The charter school movement in New York was based on the premise that New York’s schools were a mess and there had to be a better way. A few very wealthy folks decided that they could achieve results if they sponsored alternative public schools that didn’t have to adhere to the rules of the other, older public schools. After all, the rich had a choice. They could send their kids to exclusive private schools but poorer folks didn’t have that opportunity. The charterists argued that results were not possible under what they considered to be the mired and moribund educational bureaucracy. That bureaucracy operated under rules that had been developed with a lot of influence by the New York teachers unions, whose job it was to fight for the needs of their members. As a result of these rules, teachers who should have been fired often weren’t because they had tenure. Since most teachers are dedicated and decent people, that made some sense. The unions have always argued that it was possible to fire teachers and there were mechanisms for doing so, but the people running the schools just didn’t follow the rules.
Charter schools have longer hours than the old public schools and have much more freedom to move personnel around. In some, but not all, cases they have achieved better results than some, but not all, public schools. Some charter schools were established by people who were thinking more about themselves than the students they purported to serve. Some of the people heading these organizations are making a lot of money. Sound familiar? As a result, some charters have been closed down by the state authorities monitoring their operations.
When the people of New York City elected Mayor Bill de Blasio, they knew they were choosing a man who had deep reservations about charter schools. He believed, as I do, that you had to reform the schools so that every child was included, not just the few who were lucky enough to win the lottery to get in. He also took great exception to what is called “co-location,” a plan in which charter schools and the older public schools shared the same buildings. Not only do some students fail to gain entrance to charter schools, they have to watch the ones that did parade past them every day. Finally, public schools have to take everyone no matter what stage of emotional and intellectual development. There are charter schools that will not, for example, accept students with disabilities. Traditional public schools have to. Some see this to be “cherry picking” the students who can be successful with less work.
Governor Cuomo has entered the fray telling charter school people that he would use the state to stop the mayor’s plans to reform the charter school process. A few unkind people have actually suggested that Cuomo, who has upward of thirty million dollars in his campaign accounts, was playing to those rich folks who were behind the charter school movement. The blowback from the charterists was so great that de Blasio seems to be taking a few steps backward in his efforts to temper the charter movement.
While there is a war going on over charters it should be remembered that they were formed to set examples for the older schools. In fact, there is now a fierce war that just sets student against student and parent against parent. That’s just wrong. De Blasio has ties to the unions but it sounds to me like his heart is in the right place. On the other hand, to make this all right, each side will have to give a little. Let the old public schools have some of the same easier rules that the charters have and the same incentives to do well. Then maybe the wars will come to an end.
Originally published in the Legislative Gazette, 3/10/14