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Wednesday, September 3, 2008

On the first day of school, a visit to the Excellence Charter school in Bed-Stuy

Jenny Medina of the NY Times captured the following exchange during the usual dog and pony show of yesterday’s media tour of the first day of school:

In a kindergarten classroom — its door designating the students inside as members of the Class of 2025 — Mr. Markowitz cornered Mr. Klein. “Why can’t our public schools have a place like this?” he asked a bit testily. “Do you know the resources it takes for a place like this?

Elizabeth Green of the NY Sun also observed this conversation:

On a visit to the Excellence Charter School, which is housed in a sparkling new 90,000-square-foot school building in Bedford-Stuyvesant, the president of Brooklyn, Marty Markowitz, became visibly agitated.

"Listen to me," he said to the schools chancellor, Joel Klein, as the two toured a classroom, "we have some public schools that are starving for these kinds of resources."

Mr. Klein replied that some schools are doing as well as Excellence with more modest budgets.

Mr. Markowitz was not convinced; he said that while he supports charter schools, he is "conflicted" about the extra resources they sometimes receive from private donors.

"I really believe the jury is out on this whole thing," Mr. Markowitz said, walking out the door.

Is it all a matter of private donors? According to the school’s website,

Excellence is housed in a 90,000 square-foot, state-of-the-art facility with a 10,000-volume library, a 500-seat auditorium, music and art studios, a gymnasium, a climbing wall, a rooftop turf field, and sufficient classroom space to house Excellence as it grows into a K-8 school.

According to InsideSchools, the building was renovated from a former DOE public school (PS 70):

In the new facility, students will enjoy amenities that rival deeply-endowed private schools. Designed by Yale School of Architecture Dean Robert A.M. Stern, the renovated building includes an AstroTurfed roof garden/play yard with sweeping city and harbor views, secluded and inviting book nooks on every floor, double-sized science labs, a giant gymnasium complete with climbing wall, a spacious school library, and a state-of-the-art auditorium. Sawicki lives around the corner from the new building.

Here are some before and after photos, including this photo that looks like there are about ten kids per class. So where did all the money for this incredible facility come from?

See this 2006 article from Fortune magazine, about the Robin Hood foundation and its founder, “hedge fund maestro Paul Tudor Jones” :

“The school is the product of a pooling of dollars by the New York City Board of Education, Robin Hood, and Jones personally, plus contributions from a variety of corporations.

The school's physical plant, including a fabulous AstroTurf roof, would be the envy of any $30,000-a-year private school. Inside, groups of energized young teachers and little boys, kindergarten through second grade (and 100% minority), in white shirts and ties, ready themselves for the coming school year. Principal Jabali Sawicki tells me there is a 170-student waiting list.

Just a few years ago this building was a neighborhood eyesore, a symbol of all that had gone wrong in Bed-Stuy. Originally constructed in the 1880s as PS 70, and later used as a yeshiva, it became a home to drug dealers and prostitutes after a fire in the 1970s - even a venue for illegal cock fights.

Then, in 2004, another organization that Jones supports, Uncommon Schools, committed $30 million ($6 million from Jones personally) to buy and renovate the property. David Saltzman, the executive director of Robin Hood, persuaded Robert A.M. Stern, dean of the Yale School of Architecture, to design the facility, which was completed this spring. Signs throughout the school were done gratis by renowned design firm Pentagram. And Robin Hood sent a check for $150,000 for the school's operating budget. Books were donated by Scholastic and HarperCollins, which have given a collective two million volumes to Robin Hood…”

This 2006 article notes how the Robin Hood Foundation raises hundreds of millions per year; from charity concerts of the Rolling Stones (take: $11 million); benefit dinners hosted by Jon Stewart with guest star Beyonce, and the auctioning off naming rights to charter school buildings going for $1 million:

Most charity dinners in New York are considered a smash if they bring in $1 million. Here success is measured in tens of millions. "If you are on Wall Street, particularly in hedge funds, you have to be here," says one of my tablemates….The final tally? In a single night Robin Hood hauls in $48 million. Some $20 million is earmarked for the new school - which will be matched by the board, $2.25 for each $1. And New York City schools chancellor Joel Klein, who at one point during the gala, at Jones's urging, stands and takes a bow, has said the city, in turn, will match the combined sum (as well as the amount of a tax credit). Overall, the $20 million for the school will grow to $180 million. The cost to put on the dinner? Around $5.6 million.

And the cost to taxpayers: $90 million.

In answer to the Fortune reporter’s question: Don't charter schools draw precious resources away from other public schools?

Jones makes no apologies: "Charter schools are the best thing that ever happened to education in New York City because they provide competition to regular public schools and raise the bar that everyone is trying to attain. They provide thought leadership for other schools, so again there's a multiplicative impact."

This is Klein’s usual response as well. Wonder why so many other schools in Brooklyn and citywide still have substandard conditions.

Can someone explain to me how that competition thing works again?


Gail Robinson said...

The private money is a largely untold part of the charter school story. When charter schools first came on the scene -- before they came to New York -- advocates often cited them up as evidence that children could be educated more effieciently, without the bureaucracy and union contracts of conventional public schools. Charters were put forth as offering more bang for the buck, spending the same amount per pupil as the regular schols and getting better results.

Now, of course, at least in New York, that's not the case. Every charter in the city that I'm aware of (a small sample, I admit) gets some additional funding beyond the per pupil allocation from the government. Charter schools' defenders say this is needed to pay for facilities but the funding goes far beyond that. I can't remember how many press releases I received this summer for benefits for the Ross School, all pricey and all in the Hamptons.

There may be good arguments for charter schools but the fact that they do more with less isn't one of them. Instead they offer more proof that with more resources, schools can do more.

Anonymous said...

This is actually incorrect. The majority of charter schools do more with less - they get about 90% of the funding that the district gets, and none of the facility funding unless they a) fundraise or b) get facilities from the district. Most, if not all charters are committed to running at below the amount the district spends.