The charter school charade

November 13, 2009

Supporters of charter schools, who have nothing but power and money at their backs, nevertheless go out of their way to paint themselves as underdogs.

DURING THE first week of October, at faculty meetings across New York City, public school administrators warned their respective staff members to brace for a new round of budget cuts due at the end of the month.

The very next day, Harlem Success Academy (HSA), a small but growing charter school franchise, threw an open-bar back-to-school gala for parents and teachers at the Roseland Ballroom in midtown Manhattan.

I attended this ball as the guest of a co-worker whose grandson attends one of the HSA schools (there are currently four in New York City). For more than a year now, I have written and spoken out against charter schools, but this trip gave me a new perspective on the debate; I'm glad I went.

As I entered the ballroom, one of several enthusiastic greeters welcomed me: "Don't forget to pick up your free drink tickets!" Orange balloons and streamers hung from every nook and cranny, a slideshow projected pictures of happy elementary schoolchildren in HSA uniforms, studying, playing chess, showing off artwork and so on. On the edge of the stage, a jazz band played, and just as I entered, the singer began belting out Etta James' "At Last."

By the third time someone offered me hors d'oeuvres, I couldn't stop wondering: Who's paying for all of this?

My co-worker arrived and gave me an earful of what, from her perspective, makes HSA so great. "It's like a private school," she told me. "My grandson is learning the same thing the kids downtown are learning. He loves to go to school."

Besides what she sees as a stronger curriculum (including foreign language study in elementary school), my co-worker returned again and again to the issue of student and parent behavior. "They don't tolerate what we tolerate," she said several times. What is it HSA doesn't tolerate? According to my co-worker: disruptive children and parents who don't play an active role in their child's education.

I asked her to elaborate on this difference between the public school where she and I work, and the HSA school her grandson attends. What does it mean to "not tolerate" disruptive children or non-attentive parents? It means, essentially, that you and your child can be removed from the school for failure to comply with your HSA contract. For parents, that means not only signing your child's homework every night, but your presence at your child's HSA soccer game is mandatory! "It's like they're teaching you how to be a parent," my co-worker told me.

Harlem Success Academy runs four charter schools in New York City

Given the scale of the crisis (Black unemployment is rising four times faster than white unemployment in New York City), it's not surprising to hear that parents are eager to rescue their kids from the devastation other families are experiencing. "But what about parents who work two jobs?" I asked, "What about parents who can't do all of that?" My co-worker didn't have an answer.

AS THE ballroom began to fill up with hundreds of Black and Latino parents, I began to notice young teachers arriving in groups, many wearing large buttons that said, "Hi-five me, I'm a teacher!" Standing in the back of the Roseland ballroom, it sure seemed like everyone--kids, teachers and parents--was happy. As the old saying goes, it's hard to argue with success.

Then the program began.

First, we were shown a video that told the story of Harlem Success Academy. The camera dropped in on teachers working in colorful, clean classrooms. We saw children at work and at play. Everyone was smiling and laughing.

In one segment, children took turns dancing for a worm's-eye-view camera, finishing each set of moves by flashing a piece of paper with a large "4" at the lens--which was meant to indicate a top score on one of New York state's standardized tests. The music for this celebration of test scores was upbeat and irresistible. I found myself feeling sorry for a boy who did his best for the camera, but only had a "3" to hold up.

To my surprise, the next segment featured many of the protests against charter schools that have taken place around the city. At one point, they showed the picket line from the very first day of school at PS 123. The line formed at the separate HSA entrance to the building.

"Can you believe that? They protested at a school!" my co-worker fumed, her voice full of disgust. I responded, "What they're not showing you is what HSA did to PS 123. They took over more classrooms and dumped the teachers' stuff into PS 123 classrooms--that's why they're protesting."

Those demonstrations, to my surprise, turned out to be a theme of the night. Again and again, we heard about the "protesters outside." The very first speaker was an HSA parent. "There are protesters outside here tonight," she told the crowd. "We want to let them know that they can't push us aside!"

Next up was the CEO of Harlem Success Academy, Eva Moskowitz. She went for her biggest applause line early in her remarks. Bragging about HSA's high test scores last year, she pumped her fist in the air: "We didn't just meet Scarsdale [a wealthy New York suburb], we BEAT Scarsdale!"

First of all, show me a teacher who doesn't think that last year's test scores were grossly inflated to boost Mayor Michael Bloomberg's re-election bid, and I'll show you a teacher who doesn't work in New York City.

But even taking those scores at face value, it turns out that the secret to HSA's success has less to do with improving scores than with enrolling high scorers.

A recent NYC Department of Education accountability report--released to the public, but very quietly--shows that traditional public schools serve more than three times more English Language Learners and nearly twice as many Special Education students as charter schools. But according to the same report, even though charter school students scored higher on standardized tests, the traditional public schools actually did a better job at raising test scores.

To be honest, I couldn't hear much of what Moskowitz had to say. After a few initial cheers, parents and teachers became more interested in talking to each other, and simply drowned her out. At one point, she spent several minutes shushing the audience.

From what I did hear, her most revealing remarks came at the very end, when she introduced New York City schools Chancellor Joel Klein. "If you're the U.S. Postal Service, you don't exactly embrace FedEx," she told us, "but this chancellor has done that."

It took me a moment to pick my jaw up off the floor. Moskowitz's metaphor spoke volumes about the charter school "movement." For parents, of course, it's about trying to find something better for their kids. For Moskowitz, it's about privatization and union-busting--FedEx has not only fought off every attempt to unionize delivery drivers, it doesn't even call them employees! The drivers are classified as "independent contractors," which makes them ineligible for (among other things) unemployment benefits. Is that her vision for the way teachers should be treated?

For his part, Klein didn't seem the slightest bit embarrassed at the comparison. He was beaming as he rose to the podium. "I'm thrilled to be among you," he began. "You don't tolerate mediocrity. You insist on excellence!"

Over the din of hundreds of casual conversations, Klein, too, was mostly inaudible. I could make out the themes, though. He mostly talked about the civil rights movement. He mentioned that his wife had clerked for Thurgood Marshall. Describing the education system of those days, he concluded: "It sure was separate, but it was never equal."

He went on to praise Harlem Success Academy for finally fulfilling the mission of the civil rights movement. I thought to myself: Surely, he realizes he's speaking to an audience entirely composed of Black and Latino parents! Surely, he realizes that he's speaking to people who still attend segregated schools! What was the point of his message? That HSA schools "may be separate, but now they're equal"?

Who needs Brown v. Board of Education? Klein seemed pleased to have fulfilled the promise of Plessey v. Ferguson! I have a hard time believing this irony would have been lost on Thurgood Marshall himself.

JUST WHEN I was ready to make my exit, the next speaker caught my attention. He was a tall, African American man. By his age, and dynamic manner of speaking, I supposed he was a veteran activist. Clearly, this man was on the side of charter schools, though, so I was interested to hear what he had to say. "That's Dr. Fuller," my co-worker told me.

Dr. Howard Fuller, I would later learn, was a Black Power activist who became a privatization-obsessed insider long ago. As Klein has in New York, Fuller spent his four years as superintendent of Milwaukee's public schools pushing privatization. He was an early proponent of school vouchers and later served as an education adviser to George W. Bush. His mission in life seems to be lending "civil rights" credentials (and thus African American support) to privatization schemes.

The organization he founded, the Black Alliance for Educational Options was made possible by the generosity of the Bradley Foundation and Walton Family Foundation. The Bradley Foundation is infamous for sponsoring the activities of racists such as David Horowitz (who authored the "Ten Reasons Reparations for Slavery Is a Bad Idea--and Racist, Too" ad) and Charles Murray (whose book The Bell Curve argued that African Americans were intellectually inferior). The Walton Family, of course, owns Wal-Mart and is one of the top donors to right-wing causes (such as opposing affirmative action) nationwide.

As I listened to Fuller's speech, I knew none of this. But in retrospect, his credentials shed light on his remarks--particularly the way he began. "I'm not going to ask you to be quiet," he thundered, "I'm going to talk right over you!"

He poured out contempt for the anti-charter school protesters. "Why would anyone protest you sending your kids to a great school?" he asked, his voice thick with sarcasm. Of course, he made no mention of the boxes, books and furniture that HSA piled up in PS 123 classrooms this summer or the overcrowding caused by HSA's "natural" growth.

All of this was just the warm-up, though. Fuller's main act was to channel Frederick Douglass.

Judging by the noise, almost no one was listening as Fuller raised himself to his full height and conjured from memory a lengthy selection from the great abolitionist's famous argument that "if there is no struggle, there is no progress!" He boomed, "Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never has, and it never will."

I don't know about you, but when I think of people with "power," I think of Barack Obama or Michael Bloomberg or even Joel Klein. Each of those figures is a staunch advocate for charter schools. So what "struggle" could Fuller possibly be talking about? And as for the "power" he wants to see concede, I can only think that he must be referring to the United Federation of Teachers.

With that thought, the whole evening clicked together for me like the pieces of a puzzle. That's why the video and the speakers made such a big deal out of the anti-charter school protests--the whole point is for the charter school "activists," who have nothing but power (not to mention money) at their backs, to paint themselves as underdogs.

BUT I learned something else from attending this event. My co-worker and her grandson are genuinely happy with Harlem Success Academy. Those of us who think it's important to defend public education have to find a way to talk to people like her, or we're sunk.

In 1968, my union went on strike against the aspirations of a section of the Black community to have control over their own schools. Since that time, it's been all too easy for city administrators to pit parents against teachers. Parents--especially African American parents--have seen their kids' educational opportunities shrivel, and teachers have conceded away precious rights in contract after contract. Here, another Frederick Douglass quotation actually does fit: "They divided both to conquer each."

My union better hurry up and figure out how to overcome this division, or pretty soon, there won't be much of a union left.

Nowhere is this truer than in Harlem. The public elementary school where I work in East Harlem has lost 30 students to charter schools since September. It's time that teachers use whatever muscle we have left to wage a serious fight to make the public schools a place kids will love to attend. Parents should be our natural allies in this struggle.

The first step is recognizing that public education will only be fixed not by destroying it nor by funneling public money to private entities, but by giving every school the kind of resources we know are needed to make great schools.

The second step is remembering that power concedes nothing without a demand. It never has, and it never will.

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