Selected readings on US charter schools
At Harlem Success Academy 5, one of the newest in the expanding network of New York City charter schools, students can earn “scholar dollars” by staying on their best behavior, turning in assignments on time, and getting good grades. In the school store, students can use these scholar dollars to purchase, among other items, candy (thirty scholar dollars), temporary tattoos (forty-five), and a trip to a nearby Chuck E. Cheese’s (six hundred).
“They are going to be competing for spaces in colleges and universities across the country,” Khari Shabazz, the principal of Success Academy’s fifth Harlem location, told me. “Coming from the socio-economic background that they’re coming from, it’s important to learn to be competitive. And none of us work for free.”
Under Mayor Michael Bloomberg, New York City has become a powerful incubator for the charter-school movement. The number of charter schools citywide has grown from seventeen in 2002 to a hundred and eighty-three this year. Charter schools now represent an unorthodox second school system where several Wall Street hedge-fund managers sit on boards of directors. (Success is the city’s largest charter network, with twenty-two schools.) Many charters are housed in the same buildings as public schools. The city’s charter schools enroll six per-cent of New York City’s 1.1 million students; that figure is more than twenty per cent in areas of Harlem and the Bronx. Now, though, with Bill de Blasio’s incoming administration talking about capping the number of new charter schools, that pro-charter era could be waning.
Charter schools are independently run but receive funding from the New York City Board of Education, along with other city, state, and federal monies—roughly thirteen thousand five hundred dollars per student last year. Charter schools housed (or “co-located”) in public-school buildings don’t have to pay for rent, utilities, janitorial services, or school-safety officials. (Charter schools not housed with public schools do.)
The public-private connections can be tangled: the C.E.O. of Success Academy, Eva Moskowitz, sat on the City Council with de Blasio for four years in the mid-aughts; Moskowitz chaired the body’s education committee, of which de Blasio was a member, before founding Success Academy, in 2006. But de Blasio, a vocal supporter of teachers’ unions, has said that he would end free rent for some co-located charter schools. At a June forum, when asked about the existing rent-free agreements, de Blasio said, pointedly, “There is no way in hell that Eva Moskowitz should get free rent, O.K.?”
Moskowitz told me that she was surprised when de Blasio invoked her name. “It doesn’t seem mayoral to be personalizing things in that way,” she told me in a recent interview. She added, “I’d prefer, everything else being equal, not to be the punching bag for anyone.”
Since then, Moskowitz has waged a very public fight against de Blasio’s charter-school rent plan. In September, she published an op-ed in the New York Post titled “BILL DE BLASIO’S WAR ON GOOD SCHOOLS,” and, last month, she helped to stage a massive rally at which seventeen thousand people marched across Brooklyn Bridge.
The fight has to do with a philosophical disagreement about the role of charter schools in the New York City school system. Critics say that they pull far too much money away from needy public schools, and that they lack the oversight which applies to traditional public schools; supporters say the public-education system is outdated, broken, and in need of an alternative.
At Success, the school year is ten months longs and the school days stretch from 7:45 A.M. to 5 P.M. for those in fifth grade or higher. Students are encouraged to talk as much as possible. (“We’re not big on hand-raising here,” Moskowitz said.)
Parents with children in kindergarten, first, or second grade sign a contract saying that they will read to them for an hour each night and keep a log tracking their progress. Recently, a science class examined the engineering principles behind the Brooklyn Bridge, and a math class next door used building blocks to teach students abstract “constructivist” math.
This model has been popular with parents. Last year, Harlem Success Academy 5 (better known as Harlem 5) received two thousand six hundred and sixty-five applications for a hundred and twenty-five open seats. That’s an acceptance rate of 4.7 per cent, lower than that of any Ivy League university. Like all New York City charter schools, Success-school administrators select students through a random lottery.
The city’s most well-known charter schools also have remarkably high test scores, although it’s hard to make apples-to-apples comparisons. Last year, sixty-four per cent of Harlem 5’s third graders passed the state English exam and eighty-eight per cent passed the state math exam. At P.S. 123, the Mahalia Jackson School, which is located in the same school building as Success, only eighteen per cent of students passed the English test and only five per cent passed the math test. (Citywide, charter-school students outperformed students in traditional schools in math but were slightly behind in English, according to state-exam data from last year.)
De Blasio’s team told me that the mayor-elect doesn’t want to get rid of charter schools altogether. Rather, he plans to reverse many of the bolder changes that Bloomberg made, including closing more than a hundred and sixty low-performing public schools and stressing the use of report cards and data to rate teachers and schools. De Blasio’s most headline-grabbing proposal thus far has been to expand public education through a tax on New Yorkers who make more than five hundred thousand dollars a year, which would pay for citywide pre-kindergarten.
De Blasio and his advisers are still figuring out how much rent to charge well-funded charter schools, his transition team told me. “It would depend on the resources of the charter school or charter network,” he told WNYC, in early October. “Some are clearly very, very well resourced and have incredible wealthy backers. Others don’t. So my simple point was that programs that can afford to pay rent should be paying rent.” (In an October debate with the Republican candidate Joseph Lhota, he put it more bluntly: “I simply wouldn’t favor charters the way Mayor Bloomberg did because, in the end, our city rises or falls on our traditional public schools.”)
On the surface, many of the better-funded charter schools appear to be doing well financially. Success Academy Charter School Inc. had more than eight and a half million dollars in savings and temporary cash investments in 2012, and it spent at least 1.3 million dollars on outreach and consulting services (which, Success officials say, is critical to educating parents about charter schools), according to a tax filing last year. But Moskowitz says that she runs deficits at most of her schools, and that the imposition of rent would devastate the charter-school network’s budget, potentially resulting in cuts to teacher and administrator salaries, special-education services, books and other supplies, and would increase class sizes.
Many of those who oppose charter-school expansion point to the extra financial backing that they get from wealthy private donors. Success Academy, for instance, was started by Moskowitz and two hedge-fund managers, Joel Greenblatt and John Petry. (Success officials say that parent associations at schools in affluent neighborhoods, like Park Slope and the Upper East Side, don’t face the same scrutiny when it comes to fund-raising.)
At Harlem 5, Apple laptops and interactive Smart Boards are in every classroom, and it’s not uncommon to hear Brahms or Dave Brubeck being played in the background during class. Fifth and sixth graders get Kindles. In one classroom I visited, a particularly high-achieving student was allowed to don a paper crown and act as a teaching assistant. She called on classmates and admonished those who weren’t listening. For the most part, the class structure worked; the students paid far more attention to the day’s math lesson than one might expect, even if it was unclear who was in charge.
Source: The New Yorker – by Derek Kravitz