Here are two stories about education, both printed this week in the New York Times. I would like to put side by side because together they tell a bigger story about urban public schools than they do separately.
The first describes Mayor Bill De Blasio’s plan to charge rent to privately funded charter schools. As the story explains, charters divert public tax money into schools; and they cream the students they want and reject students that are difficult to teach. They also gobble up space in school buildings that the Board of Ed decides existing schools either don’t need, or don’t need exclusive access to: gymnasiums, libraries, playgrounds, and cafeterias.
Furthermore, charters create haves and have-nots in the same building: one group of students may have music teachers, another not. One group of students walks around in cute little uniforms, another group of students wear what their parents can afford. One group of students has small class size, another group of students is hanging off the windowsills.
In microcosm, this is what charters do system-wide: mimic the existing class system. They separate out a few students as uniquely deserving, and give them access to more opportunities and resources. And they do this by adding philanthropic dollars to substantial sums of money extracted from the Department of Education budget. For example, the powerful and well-financed Success Academies, which are leading the charge against the De Blasio plan, are consuming public funds that other schools could use to hire teachers, lower class sizes and repair their buildings. This leads me to the second article, in which we hear from a parent that the school attended by her child (not a charter, but a “theme” high school embedded in Park Slope’s John Jay high), is not offering its seniors a third year Spanish: they had to “excess” the teacher because of budgetary constraints. What’s the problem? Many selective colleges require students to have taken three years of a foreign language as a minimum bar to application.
Full disclosure: as you probably already guessed, I am not a fan of charter schools. Why? Because I believe that they are undemocratic. Anything running by market logic is by nature undemocratic: markets, by their very nature, become robust by weeding out those who, for many reasons, cannot or will not be allowed to compete. I am also not much of a fan of non-charter theme schools, mostly because they are yet another market within what remains of our public school system. Not only do students have to apply to them, but scratch the surface of many of these schools, and the “theme” is pretty feeble, a marketing device that asserts something unique is happening there which, because of universal testing, is pretty much not the case.
That said, I believe that a fully democratic public school system has probably not yet been invented in the United States. We can point to a long past of mandated and legal racial segregation, as well as to the funding of schools by property taxes. We can also point to a long history of elite schools being established within public systems. Where I grew up, outside Philadelphia, that was Girls and Boys’ high schools; in New York, that would be schools like Bronx Science and Stuyvesant High School. These schools both drive tremendous upward mobility for the lucky poor who get into them; and offer a good education at zero cost for middle class and upper middle class children, most of whose parents could not otherwise afford what they really want, which is private school.
I remember being appalled as I sat in the audience several years ago, listening to journalist Chris Hayes describing his education at Hunter, a K-12 school that students can test into at several different points, as democratic. Putting aside what all of us know, which is that (mostly white) parents spend oodles of money on test prep to save money down the line, or that we know there are pretty extreme differentials on how children test depending on ethnicity and income, even when Hayes was at Hunter several decades ago, one fact remained: if you didn’t test into a good school, you got shunted into a mediocre or terrible school.
Driven by neoliberal educational theories, urban and suburban school systems have adopted the charter philosophy, in which outside interests — corporations, for-profit educational enterprises, foundations, wealthy individuals, universities — invest in creating a school, and in the process put their stamp on it. Forcing unsponsored public schools to compete with these other entities, the reasoning goes, would either force them to get better or it would force them to close.
Several decades down the line, the results of the charter school movement range from okay to disappointing to appalling. There is a lot of research that shows students from charters test no better than students from regular schools; educators still seem to be looking for the next quick fix to make U.S. students as good as the Finns (the latest gimmick is the Common Core); and we all probably know at least one student who has gone to a charter school that seems to be performing its function adequately.
What seems obvious about charter schools, however, is that they are open to the few at a cost to the many. This was the grisly story of the documentary Waiting for Superman (Davis Guggenheim: 2010). The argument in this film, which is partly driven by the story of Geoffrey Canada’s Harlem Children’s Zone, is that there are many more deserving children than there are places in charter schools, and that we need more charter schools. What makes children deserving? That they are already aspirational and hard-working: they want to be doctors, veterinarians and teachers themselves, and their parents understand and support these goals.
The idea that all children are deserving, and that their needs could be satisfied by a robust and well-funded system of public education that did not mimic a private school experience, seems hardly comprehensible to educational policymakers. Mayor Bill De Blasio’s struggle with the charter movement in New York City deserves the full support of progressives everywhere, and the outrage of charter school proponents that their schools — which run on outside money and pull taxpayer dollars out of the system — should be exposed for what it is. These schools claim to be public schools and actually they are just another kind of voucher system.