At a recent New York City Council hearing, education committee chairman Daniel Dromm denounced the city’s charter schools, calling them a “separate and unequal” system of education that borders on “apartheid.” Public Advocate Letitia James agreed, suggesting that New York City has betrayed the legacy of the civil rights movement by instituting “privatization” and “segregation” in public education. But for all their incendiary charges, the hearing’s participants couldn’t seem to agree who has been victimized by charter schools.
Dromm, James, and others implied that the charter movement’s goals are to separate kids on the basis of skin color and give advantages to white children. But 60 percent of charter school students are African-American. Another third of charter school kids are Latino, which means that New York City’s charters overwhelmingly and disproportionately serve minority communities. In order for the apartheid metaphor to hold up, these schools would have to be pretty miserable places. Yet Dromm and James claim that many charters are lavishly outfitted with the best of everything, their budgets supplemented by “Wall Street raiders” and “right-wing extremists.”
Dromm and his colleagues didn’t stop there. Charter schools, Dromm said, institute harsh regimes of “zero-tolerance” discipline that amount to child abuse. He cited Coney Island Prep’s practice of forcing troublemakers to wear orange shirts and making other students shun the miscreants. Dromm characterized this practice as “corporal punishment” and called for the arrest of Coney Island Prep’s board of trustees as child abusers. Councilmember Inez Barron chimed in, noting that some charter schools require students to walk in single file “with their hands clasped behind their backs” as they go to lunch or gym. “What does that look like to you?” asked Barron. “It looks like they are being restrained.” Speakers at the hearing also compared charter schools with jails and prisons. At the KIPP School in Washington Heights, unruly kids are sent to a “calm-down” room for a 15-minute timeout, a practice in line with New York State rules. Dromm compared it with “solitary confinement” of prisoners and said that his recent tour of Rikers Island convinced him that the city jail and the KIPP School are virtually identical institutions.
Charter schools are even guilty of the most arcane forms of manipulation of the public mind, at least according to Councilmember Antonio Reynoso. He objected to how The Success Academy, run by Mayor Bill de Blasio’s longtime nemesis, former councilmember Eva Moskowitz, ran an ad campaign in Williamsburg that blanketed the “affluent area” around the “north side” of the Bedford Avenue subway stop—thereby bypassing poorer people in the neighborhood, Reynoso says. But the Bedford Avenue L stop is among the city’s busiest subway stations. It seems dubious that a massive advertising campaign in Reynoso’s dense and compact district could exclude anyone by design.
The specter of Moskowitz, in fact, haunted the hearing, despite the claims of advocates and elected officials that the charter battle isn’t personal. Moskowitz personifies the “corporatized” model of education so strongly opposed by teachers’ unions and their advocates. Dromm rehashed his fury over the trip that Moskowitz took to Albany in March with several busloads of students to attend a pro-charter school rally. He demanded to know how many students went along, whether teachers who went got a day off, and how the students will ever get back on track after missing one day of instruction.
The councilmembers’ coordinated effort to demonize charters—community-based schools which, on the whole, are doing a good job educating the children of working-class parents—makes a mockery of their claims to be champions of the poor. In New York City today, charter schools are minority children’s best hope for success.