If NYC Gets 17 More Charter Schools, What Will It Mean?

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October 8, 2014; New York Times

On Wednesday, October 8th, New York State’s charter schools committee (part of the State University of New York system’s board of trustees) approved 17 new schools for New York City. Fourteen of them will be Success Academy schools, bringing that network to a total of 50 schools that will serve 16,300 students by 2016. This decision will invigorate the growing debate about the effectiveness of charter schools and their overall impact on the quality of public education in New York and the United States.

The debate over charter schools is part of ongoing national concern about overall educational achievement and how best to improve our performance. Charter schools are part of a national effort spearheaded by President Obama’s education director, Arne Duncan. They seek to systemically change the nature of American public education and are coupled with the weakening or elimination of teachers’ unions and tenure, the development of the Common Core Curriculum, and the increased use of standardized testing as the basis for assessing educational success.

Supporters of these efforts see the traditional model of public education as broken and that educational achievement can only be improved by radically reforming the system. Joseph W. Belluck, chair of the committee, is convinced that “parents in the communities where these schools are do not care about the politics of this issue. They want their kids to have good schools, and they want their kids to have a good education.”

But will this decision result in better schools? Diane Ravitch framed the issue this way in an article in the New Republic:

“The fundamental question is this: Are charter schools like Success Academy a model for public education? The answer is: they are not. If public schools were able to exclude, one way or another, English-language learners and students with severe disabilities, the schools would have higher scores. But they cannot do this because, with the exception of a small number of exam schools, public schools are required to accept all students, regardless of their language skills, learning disabilities or test scores. If public schools could refuse to accept new enrollees after a certain grade, they could ‘build a culture,’ as Success Academy’s fans say it does. But public schools must take all enrollees, even those who show up mid-year.”

Supporters of charter schools point to the greater flexibility in staffing and scheduling that the schools are allowed, and to the high performance of certain networks. Students at Success schools, for example, routinely outperform those in other schools on state tests.

But do these changes work?

Richard Brodsky, a fellow at the Demos think tank in New York City and at the Wagner School at New York University, wrote in the Albany Times-Union:

“In the end, the charter school movement challenges the existence of public schools, not just some of its policies. The drive to privatize education is part of a national attack on government and the empowerment of large corporate interests.

“To me, a healthy debate about the policies could be a good thing. But if we’re going down a path of privatizing public education, I’m worried. Public schools created the American national success story. Whatever their real shortcomings, they need to be strengthened and they need to be funded. And I don’t want that fight to be distorted by huge tax subsidies going to charter schools, even as we reduce federal and state aid to public schools. That’s the wrong kind of financial aid to education.”

While there are examples of success to be found in individual schools, it is hard to find signs of systemic improvement that can be demonstrated to be the results of these change efforts. This is particularly true when the available data is analyzed and the effects of differential enrollment patterns are controlled for. Overall, it still appears that larger societal issues of race and income need to be confronted if we are going to have educational success for all students.—Marty Levine

  • Frank Martinelli

    First off, let me say that charter schools ARE public schools. Opponents certainly must know the law. Why do they continue to characterize charter schools as sometime other than public schools?

    Persuant to Public Law 103-132, dated October 20, 1994, a charter school is a public school of choice which is authorized by state statute and which is established by and operates under the terms of a charter granted to school organizers by a public sponsoring agency to whom the school is there after accountable.

    Public education, like most everything else, is changing and evolving. And why not? Here is a quote from Jonathan Kozol, author of: On Being a Teacher and many other important books on urban education and the challenges low-income children of color and their families face: “Public schools did not exist forever, they did not come out of the forehead of a Greek or Roman God; they were contrived by ordinary men and women and for just this reason–they can be rebuilt or reconceived, dismantled, or replaced not by another set of gods but by plain men and women. You and I leave school as it is, can change it slightly or turn it inside out and upside down”. (Please note: I’m not implying that Kozol is a supporter of charter schools.)

    The charter school movement is one effort to strengthen public education. Charter schools, after all, as a matter of federal law, are public schools in every sense. But they are different in some significant ways from traditional district public schools. Why is there growing support for charter schools? In our city, Milwaukee, 50% of high school students don’t graduate. We have to try different approaches. And yes there are a number of factors that come into play in a social and economic system that produces large numbers of poor children on a continuing basis. These issues need to be addressed and not only at the symptomatic level but at the deeper systemic level as well.

    At the same, we need to use every strategy available to dramatically improve the social and educational outcomes of our children. Charter schools – a different form of public education – are one such strategy. My feeling is that any school that doesn’t work for children shouldn’t continue to exist whether it be a traditional public school, a charter public school or a private school receiving public support in the form of vouchers. One of the things that is so compelling about the charter school approach is that if a charter school doesn’t measure up in terms of student achievement as specified in the school contract or charter the school can lose the right to exist as a public school future. And there are charter schools that close in this way. That’s not the case with other poor performing schools in the larger traditional district public school systems.

    Marty Levine quotes Richard Brodsky: “In the end, the charter school movement challenges the existence of public schools, not just some of its policies. The drive to privatize education is part of a national attack on government and the empowerment of large corporate interests” Like the author, I have deep concerns about some of the right wing sources of support for charter schools. But the status quo is simply not working for too many of our children. And charter schools are one viable solution to this problem

    One more thing: we frequently hear the charge that charter schools are siphoning off public school resources. We need to invest much more in education – no question about it. Instead of blaming the charter school movement, how about if we direct more attention to excessive military spending, tax breaks for the corporations and the wealthy and growing income inequality.

    Frank Martinell, Milwaukee WI

  • Iftikhar Ahmad

    The demand for Muslim schools comes from parents who want their children a safe environment with an Islamic ethos. Parents see Muslim schools where children can develop their Islamic Identity where they won’t feel stigmatised for being Muslims and they can feel confident about their faith. Muslim schools are working to try to create a bridge between communities. There is a belief among ethnic minority parents that the British schooling does not adequately address their cultural needs. Failing to meet this need could result in feeling resentment among a group who already feel excluded. Setting up Muslim school is a defensive response. State schools with monolingual teachers are not capable to teach English to bilingual Muslim children. Bilingual teachers are needed to teach English to such children along with their mother tongue. According to a number of studies, a child will not learn a second language if his first language is ignored.

    “A good grasp of one’s mother tongue is an essential base for a child who then has to get to grips with the language of their host country,” reckons Amelia Lambelet of the Fribourg Institute of Multilingualism. Therese Salzmann, an expert in multilingualism at the Swiss Institute of Youth and Media, agrees. “The teaching of mother tongues reinforces self-confidence and gives the child a feeling of security.” She adds that “taking account of a child’s double cultures is a determining factor in their social integration and professional success.”

    A Muslim is a citizen of this tiny global village. He/she does not want to become notoriously monolingual Brit. A Muslim must learn and be well versed in Standard English to follow the National Curriculum and go for higher studies and research to serve humanity. At the same time they must learn and be well versed in Arabic, Urdu and other community languages to keep in touch with their cultural heritage and enjoy the beauty of their literature and poetry. English is their economic language while Arabic and Urdu are their religious, social and emotional languages. It is purely an educational question.

    The largest ethnic minority groups in British schools are children of Pakistani origin: a community often accused of resisting assimilation and integration. Ann Cryer, the MP for Keighley blamed Imams for not speaking English. She should blame British schooling for not teaching Urdu/Arabic to Pakistani children, thus depriving them of understanding the Sermons in Arabic/Urdu. They are unable to enjoy the beauty of Urdu/Arabic literature and poetry. Imams are not part of the problem rather than the solutions. There is a proposal to teach Urdu as a compulsory language instead of French and German in British schools. The British Government is urged to remove the requirement in the National Curriculum that children between the ages of 11-14 study at least one European language. The linguistic abilities of large number of Muslim children were being ignored because they had to learn another European language as well as mastering English. The Government must promote the status of Urdu language instead of languages of European origin. Tim Benson, head of Nelson primary school in Newham said that the “nationalistic curriculum failed to recognize the staggering array of linguistic abilities and competencies” in schools such as his, where the pupils spoke more than 40 languages. The linguistic dexterity of families speaking an array of languages was celebrated but the “awesome achievements” of children mastering three or four languages were barely recognised by the education system. Social and emotional education comes with your own language-literature and poetry. A DFEs document clearly states that children should be encouraged to maintain and develop their home languages. A study shows that bilingualism is a positive benefit to cognitive development and bilingual teacher is a dire necessity and is a role model. The price of ignoring children’s bilingualism is educational failure and social exclusion. Bilingualism could be developed by bringing a partner from Pakistan. The kids will get better at both languages. One will speak English while the other will speak Urdu.