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Invasion Of The Charter Schools

Published: January 30, 2013

Publication: The Village Voice

By Anya Kamenetz

When the hipsters of Williamsburg, Greenpoint, and Bushwick are ready to add a little hipster to the family, we inevitably join the Brooklyn Baby Hui. The hui (it’s a Maori term for “community,” natch) has all the information anxious new parents need on making their own organic beet purees, which Mayan-style woven baby carrier and wool diaper covers to pick out at Caribou Baby boutique, and how to co-sleep on your vacation to Istanbul. I’ve lost a big chunk of my life to the hui since I had my baby in the winter of 2011.

But starting that spring, the list exploded into flame wars, deleted posts, trigger warnings, and bans on longtime members. The source of the friction was the entry of two charter elementary schools into the local District 14. First came Success Academy, a controversial and aggressively expanding chain founded and run by former City Councilmember Eva Moskowitz. Then, in April, Moskowitz’s husband, Eric Grannis, an attorney who runs a separate charter-promoting organization called the Tapestry Project, e-mailed the hui to gin up support for Citizens of the World, the first planned East Coast outpost of a Los Angeles–based chain that arrives trailing its own cloud of protest and scandal.

Success Academy Williamsburg opened this past fall. Citizens of the World was approved in December to open in the fall of 2013—unless a lawsuit by local parents, who have taken their campaign from the hui to City Hall, manages to stop it. In other words, a full-on cage match is brewing near the shops and bars of Bedford Avenue. But it’s more than just #firstworldproblems—it’s a struggle over the urban soul and a microcosm of the national education debate. Each side claims to be concerned only with what’s best for all children, implying that others are acting out of spite, greed, or bad faith. But the basic principle in play here is simple: Who should decide the educational needs of a neighborhood?

“Choice is not a problem. Quality is not a problem. Parents in this district don’t have complaints about our teachers. City planning says these new charters are a bad idea.”

Brooke Parker answers the door of her rented Greenpoint townhouse in her sweatpants, two days after Christmas. Her kindergartner is racing around with a playdate. Parker has lived in the neighborhood for 20 years and has two daughters and a stepdaughter. She used to work in film; her husband, Erik Parker, is a well-regarded contemporary artist. She is funny, profane, intimidatingly well informed, and talks almost nonstop for more than an hour. The co-founder and representative of Williamsburg and Greenpoint Parents: Our Public Schools (WAGPOPS), the parent group spearheading the opposition to Success Academy and Citizens of the World in District 14, she has a bracing message for outsiders like Grannis and Moskowitz coming into the neighborhood: “What the fuck? Who the hell are you? How do you get to decide we need a new school?”

This isn’t some Waiting for “Superman” scenario wherein charters swoop in to save a broken, overcrowded public school system. Quite the opposite. As a rule, Williamsburg’s schools are neither overcrowded nor broken. With Hispanic and Italian families priced out and white families moving in, the number of children in District 14 is actually dropping (when you don’t count the Satmar Hasidim living south of Broadway, who propagate enthusiastically but tend to shun the public schools). So there is plenty of room in the local schools, and parents aren’t obliged to send their kids to the one they’re zoned for—they essentially have their pick of the neighborhood. And plenty of the existing choices are quite good. “Several district schools in the neighborhood received an ‘A’ or a ‘B’ on the 2012 Progress Report,” notes Devon Puglia, a Department of Education spokesperson.

The flip side of under-enrollment, however, is that it opens up a vacuum in the district school buildings. Charter elementary schools like those in Moskowitz’s chain, Success, save money by “co-locating” in existing school buildings; they see the depopulated hallways in a place like Williamsburg as an empty niche waiting to be exploited. Already, the 28 elementary schools in the neighborhood include five charters. If Citizens of the World goes forward with the sixth, Williamsburg will rival only Harlem in its charter school concentration. There are 136 charter schools in the city today, enrolling 5.4 percent of the city’s schoolchildren—more than twice the percentage nationwide. Fifteen more charters were authorized to open this fall across the city. The wave seems to be building.

The New York State Charter Schools Act of 1998 authorized the establishment of charter schools in New York State in an effort to promote choice and innovation: “Charter Schools offer an important opportunity to promote educational innovation and excellence,” as insists. “Charter schools bring new leaders, resources, and ideas into public education.” Here, as elsewhere, charters have been seen either as a life rope from the skies or a Trojan horse designed to turn public education into a voucher-based commercial enterprise.

Charters operate independently and autonomously, free from union work rules that prescribe everything from the length of the school day and school year to pension packages. Teachers’ unions have seen them as a threat from the jump and have been tirelessly opposed: Not only are these non-union shops a threat to teachers’ collective bargaining power, but charters also compete with district schools for tax money and other resources.

What about “innovation and excellence”? Well, your mileage may vary. According to a 2009 study published by Stanford, only 17 percent of charter schools nationally outperformed nearby public schools, and 46 percent did about the same. In New York State, charters tend to do much better, with more than half beating their district equivalents in math.

But the issue at stake in Williamsburg is not the virtues or the evils of charter schools. This is about the basic American democratic principle of local control, the notion that families should have meaningful input in determining their own educational needs and that a few entrepreneurial carpetbaggers pulling down six-figure salaries—with the backing of an unabashedly free-marketeering, union-hating mayor—shouldn’t be allowed to trample parents’ rights in order to advance their own philosophies and agendas.

Whether they are not-for-profit or for-profit, and they can be either, charter chains are businesslike—and they compete aggressively for students. Success Academy spent a reported $900,000 on marketing last year, including $250,000 to the lobbying, PR, and crisis-management firm SKD Knickerbocker. The chain also bought space for a set of large ads in the Bedford Avenue L subway stop.

Both Success and Citizens of the World are zeroing in on Baby Hui habitués like Miwako Dai, a lawyer who has lived in Williamsburg since 2006. “After our first child was born, I started worrying that there were no good public school options in this neighborhood,” she says. “We looked at schools and properties in Williamsburg and other parts of Brooklyn with the hope of relocating to a good public school zone but didn’t find anything that was convincing enough to make us move.” She says she was “skeptical” of Success at first, but “my son is challenged at Success and comes home with a curious mind every day.”

According to Parker, the charters are picking off newer residents in the neighborhood who also happen to be new parents. “This all started on the Brooklyn Baby Hui, which, as my stepdaughter calls it, is ‘white people’s problems,'” says Parker. “What stroller [to buy], blah, blah, blah. Very few people on the hui have kids who are already in school. And that’s how the charter schools do their marketing. They go right to people who don’t have kids in schools, and they feed directly into any fears you may have about urban education, and then say they have the solution for them.”

Many parents have the same shimmering vision of the perfect public school: one that’s progressive, with art and gardens and recess, but also with strong academics and good test scores without getting too obsessive over test prep. It’s cozy and friendly with a strong community but not too many fundraisers or committee meetings. It’s not crazy competitive to get into; it’s integrated and diverse, but not depressing or scary or over-strict.

In short, it sounds a lot like P.S. 84 Jose de Diego, on Grand Street and Berry.

P.S. 84’s success is the product of years of hard work. In the mid 2000s, police officers were regularly attending PTA meetings there to try to keep peace between the Hispanic parents in the upper grades and white parents putting their kids into the kindergarten. The school went through several principals before finding peace in 2009 with the hiring of Sereida Rodriguez-Guerra, who grew up in the neighborhood and has two children at the school. P.S. 84 hosts fundraisers by the likes of TV on the Radio’s Tunde Adebimpe and bake sales to benefit Occupy Sandy. In the past two years, a giant, colorful mural has appeared on the building with the help of local community organization El Puente.

“P.S. 84 is a progressive, balanced-literacy, project-based school,” says Stephanie Anderson, whose daughter is in the dual-language second grade. “We’re building a 1,500-square-foot rooftop greenhouse; we’ve got a working hydroponic classroom, relationships with local community organizations, performance arts, dance, music.” Anderson got involved in WAGPOPS, she says, because she loves her school so much. Parker and Anderson and their fellow parents argue that P.S. 84 and similar neighborhood public schools are achieving a delicate balance on the knife’s edge of gentrification—a balance that is threatened by the entry of outside charters.

“Nothing that they offer is unique or needed,” says Anderson. “Our neighborhood schools are being overrun in a way that defies any logic.”

For Mayor Bloomberg, as well as his former schools chancellor, Joel Klein (now an executive at Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp., where he oversees Amplify, the company’s “education unit”), and his current one, Dennis Walcott, the logic is business logic. The three men are some of the most prominent boosters of charter schools nationwide, and when they talk about education, they speak the language of choice, investment, and free markets. “We’re committed to developing a portfolio of schools for families to choose from,” says Puglia, the Department of Education spokesperson. “While there are excess seats available [in District 14], communities have asked for more parent choice and additional high-quality options.”

Who exactly the “community” is and what they’ve asked for is just the question at stake in District 14. “There are schools in the area with real needs,” says Tesa Wilson, a mother and longtime neighborhood resident who has served eight years on the local parents’ school advisory board, known as the Community Education Council, or CEC. When charter schools co-locate, they compete with the “host” school, which may well have lost resources as it lost head count. The CEC in District 14, for example, has asked for the past seven years to have enrichment programs reinstated, libraries reopened, and new high-quality middle and high schools established to relieve the pressure on the district magnet schools, says Wilson. Instead, they got new kindergarten classes run, outfitted, and freshly equipped by Success Academy.

It is the commercialism, expansionism, and self-interest that gets Moskowitz’s opponents riled. In 2010, Moskowitz’s private not-for-profit took in $12 million in funding, $3 million of it from the state and the rest from private donations. It paid Moskowitz, the CEO, $336,402 in salary that year, according to Success’s tax returns. Moskowitz has said that she wants eventually to open 40 schools across New York City; six more Success Academies are already planned for the fall of 2013, three in Manhattan and three in Brooklyn.

“We’ve had a good relationship with long-established charter schools like Children’s Charter 1 and 2,” says Wilson. “Our first real fight was with Success.” Wilson says the CEC tried for months to get someone from Success to come to one of its meetings; they finally sent a communications director, which “left a bad taste in our mouth.” This year, District 14 lost an A-rated high school, so they asked the city to replace it. Instead, “we were told we’d get Citizens of the World. We were like, you’ve got to be kidding me.”

So the neighborhood groups got organized and lawyered up. Advocates for Justice, a local public-interest law firm, filed petitions last year to stop the opening of Success Academies both in Williamsburg and Cobble Hill, but they were dismissed due to statutes of limitations. The parents’ groups argue that they didn’t hear about the schools in time to register objections, due to the same meager public outreach they were complaining about in the first place.

“I don’t think people are against charter schools in general—our office has actually fought to keep some open,” says Advocates for Justice attorney Arthur Schwartz. “It’s that they should not be developed by people who don’t care about the communities. In Williamsburg in particular, parents have worked really hard to have these integrated, well-balanced schools that a lot of people really want to go to, both yuppie parents and Hispanic parents. And plopped in the middle are these schools that change the balance. The concern is that they start pulling children out of schools that are actually functioning really well.”

In January 2013, Advocates for Justice filed a new suit against SUNY’s board of trustees, the organization that authorizes new charter schools in New York City, to stop Citizens of the World’s entry into District 14. A long list of local officials—including Borough President Marty Markowitz; councilmembers Stephen Levin, Lisa Bloodgood, and Diana Reyna; State Senator Martin Dilan; Assemblyman Joe Lentol; and Congresswoman Nydia Velázquez—has spoken out in favor of both suits, each of which argues that the charter organizations failed to comply with state regulations requiring broad community outreach to secure feedback and support for the proposed schools. For example, Citizens of the World claimed in their applications that they held information sessions at mixed- and low-income housing units. As their sign-in sheets showed, however, the sessions were actually held in Schaefer Landing and Northside Piers, high-end glass towers on the waterfront whose city-mandated affordable units are located elsewhere. (Citizens of the World says it also did outreach at six local Head Starts.)

Whatever outreach they did do doesn’t seem to be working: At the public hearing for Success Academy Williamsburg on January 17, 2012, there was one couple in favor of Success and approximately 400 parents against. At a second hearing, in February, there were three local parents in favor, plus dozens of Harlem supporters bused in for the occasion.

The irony of all this skirmishing is that both sides claim to have the same goal: a high-quality school with a balance of kids of different colors, incomes, and abilities, something rare in a country where schools are more segregated than they have been since 1968.

“My parents grew up in Jim Crow in the South before the civil rights movement,” says Tesa Wilson. “They were sent to a school that was subpar in every way. I have a real problem when children in this day and age don’t get equality of treatment.”

The fear underlying the hot rhetoric from opponents of chains like Success and Citizens is that for these charter schools, “diversity” really means picking off white and high-income families, the organized and affluent ones with the social capital and the time to agitate to make public schools better—the ones who would otherwise stay in and strengthen local public schools.

Currently, New York City charter school applicants are far more likely to be African-American than the average public school student, a pattern that’s true nationwide. According to a study, “Choice Without Equity,” by the Civil Rights Project at UCLA, 70 percent of black charter school students nationally attend highly racially isolated schools that are 90–100 percent black.

Moskowitz, who attended the prestigious (and public) Stuyvesant High School in Manhattan before moving on to the University of Pennsylvania and Johns Hopkins, says she’s trying to reverse that trend. Hence Success Academy’s expansion into neighborhoods like the Upper West Side and Cobble Hill, where the chances of attracting diversity—i.e., white children—are better than in Harlem or the South Bronx. “It’s Martin Luther King–ish and old-fashioned, I know,” says Moskowitz, in a rather unlikely comparison. “But people going to school with people that are different than themselves is a very positive, healthy experience.”

That seems like both a truly laudable goal and, given the unfortunate brand message the above race statistics transmit, a smart business decision as well.

Citizens of the World shares Success Academy’s target demographic. Citizens’ initial proposal to SUNY set a goal of 55 percent white enrollment in Williamsburg—a far higher percentage than you’d find at any local public school there. In a tour de force of PR spin, Citizens’ community engagement director, Tara Phillips, says, “We wanted to create a school much more reflective of the diversity of the community relative to other public schools.” In English, that means recruiting more white, affluent families to the school.

But diversity is a multi-dimensional metric. So while New York City charters have more minorities, they also have far fewer English-language learners than local schools (6 percent versus 14 percent) and fewer high-need special education students (2.1 percent versus 7.7 percent). The Success Academy I visited in Williamsburg had almost no special-ed kids. Critics like education historian and analyst Diane Ravitch say this is the result of charters’ creaming off the students who don’t need as many resources. The phenomenon of charters starting to pursue more white kids could add a whole other meaning to the term “creaming.”

The mission statement of Citizens of the World focuses on community, peacemaking, and global citizenship. Phillips mentions “diversity” and “community” five times each in a 25-minute interview. Yet their community-relations problems didn’t start in Brooklyn. Citizens’ founder, Kristean Dragon, faced allegations of financial and ethical mismanagement and cronyism in relation to her previous organization, Wonder of Reading, which got millions of dollars to renovate Los Angeles school libraries before it folded. And Dragon met stiff opposition when opening in Silver Lake, a Los Angeles neighborhood that is a gentrified blend similar to Williamsburg. Stephanie Anderson, the WAGPOPS mom, connected with Silver Lake parents on Facebook and actually flew out to meet with them. “They did a lot of race-baiting in those neighborhoods,” she recalls. “Saying, ‘you don’t want your kids to go to school with low-income Hispanics, do you?’ It was the same playbook they’re trying in Brooklyn.”

Despite these long-standing issues, “the opposition has taken us by surprise,” says Phillips, who can’t keep a petulant note out of her voice when she talks about WAGPOPS. “The false accusation that we were targeting only white families just wasn’t true. . . . It’s been a very frustrating process to have the opposition throw lies at us to defeat our cause when there’s so much work to be done.”

“What’s wrong with offering more choice to kids?” asks Abby Johnson, the principal of Success Academy Williamsburg. The upstairs hallway of classrooms within a middle school on South 3rd and Roebling is cheerful and orderly on a sunny Tuesday morning in January. In one room, kindergartners are playing with blocks; in the science lab, they are conducting experiments in growing bread mold; and in art class, they are painting pictures of cake à la Wayne Thiebaud.

The school appeared both progressive and regimented. I saw students, clad in uniforms, being repeatedly reminded to sit up straight and make eye contact with the teacher. Class sizes are at the high end (to make room in the budget for specialized teachers and a school psychologist), and the extended school day goes from 7:45 a.m. to 4 p.m. Starting in kindergarten, there is a relentless focus on college graduation, with each classroom named and decorated after the teacher’s alma mater.

“That military, rigid discipline, that ‘look me in the eye,’ ‘no excuses’ stuff—I get that Eva Moskowitz is sociopathic enough to put her own kids in this school to prove a point,” says Parker. (Two of Moskowitz’s three children attend Success Academy Harlem.) “But the president wouldn’t put his kids in a school like this. No person of means would. They think somehow this is OK for poor kids, but you don’t see the suburban schools operating that way.”

“Our pedagogy is incredibly progressive,” counters Moskowitz. “Discovery-oriented science, constructivist math, THINK literacy. Our commitment to recess and blocks is deep and wide. We have yoga!” (She clearly sees yoga, offered only at the Williamsburg branch of Success, as some kind of dog whistle to parents of my breed.) “I think you’d be hard-pressed to come to the conclusion that it is ‘no excuses,’ ” she continues, referring to a tagline associated with the more militaristic KIPP charter chain.

She might consider herself progressive, but Moskowitz’s communication style hasn’t made her hearts-and-minds campaign any easier. “Eva Moskowitz has quite a reputation,” says Wilson, laughing. A 2009 post on asked, “What is it about Eva Moskowitz that attracts so many enemies?” (Conclusion: It’s mostly a matter of personality, combined with that salary.) Neither she nor her husband will speak on the record about their separate-but-equal working relationship or about the somehow unseemly fact that they are pushing dueling charter chains on the same neighborhood.

Grannis says the help he offered Citizens of the World was limited to a single e-mail sent to the hui to arrange a meeting for local parents interested in charters: “My role has been greatly exaggerated by people who find my connection to Eva useful in pitching the vast-right-wing-conspiracy angle.” Moskowitz prefers to believe in a vast left-wing conspiracy, writing off most of her opposition—including the multiple lawsuits and public hearings with hundreds of parents turning out against her schools—as the product of the unions and their “surrogates.” “Randi [Weingarten, head of the United Federation of Teachers] made it very clear that it was part of her mission to stop Success Academy,” she says.

WAGPOPS and the CEC, for their part, say their opposition has nothing to do with the unions. It’s “pure grassroots,” says Parker, adding that her group hasn’t shared resources with, or even consulted with, union leaders. “The UFT does not employ me, nor do they give me a check,” agrees Tesa Wilson. “What we do is volunteer work. We don’t even get a plastic chicken dinner or a certificate from the DOE or the teachers’ union, either.”

Citizens of the World is likely to go forward as planned, but Schwartz, Wilson, and the WAGPOPS crew hope that their protests and suits will move the city to amend the planning process for new charter schools to include more meaningful community input. They’d also like to see it conduct a review of the effect on communities when charters target the exact same families as existing high-quality public schools.

The moment is right for that conversation: As Mayor Bloomberg ticks down the last months of his term, the public has lost its enthusiasm for mayoral control of schools, which he acquired in 2002, and for the businesslike agenda of charter schools, high-stakes testing, and all that goes with it. A January 2013 poll from Quinnipiac found that 63 percent of city voters want shared control of the schools, a steep drop from 2009, when a majority favored mayoral control. And by a 53 percent to 35 percent margin, we now trust the teachers’ unions more than the mayor to protect the interests of schoolchildren. Maybe it’s time for the grownups to be grownups here, and make the children the one priority we can agree on.

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