It is state budget time across the country and charter schools are always on the table for debate. There is no simple cause or any simple solution to the problem schools, especially those in our cities, face. Yet there is an urgency for students now in the system. We have data that leaders and the public are consuming. Philanthropists, politicians and educators alike hunger for a place to throw a dart and make a difference. Better teachers, stronger leadership, refurbished buildings, handheld computers, greater skill with immigrant populations and transience in general, less children in poverty, more money from somewhere...and so on.
When the idea of vouchers failed, a small group of dedicated people came up with the idea of publically funded charter schools. Smaller schools, free from certain regulations, embedded in neighbors and with a mission to serve those children who were failing in public schools, could offer a culture and an education that was different than in the larger, bureaucratically entrenched public system. Even in the poorest neighborhoods, parents applied to send their children to these schools. Some charters proved successful and others, less so. Strong objection from the public system was that the charters were siphoning off the students with the most committed parents, the students who were the best behaved, and the most dedicated learners, leaving the more difficult to educate students in their hands. And, dollars followed them away from the public schools.
But then, corporations saw an opportunity to make money. This is not new; publishers and testing companies have always seized opportunities to make money from changing curriculum, new technologies, new mandates and requirements. There is a fundamental capitalism and competiveness in our country reflected in the charter school movement. Policy makers hold to the underlying sentiment that with some competition public schools would perform better.
Deb Meier’s February 2nd piece on charters exposes the idea of privatization, which shifted the original vision for charters from being “small schools under the initiative of a group of teachers who wanted to try out some of their very different ideas, entirely under the aegis of the public system.” She explains:
They saw that there was money to be made right and left and center. Buildings were “sold off” for nothing or nearly nothing. Public funds were used to start schools whose principals and leaders were paid a half million and more. Publishing companies and private tech companies saw $$$$$ everywhere. By the time we wake up to what is happening we will no longer have a public education system in reality. Some charters will be legit--truly serving public purposes with public money and boards made up of educators, community members, etc.
A March 6th opinion piece in the Wall Street Journal, “The Ideologue vs. The Children” detailed the current episode of political action that impacts the children of New York City. The piece holds a stream of facts that captured our attention. Name-calling is neither an effective strategy nor a step toward problem solving, and referring to the Mayor as a slob seemed unnecessary. The piece spoke for itself without resorting to that level.
Mayor DeBlasio is leading a city in which there has been a practice of housing charter schools within the public buildings (co-locating) for no rent. This practice of co-location makes sense if the schools are being run on the public’s dollar, doesn’t it? Beware the slippery slope. What happens when the charter schools became beneficiaries of private dollars? That changes the rules, right? Minimally, charter schools funded with both private and public dollars cause the rules to become ambiguous.
Districts from New York to Florida to California are facing fiscal challenges. In some, enrollment is decreasing, schools are being closed, and the neighborhood school is disappearing. This is a disturbing and difficult change for most children and parents. It dismantles the familiar structure and puts children further away from their home in a new learning environment. This can create new opportunities and help transitioning children develop resilience and grit and it can be a threatening and frightful experience.
So where does this leave us with the NYC co-location issue? Removing a school means moving children. Who does that cavalierly? A child’s school is a second home. Bear in mind Mayor DeBlasio’s decision to keep schools open during a snowstorm was made because of a concern about children’s need for meals, a heated building, and childcare. Isn’t this a recognition of what schools can mean to families? The same families and children are being told their school is being moved, and, in the telephone game of communication, some are being told their school will be dissolved. For some of these children, these are the schools in which they have experienced success the first time. For some of these families, this is the first time they feel satisfied with the school environment in which their children spend their days learning.
Is this a political decision that is being fueled by what the opinion piece in the Wall Street Journal refers to as the “nice liberal.”? The piece labels Mayor DeBlasio as one.
It is not the job of nice liberals to make excuses for pols who take a good thing from kids just to satisfy a political agenda. It is not the job of nice liberals to forgive a politician acting in a brutish way, throwing poor children from hard circumstances out of good schools.
Schools are homes to children, places where they feel the love and support of their teachers and administrators. It is, at its best, also a place where parents feel welcomed and where they trust the educators with whom their children spend long hours. We socialize children to look forward to going to school. As their entrance into kindergarten approaches, excitement can reach fever pitch and every August is filled with at least one new piece of clothing and a notebook...tradition. At least we hope each child has that.
Mayor DeBlasio, as will happen at some point to every leader, has confronted an issue with dueling right answers. No matter where charter schools have come to be located...no matter whether their private funding has become an issue that requires attention... the fact remains the schools do exist and are filled with children, teachers, and leaders dedicated to educating a segment of the city’s youth, mainly, the city’s poor. And, whatever our position is about charter schools as a policy solution, they exist and may be, currently, the best shot for leveling the educational playing field among poor children and middle and upper class students.
The move cannot be interpreted as anything other than that of an ideologue. That is not what we saw in his campaign. We invite that DeBlasio back to the table; the DeBlasio who campaigned on understanding the needs of all New York City residents, the one who welcomed the support of his own children who were proud to talk about their father as one who understood the city and cared deeply about it.
The privatization of education is an emerging national issue. The manner in which charter schools are handled in NYC may portend how they are handled across the nation. If public education is being devalued, reformed, assessed, measured, and either punished or positively recognized, in the end, it affects children. They may not have the voice to tell you yet but they will eventually. If the argument is about charter schools, then let’s have it. Study them, work together with those who are proponents, and if they have a contribution to make in the public education arena, let’s define it and support it. But, Mayor DeBlasio, if you think they are no good, throwing them out is not the solution. The children in them matter.
The opinions expressed in Leadership 360 are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.