By Brooke Parker
The Demise of Public Education: Mr. & Mrs. Moskowitz* Push for More Charters in Williamburg
Eva Moskowitz, CEO of Success Academy, who earns close to half a million dollars a year, is one of the highest profile figures in the charter school industry, touting charter schools as the solution to “waste in education.” There’s a lot of money to be made in charter schools when you add up the start-up financing grants, charter management fees, new market tax credits, no-bid contracts, and minimal oversight.
While charter schools receive slightly less per pupil from the city than public schools, the city’s Independent Budget Office concluded that when you factor in that they don’t pay for their use of space, utilities, janitorial services, or school safety agents, charter schools generally spend over $700 more per pupil in public funds each year, and that’s not including the substantial private money they receive. And all those public dollars are spent while charter schools, in general, don’t perform any better than public schools. So much for the idea that charter schools are less wasteful.
Success Academies have been widely criticized as punitive and militaristic, with a model that has not appealed to white middle class families in spite of the millions Moskowitz has spent marketing to them. Remember the posters splashed all over the Northside and the Bedford Avenue L train? They didn’t work. Moskowitz didn’t get the parents she was aiming for. Success Academy Williamsburg is up and running in JHS 50, in spite of significant community opposition, but its population is largely students of color, not the wealthier Williamsburg families the ads targeted.
So Moskowitz’s husband, lawyer Eric Grannis, on the board of an equally militarist Girls Prep charter school chain, is bringing in a new chain of charter schools just for Williamsburg’s newest population. It’s called Citizens of the World Charter Schools.
If the Moskowitz/Grannis education reformers have their way, we will have reformed ourselves into a brand new district, with public schools brimming with students with special needs, who don’t speak English, or who come from our most impoverished families—students the charter schools have kicked out because they won’t lift the schools’ test scores. By the time the charter schools open, 46% of our district’s kindergartener’s will be enrolled in them and none will be any better than the neighborhood schools they destroy.
In February of 2011, through a private neighborhood listserv, Grannis invited parents to a series of meetings promoting charter schools in Williamsburg. He claimed there “seemed to be parents who are not satisfied with their options and want other ones.” Grannis, who does not live in Williamsburg and has never set foot in any of the local schools, just wanted “to help out the neighborhood.” He wanted to give us more options, more choices, more charters, and he offered parents a way to get in on the ground floor in free, new schools created for their children, where they might be guaranteed admission. About three dozen parents attended five meetings held at the new condos and high end children’s stores. Few, if any, had children that were school aged yet.
Grannis arranged for his guests to be wowed by one charter school in particular, Citizens of the World (COW), a chain out of Los Angeles with only a single year under its belt, but with plans to expand nationally. Parents left the meetings sure that COW would offer something new, more child-centered and progressive than any of our neighborhood schools. None of the attendees understood that what COW claimed as proprietary to their school model had already been implemented in all of the neighborhood schools: COW did not invent differentiated instruction, balanced literacy, or project-based learning. And contrary to what COW would have parents believe, our neighborhood schools are replete with service learning projects, even winning trips to the White House for outstanding community service.
The fine print was left out of COW’s Powerpoint presentations: the schools are privately managed and responsible to a Board of Trustees, not parents or educators. Parents are powerless in COW school governance. Forget about all the evidence that shows that teachers are effective after several years in the classroom, COW will hire teachers fresh out of Teach for America with only five weeks training. COW also wouldn’t lease their own buildings, but would “co-locate” or take up space inside at least one of our neighborhood public schools. These co-located public schools will lose vital space that the city Department of Education does not count as “classrooms,” including music and art rooms, libraries, science and computer labs, and rooms designed for kids with special needs. All in the name of more choice. Finally, COW will funnel hundreds of thousands of dollars from the public schools to their COW Management Organization, a much needed cash cow for a brand new charter school chain already facing financial problems in their flagship school in LA. No wonder COW kept their meetings secret, never met with any elected officials, and used unethical tactics, like having Spanish-speaking families sign pro-COW petitions that were written in English and, stranger still, having a real estate lawyer procure signatures for pro-COW petitions from new homeowners at their closings.
Parents were told that we need new schools to accommodate our quickly growing population. This is simply not true. While we do have more “middle-class” children now, it’s impossible for newcomers to imagine a time when all of our public schools were full, along with over a dozen (now closed) Catholic schools. In spite of the condos being built, the new baby stores, and the waiting lists for private nursery schools, our Bugaboo parents simply aren’t giving birth fast enough to replace our Latino, Polish, and Italian families. Sadly, white middle class people are only seeing white middle class babies. When funds follow children into schools, we simply can’t afford new elementary school options without deleteriously affecting our existing options.
Education reformers manufacture parent demand for charter schools by preying on overblown fears of urban schools, and then applying their enormous marketing funds to promote charter schools as a panacea. It’s a lot like the pharmaceutical industry manufacturing symptoms for an illness you didn’t know you had in order to sell you a pill that will cure it. Our neighborhood schools don’t have a defensive marketing budget. Can you imagine the public outrage if it were discovered that education dollars went to glossy mail outs and fancy dinners? And then there are schools like COW that flat out lie about our neighborhood options to increase demand for their product.
Reformers believe schools should open and close willy nilly at the whim of the market. If a group of people want to create a school based on a harebrained scheme putting five year olds in class sizes over 30, sitting in front of no-bid contract computer programs, assessing themselves with no-bid tests, then open one! And place that school inside a neighborhood public school to squeeze it of vital resources. Competition is always good and new is always better, right? COW told parents that their charter schools will close if they don’t fulfill their promises. But they lied to them. Charter schools stay open for five years before their charter is reconsidered, regardless of whether they fulfill their promises. Charters don’t close from under-enrollment or under-performance or high teacher turnover or parent dissatisfaction. Charter schools close because of financial mismanagement, and even then, rarely. We know how well deregulation served our economy. If we allow greed to precede community, we’ll create an education apocalypse, not to mention the radical resegregation that occurs when schools like COW target white, middle class families while others target lower-income parents of color. Ours is a district which houses an exceptionally high population of children who don’t speak English, and no charter schools are targeting that population.
On the other side of this divide are local public school parents who know that our educational landscape has improved with engaged parents and new leadership open to new ideas. That’s how we got our dual language programs, greenhouse roofs, school bands, winning chess teams, and a range of impressive arts partnerships. There are proven strategies that create strong schools: small class size, experienced teachers, meaningful curriculum, strong and experienced leadership, diversity in the classroom, and engaged parents. Without outside corporate interference, our neighborhood public schools have been headed in that direction. We believe that’s worth fighting for.
So, marching forward, righteous public school parents gathered across the district, including those who attended the early Grannis meetings, and became WAGPOPS! (Williamsburg and Greenpoint Parents: Our Public Schools!). WAGPOPS! discovered that there was a group of parents across the country in Silver Lake, Los Angeles (a neighborhood described as similar in spirit to Williamsburg) fighting COW schools, too. And they collected some pretty damning information about COW, including financial scandals. We became bi-coastal. WAGPOPS! flooded the mailboxes of the SUNY Charter School Institute (the organization that authorizes charter schools), asking that they reject the COW proposals. WAGPOPS! wrote a community impact letter opposing COW and gained support from all of our elected officials, even those who initially agreed with lifting the charter school cap. WAGPOPS! stood for all of our neighborhood public schools and children: We want our kids in class together! No GMOs in our food, no corporations in our classrooms! Shop local, school local! Keep public money out of private hands and put it in the classroom!
In the Dr. Seuss version of this story, everyone would be moved, as we were when the tiny Whos were finally heard, because they spoke as one. And Grannis would have packed up his suitcase and left. But there’s real money involved. And we lost. The SUNY Board of Trustees, without a single member having knowledge of our district’s schools or even a background in public education, disregarded the opposition to COW and approved the schools. The only lesson we have to learn from COW—Citizens of the World—is about the erosion of democracy.
For a copy of the letter regarding Citizens of the World, see: http://www.scribd.com/doc/94382088/WAGPOPS-Letter-to-Suny-Opposing-Citizens-of-the-World-Charter-Schools
Joint the WAGPOPS! mailing list to find out about upcoming meetings at facebook.com/WilliamsburgGreenpointParents or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.
*aka Eva Moskowitz and Eric Grannis.