If Charter Schools Are 'Public' Schools, Why Are They Allowed to Shun Needy Students?
It is amazing to watch Eva Moskowitz, New York City’s charter school diva, take on her arch political rival, Mayor Bill de Blasio in a charter school war she wages through histrionics and melodrama. The two were rivals in New York’s city council, and only recently did Moskowitz decide not to challenge de Blasio for mayor in the next election. She has amassed a powerful backing—from billionaire hedge fund managers to New York’s governor Andrew Cuomo, who has proven himself responsive to the money Moskowitz’s supporters have donated to underwrite his own political campaigns.
Moskowitz, who eschews the term “brand,” has spent lots of time and money creating one. It has been documented here and here that she and her supporters have employed the Washington, D.C. communications firm, SKD Knickerbocker, whose managing partner is Anita Dunn, the former communications director for the Obama White House. One problem Moskowitz may not see, due to her obsession with building the power of her own Success Academy Charters, is that she may be damaging the entire charter school “brand” by persistently demonstrating the ethical problem inherent in school choice: such programs favor the few who are most promising at the expense of children who are more vulnerable and less desirable.
First, a couple of weeks ago, the PBS NewsHour aired a piece filmed by John Merrow on the outrageous suspension rates for children in Kindergarten and first grade at Success Academy Charters. (This blog covered Merrow’s report here.) Eva responded, typically, by attacking PBS and John Merrow. Then last Thursday, Kate Taylor reported in depth for the New York Times on a Success Academy charter school that singled out children for disciplinary action after the school had determined that some children should be on a “Got to Go” list. Taylor explains,
“Success Academy, which is run by Eva S. Moskowitz, a former New York City councilwoman, is the city’s largest charter school network. It has 34 schools, and plans to grow to 70 in five or six years. The network serves mostly black and Hispanic students and is known for exacting behavior rules. Even the youngest pupils are expected to sit with their backs straight, their hands clasped and their eyes on the teacher, a posture that the network believes helps children pay attention…Good behavior and effort are rewarded with candy and prizes, while infractions and shoddy work are penalized with reprimands, loss of recess time, extra assignments and in some cases suspensions, as early as kindergarten.”
While Success Academies must follow strict New York guidelines before expelling any student, Taylor reports that, “Success’s critics accuse it of pushing children out by making their parents’ lives so difficult that they withdraw.” Taylor interviews parents who were called repeatedly to come to school and who were threatened that the school would call 911 if their very young children’s behavior did not improve. The implication, of course, is that if Success Academies can shape their classes by driving out “problem students” before third grade when federally mandated testing begins, the test scores will be higher.
It has occurred to me to try to put together for this blog a history of the outrageous behavior of Eva Moskowitz, which this blog has covered on many occasions, but Daniel Katz, the director of the teacher preparation program for secondary and secondary special education teachers at Seton Hall University, accomplished just such a project over the weekend. I urge you to read Katz’s blog post, Eva Moskowitz and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Month. It is a wonderfully readable profile of Eva and the building of her brand. Katz begins by filling in some history for those of us who may have forgotten:
“Since founding her first school in 2006, her network has grown to 34 schools with 11,000 students, and she is on track for 43 schools by next year with a goal of 100 eventually. Her school lotteries were portrayed as the only hope of desperate parents in "Waiting for Superman," a 2010 documentary/propaganda piece by Davis Guggenheim, and email records demonstrate that the administration of Mayor Michael Bloomberg lavished her with preferential treatment. When both the state legislature and the office of Comptroller tried to exert legal authority to audit how Success Academy spends the public money it receives, Moskowitz has gone to court to block them – and won. Her deep pocketed backers can raise millions of dollars on her behalf in a single night, and their donations to New York Governor Andrew Cuomo, along with donations from Moskowitz’s own political action committee, have guaranteed preferential treatment from the Governor’s office… In July of this year, billionaire hedge fund manager John Paulson, gave a single $8.5 million gift to the network for creating even more schools. My goodness, but it is good to be Queen. But things have unraveled a bit for Moskowitz.”
In recent days, Eva has called on her supporters to try to help with damage control. One of them, Michael Petrilli, president of the pro-school choice, pro-charter Thomas B. Fordham Institute, published an op-ed in the New York Daily News last Friday that declares what has has become Petrilli’s argument for charters: that they should be permitted to shun students who pose behavior problems. The headline screams: The Real Moral Duty of Charter Schools: The Goal Should Be to Create Orderly and Challenging Environments Where Strivers from Poor Families Can Learn. Petrilli explains that “troubled students have a statistically significant negative effect on their peers’ reading and math test scores.” He continues: “Parents understand this, and the desire for orderly schools with high expectations for student behavior is a major reason they search out high-quality charter schools.” Petrilli criticizes public school policies: “They have to serve all comers, including students with significant cognitive disabilities and children who can’t speak a word of English. To accomplish this next-to-impossible feat, (teachers are) told to ‘differentiate their instruction.’ We do this in the name of kindness, liberalism, and above all, ‘equity.'”
Petrilli does not discuss ways that better funded public schools could surround struggling children and families with social services or reduce class size to ensure more personal attention for each child. Neither does Petrilli admit that what he is advocating is a system of traditional public school districts of last resort for the children who are not to be favored by attending places like Eva Moskowitz’s charter schools. Perhaps, although he will not admit what may be the ultimate logic of his argument, he thinks there are some children who do not deserve to be educated at all.
School choice has been rapidly expanding now for two decades, and we need to be honest about what is happening across our cities. If the parents who are the most persistent, savvy strivers opt out of the public schools and the charters find ways to shed the least desirable children, we end up with a nightmare in which parents with grit and children with discipline are are served and the rest of the children warehoused in the poorly funded institutions we require to serve all the children who appear at the door. It is a system based on competition and the exclusion of the children who show the least promise.
We ought to notice and consider the implications when politicians and far-right think tanks advocate through their actions and words that we move away from the ideal of inclusion that has been central to our understanding of public education. Our society’s concept of public ethics has historically been influenced not only by the secular concept of the social contract but also by the traditional religious definition of justice, which springs from the belief that all are created equal, no person more valuable than another. At a Washington, D.C. town hall in December of 2011, the Rev. Jesse Jackson warned about the meaning of competitive school choice: “There are those who would make the case for a ‘race to the top’ for those who can run. But ‘lift from the bottom’ is the moral imperative because it includes everybody.”
Another religious leader, the Rev. J. Philip Wogaman, the retired pastor of Washington, D.C.’s Foundry United Methodist Church, defines justice in terms that directly challenge the thinking of Eva Moskowitz and Michael Petrilli as they defend school choice: “(J)ustice is the community’s guarantee of the conditions necessary for everybody to be a participant in the common life of society… If we are, finally, brothers and sisters through the providence of God, then it is just to structure institutions and laws in such a way that communal life is enhanced and individuals are provided full opportunity for participation.” (Christian Perspectives on Politics, p. 216)