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A top-down plan for charters’ growth

[This editorial originally appeared in the June 26 issue of the New York Teacher.]

Over the last 15 years, as the number of charter schools around the country has multiplied, the movement has increasingly become dominated by charter school networks such as Success Academy and Uncommon Schools as opposed to independent or community-based charter schools.

That is no accident.

Researchers have found that large foundations are deliberately fueling the growth of charter school networks, also known as charter school management organizations. One recent study, described in our Research Shows column on page 17, looked closely at the explosive growth of charter school networks in California from 1999 to 2005. It found that four foundations had worked in concert to drive that growth: the Gates, Broad and Walton Family foundations along with the New Schools Venture Fund.

The Walton, Gates and Broad foundations are also the largest funders of charter school networks nationally.

Why would these foundations want to fund networks rather than independent schools? A main reason is that networks can grow. An explicit demand of the foundations in the California study was for networks to add more schools fast. Charter school leaders interviewed for the study said foundations told them that they would receive funding only if they had a plan to scale up.

Some of the charter organizations aimed to grow big enough within a particular school district to challenge that school system. One said that scaling up was akin to having an effect on “public education the way FedEx affected the Post Office.”

We know that the ultimate goal of many in the corporate education reform movement is to privatize public education. These foundations and the other billionaire funders of the corporate reform movement see building up charter school networks as a pivotal part of that work.

We must call out the orchestrated, top-down growth of the charter school movement. Studies show that charters perform no better and often worse than public schools. And an unbridled and unregulated increase in charter schools poses a threat to public education and our democracy.

The last public school

[This editorial originally appeared in the June 5 issue of the New York Teacher.]

This June, New Orleans’ Recovery School District closed its last five traditional public schools, making it the first all-charter school district in the country.

Some observers call the all-charter district a grand urban experiment. We see the unfettered, underregulated expansion of charters as a threat to children’s education and to democracy.

After Hurricane Katrina in 2005, the state took over 102 of New Orleans’ 117 schools. More than 7,000 teachers and other school employees were booted out. Charter operators were invited in.

Charter boosters in New Orleans point to higher state test scores and graduation rates than before Katrina. But such comparisons are questionable because many families and students who lived in the city prior to the storm have left.

Other trends are clearer. A 2010 study by the University of Minnesota Law School found that while New Orleans remains a majority African-American city, 80 percent of its white students attend the most selective, higher-performing charter schools while children of color and lower economic status attend lower-ranked schools.

Similarly, advocates for students with disabilities say children with special needs are routinely denied equal access to educational opportunities and are often pushed out of New Orleans’ charter schools.

A similar lack of fairness can be found in the treatment of educators. While most of the fired teachers were African-American, many of the new recruits are white. The fired educators sued for unfair termination and won.

Unequal treatment can thrive more easily in a district of privately run, though publicly funded, charter schools. The privatization and decentralization of New Orleans schools have led to both a loss of community control and a diminished sense of community as neighborhood schools disappear.

At a time when public education is under attack, New Orleans should remind us that public schools offer both an equality of access and a sense of community essential to our diverse democracy.

“Public education isn’t important because it serves the public,” the late cultural critic Neil Postman said. “It is important because it creates the public.”

A matter of respect

[This editorial originally appeared in the May 15 issue of the New York Teacher.]

The proposed contract reflects the importance of having a negotiating partner in City Hall who understands and respects the work that UFT members do, both in and out of the classroom. It’s a striking difference from the modus operandi of the previous administration.

Case in point: the reluctance of the Bloomberg administration to pay the hundreds of UFT members who spent days and nights at 76 evacuation centers throughout the city in the wake of Hurricane Sandy 18 months ago.

Our members staffed the evacuation sites — many but not all were in public school buildings — and took on a variety of tasks: setting up cots, delivering supplies, organizing children’s activities, treating ill and fragile evacuees and even walking dogs.

Some members worked in 12-hour shifts; others worked around the clock. Many had suffered their own losses in the ferocious storm, but put those concerns aside to help others.

Members waited months for payment for the hours they spent assisting Sandy victims who sought refuge in those evacuation centers — and then Bloomberg’s minions decided the city would pay them only for hours greater than their normal workday, even if schools were closed on those days.

The UFT initiated a grievance on behalf of those members to challenge the decision, pointing out that the policy was tantamount to lengthening the work year without additional pay for educators who stepped up to help in shelters since UFT members who stayed home were also paid for the normal workday.

As a result of the grievance victory, members will get paid for all the hours they spent at the evacuation centers in hard-hit communities, including Far Rockaway and Staten Island. It was slow in coming, but in the end, fairness prevailed.

Affordable housing an education issue

[This editorial originally appeared in the May 15 issue of the New York Teacher.]

Many of us were haunted last fall by the story of Dasani — one of the 22,000 children living in homeless shelters in New York City, and a student at the McKinney Secondary School of the Arts in Brooklyn. The New York Times followed her and her family through bureaucratic indignities, the insecurity of shelters and temporary apartments, and other false starts. Her school was her anchor.

It is with Dasani in mind that we welcome the news of Mayor Bill de Blasio’s ambitious plan to build or preserve 200,000 units of affordable housing, costing $8.2 billion over 10 years. It is an important step toward helping families like Dasani’s who have been pushed to the margins of the city by rising rents. The plan addresses the needs of both New York City’s lowest-income residents and middle-income workers, including the UFT’s own members, who increasingly find themselves priced out of the city.

Under the mayor’s plan, developers will for the first time be required to include affordable units in any residential construction. And the city has vowed to more aggressively protect tenants in rent-regulated units.

Landlords that have been ruthless in hounding out tenants — especially by withholding repairs and services — should feel the full weight of the law. Both federal and state assistance will be needed to help families on the lowest economic rung make the transition from shelters to stable housing.

The plan is a long overdue response to the growing housing costs that have priced out many families. Change cannot come soon enough for our students and families.

The New York State Technical and Educational Assistance Center for Homeless Students reports that 80,574 city public school students were identified as homeless in the 2012–13 school year — living in shelters or motels, or doubled up with their families in inadequate housing.

As any teacher can tell you, the lack of stable and secure housing reverberates in the classroom. The state assistance center has the sad tally: More than 75 percent of homeless children read below grade level, and 36 percent of homeless children repeated a grade, twice the rate of other children. Students with two or more school changes are half as likely to be proficient in reading as their peers.

For the youngest students, the impact is especially profound. The Institute for Children, Poverty and Homelessness found that children experiencing homelessness or high mobility begin Head Start at age 3 “with poorer socio-emotional, cognitive, and health-related outcomes on average than their low-income, stably housed peers.”

The mayor has called the housing plan “a central pillar in the battle against inequality.” While many details need to be worked out, the plan holds promise for the thousands of Dasanis who struggle every day to learn, in a city that for too long had seemed to turn its back on them.