OP-ED What Charter Schools Were Meant to Be

By Phil DePaolo

The latest contested issue in Williamsburg is the attempt by former Manhattan City Council Member Eva Moskowitz, who turned entrepreneur, to open her brand of for-profit charter school (Brooklyn Success Academy Charter School) at the same location as JHS 50, at 183 South 3rd Street. The school, which houses 470 middle school students, also houses another public school, the Academy for Young Writers, which is scheduled to move elsewhere. At a recent hearing, hundreds of local residents came out to oppose the opening of the Success Academy charter school. It’s been documented that Moskowitz bussed in hundreds of Harlem residents to give the appearance of community support.

Charter schools in New York were started by the late Al Shanker, the former president of the American Federation of Teachers, among others. Shanker believed that charter schools couldn’t change education if they were disconnected from regular public schools. He wrote in a 1994 column in the New York Times: “Charter schools must have autonomy to get where they want to go, but they must also be part of a system that has a central purpose, and that means a system that has decided what kids need to know and be able to do. Otherwise, they will end up like all those alternative schools of the 1960s, relevant only to themselves and useless to the system as a whole.”

Shanker became critical of charter schools as they moved away from their original intent. He warned that without well crafted legislation and public oversight, business interests—whose real aim is to smash public schools, according a former colleague of Shanker—would hijack the charter school concept.

Shanker envisioned charter schools as centers of innovation in academic excellence, intending them to be small pilot schools where new ideas could be tested. If successful, the innovations would be brought into the larger public school system so all students could benefit. He also argued that excellence could not be regulated, that top-down micro management could not replace the on-site judgment of professional educators, and that teachers should have the opportunity to innovate. He maintained that a more professional school system would attract the more capable workforce needed to meet the growing demands on public schools.

Shanker also worried that for-profit companies would care more about looking after their shareholders than educating children, or even worse, would become a gimmick for hucksters. Today, charter schools answer to their own boards of trustees. And while it is supposed to be unbiased, they have been accused of discriminatory selecting processes, excluding children with special needs or who speak English as a second language. Shanker believed that, sadly, his charter proposal was hijacked by political conservatives and transformed into something similar to a private school voucher plan, aimed at weakening public schools and undermining unions and collective bargaining. Ultimately, Shanker led his union in opposition to the charter school movement he helped to launch. Today, the Department of Education is allowing placement of charter schools in public school buildings. I have heard firsthand accounts of charter school students having greater access to school libraries and other school facilities than the public school students. In some shared schools, public school students are required to pass through metal detectors while charter school students are not. This creates a sense of inequity among students.

Mayor Bloomberg and some New York media editorial boards are demanding that public schools start firing bad teachers, but the Mayor relies heavily on test scores. If you look only at test scores, teachers in affluent communities get higher scores. Some principals group students by perceived intelligence, so teachers who teach the neediest children—speakers of English as a second language, special education students, and autistic students—will see the smallest gains, potentially giving teachers a good reason not to want to teach classes with large numbers of these students.

I believe the job of evaluating teachers belongs to principals. The best way to keep effective teachers in our public schools is to have principals who are knowledgeable educators. I have spoken to many teachers who feel today’s principals are driven solely by test scores, since principals and teachers receive merit pay based on the results of standardized tests. Well-rounded curricula, arts, and even gym time are sacrificed year- round for additional test prep time in many of today’s public schools.

And isn’t it ironic that the same mayor who claims to have made great strides in improving public schools now closes many of them to make way for more charter schools, instead of fixing the problem? While the Department of Eduction gives charter schools dollars that could go to public school classrooms, charter schools are also funded by Wall Street and Walmart, while the Mayor cuts public school budgets and tells principals, year after year, to do more with less.

If we are serious about improving our schools, we must take steps to improve the conditions teachers are forced to work under, while also selecting the best teacher candidates, providing higher salaries to compete with those of suburban schools, offering better support and mentoring systems, and ending merit pay. It is also vital that parents spend time doing homework with kids and communicating with teachers and support staff. Many parents don’t realize how much control they have over a child’s education.

I believe there is a place for charter schools. I just do not believe in this model. I believe Al Shanker’s vision was the right one and should be revisited. I remember once watching a charter school lottery on NY1. Parents whose children got picked were joyous, while the majority of rejected parents and children cried. They believed their child was destined to have an inferior education. That is a sad testament. Our current public school system needs to be fixed so all children can receive a first-rate education in the greatest city on earth. The Mayor should be ashamed of his failures and reliance on charter schools as a remedy. Education is a right, not a privilege for a select few lottery winners.

Still on fire