Education Reform

Horace Meister: Why Charters Are NOT the Way to Help Struggling Schools

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Horace Meister, a former data analyst at the New York City Department of Education, knows how to find the data. Here he tells a gripping, data-based story of hypocrisy.

He writes:

“The Hypocrisy of So-Called Ed Reformers and Politicians: A Short Story”

Andrew Cuomo, the Governor of New York State, recently released a report called The State of New York’s Failing Schools. This report claims to present “statistics and facts” that “expose a public education system badly in need of change” and is designed to support Cuomo’s proposal to turn “failing” schools over to private management and convert them into charter schools. But are these public schools failing? Are charter schools the answer? The facts say no.

To help concretize the question why don’t we take a closer look at one charter chain? Let’s examine how Success Academy maintains its success. Success Academy, the largest charter chain in New York City, and Cuomo are close allies. Success Academy’s donors donated generously to Cuomo’s re-election campaign too. Cuomo was a behind-the-scenes advocate of last year’s charter school rally in Albany led by Eva Moskowitz, CEO of Success Academy. A rally for which Success Academy closed its schools and bussed its students to the capital. Success Academy is repeating this gimmick, a gimmick that would be illegal for any public school, again this week.

Success Academy’s schools in Harlem have data going back a couple of years. The most recent data show that the Success Academy schools are not truly succeeding and the public schools identified as “failing” are not truly failing. New York City’s districts 3, 4, 5, and 6 overlap with the geographic boundaries served by Success Academy’s Harlem schools. There are 31 schools within this geographic region that are “failing” New York State accountability measures.

How do the students served by these 31 schools compare to the students served by Success Academy? The data are incontrovertible. Success Academy serves a much more privileged student body. The 31 “failing” schools serve an average of 22.9% English Language Learners, 25.6% special education students, 7.9% high need special education students, 22.8% students living in temporary housing, 70.7% students receiving public assistance, 83.4% students receiving free lunch, and 5.4% students entering middle school overage. On the other hand, Success Academy schools in the same geographic region serve on average 4.9% English Language Learners, 13.9% special education students, 0.7% high need special education students, 7.9% students living in temporary housing, 55.7% students receiving public assistance, 72.3% students receiving free lunch, and 0% students entering middle school overage.

It is obvious, as has been shown again and again in every data set ever studied, that the measures currently used to identify failing schools fail to accurately measure true school performance. Instead, they largely penalize schools that serve the neediest students. Despite claims by advocacy groups such as the so-called “Families for Excellent Schools” [funded by the Walton family, the Broad family, and other billionaire families], “a major ally of charter-school leader Eva Moskowitz,” the data clearly show that charter schools only succeed by not serving the most challenging students. They are definitely not the solution for closing the opportunity gap between America’s privileged and under-privileged.

The ending of our short tale grows yet more sordid. It turns out that Success Academy deliberately manipulated its enrollment system to avoid serving the neediest students in the communities in which it was located. On March 28, 2012 Success Academy requested that its charter authorizer “eliminate an existing, absolute at-risk admissions priority for students zoned to attend failing New York City public schools.” In what can only be characterized as an outright lie Success Academy claimed that this “preference… was difficult to apply, confusing to the public and… contributed to not allowing the schools to attract sufficient numbers of English Language Learners.”

Success Academy revealed its disdain for the members of the communities it is supposedly serving when it claimed the public was confused by an enrollment system that gave priority to students from certain schools. The charter chain misled when it claimed that it was “difficult to apply.” How hard can it be to prioritize students from “failing” schools, schools that we know are really serving a preponderance of at-risk students?

Success Academy lied when it claimed to want to create “a variable set-aside for ELLs, which would be set at 20 percent of the incoming class for the 2012-13 school year.” The data show that in the 2011-12 school year the Success Academy schools in Harlem served 6.3% ELLs. In 2012-13 that number declined to 6.2% ELLs and in 2013-14 that number declined even further to 4.9% ELLs.

It is obvious that by eliminating the priority for students from schools serving a preponderance of at-risk students, including high numbers of English Language Learners, Success Academy was able to further diminish the already small number of ELLs they served.

The charter authorizer, as is all too common, rubber-stamped Success Academy’s request. There was no genuine accountability and no oversight. The truth is obvious to anyone who bothers to examine the facts. Charter schools as a whole, despite claims by Cuomo and by charter special interest groups, have no interest in serving the students who are most in need. In fact some charter schools, as we have seen is the case with Success Academy, actively avoid serving these students. So what is their end-game?

Charter schools such as Success Academy, and their enabling politicians, want to expand their privatized education empires by increasing their ability to skim off the better situated students in public schools. Instead of closing the achievement gap, such a policy, if enacted, would further bifurcate America. What then is the solution?

In a country with almost 14,000 school districts, in a country where private schools exist in order to avoid having students from certain social classes interact at school with students from other social classes, in a country where the courts have made it extremely difficult to enforce schemes designed to establish equitable diversity within schools, we must re-open the national conversation on how to create schools that are a microcosm of our ideal inclusive society. Whatever it takes, from re-thinking housing policy, to sharing tax-revenue across regions, to re-visiting school enrollment systems, we must ensure that schools across America become less segregated, more integrated, and that there is less variability in demographics between schools in geographic proximity.

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