Three cheers for hedge-fund tycoon John Paulson for his $8.5 million donation to Success Academy, the string of charter schools founded and run with such aplomb by ex-city-council member Eva Moskowitz. This generous gift accomplishes two worthy goals—one direct and one devious.
First, charter schools have proved a canny way to work around the teachers’ union/ed school stranglehold on public education. These are fully public schools, open by lottery to all comers, but they don’t operate under union work rules, don’t have to hire union teachers, and are open to hiring teachers who aren’t products of the ed schools, with their social-justice, racial-grievance worldview, along with their belief (based on a false Latin etymology) that education is a “leading out” of knowledge that is already in the student rather than a “putting in” of skills, manners, and information. As a result, charters can set high standards of behavior and achievement for both teachers and students, and their students’ performance dramatically vindicates that approach.
Just compare Success Academy Harlem 1 and P.S. 149, schools that share a building and a similar population of mostly minority, overwhelmingly poor students. At the charter school, 86 percent of the students score “proficient” on the state reading tests, as do 94 percent in math, while the P.S. 149 kids score 29 percent and 34 percent respectively, numbers that closely mirror the overall performance difference between the city’s charter and public schools. According to economist Caroline Hoxby, charter schools erase 86 percent of the “Scarsdale–Harlem achievement gap” in math and 66 percent of that gap (the difference in scores between students in the affluent New York suburb and in Harlem) in reading. Moskowitz wasn’t kidding when she called her 32 schools Success Academies. No wonder 71,000 kids are scrambling for the 21,000 New York City charter school seats.
But the second reason Paulson’s gift is so welcome is that it deftly deflates the hot air of Mayor Bill de Blasio’s campaign against inequality. New York until the 1960s had always been the Opportunity City, where excellent public schools and colleges provided as much opportunity and challenge as any gifted or ambitious student could handle—or any kid driven by demanding parents hungry for him to succeed. But once the 1968 Ocean Hill-Brownsville school dispute and its ensuing strike demoralized the city’s white teachers by slandering them as racists, leading the unions to be hyper-protective of teachers’ “rights,” and once open admission of all comers, qualified or not, crashed the standards at the City University two years later, that ladder of opportunity buckled. But the advent of charter schools, and the return of standards at CUNY (thanks in large part to the efforts of City Journal writer Heather Mac Donald and the late CUNY chancellor and former congressman Herman Badillo) has substantially restored what was a glory of New York. And kudos to Mayor Michael Bloomberg for allowing charter schools to increase more than ten-fold, from 14 to 159, during his tenure.
But not everyone is applauding. All those who believe that merit and “social justice” are antithetical—from the ed schools to de Blasio—charge that it is somehow “unfair” to the kids whose parents are too unmotivated to sign them up for the charter school lottery to leave them stuck in the hugely expensive and grossly inefficient ordinary public schools. But it is hard to imagine a standard of justice that requires clipping the wings of a motivated kid because unmotivated kids won’t learn to fly—the de Blasio standard of equality, which requires lowering the top to bring it more in line with the bottom.
So Paulson’s gift is also a poke in de Blasio’s eye. And as New Yorkers look for an alternative to a mayor who in a year and a half has brought back intimations of the disorder and criminality of the New York of 25 or 30 years ago, and who now threatens to unravel welfare reform, how helpful of Paulson to highlight the achievements of Eva Moskowitz—a New York ex-politician who knows that Gotham stands for a hand up, not a handout.