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Monday, April 6, 2009

What's Wrong with This Picture?

Below are three paragraphs of a story run in Friday’s New York Times entitled, “City Backs Down on a Plan to Replace Three Public Schools with Charter Schools:”

The city’s Department of Education, facing a lawsuit accusing it of violating state law, retreated on Thursday from a plan to shut down three traditional public schools to make way for charter schools.

The schools — Public Schools 194 and 241 in Harlem, and Public School 150 in Brownsville, Brooklyn — were originally scheduled to close their doors to new students in the fall, the first step in a gradual phaseout. But education officials said that the schools would remain open, though they cautioned that they could be closed in the future if they did not improve….

Mr. White stood by the decision to gradually shut the schools, which had persistently scored low on the city’s report cards and were unpopular among families. He said the incoming charter schools were receiving large numbers of applications from children zoned for the three schools — a sign, he said, of the undesirability of the traditional schools.

What’s wrong with this picture?

First, where are the DOE’s efforts to improve these schools? Is improvement of schools not the DOE’s number one responsibility? If these schools’ principals and/or teachers are not up to the job, then by all means replace them. If the resources and facilities are inadequate, by all means upgrade them. When did the DOE’s responsibility shift from “improvement” to “closure,” from “it’s our job to fix this” to “let’s shut it down and give it to somebody else?” Why are so many New Yorkers accepting this policy of piecemeal privatization of a public school system virtually without comment?

Second, how is one to read the DOE’s cautioning that these schools “could be closed in the future if they did not improve?” Who is ultimately responsible here, and who is being threatened? Since when is John White’s and Joel Klein’s DOE separate from the principals and teachers of these schools? Isn’t this statement a bit like saying, “If I don’t do a better job soon, I’m going to fire myself?” How is it that we are systematically letting the Chancellor separate himself from the failures of the very schools he is paid to improve? Or are we paying Mr. Klein out of taxpayer dollars just to let him auction off our public school buildings to the next “edupreneur” who knocks on his door?

Third, and related, how many times do we have to listen to the DOE (and others who should know better) argue that Harlem parents’ enthusiasm for charter schools is a measure of “the undesirability of the traditional schools” and, by inference, the innate superiority of charter schools? Of course Harlem parents are applying for their children to go to charter schools! They’re not blind or foolish. They see where the DOE’s money and effort and focus are going. They see that charters often provide extra attention, smaller classes, and all the extracurricular activities our public schools lack – and that this administration refuses to provide.

See, for example this comment from a parent shopping for a Harlem charter school in a recent New York Times article:

Many families at the fair said they had grown tired of cuts to public schools. Sonia Davis, who lives in the South Bronx and works for a jewelry company, went to the fair to look at charter schools because she was frustrated with the large classes and lackluster extracurricular programs at her neighborhood schools….

“You’ve got to have baseball, chess, cheerleading, drama, debate, poetry, and music — oh God, music — like cello and violin,” said Ms. Davis, who has two daughters. “I like charter schools because they don’t just have children bubbling in tests; they give them time to unwind.”

Why is this rush toward charters not seen for what it really is: a broad-scale indictment of Chancellor Klein’s failed tenure? If after seven years at the DOE’s helm, the best he can offer is an escape from the very schools he has failed to improve, isn’t that effectively a statement of surrender on his part? Or is failure the goal, part of a localized “shock doctrine” program that paves the way for a back door public school privatization program that would never have been approved by public referendum?

Finally, and perhaps most curiously, why has Harlem become the DOE’s attack zone, the ground zero of public elementary school closings targeted with yet two more (and the threat of more charter intrusions into buildings like the Langston Early Childhood Learning Center, PS 185, on W. 112th Street)? Were Harlem’s schools really so much worse than the rest of the City’s? Perhaps Harlem’s mid-Manhattan Island location, an area that is rapidly gentrifying, is more conveniently accessible than the Bronx or Brooklyn from the Upper East Side where so many of the new, chauffeured class of educational entrepreneurs reside.


Anonymous said...

baseball, chess, cheerleading, do charter schools do that?

THE TEACHERS WORK MORE. Amazing things can happen when you work extremely hard and put in an extra 90 minutes / day...and UFTers are still crying about their 37.5 minutes a day (which most of them piss away anyway).

And that crack about the upper east side, nice try. Shows you how many charter school people you actually know. Maybe Harlem has become the hot spot because a fraction of the kids who live there read on grade level. Maybe it's because the community has gotten a taste of effective non union schools and they have DEMANDED more by fleeing unionized schools where pathetic teachers can't be gotten rid of.

What PS did your kid go to? I'm guessing you wouldn't STEP FOOT in those failed Harlem schools if your life depended on it...unless of course you were carrying a picket sign to keep them open.

Kudos to the mayor and klein for saying enough is enough to the UFT and not letting another generation of kids slip through the cracks. Time to clean house and start from scratch.

Patrick J. Sullivan said...


If people feel charter schools are better, then it is important to know why. I think part of the idea behind charters was to free them to do things differently so we all learn from their successes. Are you saying the primary advantage is that their workforce is not unionized therefore they can be asked to work longer hours and be fired at will? Are there other ways charters are better than traditional public schools?

If the union is the only problem, then I don't understand why those other schools you allude to seem to do fine, as do the unionized schools in the communities that surround nyc.