Liberal New York mayor challenges school choice for minorities

Mayor Bill De Blasio / Image by DonkeyHotey, based on Flickr Creative Commons images; used under Flickr Creative Commons license
New York Mayor Bill De Blasio / Image by DonkeyHotey, based on Flickr Creative Commons images; used under Flickr Creative Commons license

WASHINGTON, June 27, 2014 — New York City’s mayor, William De Blasio has stressed that he is a progressive, committed to making life better for minorities and the poor. Yet ever since taking office in January, he has launched a crusade against a vehicle which has the ability to rescue poor and minority children from failing public schools.

That vehicle is charter schools, which are elementary or secondary schools that receive public money but have been freed from some of the rules, requirements and regulations that apply to other public schools.

Last year, 82 percent of the students at a Harlen charter school called Success Academy passed citywide mathematics exams, compared with 30 per cent of the students in the city as a whole.

The first Success Academy opened in 2006, and the network, which is supported by both private and public funds, is now the largest charter-school group in New York City, with a thousand employees and 22 schools. Last fall, Mayor Michael Bloomberg approved 45 proposals regarding charter schools for 2014, including eight for Success Academy schools that wanted to “co-locate,” that is, move to underused space in public school buildings. Now, Mayor De Blasio has reversed nine of those 45 decisions.

Andrew Malone, the principal of Success Academy Harlem Central, points out that on state tests, Success Academy students score far above average. “And yet, no one from the Mayor’s office is asking us, ‘How do you do it?'”

Charter schools around the country, argues Thomas Sowell, a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University, “have given thousands of low-income minority children their only shot at a decent education, which often means their only chance at a decent life.

Why would anybody who has any concern about minority young people, or even common decency, want to destroy what progress has already been made?”

Dr. Sowell notes that, “One big reason is the teachers union, one of Mr. De Blasio’s biggest supporters. The teachers unions see charter schools as a threat to their members’ jobs, and politicians respond to the money and the votes the teachers unions can provide. The net result is that public schools are often run as though their main function is to provide jobs for teachers. Whether the children get a decent education is secondary at best. Not all charter schools are successful, of course, but the ones that are completely undermine the excuses for failure in the public school system as a whole. Charter schools take power from politicians and bureaucrats, letting parents decide where their children will go to school.”

In an era of more enlightened teachers union leaders, charter schools were welcomed. When Albert Shanker headed the New York teachers union, he viewed himself as an education reformer, not an advocate of a status quo that was failing poor and minority students. He believed that charter schools were to be viewed as laboratories of success, models for traditional public schools to emulate.

Paul Hoss, a retired public school teacher and author of “Common Sense: The Missing Link in Education Reform,” asks, “If Success Academy charter schools have proved to be so helpful to so many poor minority youngsters across New York City, why has neither the Bloomberg or De Blasio administration ever attempted to take this model to scale so more youngsters could benefit? How about putting politics aside and doing what’s best for the children of your great city?”

Even many liberals have expressed dismay with De Blasio’s hostility to charter schools. Washington Post columnist Richard Cohen writes, “De Blasio seems cool on charter schools. He has said they have a ‘destructive impact’ on the school system and in his campaign, demanded that they pay rent for using public school facilities. As a result, charters have become emblematic of the ‘two cities’ mantra, one really rich, the other disproportionately poor. The rich are characterized as having their way with the school system for their own benefit. The hostility is so illogical it has to be based on raw resentment. Pardon me for suspecting that some charter school critics would rather hurt the rich than help the poor.”

Under De Blasio, in Cohen’s view, “New York is witnessing progressivism run amok. So far the damage has been minimal and the pushback has been fierce, but charters are in a real fight. Say what you will about New York or Washington charters, but by the usual measurements, test scores, etc., they are succeeding , some of them stunningly so. Maybe in time the gains will prove ephemeral and failure is just over the horizon. Still, that’s better than the old system. With it, failure was a certainty.”

Consider the record of the Eagle Academy schools, a consortium of five schools, four of them in New York and one in Newark. The schools educate boys, mostly black and poor. The schools operate in conjunction with their own foundation, which raises about $1 million annually to help pay for the staff required to hold longer school days, offer intensive college counseling, and provide mentoring programs.

Last year, on standardized tests for students in the sixth to eighth grades, only about 13 per cent of black boys scored as proficient as opposed to just under 30 per cent for students citywide. Across its networks of schools, Eagle sent 82 per cent of last year’s graduating class to college, a rate significantly higher than college enrollment for black male students across the country.

The founder of New York’s Success Academy, Eve Moskowitz, says that, “I have some sympathy for the view that says, ‘Why can’t we have one system that works for everyone?’ But, speaking empirically, our system is broken … I’ve offered to speak with the Mayor many times. We disagree on some things, but I take him at his word when he says he wants to work on inequality. Although a little humility on his part would help.”

Giving poor and minority students a choice of where to go to school, a choice which more affluent students already have, should be a natural cause for a “progressive” like Bill De Blasio to embrace. Why he finds himself on the opposite side, is something he will have to explain if he continues his campaign against New York’s charter schools. The same is true for the Obama administration, which has cut spending for charter schools in the District of Columbia, and whose Justice Department has intervened to try to stop the state of Louisiana from expanding its charter schools.

Charter schools and other forms of school choice, such as vouchers, may not be a panacea, but they do appear to be an important step in the right direction.

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Allan C. Brownfeld
Received B.A. from the College of William and Mary, J.D. from the Marshall-Wythe School of Law of the College of William and Mary, and M.A. from the University of Maryland. Served as a member of the faculties of St. Stephen's Episcopal School, Alexandria, Virginia and the University College of the University of Maryland. The recipient of a Wall Street Journal Foundation Award, he has written for such newspapers as The Houston Press, The Washington Evening Star, The Richmond Times Dispatch, and The Cincinnati Enquirer. His column appeared for many years in Roll Call, the newspaper of Capitol Hill. His articles have appeared in The Yale Review, The Texas Quarterly, Orbis, Modern Age, The Michigan Quarterly, The Commonweal and The Christian Century. His essays have been reprinted in a number of text books for university courses in Government and Politics. For many years, his column appeared several times a week in papers such as The Washington Times, The Phoenix Gazette and the Orange County Register. He served as a member of the staff of the U.S. Senate Internal Security Subcommittee, as Assistant to the research director of the House Republican Conference and as a consultant to members of the U.S. Congress and to the Vice President. He is the author of five books and currently serves as Contributing Editor of The St. Croix Review, Associate Editor of The Lincoln Review and editor of Issues.