Michele Somerville is the mother of three former NYC DOE public school students, as well as a writer and an educator.

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Saturday, May 18, 2013

NYC's Charter School Smackdown: Who Are The Real Panderers?

On May 17th, the 59th anniversary of Brown v. Board of Ed, the New York Daily News reported this question Harlem Success Academy founder and charter schools advocate Eva Moskowitz put to Public Advocate and mayoral hopeful Bill de Blasio:
We're glad Bill de Blasio recognizes the great work of our schools, teachers and students, so it begs the question why he repeatedly vows to stop us from serving these very children if he becomes mayor... New York's schoolchildren need a leader, not a panderer.

The truth is that de Blasio praised the students in those schools not the schools themselves. But Moskowitz's question is a good one, the answer to which begins with the recognizing that it can be difficult to know exactly who the villains and heroes are in the charter school dispute, because the grey areas are muddy and the ground keeps shifting. One navigates a steep and labyrinthine learning curve when aiming to fathom the problems besetting our school system. Issues and opinions change with each academic year. On one hand, we have the desire for all children to receive the education they deserve; on the other, the hope and expectation that the New York City public school system might function effectively, lawfully and justly.

An educator and a NYC DOE parent, I have tended to occupy a center position on the matter of charter schools. I have praised the work of Eva Moskowitz in the past. She appears to have a and a gift for pedagogy and a formidable intellect (This, despite her erroneous use of "begging the question" in the afore-cited soundbite.) Unfortunately these qualities are all to rare in todays public school teaching force. The I learn about what I have come to see as the the great white hope of "privatization," the more alarmed I become.
Still, it is easy to see how people who actually care about children might be seduced by the great white hope of privatization, but as this solution takes hold, it increases the quotient discrimination in an already profoundly corrupt and institutionally racist NYC DOE (New York City Department of Education). It also sends some pernicious political messages, "un-American" ones: separate but equal education ought sometimes be tolerated; unions are to be scorned and disregarded.
I am no UFT apologist. Certainly there is no doubt that the UFT (United Federation of Teachers) is responsible for waste incompetence in the schools. But selling New York City schools to the highest bidders is at least as disgraceful as any malfeasance that might be attributed to the UFT.
Certainly charter schools have rescued many children, many of them poor students, many of them Latino and black. But to embrace and implement a solution that savages the schools New York City's poorest students attend is a to throw down with a type of "ends justifies the means" logic for improving our schools.
The charter school movement is often characterized as racist. Although I'm not convinced it is, I do find creepy Moskowitz's penchant for trotting out a cadre of black and Latino parents the NY1 (local television news) truck rolls up. This public relations version of "Some of my best friends are..." offends and misleads. That some parents of black and Latino children rendered desperate by a racist, corrupt, ineffectual and dumbed-down school system find themselves persuaded to proffer laudatory pro-charter school soundbites does not mean that the Eva Moskowitz solution is a just one. Charter school supporters are quick to remind us that its colocation neighbors receive matching funding for any improvement exceeding $5,000.00, but benefactors and new school beneficiaries find ways to circumvent this.
In 2010 a small, so-called "selective" high school--not a charter school (but worse, in my estimation) was planned in secrecy and abruptly "colocated" ((DOEspeak for thrust into a building in which other schools operate) in John Jay Complex, a gargantuan public school in Brooklyn in which three struggling schools with chiefly black, Latino and English as a Second Language students were enrolled. ere ope. The new school's founder and principal was appointed and engaged in hiring a staff even before the Panel for Educational Policy even convened to vote on whether to "colocate" the school. The school opened with the help of private funding which is available to newly "articulated" schools alone. Students staff and parents of students attending the schools already operating in John Jay were blindsided, but they were promised many improvements to the school building, and that the four school communities would share extra-curricular programs. The "selective" school opened amid much criticism. The principal admitted enough students of color to ensure that the nickname "Apartheid High" would not stick. (The school is 36% white, 19% Asian, 26% Latino and 22% black.)
Two years later, the shiny new school soon has an extensive after-school program, makes use of the building's pool, and boasts pristine classrooms with state of the art equipment.The English class in which I worked, in that same building, in one of the floundering schools, had an excellent and engaging, teacher, a great assistant principal, but not enough paperback copies of Othello for the 50% of students, almost all black, who showed up for first period Senior English. Not that it mattered; few could of them could read anywhere near well to get through the play.
I loved the students I came to know. They were, by the way, quite intelligent. However I was demoralized each time I departed the building, going from the mayhem of the "black kids'" school (as neighborhood children still call it) to the educational oasis that was the "great white hope" school established to serve Brownstone Brooklyn students unable to find places in New York's "elite" public high schools. To say it was like "night and day" is as much an understatement as it is a clichĂ©. Every time I passed the new school's lounge well-appointed with carpets and non-municipal-looking furnishings, I was appalled to find it empty. Every teacher I saw through a classroom door window was white. "Separate but Equal" in living color. Or not. I have no problem with shiny white teachers; I was one in my youth. Yet, I wonder what kind of message that sends, and puzzle over the shiny white school's apparent preference for white teachers.
One of the things I do very much admire about Eva Moskowitz is that unlike so many DOE NYC fiefs who "found" these "separate but equal" programs, Eva Moskowitz is not black student-averse. I give Moskowitz "props" for making her bones in Harlem. She knows that there is nothing wrong with the minds of students like those I with whom I worked a bit, last spring. They can't get through Othello because they are victims of race-based cumulative educational malpractice. Moskowitz knows how dangerous social promotion is, how the problem ramifies, thrusting unprepared students through a system like pork through a grinder. Eva Moskowitz knows what is wrong with a system more dedicated to graduating students fraudulently than to educating them. In my own brief incarnation as a public school English teacher I saw up close how the sausage got made. I was disgusted by this on a daily basis, the the biggest problem facing the New York public schools: institutional racism.
The second biggest problem--which relates quite directly to Moskowitz's appeal--is that the pedagogical brain trust of the DOE is woefully deficient. Principals, teachers, superintendents and those writing curricula and assessments are neither as intelligent nor as well-educated as teachers ought to be. The public school system has immense difficulty retaining intellectually gifted educators. Thus, emerges an Eva Moskowitz as a breath of fresh air with her degree from University of Pennsylvania and doctorate in History.
Moskowitz has some great ideas about how to educate children--but privatization as a solution to the crisis in our public schools is not one of them.
The schools Moskowitz runs require parents to be heavily involved in their children's schools. Certainly this is optimal. I took immense pleasure in being involved in my childrens' schools. However, I learned while working as a teacher, and later, through my work as an activist working with children at risk and struggling students, that not all children have the luxury of involved parents. The charter school movement discriminates against them, despite that these are the children who most need excellent schools. Homeless families, families without computer access, very young parents, and non-English speaking parents are unlikely to even know about the existence of lotteries for the schools Eva Markowitz opens. Furthermore, children who are poor, challenged by learning disability, and already failing to make progress often wind up jettisoned from these dream charter "success" schools. Where do they go? Back to the very schools the charter school movement is currently engaged in savaging.
A civilized public education system takes to heart its obligation to educate all of its children, especially those who are struggling. Every time a charter school opens, some weak school in its district--or even in its own building--takes a hit. The best of the poor The cost of a "separate but equal" solution will be dear down the line, a boost for the corrections industry (which is an industry) but not for much else.
Not long ago, New York City once had excellent public schools in which poor people received quality education. Something began to happen, fifty or sixty years ago, to the public school workforce, something from which the system never fully recovered. The advent of Feminism changed things. Forty years ago an intelligent woman interested in medicine was more likely to become a nurse than a physician. Fifty years ago a woman with a knack for reading, writing, philosophy, research and advocacy became a teacher instead of a lawyer. The public school system bled out, in a sense, and teaching wound up dumbed down. The drying up of the supply of intellectually gifted women coupled with the (relatively speaking--for a professional) low pay teachers recive gave way to a troubling dependence on teacher education programs lacking in rigor and an intellect deficit among teachers and administrators. Teacher education programs, even ones operating out of reputable universities, pour a plethora of mediocre and terrible teachers into the void feminism created every year.
This, at least in part, resulted in a public school system which is a massive swirling maelstrom of bloat, ineptitude and waste. "It's no wonder there are "50,000 students on waiting lists for charter schools," as Eva Moskowitz says. She's right; it is no wonder. And it's no wonder privatization sometimes looks like an answer. But citizens, the mayor, educators and those who run schools need to remain on the high road. Bill de Blasio is right.
We need a better think tank to dream up a better system--not more charter schools creating the need for more charter schools.
Moskowitz implies that Bill de Blasio is pandering in desire to support the UFT and in his disinclination to support charter schools, but it's actually the privatization-mad informers who are the panderers, slavering after the privatizers.

5/18/13 Michele Somerville, Bklyn

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