NYC hosts the largest public school system in the nation, and it is regularly viewed only via the prism of its worst performers. That’s just how the media works: nobody wants to read about high-performing schools, after all. We only want to read lurid tales of dystopian hellholes where the hallways are straight out of the Lord of the Flies, the unfireable and uncaring teachers are just counting days until they can retire on their cushy pensions, and the principals are having wild sexcapades when not engaged in general sleaziness.
The truth is that NYC public schools have their highs and lows, just like schools in general. Stuyvesant is among the most elite high schools in the country, regularly outperforming its private-school counterparts; on the other hand, it shares the same district with the sort of dropout academies that the media loves to pillory. It’s just impossible to make sweeping generalizations about the entire school district, as much as people try.
The school near where I live is most commonly described as “generally well-regarded.” It has a majority Hispanic student base, and a majority of students qualify for free or reduced-cost meals; these are not considered markers of scholastic excellence by society. Nevertheless, because of its dedicated parents who remain committed to their kids, it defies expectations (racist and otherwise) and consistently scores above average in most metrics.
It’s gotten to the point where there are regular efforts to get rid of zoning ordinances purely so that other parents can send their kids there instead of their own local hellholes. Not everyone is lucky enough to live near a good school, and they want better options. Which brings us at last to the charter school.
Few things infuriate an orthodox liberal more than charter schools. If you asked your average leftist which they hate more — Israel, the Koch brothers, or charter schools — they’d have to sit down and think about it. This recent piece from orthodox liberalism’s house organ, Salon, is a typical specimen. The writer, infuriated by the positive portrayal of charter schools on an HBO show, reaches for the race card in his piece early and often to explain the motivation of charter-school backers:
“Could it be — gasp! — race, or class? Eagle Rock Elementary School [the public school the TV show characters are trying to avoid] is only 17 percent white, with 57 percent of the kids qualifying for subsidized school lunches.” (Hey, sounds familiar!)
This guy is clearly arguing in bad faith. As an education writer and former teacher, he knows better than anyone else that the vast majority of charter school families are minorities. It’s no secret that in suburban and urban environments, it’s generally the public schools for minority kids that fail their students, and therefore it follows that it’s generally minority families who seek escape in the charter system. After all, there is no reason to flee to a charter if your local school is above-average. However, he disingenuously paints a picture of charter parents being racist whites refusing to let their precious children mix with the spawn of those people. Guys like him regard charges of racism the way Billy Dee Williams regards Colt .45: “It works every time.” But at least in NYC, it is nothing like that. Believe me, public schools on the Upper West Side generally aren’t described as “failing” — and even if they were, those rich white people can afford to send their little kale-eating future one-percenters to Dalton.
(There is actually a crisis in certain schools for white kids, of course: rural schools. But that is a completely separate issue.)
Maddeningly, Leibner himself enumerates the way many urban public schools are failing:
These are schools with ever-growing class sizes, maligned teachers, schools obsessed with standardized test-based “rigor,” stripped of arts, music, field trips, nurses, janitors, counselors, libraries, physical education, integrity, or as Education Secretary Arne Duncan might put it, “air.” They are schools deprived of much-needed physical repairs and teachers deprived of support and training in favor of ill-considered technological quick-fixes (the quicker the better!).
Holy hell! Who wouldn’t want to run away screaming from that mess? Isn’t that the whole point of charters?!?
The actual reason why the writer and most others of his bent hate charters, of course, is because charters don’t let the teacher’s unions in. That’s what it all comes down to: the teacher’s unions and, more relevantly, their demands of complete tenure followed by guaranteed defined-benefit pensions for life. That is all what this writer, and Salon, really care about. That is why Salon is stuck in a permanent jihad against charters as well as school reformers like Michelle Rhee, since no school reform is possible without getting rid of tenure. They could not care one jot about the kids nor their families.
For instance, the 2012 Chicago teachers’ strike was not about the failing schools or things teachers could use to remedy the situation, such as teacher’s aides, better books and basics like air conditioning. It was not even about pay. It was all about tenure. These greedy, selfish people cannot countenance the possibility of facing accountability, even though the parents of their students out in the real world face the threat of termination, outsourcing and downsizing without notice basically every working day. One sticking point in negotiations involved teacher evaluations: they struck over the idea that the district could even review a teacher’s performance, let alone have the power to fire them for incompetence.
But charter schools, swimming in competitive waters and facing the threat of being shut down if they fail to perform, must fire teachers who are incompetent or who have stopped caring in order to survive. THAT is what infuriates charter-school opponents. THAT is why they want to ban charters and even private schools. Nothing more.
The insane thing is, tenure was originally developed to prevent college professors with unconventional beliefs being terminated solely for their opinions. It had nothing to do with protecting bad or uncaring grade-school teachers.
In any event, a charter school did open up nearby. Naturally, it did infuriate all the parents and teachers at the local, above-average public school. But they had no reason to get mad, as their school has nothing to fear. By my own observation, most of the charter school kids are Hispanic children being bussed in from other, failing school zones. In other words, the same kids whose parents originally wanted to send to the better school.
I would prefer to see our regular school system reformed… but that requires abolishing tenure for incompetent teachers. And since Leibner, Salon and the unions are absolutely opposed to even considering that, that leaves the charters as the only way out for many minority families who otherwise would be stuck with lazy teachers, corrupt principals, and/or uncaring fellow parents at their local public school.