The media fight between the mayor and Eva Moskowitz has obscured real issues. Is there really room for charters to co-locate? Is there a place for them in de Blasio's school strategy?

Mayoral Photography Office

The media fight between the mayor and Eva Moskowitz has obscured real issues. Is there really room for charters to co-locate? Is there a place for them in de Blasio's school strategy?

There are a lot of points on which charter school advocates and district school supporters don’t agree, but on one particular point they converge: kids make good media.

Twice last month, Families for Excellent Schools, the private-equity backed charter advocacy group, convinced New York City charters to flip their class schedules and send students and teachers to do their lobbying on a school day.

First was October 7, where nearly 18,000 children, parents and teachers gathered in Cadman Plaza, then marched over the Brooklyn Bridge to take FES’s pro-charter message to City Hall. #DontStealPossible tweeters exhorted one another as photos of the young marchers were featured in Internet posts from charter-school operators to a former DOE schools chancellor turned charter-school advocate.

Then came October 21, where more than 1,000 charter school teachers rallied at Foley Square in Manhattan. The downtown location was no accident—the federal and state courthouses in the background were a potent reminder of the charter world’s efforts to roll back teacher tenure and last-in-first-out termination rules.

Both rallies were held on a Wednesday, a half-day for New York City’s largest charter chain, Success Academy, run by the mayor’s former City Council colleague Eva Moskowitz. The network upended its school day, sent students to the march in the morning and then told them to come to class in the afternoon. Achievement First, with 17 charter schools in New York City to Success’ 34, sent a considerably smaller but no less visible cohort to the events, lining up parents to speak at the Oct. 7 rally, and freeing up teacher class time to get them to the gathering on Oct. 21.

If the focus of these rallies was to display the political might of the charters, as well as the depth of the wallet of their supporters, then their target was no secret: In the education narrative where charter schools are heroes, Mayor Bill de Blasio is the bad guy—at best an enabler of an unequal, failing system, at worst one of the biggest roadblocks to the multiplying of charters across the city.

Anatomy of an argument

When the first charter school opened in Harlem in 1999, few people then could have foreseen the fight over the scope of charter schools around the city today. According to the New York City Charter Center there are now 205 charter schools in New York City serving 95,000 children, with 43,000 families on the waiting list. Success Academy is the largest of those charter groups, with a network of 34 schools across Brooklyn, Queens, the Bronx and Manhattan, serving 11,000 students and with an estimated wait list of 23,000.

While the first charter school opened during former Mayor Rudolph Giuliani’s second term, their expansion spread rapidly during the 12 years of Michael Bloomberg’s mayoralty. With the increase in the charters came a marked uptick in the political rhetoric around them: Critics accused the back-to-back Republican mayors of ignoring troubled or failing schools in favor of politically connected charters, while charter advocates maintained they were helping students whom the DOE had consistently and persistently ignored.

By the time de Blasio took control of the 2013 mayoral race, the clash of wills between the mayor and charter advocates was all but inevitable. Both sides fed the fire. During that campaign, de Blasio repeatedly tweaked his former Council colleague, pledging to stop Moskowitz’s spread of Success Academy. “Starting January, Eva Moskowitz cannot continue to have the run of the place,” de Blasio told a packed political forum at one point in the contest. “Just because someone is politically connected and has a lot of money behind them, they don’t tell the public school system what to do.”

Not one to leave things to chance, Moskowitz, backed by Families for Excellent Schools, was able to pivot quickly and turn the political heat back on the mayor.

Case in point, the FES hosted rally in support of charter schools in October of 2013, a month before de Blasio was elected. Indeed, the ascension of de Blasio, a declared charter skeptic, to City Hall coincided with the charter-school movement reaching political maturity: While once the city and state teachers union were powerful enough to dominate the public education agenda, FES—backed by Wall Streeters such as Bryan Lawrence, who runs an investment firm, and Paul Appelbaum, principal of Rock Ventures, LLC—has been able to pour millions into lobbying efforts. According to the Joint Commission on Ethics, FES spent more than $9.6 million on lobbying efforts in 2014, nearly double the amount spent by the UFT and New York State United Teachers in the same year.

In an email statement, Jeremiah Kittredge, the CEO of Families for Excellent Schools, defended his organization’s media campaign and, using internal reports, argued that nearly half a million of the city’s 1.1 million children were in failing schools. “If the debate is loud, it’s because there are 478,000 children in a separate and unequal system of failing schools,” said Kittredge. “Demonstrating the urgency of giving every child immediate access to a quality education has never been more important, and last month’s rallies were an opportunity for thousands of parents and educators to do just that.”

Rhetoric to realpolitik

Initially, other charter organizations like Achievement First and Green Dot Charter Schools were reluctant to take on the new mayor in such an aggressive fashion. Capital New York reported that they stayed away from FES and Success Academy’s March 4, 2014, Lobby Day rally in Albany—where Gov. Andrew Cuomo came to stand with Moskowitz and declare his support for charter schools.

But that was then. More recently, Achievement First and KIPP charter schools joined in the rallies at Cadman Plaza and Foley Square, happily tweeting photos of parents and students supporting charter-school expansion.

Most of the fights between the charter schools and the administration have centered around some charter networks desire to co-locate in district schools, and accusations and counter accusations over who has the best interests of New York City’s students, and particularly students of color, at heart.

While the mayor’s rhetoric of “a tale of two cities, one rich, one poor” resonated strongly within the city’s minority community during his campaign, many of those same supporters see charter schools as a viable and necessary option to the dismal performance of some of the city’s district schools. These same supporters were first confused and then frustrated with the mayor for not articulating a stronger policy on how to improve the city’s schools.

To Moskowitz’s claim that longer schools days and a tougher discipline policy have generated impressive results – proficiency levels at Success Academy schools on state tests were more than double the citywide average last year – critics respond that high suspension rates, fewer students with special needs and a refusal to fill empty seats above the third grade with students who haven’t come up through the network’s ranks mean the chain’s success less exemplary than it looks.

The level of mutual disdain between the current mayor and the charter school movement, specifically Moskowitz, has become so poisonous that real achievement in schools on both sides of the divide is being buried in the political ash. She has gone out of her way to belittle and blame the mayor. He has gambled and lost valuable political capital on fights over charters and failed to articulate a coherent policy for dealing with them.

“The actual facts on the ground don’t even matter any more,” said one charter-school advisor, who categorized the fighting as “toxic.” Even talking about charters and districts schools “in the same sentence is all that is needed to create fire,” added the advisor.

How to make enemies and influence policy

There is blame enough to go around. Apart from the mayor and Schools Chancellor Carmen Farina’s most glaring missteps (e.g., their recent suggestions that children of different backgrounds become “pen pals” as a way to ease racial and economic segregation in city schools – a remark that would be risible even if it wasn’t coming from the two people specifically tasked with effecting policy in New York City schools) the mayor has spent much of his tenure in a tit-for-tat standoff with charter schools, most notably Success Academy.

Not two months into his tenure, de Blasio drew fire when the city rejected three out of 17 charter schools from co-locating in public schools, schools that had been approved by the Bloomberg Administration. All three charters were Success Academy schools.

At the same time, charter groups note, the mayor’s office deleted $210 million from charter schools in the fiscal year 2015 budget. The state added $26.9 million back to charter schools in the final budget.

(That episode aside, charter schools in many ways have little real ground for complaint, at least when it comes to funding. Overall, charter school spending allocated by the city for fiscal year 2015 was $1.5 billion, about 13 percent of the overall budget—hardly chump change for schools that educate 9 percent of all New York City public school children, many of which—like Success, Bryan Lawrence’s Public Prep and investor Carl Icahn’s seven charter schools—are also supported by donors with deep pockets. )

While Moskowitz herself has been no slouch in the rhetoric – she once likened her push to expand charter schools to a “Middle East war,” the mayor was forced to tone down his after the state legislature passed a law on April 1, 2014, mandating that the city find co-locations in district schools for charters, or pay upwards of $40 million a year in rent for those schools that could not share district school space.

It was a resounding success for charter schools. And a hard slap to the mayor from a legislature and governor eager to give charters free reign.

Since then, the mayor and the charter organizations, most notably Success Academy, have been engaged in a visible tug of war over space, with each side using proxies to accuse the other of bad faith and lacking commitment to turning around the toughest failing schools.

The day before the October 7 rally in Brooklyn, Success Academy put out a press release accusing the mayor of “foot dragging” in finding co-locations for seven schools, pointing out that the city’s Panel on Educational Policy, which approves co-locations, voted against locating a Success Academy school in a Midwood middle school that had 653 empty seats and was operating at 57 percent capacity, according to city tallies.

Twice, says Ann Powell, communications director for Success Academy, the DOE has missed its own deadline in announcing co-locations for approved charter schools, and to date has only announced two co-locations, at an elementary school in Far Rockaway and in an elementary school in Bedford Stuyvesant. Since Success Academy opened its application process in October, “we have tremendous demand,” says Powell, who says that this year, there were 22,000 applications for 2,300 seats. “So we are eager to open new schools. We have to think that the foot dragging on the part of the mayor is deliberate.”

In an email, Devora Kaye, a spokeswoman for the DOE said: “These schools will be sited and will open as planned. We are in ongoing communication with this charter network, as well as other charter schools where we’ll be providing space. Finding school space is not a simple task. And it’s a process that takes a school community working together-no co-location can succeed if it’s based on one school taking from another. We remain fully committed to finding these schools a high quality location that meets their needs in time for them to open next year as planned.”

In fact, despite the dire picture painted Success Academy in press releases, and the constant media drumbeat by FES, since de Blasio took office in 2014, 71 of 77 new charter schools have been either co-located or given rental assistance in non-district school space. Right now, the city is assessing 15 ongoing requests for new charter locations.

Where are the seats?

Part of what makes the process of assigning space so fundamentally complicated is the lack of solid information on which schools have space and which are truly full.

Every year, the School Construction Authority releases its Enrollment, Capacity and Utilization report on the city’s 1,800 schools. Called “the blue book” for its blue ink, the report assesses capacity in every school. Education advocates like Sarah Morgridge, former chief of staff to one-time Council Education Committee chairman Robert Jackson, say the blue book vastly underestimates the amount of overcrowding, feeding the charter-school argument that there is room in schools for co-locations, when in reality, children have lost art classes, gym, cluster rooms, cafeteria and auditorium space.

“The School Construction Authority is concerned with the most efficient use of space. They are not so much concerned with optimal educational environment,” says Morgridge. ” If you are looking at numbers in the blue book, unless you are walking the halls, you can’t tell what the capacity [of a school] really is. You can’t tell looking at the blue book whether there is a gym, cafeteria, library or specialty or cluster rooms.”

Morgridge worked closely with Jackson on the 1990s Campaign for Fiscal Equity, a lawsuit by city parents to force the state to more equitably distribute education dollars. While the lawsuit was ultimately successful, the dollars have never fully materialized. And the city’s districts schools are still reeling from years of underfunding. All of which helps fuel the continued fight between charters and the city. The under reporting of school overcrowding, coupled with the under funding of the schools, has made a mess of the system.

Finding their place

The arguments over co-locations—whether schools can absorb them, whether de Blasio is slow-walking them—graze a deeper problem with how charter schools fit inside the public-school universe. The debate in New York City today is about where new charters can find seats, not where they are most needed.

Dr. Pedro Noguera, a nationally recognized expert on the education of black students, resigned from the SUNY Board of Trustees in 2011, three years after his appointment, deeply and publicly frustrated about the political tensions behind the placement of charter schools.

The SUNY trustees “wanted us to authorize on the merit of the proposal and without any consideration of where [the schools] would be placed. And it became clear to me that it was a political issue,” says Noguera, who this fall left New York University to take a position as distinguished professor of education at UCLA’s Graduate School of Education and Information Studies. Apart from a few charter schools, like ROADS charter schools, that work with over-age, under credited students, there are few charters that are willing to take on the most challenging schools and student populations, says Noguera. (He notes, however, that many districts schools are also failing to help the most struggling students.)

It’s not just that some charters don’t locate where education need is greatest (although some clearly do). It’s also that, despite charters’ freedom to innovate and serve as labs for new ways of teaching, neither charters nor district schools have achieved any real level of collaboration.

Billy Easton, executive director of Alliance for Quality Education, a teachers-union backed lobbying group, says his group didn’t like the phrase ‘failing schools.’ “There are schools where students need a lot more resources and support and schools that could be run better,” he says. “I think the initiatives the mayor has – creating community schools and improving quality of the curriculum, are incredibly important initiatives. Those programs deserve a chance to succeed and they need support to succeed.”

Says Easton, “The expansion of Success Academy is not going to do anything at all to help struggling schools. That is not part of their agenda.”

Don’t steal possible

The very public fight between Moskowitz and the mayor has left other, smaller charter networks worried for their own future. Rafiq Kalam Id-Din, a founder of Teaching Firms of America Professional Preparatory Charter School, a four-year-old charter school in Bedford-Stuyvesant, is nervous. The school invited the DOE to come and hear its proposal to expand its charter from K- fifth grade to K – 12th grade. DOE officials came and visited, but there’s been no word yet on the expansion.

In four years, says Kalam Id-Din, his school has made tremendous progress.

Last year, 40 percent of the fourth graders scored fours on the state science exam, 46.9 percent scored a 3 or 4 on the ELA and in math, 22.5 percent scored a 3 or a 4. This was all done, says Kalam Id-Din, with no test prep: “This is with a student body where 94 percent of the students receive a free or reduced price lunch, 14 percent are special education, 11 percent are English Language Learners and 35 percent of the parents were born in an another country.”

Amid the caustic back-and-forth between the mayor’s office and charter schools, it’s been hard to get the DOE to commit to their continued growth, says Kalam Id-Din. “We have been hopeful that this mayor who has been called progressive will lead us in our progression, but we haven’t seen it yet. But we are still hopeful.”