against parents of students with disabilities.

The danger and hypocrisy of the charter school lobby's narrative has been recognized by the New York Collective of Radical Educators (NYCoRE), which calls for democratic, community-based quality schools available universally rather than by lottery.

The struggle to achieve that vision requires countering the divisive and deceptive message of the charter school lobby. It should not, however, lead to indiscriminate hostility to all charter schools. It should be recognized that charter schools aren't completely homogenous. There are progressive charter schools that offer specialized programming prioritizing homeless children, children with child welfare system involvement and children with incarcerated parents. Some have a percentage of students with disabilities that exceeds the surrounding public schools.

The power of the corporate model of high-stakes test-driven charter schools cherry-picking students from the public schools and pushing "low performers" out is perhaps a greater threat to progressive charters than it is to public schools.

The logic of "push-out" that is applied to students will ultimately be applied to the charter school movement as a whole, and charter schools offering progressive models to students with unique needs will not be tolerated in the long run. Parents, students and educators at these institutions have more to gain by making common cause with the defenders of public schools than with the charter school lobby.

Ending co-location and scaling back on the related phenomenon of massive school closings is a welcome, though inadequate, first step. The fight against the corporate charter school movement is inseparable from the fight for the schools our children deserve.

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