The New York charter school group Families of Excellent Schools announced recently that rallying under the banner “Don’t Steal Possible,” on October 7, 2015 “over 10,000 parents, students, and educators are expected to demand an end to education inequality in Brooklyn's Cadman Plaza, followed by hundreds marching across the Brooklyn Bridge and holding a press conference on the steps of City Hall in the afternoon.”
Sounds good, right? To the contrary, people of color in this country, specifically black people, have rarely had agency in the pedagogy and policy that affects their children. NYC charter schools playing the role of white saviors does little to change this.
The criticisms are simple here. As recently as 2013, 16 New York City charter executives made more income than the sitting Dept. of Education Chancellor at the time, even while serving significantly fewer students. And charter schools don’t perform better than public schools. In NYC this past year, charters may have outperformed in math but performed on par with public schools in other areas. A recent study showed that the Knowledge Is Power Program or KIPP — a NYC non-profit network of public schools serving low-income students — can produce gains in elementary and middle school students, but that those advances don’t last through high school, an indication that perhaps the hype around KIPP is, at best, inflated.
Indeed, most of the arguments around “choice” evoke more boogiemen than Halloween, yet, when the facts are laid bare, we see little evidence for the hype.
POLITICO’s Eliza Shapiro reported that Success Academy Charter Schools employees have received a messaging memo preparing them to talk to parents and other attendees about the upcoming rally. Success staff (who were discouraged from sharing the memo with families), were told to “strongly encourage” parents to attend the rally and march even if it presents hardships for them in terms of arranging for child care or taking time off from their jobs. All of the 34 Success Academy charter schools in the city will be closed the morning of the rally, and parents not attending will have to find alternate care for their kids. (At a 2013 rally, the first of its kind, parents were “strongly encouraged” to attend with their children lest they have their child suspended or removed from the school. Even New York State’s Governor (and friend to the hedge fund managers who sponsor these rallies) Andrew Cuomo, made an appearance at the first rally, using heavy-handed policy as a wedge to prop open New York City’s public schools to charter co-locations unencumbered by NYC Mayor Bill de Blasio’s education visions.
The rally might create a perception that the pro-charter lobby fights for the educational and political interests of people of color rather than their own interests. But if parents and students need to be forced into taking up other people’s battles, is that really equity or just another way to oppress via messaging?
The Families for Excellent Schools statement continues:
“Wednesday's rally follows the release of Families for Excellent Schools’ white paper, ‘A Tale of Two School Systems,’ which found that black and Hispanic students are confined to a second-class system of the city’s worst performing schools. Some 478,000 children – overwhelmingly Black and Hispanic students – attend failing schools, while top-rated schools are reserved almost exclusively for white and Asian students.”
How many of the students would be miraculously saved from their pain and strife by attending Success Academy or KIPP when the results are comparable at best with public schools? Because it is so rare for schools to have 100% passing rates for both English and math standardized tests, how do they explain failures besides “we have a long way to go but …”? What happens when students get in via lottery and, by chance, don’t meet the school’s criteria for proficiency? Do they get to stay while the school works their magic or are they thrown into their local public school? Even when most students in New York State didn’t pass the exams, is the only criteria for what makes a good student, a good teacher, a good administrator, or a good school a standardized test score?
FES’ white paper (and the rallies that follow) perpetuates the white savior narrative emerging in the education debate. Would FES fight with equal fervor for P.S. 307 in Brooklyn, NY? Across the bridge from this rally, another heated debate happening now in New York City centers on the rezoning of the DUMBO district where two public schools, one the predominantly white P.S. 8 and one the predominantly black 307. I’ve said in previous pieces that this debate is the 21st century fruition of the integration versus segregation argument. My conversations with people close to the matter reveal that P.S. 307 is a great school, and NYC School Chancellor Carmen Fariña affirmed this in her rezoning plans. Yet, gentrification is a beast that often strips the voices of the people who lived there and would like to stay. Such is the case in Dumbo, once vacated for green pastures and now revitalized by a wellspring of businesses.
According to Inside Schools, P.S. 307 has a well-resourced STEM program, caring teachers, and an active PTA. They’ve forged partnerships with local workshops and businesses, have a great school tone, and developed a positive rapport with community members.
Unfortunately, they also haven’t shaken the perception of having low academic standards because of low test scores. Parents in P.S. 8 have affirmed that “they’re not racist, but …”, a sure sign that racism isn’t just a set of attitudes, but also a set of systems that allows them to assume that P.S. 307 is failing its students, and that they know better even than the community members fighting vigorously for it.
And they won’t be rallying on any official building’s steps. Fariña would surely get plastered all over the New York Post if P.S. 307 principal Stephanie Carroll let students take a day off as a civics lesson, as Moskowitz has done for each charter rally since 2013.
If the rezoning proposal holds, parents in 307 have every right to be concerned that the parents who made disparaging comments about them from P.S. 8 would have a larger voice in how 307 runs.
Ironically, pro-charter advocates would frown upon a school that was undermined by nine surrounding charter schools in the area and integrated with an overcrowded white school at a time when charterization has increased segregation.
Families for Excellent Schools (an awkward name since everyone wants excellent schools surely), prints “Don’t Steal Possible” on red shirts and hands them out across the city. When a whole host of inequitable conditions, including the stratification of rich and poor, steal possibilities (and lives) from children and adults of color on a daily basis, we won’t see similarly impassioned rallies for their rights. When parents have to take off work for a rally or risk their student getting transferred to a local public school that was stripped of funds for losing students to charter schools, that’s also stealing possible.
My criticism isn’t specifically towards charter school parents, teachers, or students, either. Pitting charter school teachers, parents, and students against public school teachers, parents, and students is a failed strategy for people of color because the struggle against racism, sexism, and other forms of oppression knows little bounds.
What’s most disenchanting about the upcoming rally, though, is that the rally doesn’t serve equal and equitable agency for school-aged children. It ultimately serves the agenda of a handful of people who won’t put their shoes to the cement alongside parents who just want their children to thrive in a good school. If the messaging comes from an unknown busybody and not from the very people affected by the schooling of their children, that’s another swindle our children cannot afford.