A political debate about education demands hyperbole. The reasons for this are obvious, given the profound emotional weight of the phrase “our children’s futures” in modern political discourse. Indeed, the innocence of children makes them an easy subject for a campaign of selective political outrage. Any attempt to defund or alter an educational institution can easily be labeled an “attack” on the welfare of “defenseless children,” while maintenance of the status quo is a shameful example of “passive neglect of our youth.” The press releases practically write themselves.
We therefore should not be surprised by the dynamics of the recent debate over charter schools. The arguments come on the heels of Mayor Bill de Blasio’s decision to withdraw co-location agreements with charter schools across the city. Last Thursday, the mayor announced he would not approve contracts with nine separate schools—three of them from the locally known Success Academy Charter Schools network, founded by former City Council member Eva Moskowitz—to co-locate, meaning they would not be allowed to share buildings and resources with traditional district schools.
The response was immediate and harsh. Last Tuesday, Moskowitz canceled classes and bused out roughly 3,000 students and parents to attend a protest rally with Governor Andrew Cuomo, who announced that those in attendance would help “save charter schools.” The New York Daily News ran a front-page story two days later labeling the students of the three Success Academy schools, many of which had already started hiring teachers and other staff, the “educational orphans” of the de Blasio administration. Peggy Noonan of the Wall Street Journal shrieked that de Blasio was a relentless ideologue, willing to “sacrifice” the welfare of children on the altar of progressive liberalism. The narrowly targeted withdrawal of nine co-location contracts—the result of a process in which de Blasio actually rubber-stamped 35 of the remaining agreements and set aside four for further review—had become an all-out war on educational reform.
Granted, conservative media outlets have an incentive to denounce the action of the progressive de Blasio administration. But the victim complex was hardly one-sided. In a radio interview on March 6, de Blasio called “insightful” the hosts’ analysis that the media campaign against him was coming from “very wealthy Wall Street folks.” That de Blasio would pander to the anti-elitist sentiments of his progressive base is understandable, but hardly an accurate reflection of the opposition to his decision. At Success Academy, for example, 82 percent of students, many of them Hispanic and African-American, passed citywide math exams last year—far more than the 30 percent who passed elsewhere in the city. Some of these schools are simply good schools, and they attract support from parents, students, and financial backers like hedge fund manager Daniel Loeb, a founder of three Success Academy schools and current chair of the entire network—who have poured their time and money into charters.
This divisive rhetoric is harmful for two reasons. First, it creates an unnecessary rift in the Democratic Party, particularly between Cuomo and de Blasio. De Blasio has become the poster child for a new brand of progressive liberal politics, and he has already faced opposition from more conservative, Cuomo-aligned elements of the party. Nowhere is this clearer than in the standoff between the two on how to fund de Blasio’s widely popular pre-kindergarten initiative.
Rather than keep the focus on that front, which has widespread public and bipartisan support and will affect far more children, de Blasio now has to expend political capital confronting a growing rift on educational policy between the mayor’s office and Albany, while also dampening concerns about a lawsuit to block the 35 co-locations he actually approved. Public Advocate Letitia James and City Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito both announced their support for the lawsuit on Saturday. Although only around 6 percent of New York students attend charters, completed legislation on universal pre-K would mean comprehensive reform affecting every family in the city. This should be the mayor’s top priority, not a debate that weakens support within his own party.
Second, the debate twists public perception of charters, portraying as black-and-white what is inescapably gray. Last Wednesday, Spectator’s Deborah Secular reported on P.S. 149 in Central Harlem, which the de Blasio administration denied a co-location permit with Harlem Success Academy IV (“Despite co-location reversal, parents say Harlem school still space-crunched,” March 5). As Secular reported, the building already houses two charter schools and two public schools, with many parents lamenting that children with special needs were not getting the care they needed even without the co-location. On the other hand, many charter schools can use their enhanced resources to improve test scores, offer extracurricular and after-school activities, and diversify their course offerings. The social impact of the co-location must also be taken into account. There is no universal verdict on the efficacy of charter schools. They, like most educational approaches, depend on their environments.
Whatever the motivation behind the co-location withdrawals, de Blasio and the city would be best served by quick passage of comprehensive pre-K legislation. Ultimately, this will have the broadest impact on average New Yorkers, and deserves our attention—and de Blasio’s political capital—far more than a rhetorically charged debate about charters. Although I’m sure the provocative press releases will arrive no matter what the topic. Comes with the territory, I guess.
Chris Meyer is a Columbia College junior majoring in history and political science. He is a former deputy news editor for Spectator. Outside the Bubble runs alternate Mondays.
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