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Charters Fault de Blasio For Predecessors’ Sins
The Chief-Leader/Ellen Moynihan
DIFFERENT KIND OF EDUCATION: Miranda Thomas (left), a 23-year-old teacher at Success Academy Harlem 2, said that the best Teachers she had at an all-girl city public high school ‘were fresh out of school’ and conversant with technology that older instructors had difficulty mastering. But speakers at the charter-school rally last week seemed to view school politics from the prism of Success Academy CEO Eva Moskowitz, sharply criticizing Mayor de Blasio for problems that took root under his two predecessors.
Posted: Monday, October 26, 2015 5:00 pm
By RICHARD STEIER |
“I’m not allowed to talk to strangers,” the young Teacher said when I approached her during the charter-school rally in Foley Square Oct. 21.
I held out my press card by way of introduction to get past that hurdle, and she said, “It’s nice to meet you, Richard,” but offered nothing beyond that. When I asked whether she had been ordered not to speak to reporters, she nodded her head.
Miranda Thomas, on the other hand, was under no such restrictions. At 23, since graduating from Utica College she has already spent three years in the education system, first teaching sex-education in the mainstream public schools and, for the past three months, she said, as a second-grade instructor at Success Academy Harlem 2, part of Eva Moskowitz’s network.
With a supervisor hovering during part of our conversation, when asked what she liked better about her new job, Ms. Thomas replied, “Organization. Very organized. And the teachers care a lot about their children.”
‘Teachers Here Are More Invested’
This differed somewhat from what she experienced as a floating instructor in traditional public schools under a grant program, she said. “It wasn’t that it wasn’t the same level of caring, but I think the teachers here are a little more invested in education. It’s important to see a face like mine–it makes the kids go a little harder,” because her mostly-minority students can more easily identify with her, a young woman who lives in Harlem and used education as a path to better herself.
Ms. Thomas growing up had commuted down to Bowling Green to attend Urban Assembly School of Business for Young Women, a traditional public school except that all its students were girls. She said of her Teachers there, “The ones that were fresh out of school, they cared more. My Science Teacher was on it; my English Teacher was on it.”
It wasn’t that she perceived older Teachers at the school as not being committed to the students. They didn’t have the same impact, she said, primarily because “technology changed,” and it was more difficult for them to adapt than for younger instructors who grew up with those changes.
While her day in the classroom runs from 7 a.m. to 5 p.m., Ms. Thomas said she actually put in longer hours when she was in the mainstream system. The new job “is more interesting; it allows me to be more creative,” she said.
Asked about the lack of a union within the Success Academy network, she said, “I feel like I’m okay.” She called her school’s principal responsive to issues of concern, adding, “They fight very hard to make sure we’re happy.”
As to why she had come to the rally, which organizers said attracted 3,100 teachers, Ms. Thomas said, “Number one, because I love my kids and I believe in equality for all my kids.” She spoke of it being a place “where we are able to speak and represent our interests.”
All the teachers wore blue T-shirts with white lettering on the back stating “Teacher Activist,” with the message on the front reading, “I teach to end inequality.”
A White-Out on Stage
It became clear, over the course of the rally, that Ms. Thomas’s readiness to express herself and the reticence of the white teacher I initially encountered who indicated she had been instructed not to speak was a kind of microcosm for the entire production. Although the great majority of those in attendance were white, none of the speakers were: with the exception of one Asian teacher, all those carrying the torch for the charter-school movement were black or Latino.
This didn’t seem to be done at random, and in fact it was consistent with a rally of charter-school children and their parents held two weeks earlier. The charter-school teachers and principals who spoke last week had their own individual stories to tell, but most were rendered with two recurring talking points folded in: the 478,000 public-school students in minority neighborhoods the charter-school movement has claimed are condemned to inferior educations in traditional public schools, and the blame Mayor de Blasio deserves for leaving them in that situation.
One speaker, Amanda Figueroa, who teaches at Coney Island Prep, had published an op-ed piece in that morning’s New York Post stating that the rally was intended “to let Mayor de Blasio know that New York City’s teachers are tired of a school system divided by race and privilege.”
‘Hold Leaders Accountable’
At the rally she declared, “I teach for the kids I see every day in Coney Island who remind me so much of myself. We need to hold our leaders accountable, especially the Mayor of New York City.”
Monique Johnson, a music teacher at Achievement First Brownsville Elementary School, said to cheers from the crowd, “Kids lose themselves in music and some find themselves for the first time…Sadly, some kids don’t get that same experience… when we stick them in failing schools, we steal possibility away from them.”
Chantal Zuniga, an office manager at Coney Island Prep, said, “My mom didn’t speak English very well, but she was no fool. The schools in our zoned area were all failing. At my zoned high school, almost everyone there failed their state exams.”
Conditions were so bad, she said, that her mother, whom she called a person of immense integrity, was forced to create a phony address so that she could attend a good school outside her neighborhood.
“The best schools in the city are still set apart for kids of privilege,” Ms. Zuniga said. “It’s our responsibility to fight for our kids. But it’s also our responsibility to fight for those who are not in our classrooms.”
‘Students Are Trapped’
Julie Jackson, the chief schools officer of Uncommon Schools, echoed the movement’s 478,000-failing-student mantra–featured in a TV spot contrasting the futures of a well-off white student with a poor black one that critics have called racist in its assumptions–telling the crowd, “This statistic is alarming, and our students are trapped.” She concluded by saying that they needed to send a message to “the people who say they care about our kids until they get into office.”
This was unmistakably a shot across Mr. de Blasio’s bow. But the remark, like much of the rhetoric emanating from the stage, presented the other side of the coin from Ms. Thomas’s observation that her older high-school Teachers hadn’t kept up with the technology: it suggested those designated by the rally’s organizers to articulate the issues were oblivious to the history of education here, as well as the Mayor’s campaign positions.
In October 2013, Ms. Moskowitz organized a march over the Brooklyn Bridge as a kind of protest of the looming election of Mr. de Blasio, who had said he would end the Bloomberg administration’s policy of giving charter schools rent-free space in public-school buildings and discontinue the favoritism he believed Mayor Michael Bloomberg had shown toward her and her charter network. He has been largely thwarted in those aims by Governor Cuomo’s siding with Ms. Moskowitz, going so far as to encourage her to organize an Albany rally in March 2014 and then making a “surprise” appearance there that overshadowed Mr. de Blasio’s own visit to the state capital that morning to lobby for a tax on the wealthy to pay for universal pre-kindergarten.
Ms. Jackson might argue that Mr. de Blasio’s lack of support for charter schools hurts children, but she can’t accuse him of winning office on a pretext and then changing his position.
‘Trapped’ Before He Arrived
As to the 478,000 children “trapped in failing schools,” concerns on that issue long pre-date Mr. de Blasio’s time in office, which covers one full school year and eight months of two others. A far-stronger indictment for failing to remedy that situation could be brought against Mr. Bloomberg: even with indications of improvement in the school system as a whole during his first eight years in office before tougher state standards brought into question the true extent of the gains, there had been little sign of progress in the poorest, heavily minority neighborhoods of the city. And after a decline in student scores that resulted from the state revisions led Mr. Bloomberg to push out his first Schools Chancellor, Joel Klein–whose skills as a lawyer and a salesman didn’t compensate for his lack of background as an educator–his choice of Cathie Black as a woefully unprepared successor amounted to giving the back of his hand to those students in favor of proving his theory that a good administrator needed no other skills to get an operation to function properly.
Similarly, Monique Johnson’s lament about students being denied music as part of the public-school curriculum belongs on Mr. Bloomberg’s permanent report card–it was during his tenure that music, art and physical-education programs were scaled back or outright eliminated in many schools, as if they were luxury items rather than subjects that motivated many students to come to all their classes. Schools Chancellor Carmen Fariña has begun restoring those programs.
But charter-school operators in general and Ms. Moskowitz in particular were treated generously by Mr. Bloomberg in the form of both rent-free facilities and praise, even while he starved struggling traditional schools and loaded them up with high-needs students to make it easier to justify closing them when they couldn’t dig out of the holes they were in. How many of those 478,000 students had their chances of succeeding in the system compromised by this corporate-inspired strategy?
And Then There’s Rudy
The problems with neighborhood schools that prompted Ms. Zuniga’s mother to invent an address so her daughter could attend a good school outside her zone more than likely dated back to Rudy Giuliani’s administration. Mr. Giuliani, attempting to win his way back into Governor Pataki’s good graces 20 years ago, shrugged off his shortchanging the city on state education aid by remarking that any additional money would have been squandered by the Board of Education anyway.
Attempting to build his stature in the national Republican Party as he prepared to run for the U.S. Senate, Mr. Giuliani alienated his hand-picked Schools Chancellor, Rudy Crew, by strongly advocating for vouchers for parents who sent their children to private schools, undercutting Mr. Crew’s efforts to shore up the public schools. And after he quit and the Board of Ed. chose as his successor Harold Levy, who was opposed by the Mayor largely because he was supported by the United Federation of Teachers, the joke was that Mr. Giuliani had waived the usual six-month grace period he gave to Chancellors before making their lives as miserable as he could.
Between them, those two Mayors accounted for 20 years of wasted opportunities to transform the public schools so that, as the charter-school ads put it, geography did not define destiny for city public-school students. Set alongside that reality, no one could fairly lay all the blame at Mr. de Blasio’s doorstep after just 22 months as Mayor for the problems that clearly exist in a sizable chunk of the traditional public schools.
Targeting His Base?
Two years ago, at the time that Ms. Moskowitz orchestrated the first mass charter-school rally against Mr. de Blasio, a group of five smaller charter operators put out a letter arguing that it was counterproductive to go to war with the man who seemed on the verge of easily winning the mayoralty, particularly because she was “inviting our parents to protest the very candidate many of them likely voted for in the Democratic primary.”
But Ms. Moskowitz’s charter network, as well as some of the other larger ones, is heavily funded by hedge-fund operators, who are generally white and are viewed by critics as getting involved in no small part due to the short-term tax advantages provided by their investments and the possible long-term windfall if the education system moved toward privatization and the UFT became less politically influential.
If they were really concerned about the state of traditional public schools, they likely would have importuned the Governor–who also benefits from their financial largesse–to pay the rightful state share of the Campaign for Fiscal Equity settlement, which would mean nearly $3 billion more in state aid to the city to make up for years in which poorer, mainly minority school districts were shortchanged by a funding formula based on attendance rather than enrollment.
One of the more-interesting aspects of last week’s rally was that the UFT went unmentioned by the speakers, even though the lack of a union for the great majority of charter schools presented a ripe opportunity for making the case through the mouths of charter-school teachers themselves that Ms. Moskowitz has argued since her days chairing the City Council Education Committee: that the union’s contract is the biggest impediment to progress in traditional public schools.
Sticking to the Script?
It wasn’t a surprise that Ms. Thomas, speaking her mind freely, didn’t take aim at the UFT beyond saying that she hadn’t encountered any problems she couldn’t resolve by talking to her school’s principal. The fact that none of those who took to the bandstand to shoot arrows at Mr. de Blasio aimed any at the union, however, suggested they had been told to stay with a single message rather than spreading out the responsibility.
Political consultant George Arzt surmised, “The organizers were trying to say, ‘Don’t forget about us; we’re a potent group.'” And the mostly-minority parents whose children attend charter schools are part of Mr. de Blasio’s core constituency, he noted, and reminding the Mayor of that could be seen as “trying to manipulate the administration” to be more accommodating.
Less than an hour into the rally, even as the speakers continued delivering their fiery messages, the crowd was thinning out, and those who remained seemed more intent on talking among themselves than being stirred by the rhetoric.
Maybe it was just a natural physical weariness: for those who had been teaching since 7 that morning, by 4:30 that afternoon the workday had been too long to remain engaged by the proceedings.
Just About Showing Up
Equally possible, given the Success network’s unusually high turnover rate, many of the teachers on hand weren’t drinking the Kool-Aid because they were unlikely to still be in the charter system three or four years from now.
And just as likely, for much of the crowd, being there was about the marching orders they had been given rather than a belief that something was being accomplished by attacking Mr. de Blasio.
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