When Bill de Blasio was a candidate for Mayor he created shock waves by saying that he would make charter schools that operate in public school buildings pay rent. Whether or not that helped him get elected last November, a few weeks ago when he refused to allow former City Councilwoman Eva Moskowitz to co-locate three of her Success Academy charters in crowded public schools with special needs students, he set off a firestorm. She claims, basically, that the Mayor is victimizing low-income students and their parents and she has engaged the help of Gov. Andrew Cuomo to reinforce that message.
Do she and her charter school peers and benefactors not have the ability and connections to find space for their charges? Do they not have money to pay rent? Could they succeed if they did not usurp the space intended for public school students that charters do not enroll? Success Academy pays Moskowitz $485,000 per year. Last year it hired the political consulting firm SKD Knickerbocker for $519,000. For that money, SKD could have lit the match that set off the fireworks, singeing de Blasio with charges of being mean to minority children, and inspiring Cuomo to promise to “save” charter schools. With this posture he seizes the opportunity to appear to defend the poor even as he benefits his hedge fund campaign contributors.
Basically charters are public schools that are allowed to operate free of the regulation – such as union rules governing teacher salaries and working conditions – that most public schools must abide by. In exchange they must demonstrate better results. Many do. Others don’t. Through the years the New York City Department of Education had to close a few of them for poor performance even before their charters came up for renewal. Others have been outstanding. The same can be said for New York City’s public schools. The two operations are so different that they thwart real comparison. [The charters make their case at http://www.nyccharterschools.org Public school teachers explain theirs at http://www.uft.gov ] Clear, reliable data on the long-term benefits of charter schools versus public schools is hard to come by, which may mean that ultimately the schools are on par with each other. I have not heard either side declare unqualified victory, which could mean something as well.
Let’s take a brief and truly insufficient look at charter schools: at one extreme was Courtney Sale Ross, socialite widow of billionaire Steve Ross. Granted a charter to create Ross Global Academy, she was given space in Tweed Courthouse, landmarked headquarters of the city’s department of education. In 2010 after five years of poor performance and the development of a middle school that was described as “violent,” it was closed for poor performance. At the other end of the spectrum are the Promise Academy Schools, created in partnership with the Harlem Children’s Zone. Its website reports that at Promise Academy II, 100 percent of third-graders were at or above grade level on the 2008 statewide math test. At Promise Academy I, 97 percent of the third-graders were at or above grade level in math.
The well-funded public relations offensive for three Moskowitz schools makes one wonder if the charter school movement, notably in New York City, seeks not to inspire, but to discredit. Seeks not to augment, but to drain public schools of resources. Well-funded private financial entities, traditionally enamored with the privatization of public goods like schools and libraries, and hostile to unions that preserve jobs and wages, are bringing themselves under scrutiny as well.
Charter schools have refused to open their books and be as fiscally transparent as public schools and their administrators are required to be. Moskowitz successfully filed suit to bar the state comptroller from auditing her 22 schools, all of which are funded by tax-payers but which also receive the above-mentioned private support.
Happily, journalists have pointed out the whopping salaries that charter school administrators earn and the cash-fueled political alliances at the root of many of these schools. In the N.Y. Daily News Rachel Monahan provided a list of more than 16 such schools. At the top was Deborah Kenney, chief executive officer of Harlem Village Academies, which has two schools. She is paid $499,000. Compare this to New York City Schools Chancellor Carmen Fariña who earns $212,000 and is responsible for 1.1 million students, including those with special needs who seldom find a place in charters. In the N.Y. Times, Michael Powell discusses Eva Moskowitz who is paid her $485,000 to administer 20 schools. A separate foundation established by hedge fund manager Joel Greenblatt and his wife pays half her salary. Both are Cuomo’s campaign contributors. Powell’s column is rich with political connections and a word on Moskowitz’s political action committee.
This Sunday Ginia Bellafante of the N.Y. Times observed, among other things, that charter school advocates have a public relations operation that rivals Paramount in the 1940s. She also pointed out that KIPP charter schools, with 141 schools in 20 states and the District of Columbia, including 11 in New York City, conducted a study in which it found that only a third of students who had completed a KIPP middle school in the previous decade had graduated from a four-year college. This is better than the average for low-income schools around the country, but still far short of KIPP’s mission.
At their best, charter schools could serve as laboratories for new models of education. Maybe a longer school day and an 11-month school year could lead to a better-educated nation. Data may show that some day. Meanwhile, it seems that education is not truly what charter schools, which began to take their present form after state legislatures authorized them in 1990, are really all about. Based on overall results for students so far, I don’t see that they are doing a better job than public schools. Certainly when it comes to their finances, charters and their backers don’t want officials to do the math. They may find that they would have done better to just pay the Department of Education some rent.