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Some 200 parents and teachers rallied outside P.S. 149 and P.S. 811 on Monday, March 17, protesting the co-location of charter schools in public school buildings. (United Federation of Teachers)

The High Stakes of New York’s Heated Charter-School Battle

The fight is much bigger than Andrew Cuomo vs. Bill de Blasio.

BY Sarah Jaffe

Moskowitz's decision to close schools on Tuesday, March 4, to bus students to Albany for a pro-charter school rally coincided with the scheduled Albany lobby day by de Blasio and supporters for his universal pre-kindergarten plan and its attendant tax increase for the city's rich.

The battle over education in New York has turned nasty in the past week, as tensions over charter schools and funding for universal pre-kindergarten boiled over in Albany and across New York City.

This struggle is often portrayed in the media as a conflict between personalities—newly elected liberal Democratic NYC mayor Bill de Blasio versus fiscally conservative Democratic governor Andrew Cuomo, whose presidential ambitions are hardly a secret. But the fight for public education is much bigger than the egos of these two men (and that's saying something). It's also much bigger than a spat between de Blasio and Eva Moskowitz, CEO of Success Academy, the charter-school chain whose three rejected co-locations—siting of a charter school in an existent public school building alongside the public school– inspired a civil rights lawsuit filed this week.

Moskowitz's decision to close schools on Tuesday, March 4, to bus students to Albany for a pro-charter school rally coincided with the scheduled Albany lobby day by de Blasio and supporters for his universal pre-kindergarten plan and its attendant tax increase for the city's rich. This was probably not a coincidence, as Moskowitz's rally managed to drown out attention for de Blasio's event.

Teacher Patrick Walsh of P.S. 149 tells In These Times, “If any public school principal did that, they would be automatically fired, possibly arrested.”  Charters, though, are independently-run alternative schools that are publicly funded and take public-school students—Walsh points out that because charters are not held to the same standards as other schools, this passed without much outcry. “They get public funding and get public space but they don't answer to the chancellor and there is no public oversight to any of their schools. They have a board of directors as if they're a corporation.” 

Cuomo was more than happy to change the subject away from a plan he wants no part of (the governor's budget is laden with tax cuts, not increases, for the wealthy), and turned up at the charter schools rally instead. The tabloids obliged as well—the New York Post ran a cover tweaking de Blasio with “A Tale of Two Rallies” and calling the children on the buses “supporters” of charter schools.

The debate in the media over the past week shows the still-narrow range of public debate around charter schools. On one end are charter-school enthusiasts like Andrew Cuomo, who spoke to a cheering crowd at the pro-charters rally, proclaiming “I am committed to ensuring charter schools have the financial capacity, the physical space and the government support to thrive and to grow.” At the other are skeptics like Bill de Blasio, who took the moderate step of refusing proposed co-locations of nine charter schools, out of 45 that were reviewed. New York Times writer Michael Powell called it “a mild counter revo[lution].” But few politicians will say that giving private companies rent-free public space to pick and choose the students they'll educate is a practice that should be completely ended, though Public Advocate Letitia James is going forward with a lawsuit opposing 36 co-locations (including 14 new ones) that de Blasio reaffirmed.

But the question of charter schools is much bigger than the personalities and political prospects of the officials and executives involved in the current fight. Charters are at the heart of the corporate-backed agenda for education reform, which Barbara Madeloni of the Massachusetts Teachers Association calls “predatory reform.” The reform agenda backed by charter-school heads like Moskowitz and billionaires like Bloomberg often results in funneling public funds into private hands, whether that's charter chains or testing companies, while cracking down on teachers unions (charter schools are mostly non-union) and shrinking teaching time in favor of ever-more high-stakes tests.

Charters have also been widely criticized for cherrypicking students already more likely to succeed; the processes for entry tilt the playing field in favor of parents who are active and engaged with their child. As Bertha Lewis of the Black Institute wrote in an op-ed recently at the New York Daily News, just 3 percent of New York's children attend charters, yet funding for the other 97 percent of schools has been cut repeatedly at the state level. The heavy focus on charters masks the fact that the rest of New York's students are getting shortchanged. (Even the names of some NYC charters seem to acknowledge that fact—schools like “Uncommon Schools” almost seem to revel in it.)

Charter school co-locations are the epitome of this reform ideology. Co-locations are already common in New York City, where charter schools exploded during the Bloomberg years—from 17 when the billionaire former mayor took office to 159 in 2013. Some two-thirds of those schools are located rent-free in public school buildings. Instead of taking on the whole building, which would perhaps come with some expectation that they should educate all the students, the co-located schools fill up half the building, squeezing the other students and teachers into smaller spaces. Even if you accept the premise that charters are automatically better (Moskowitz touts the high test scores of her Success Academy students), what does this say then to the other children who don’t receive the same accommodations?

Under the co-location plan that de Blasio blocked, Success Academy would have expanded further into two conjoined public schools with which it already shares space, P.S. 149 and P.S. 811. The latter is a school for children with autism and behavioral or emotional problems. Parents at the public schools opposed the expansion, and even supporters of the co-location admitted it could bring the school over 130 percent of its capacity.

Mother Beajae Payne tells In These Times that co-location is unfair to special needs students like her son, who attends P.S. 811. “I think they need their own location. They should not be taking up free space in public schools. If they're going to be there, they should be paying something.” She notes that because of their special needs, her son and his fellow students “can't say 'We like our school and want to be here.' They can't speak for themselves.”

For those concerned about the encroachment of private enterprise on public space, Success Academy makes a perfect example, its coffers fat with private donations as it demands to occupy an already-crowded public school building. When Success Academy first moved in, Walsh, who's been at P.S. 149 for nine years, says that his school lost its music room and a computer room. According to Juan Gonzalez at the Daily News, if the co-location request for an additional 375 or so students at the P.S. 811/149 building had gone through, 20 percent of enrollment for the special needs students would be cut.

It's students, like Payne's son, that new schools chancellor Carmen Fariña has said she'll take into account in the future when approving charters. She told Gonzalez she would no longer allow reduced space for students with special needs, who make up only 9 percent of charter students, a number far lower than the district average. 

It’s not only special needs students who suffer when charters move in. “It's my belief that [co-location] is simply another wedge to drive into the community to set one part of the community against another,” Walsh says. While the charter school students receive the best of everything, the public funds supplemented with corporate donations, the public school students suffer. It was a walk through the space at his school comparing the facilities for Success Academy students to those for P.S. 149 or 811 students, he says, that inspired a lawsuit by his union, the United Federation of Teachers (UFT), and the NAACP in 2011 over unequal conditions for students

That lawsuit is still pending, but Walsh and others were dismayed to see the charter school supporters using the language of civil rights this week—and filing a federal civil rights lawsuit against the New York City Department of Education. The suit argues in part that de Blasio's decision to deny colocations is “improper and arbitrary” and that “If Harlem Central closes, students currently attending one of the highest-performing schools across the state will be forced to attend some of the lowest performing schools in New York City.”

Hazel Dukes, president of the New York State conference of the NAACP, released a statement calling the lawsuit “an affront to all public school parents in New York City.” She continued, “This lawsuit is an outrageous and insulting attempt by Wall Street hedge fund managers to hijack the language of civil rights in their shameless political attack on Bill de Blasio.”

If this whole battle is over halting the expansion of charters, we can see how hard it is to take back charter schools once they've been opened; few educators want to force students from one learning environment where they're thriving to another, and no politician wants to be seen as shuttering a school that someone loves. Yet in the Bloomberg years, 164 schools were closed in New York City, and some students loved those schools too. Parents like Payne see their children thriving in existing public schools and don't want to lose them either. In her son's time at P.S. 811 he's gone from speaking just a word at a time to full sentences—she calls his teacher “A match made in heaven for him.”

Meanwhile, some 200 teachers and parents gathered on Monday outside of P.S. 149 and 811 to rally against the co-location and in support of their public schools, alongside Dukes, Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer, and Reverend Michael Walrond of First Corinthian Baptist Church. However, the protest did not get as much media attention as the dueling Albany rallies on March 4. Walsh says “I'm furious at the lack of press it received.”

Ultimately, charter schools can trust that Cuomo will advance their cause, whether out of a sincere love for charters or simply a result of the campaign donations pouring into his pockets from the industry. But it’s unclear if the officials who claim to oppose them will stop their expansion. On the campaign trail, de Blasio called for a “moratorium” on co-locations and suggested that well-funded chains like Moskowitz's (they have some $35 million in reserves) could afford to pay rent to the city. But now, he has backed off while shoring up his support for pre-K, and even James takes pains to point out that she is not opposed to all charter schools. Teachers unions can be counted on to continue battling charters, particularly as New York’s UFT moves into contract negotiations and its parent union, the American Federation of Teachers, looks to step up its fight against charter school chains on the national level. But it will take a real movement of teachers, parents, students, and sympathetic officials to halt the steady march toward charters and rechannel money back into public schools.

“Children are not some widgets that can somehow be distributed. It's not about random seats,” Moskowitz told reporters recently, lamenting what might happen if her charters don't open. Payne, on the other side, would quite likely agree—but it's not her children that Moskowitz is concerned with. 

Sarah Jaffe is a staff writer at In These Times and the co-host of Dissent magazine's Belabored podcast. Her writings on labor, social movements, gender, media, and student debt have been published in The Atlantic, The Nation, The American Prospect, AlterNet, and many other publications, and she is a regular commentator for radio and television. You can follow her on Twitter @sarahljaffe.

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