Saturday, April 19, 2008

Charter School Frenzy in Harlem

Imagine you’re a parent whose child will be entering first grade next September. Imagine as well that your town’s Board of Education has announced three public school closings in your area in just the last year and has graded seven or eight others as failing, a sure sign of more closures. Let’s take it one step further – your Board of Education has announced that 30 public elementary and middle schools in your area will likely forfeit roughly $10,250,000 from their current budgets by the 2009/2010 school year, while just 13 other public elementary schools will be adding about $1,851,000 (a net loss of $8.4 million that surely constitutes a statement of non-support to your community).

Finally, add to this cocktail of despair one ray of hope. Your Superintendent of Schools has established 18 new small schools in your area, with promises of still more to follow. Furthermore, that same Superintendent positively beams with pride over these new schools, clearly his favored children and his vision of the future. Where the vision is, of course, you know the money and effort will follow.

So, as the parent of a soon-to-be first grader, what do you do? What does a person dying of thirst in the desert do when offered a glass of water? What does a drowning person do when a life raft is tossed his or her way? You rush like a day-after-Thanksgiving shopper to enlist for the newest small school as soon as it is begins taking applications.

Where does this community exist? Right here in Manhattan, specifically in Harlem and East Harlem (Districts 4 and 5). All the numbers above are taken from DOE and NY Charter School Association data: school closures, schools with Progress Report grades of D or F, budget reductions under the paradoxically named Fair Student Funding formulas, and the number of charter schools in the Harlem area.

Before the local newspapers calm down from their orgiastic heavy breathing over Thursday night’s lottery at Eva Moskowitz’s Harlem Success Academy (see NY Daily News article, NY Daily News editorial, NY Post article, and NY Post guest editorial), a single slow, deep breath might be in order. To begin with, the DOE under Mayor Bloomberg effectuated an Orwellian triumph with last night’s scene, demonstrating its policy that “Failure Is Success.” Since when can 3,600 applications for 600 non-public school seats be viewed as a measure of the Mayor’s and Chancellor’s successful shepherding of the public schools? To the contrary, Thursday night’s frenzy only emphasized the desperation of NYC parents to escape a system the Mayor was charged with improving. Like parents anywhere else, those in Harlem are only doing the intelligent thing -- putting their children’s interests first based on what they see going on around them. In all likelihood, they aren't looking so much for charter schools per se as they are looking for any public school that works and that's being supported by the City. The DOE has made that choice crystal clear in Districts 4 and 5.

After five years of misrule and depressing lack of progress, the DOE is now end-running itself to convert Harlem into a veritable charter school educational district. Two entire school districts are effectively being privatized by stigmatizing their public schools with D and F letter grades (creating a self-fulfilling prophecy) and withdrawing budgetary funds to hasten their failure.

Joel Klein reportedly attended last night’s event, apparently anxious to see (gloat over?) the results of his handiwork at close range. Rather than expressing concern over Harlem parents’ panicked flight from public schools as a vote of “no confidence” in his stewardship, he waxed positively transformational about the proceedings. This event will “go down in the history of school reform,” he asserted. Don’t worry, Mr. Chancellor; it already has, and -- in the corporatized fashion of current American democracy -- with nary a vote.


NYC Educator said...

Well said. And as long as they can keep staging love-fests like this one, they can ignore the other million plus kids in the city. They've got considerable practice and are getting very good at that.

Anonymous said...

"600 non-public school seats"? Huh? I assume you do in fact know that charter schools are public schools, and are intentionally misrepresenting this simple fact. Why is it that you, who purport to represent parents, would seek to remove from them that fundamental element of liberty: choice?

Steve Koss said...

I chose the words "non-public school" to differentiate those seats from the ones most people traditionally think of as public school seats. Charter schools are publicly funded but privately run -- at best, a public school hybrid.

As for the question of choice, I am all in favor of it, but not as a replacement of the traditional public school system. This Mayor was given control of the public school system for the sake of accountable improvement, not for the sake of taking it apart and replacing it with something else.

What we are seeing in Harlem is the gradual, DOE-induced (or at least tolerated) failure of multiple elementary and middle schools as part of an education agenda on which the public has never been given the chance to vote. Where is the "choice" in that? I don't remember ever voting to replace the public school system with a charter school system. Do you?

Steve Koss said...

A further thought. Why shouldn't charter schools be an alternative choice rather than a necessary and almost only choice?

Why should so many parents (40% of all parents of Harlem four-year-olds, according to the Daily News's Errol Lewis) feel so compelled to have to make such a choice?

Why shouldn't those parents have neighborhood elementary schools that are just as well-funded, high performing, and administratively supported as any charter school? Isn't that the true choice we want parents to have?

Isn't that the choice we assumed Mr. Bloomberg was offering six years ago when he promised to be accountable for improving our schools?

Harlem parents clearly know the story under this Mayor. Chancellor Klein's beaming presence at Thursday night's lottery, and his gratuitously self-inflated commentary about the history of educational reform, only confirmed what they already knew.

It's not about choice, it's about following where the Mayor and all the money is leading. Pure and simple.

Steve Koss said...

One last thing that has really grated on my nerves. I do not, as you put it, "purport to represent parents." I was a public HS teacher, was a CEC member, now a PTA President, so I have several perspectives. In the end, though, I respond to news and editorials, ask questions, and analyze DOE data for the sake of providing information and expressing a hopefully informed parent's opinion. Readers are free to agree or disagree, as you have, but I do not presume to speak for anyone other than myself. I believe that is true of all those who write for this site.

Anonymous said...

Charter schools are the "only choice"? Where? They certainly don't have a majority of market share in Harlem. But then again, why not make it all charters? That seems like a good step forward to me.

Also, I love that the same folks who rail against every reform attempt by Bloomberg and Klein - the constant reorgs, using test data for tenure decisions, etc. - are now claiming that Klein is just letting the Harlem DOE schools fail. Talk out both sides of your mouth much?

Charter schools are not a hybrid. They are publicly funded and they're usually run by public employees. That makes them a public organization. An organization need not be bureaucratic, incompetent, and unable to fire teachers who hurt kids in order to be considered public.

Lastly, my apologies for the "purport to represent parents" comment. I didn't do my homework on your background.

Anonymous said...

The only reason that we have charter schools is to circumvent the UFT contract.
Stop blaming teachers for children who come to school ready to disrupt classes.
It is because of liberal thinking that our schools are in the condition they're in today.
The biggest joke is that our school experts have either never taught or were briefly in a classroom.
All those who criticize teachers: Get yourself a license and start teaching in one of our many SURR schools. I taught for 33 credited years. Get a taste of what it's like.