If you don’t live in New York City or don’t plan to, why exactly should you care about what’s happening in New York City schools? Well, beyond the fact that the New York Metro area is home to nearly 6% of all the people that live in the United States, or perhaps because of that fact, many battles that the nation is facing or will face tend to play out in New York first, and in dazzling technicolor melodrama as well. In particular, I’m talking about the battle over charter schools in NYC right now as the new populist mayor Bill deBlasio faces off against Eva Moskowitz, the famous founder of the much vaunted “Success Academy” schools hailed in the documentary “Waiting for Superman”.
Beyond the Harlem Success Academy featured in the documentary, Moskowitz has opened 21 additional schools in the city and makes nearly $500,000 per year. There are a lot of facts at play in this debate (taken from the NYT article that inspired this blog), so I want to get everything out on the table right away:
- The Success Academy schools serve about 6,700 students in the city, 90% of whom are black or hispanic, and have had tremendous success with state test scores, outpacing public schools.
- Opponents have charged that Success Academy school scores are skewed for a few reasons:
- Schools skim the top students from surrounding public schools, leaving all the students who are behind or have discipline problems in the already financially challenged public schools.
- Success Academy schools serve a much lower percentage of special needs and non-native English speakers than public schools.
- Moskowitz’s group has been charged with aggressive tactics and political bullying as they move into new school districts, often either taking over existing public school buildings entirely, or taking large blocks of classrooms within those buildings while the normal public school goes on around them.
Some of these issues are specific to New York City context, and given that this isn’t a New York City blog, I don’t want to dwell on those issues. However, I do believe that this battle is a microcosm for the debate going on about charter schools across the country. On the one hand, it’s perfectly reasonable to argue that whoever can do the best job educating kids should be allowed to educate them. Despite my liberal tendencies, I’m actually not totally against the idea of charter schools if they’re done well. The basic idea: that an entity other than the government might be able to provide a better education for kids, isn’t necessarily flawed at all. Still important questions have to be asked of any charter school initiative, in my opinion, before it can be allowed to move forward:
- Democratic Control: Will the citizens and parents have an opportunity to inform and shape the experience of their children in the charter school as they do in public schools?
- Access: Do charter schools achieve success by “skimming” and leaving the remainder of students in a failing public school system, or are they open to all, as public schools are? Do these new charter schools take their fair share of students? What about non-native english speakers, minority, low-income, and special needs students?
- Not Rivalrous or Exclusionary: This plays off of access, but beyond just students, does the existence of a charter school in the area drain resources from existing public schools? If so, does it also take an equivalent student load from those existing schools to keep resources balanced? In the case of NYC and other cities, this can sometimes come down to the literal spaces where school is held as well, coming down to a fierce, classroom by classroom political fight.
- Ethical Teaching: This seems like a given, but some more “non-traditional” charter schools have achieved success on tests through methods not exactly considered kosher by the majority of the public.
- Fair Working Conditions: Many who watched the Waiting for Superman documentary, and many across the country will say that the teachers’ unions are at the root of many problems in education. Whether or not you believe this, I think it’s fair to say that teachers are generally underpaid and overworked and aren’t given enough institutional support from school administration. In public schools, teachers have a union to go to bat for them, but if this isn’t the case, how can we ensure good work conditions for our teachers, and thus good educational conditions for our kids?
- Necessary: What are charter schools proposing to do that is different? If they have a completely new model of education, perhaps they need their own school and space to try to make it work. However, if charter schools are largely proposing the same system with a few improvements, different staff, and a new building, there often isn’t any reason these same resources and new tactics can’t be applied to existing public schools without further splitting resources to create more and more schools.
This list is far from exhaustive, but to my mind, if a charter school can answer those six questions adequately, I have no problem with a new charter school in my neighborhood or any neighborhood. I agree completely that whoever can do the best job of educating kids should be given that job, but placing the school system in a constant competition, draining resources from already struggling institutions, and making teachers and administrators feel under attack both from their students and parents and from the administration will not produce better educational outcomes for students. Just because it’s possible that someone could do a better job than someone else does not automatically mean that the principles of market competition are going to enhance the situation or solve the problem. Alternative and opposing solutions do not need to “compete for marketshare”, but their ideas, if valid and correct along those six parameters above, those ideas should be implemented by the education community at large. Perhaps that means reform of public schools, or perhaps it means opening a charter school in an area, but making the whole thing into a free market where better funded schools swallow up and destroy poorer schools is not how we educate our children for the future.
TL;DR Charter schools aren’t all bad or all good. They can be either, but they are often done poorly, in a hurry, and/or for the wrong reasons.