Eva Moskowitz, the founder and head of the Success Academy charter school network has control issues. In many aspects of life, this is not necessarily a bad thing. Steve Jobs was famously involved in the many details of design and development of Apple’s products, arguably responsible for the level of innovation that drove an entire industry. The private sector, in fact, is often lead by people who are extraordinarily demanding of themselves and of everyone in their organizations — which may well drive people close to them nuts but which gets results for consumers and investors.
That’s not remotely the best way for public education to operate.
To be sure, schools and school systems need involved, high energy, and dynamic leaders. But they also need leaders who understand and can navigate the complex system of loosely coupled and interlocking stakeholders who have legitimate say in how schools operate. They need to respond respectfully and thoughtfully to potentially contradictory demands and navigate an optimal course forward. School leaders need to understand and accept accountability to the tax payers whose money from local, state, and federal revenues fund the system. “My way or the highway”ism might be functional for some aspects of entrepreneurship in certain visionary companies — it is absolutely awful in public education.
Ms. Moskowitz exerts extremely tight and thorough control over the operation of Success Academy, and she is extremely zealous in her insistence that nobody other than the State University of New York charter authorizer has any say whatsoever. In fact, Ms. Moskowitz has been to court multiple times to prevent that New York State Comptroller’s office from auditing her books — which are full of taxpayers’ money that the Comptroller is supposed to monitor. Charter school laws do free up the sector from a great many of the labor and education rules that govern our fully public schools, but Ms. Moskowitz has been singular in her insistence that no governmental authority can so much as examine her books.
So it was hardly surprising that when the New York City received money from the state of New York to open free public pre-Kindergarten programs, Ms. Moskowitz wanted a share of that money to support the program at her schools. It was also not surprising that she immediately refused to sign the contract that the city required of all pre-K providers – including other charter school networks – that got money. The city insisted that the contract to provide some oversight of pre-K programs was required to fulfill its obligations under the state grant that provided the funds in the first place. Ms. Moskowitz insisted that didn’t matter. In this March Op-Ed announcing that Success Academy was suing the city for the pre-K money without the contract, Ms. Moskowitz makes it crystal clear that she believes charter schools cannot be made to answer to any state or city authority other than SUNY.
Ms. Moskowitz’s argument here involves some sleight of hand. Yes, charter schools were granted legal permission to operate pre-K programs. However, as Jersey Jazzman notes very cogently, this particular money was coming from the New York City DOE which made a proposal to the state for pre-K funds that required the city to engage in oversight of the program including making certain that all applicable federal and state laws and regulations were followed. Ms. Moskowitz filed suit against the city because the city refused to violate its own agreement with the state when it applied for the universal pre-K funding in the first place. Further, again as noted by Jersey Jazzman, the law that Ms. Moskowitz insists grants her the ability to run a pre-K requires a school district to seek participants including charter schools, but it also allows the district to deny organizations inclusion in its application and allows those organizations to apply individually for funds.
Simply put: Success Academy did not want to apply for pre-K funding on its own, AND they did want to be held to the same rules as every other pre-K provider included in New York City’s application to the state.
Neither the state nor the city decided to budge on the matter, and with a lawsuit still in process, Success Academy announced last week that they were cancelling all of their pre-K programs. In typical Success Academy fashion, Ms. Moskowitz declared that the state and city were putting “politics” ahead of education, said the mayor had a “war” against her schools, and lamented that the courts would not “rescue” the pre-K classes.
Cancelling their pre-K has absolutely nothing to do with Success Academy’s financial need. The money at stake was around $720,000, and while that is not chicken scratch, Success Academy could put together that sum easily. This is an organization that can put together a $9 million fundraiser for a single night’s event. This is an organization that spent more than $700,000 in a single day for a rally in Albany (including almost $72,000 for beanies) and which expected $39 million in philanthropic money for fiscal year 2016 – BEFORE the announcement of a $25 million dollar gift from billionaire Julian Robertson. This is also an organization that is entirely capable of applying for pre-K funds from the state directly, and while it is not guaranteed that their application would be approved, given Success Academy’s extremely powerful and politically influential circle of close friends, I have little doubt they’d get money.
Success Academy could have very well “rescued” its own pre-K program by calling up any of its billionaire patrons, by submitting their own application to the state, or by signing the city’s agreement with the state for the money under city control. But Eva Moskowitz wanted none of that because this isn’t about Success Academy’s pre-K classes or the very young children she is using as props. This is about Eva Moskowitz being able to plant her flag on any available pot of public funding and demand that she be given it with no oversight or accountability whatsoever. This is about control, plain and simple. Control of public funds. Control of the process that distributes them. Control of the politicians and agencies that are entrusted to oversee them. Ms. Moskowitz saw available funding to expand Success Academy’s footprint, and she was given every fair opportunity to access it either with or without city oversight.
She wanted to dictate the terms of how that money got to her schools. The only one who cancelled Success Academy’s pre-K program is Eva Moskowitz and her demand for control.
At the end of 2014, the rapidly expanding Success Academy charter school network in New York City announced they would hire an in house ethnographer. At the time, the network had 9,400 students in grades K-9 across 32 schools and had plans for further expansion. The job description for the opening read:
“We want to expand the scope and quality of our data collection to focus on the lived experience within our schools,” the description reads, adding that the position would help the network focus on “questions we’ve never thought to ask.”
At the time, seeking a genuine social scientist to truly study the network gained high praise from representatives of the charter sector in public education such as Nina Rees, president and CEO of the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools, who said the move was unique among charter schools across the nation.
The post was filled by Dr. Roy Germano who got to work in early 2015, examining the culture of Success Academy and seeking potential research questions to help the network focus, as they said, on things they’d “never thought to ask.” Dr. Germano’s early work appeared to center on the high pressure and test-score centered professional culture of the charter school network, and the potential consequences that might have for teacher and administrator behavior. According to documents that were obtained by PoliticoNewYork, Dr. Germano used his early investigations to write a proposal for a study of possible cheating by teachers within the network in response to the organization’s incentive structure. Dr. Germano had no conclusive proof of cheating, but his interest stemmed from various examples teachers explained to him in interviews of colleagues correcting student work or suggesting that they “rethink” their answers, and to parallels he drew between Success’ high stakes environment and the Atlanta Public Schools where widespread cheating on standardized examinations eventually surfaced. Dr. Germano further noted that “there are no rewards at Success for ethical teachers who try their best and fail.”
The research proposal and reasons for the concern rocked the higher administration at Success Academy to its core, and immediately resulted in a top to bottom self examination of incentives and practices that might negatively impact teaching and learning within the network. Principals were directed to give Dr. Germano full access to faculty and students and to begin a careful process of reviewing how they support teachers in fostering genuine student learning where high test scores are the outcome of an ethical and deeply enriched school environment. The reward and career advancement structure at the network was immediately scrutinized to determine what changes could be made to be absolutely sure that rewards and bonuses do not incentivize questionable practices, and the policy of publicly stack ranking teachers based on student test scores came under question as well. Success Academy CEO and founder Eva Moskowitz recently announced that she is “eagerly awaiting” the results of Dr. Germano’s research and learning what the network can do to continuously improve.
Dr. Germano, who now works as a research professor at New York University, was apparently required to write a follow up report in which he noted: “I am told Eva Moskowitz made disparaging comments about me in reaction to the report…I was told to write a follow-up report that would essentially downplay my findings and told by [recently departed Success vice president] Keri Hoyt not to use the word ‘cheating’ in any future reports. Finally, I was told that I was banned from visiting schools for the remaining 4 weeks of the school year, and that I could only visit schools next year if accompanied by ‘a chaperone.’” He also noted in that follow up, “Comments about a culture of fear at Success have been a recurring theme in my interviews.” Spokesperson Stefan Friedman told Politico: “As to the allegations raised in the title of Mr. Germano’s memo, though he interviewed just 13 teachers out of 1,400 to justify that title, we conducted a thorough investigation and found no evidence to substantiate his speculation…Any suggestion that we utilized these methods — or anything untoward — on state standardized exams is categorically false and not supported by a scintilla of fact.”
Dr. Germano’s proposed research was submitted to Success in May of 2015. By August, he was dismissed after having been forbidden to visit schools. With such a severe reaction and so quick a dismissal, Mr. Friedman’s assertion that Success Academy “conducted a thorough investigation” is plainly laughable. So much for asking questions.
Dr. Germano’s questions actually come as no surprise to those who have watched Success Academy closely, nor does his prompt dismissal after actually doing the job for which he was supposedly hired. The pressure cooker atmosphere and singular focus on standardized test results has been evident at the rapidly growing network since at least 2010, when Success Academy’s Paul Fucaloro openly told New York Magazine that his program turned their students “into little test taking machines,” and he actually said, “I’m not a big believer in special ed,” blaming bad parenting for most special needs students. In the same article, other sources says that students who do not bend to the Success Academy method were counseled out and that founder Eva Moskowitz told the staff that “Success Academy is not a social service agency.”
A year later, The New York Times ran a story on the subtle and direct ways that the network tries to rid itself of students who do not quickly and completely comply. The story described the experiences of Kevin Sprowal who, mere weeks into his Kindergarten year, was throwing up most mornings before school because of the constant and increasing punishments. Recently, a series of news stories have placed further emphasis on the high pressure environment in the network. In April of 2015, Kate Taylor ran a story in The New York Timeshighlighting both the very high test score results and the extreme pressure environment within Success Academy – including an incentive system for students that include publicly shaming students with low test scores. On October 12th, veteran education reporter John Merrow did an extended segment on the PBS Newshour on the use of out of school suspensions at Success Academy – for children as young as Kindergarten:
Eva Moskowitz retaliated by lobbing a lengthy complaint against Mr. Merrow at PBS and by publishing a response that included federally protected information identifying the disciplinary record of a former Success Academy student who appeared on camera. This earned her a cease and desist order and a formal complaint filed with the Federal Department of Education.
Before October was over, The New York Times ran another story on Success Academy – this time, a “got to go list” was leaked from Success Academy in Fort Green, Brooklyn. In addition to the shocking targeting of specific students, other sources confirmed practices across the network such as not sending automatic re-enrollment paperwork to certain families, and a network attorney calling one student leaving “a big win for us”. Ms. Moskowitz responded with a press conference calling the “got to go list” an aberration – and with an email to staff declaring the bad press the result of media “conspiracy theories.” Ms. Moskowitz then took to the pages of The Wall Street Journal in an editorial piece claiming that the only real “secret” to Success Academy is imitating the teaching of Paul Fucaloro:
…I wasn’t completely sold on Paul’s approach at first, but when one of our schools was having trouble, I’d dispatch him to help. He’d tell the teachers to give him a class full of all the kids who had the worst behavioral and academic problems. The teachers thought this was nuts but they’d do so, and then a few days later they’d drop by Paul’s classroom and find these students acting so differently that they were nearly unrecognizable. Within weeks, the students would make months’ worth of academic progress.
Ms. Moskowitz wanted her readers to infer that all Success Academy has done is simply scale up the teaching methods of one man into a system of nearly 3 dozen schools and roughly 10,000 students.
But if that is the case, the public had to wonder just what kind of person Ms. Moskowitz chose to clone across her entire staff when a video of one of the network’s “exemplar teachers” surfaced. In the video, a calm and passive Success Academy student has trouble following her teacher’s instructions and is treated to having her work paper ripped in half in front of her classmates, being sent to the “calm down chair,” and berate in angry tones. The video was not an accident: the assistant teacher was specifically keeping her cell phone ready in order to catch an example of just that kind of behavior because she had seen it so often. In what is now her typical fashion, Eva Moskowitz lashed out at the press for the story, calling her critics haters and bullies.
This is a long record of employing not merely high standards, but also of employing extreme high pressure and of tolerating plainly unethical practices from teachers and administrators so long as the bottom line – very high standardized test scores – remains intact. Dr. Germano’s questions were entirely appropriate as the beginning of a research program within Success Academy precisely because the bottom line at the network is entirely tangled up with test scores first and the means to get those scores second. If it means suspending Kindergarten children repeatedly until the submit to total control of their behavior, so be it. If it means conspiring to pressure certain families to leave the school, so be it. If it means humiliating a little girl in front of her peers so she learns that mistakes are never tolerated, so be it. Dr. Germano’s original proposal stated the central problem at Success Academy perfectly: “There are no rewards at Success for ethical teachers who try their best and fail.”
Incentives matter. And organizational values are completely intertwined with what is measured and rewarded. The is well known in the business world, even though companies from Enron to General Motors do not always learn from it. The lesson from Success Academy is that when a school is entirely obsessed with high standardized test scores and when it is removed from nearly every system of public accountability available, it can get those test scores – but at an extremely high cost to anyone who does not serve that end. Perhaps overt, organized, cheating is not a problem at Success Academy (yet), but the organizational incentives for it exist from the very top all the way down to their youngest students.
Dr. Germano tried to warn them, but nobody at Success Academy seems capable of listening.
CTU’s action is welcome both for its clarity and for its signal that organized teachers are not going to go along with a governor who holds all of a state hostage to get his anti-labor priorities passed — or with a mayor whose school improvement ideas begin and end with privatization. The only real question is not why Chicago’s teachers took to the picket lines but rather why a hell of a lot more teachers have not done so across the nation?
President of the Americans Federation of Teachers Randi Weingarten said, ““This governor is bankrupting public schools so they won’t effectively function for kids….If you can’t solve things through the normal processes, if you have exhausted every advocacy avenue in a democracy, you then step it up — and that’s what they’re doing.” Chicago Teachers Union President Karen Lewis tied the strike to larger labor issues across Illinois, “For every single working person in this entire state, somebody’s got to lead the way. It happened to fall to CTU.” She could have easily been talking about several dozen states and the assault on public education that has unfolded across the country.
Let’s review only part of the national roll call:
Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker, having already hobbled the state’s public sector unions, championed budgets that savage public education, slashing 100s of millions of dollars from Wisconsin’s world class public university system and transferring K-12 public education dollars into vouchers that can be used even in parochial schools. Governor Walker’s attacks on education are not merely financial; he has put forward ideas that would essentially remove academic freedom from faculty across the University of Wisconsin system and would fundamentally change the mission of the university system to utilitarianism. It is entirely possible that Governor Walker has damaged one of the nation’s great public university systems for years to come. The only consolation coming out of Wisconsin under Walker is that “Scott Walker – I Can Kill America’s Future Like I Killed Wisconsin’s” was not a winning Presidential campaign slogan.
Former Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal was even worse for his state’s public universities. Taxpayers picked up roughly 60% of the cost for higher education in Louisiana previously, but that share was down to 25% by the time Governor Jindal was done, refusing even to restore funds when the economy began to recover from the Great Recession. Governor Jindal likes to say that the all-charter school system in New Orleans should be a national model, but the reality of New Orleans schools is far less rosy and a lot less parent empowering than champions of privatization ever admit.
North Carolina has been systematically deconstructing its public education system. Budget cuts, falling wages, attacks on meager existing workplace protections and retirement promises, cuts to successful teacher preparation programs, vouchers funneling public money to private and religious schools while decreasing oversight of charter schools, massive budget cuts to the world class University of North Carolina system and attacks on professor’s working conditions — if anyone in Raleigh actually cares if North Carolina has public education in any form that person has been almost silent.
Behind Ohio Governor John Kasich’s campaign smile is an utter and total unwillingness to provide even basic oversight to the state’s growing charter school sector (including the state’s top charter official changing school ratings), and the combination of a budget cutting local school aid with legislation “deregulating” schools, including allowing “high performing” districts to enlarge class sizes and do without some teacher credential requirements.
Once again, the question must be asked: Why aren’t many, many more teachers across the country joining their sisters and brothers in Chicago in demonstrating that their voices are still there and can speak loudly when they speak together? It isn’t just the future of their work that is still clearly at stake – it is the future of every child they teach. President Weingarten said, “….if you have exhausted every advocacy avenue in a democracy, you then step it up — and that’s what they’re doing.”
It is March, and one of our nation’s historically great political parties is still on track to nominate a lying, bloviating vulgarian with authoritarian policy proposals, a penchant for re-tweeting quotes from Italian Fascist Benito Mussolini , and a reluctance to condemn the Ku Klux Klan. For many months, political pundits have consistently predicted his campaign’s demise, and his campaign has consistently refused to match their predictions. What has been truly astonishing has been the silence of the Republican donor class, a group of billionaires who have, until this race, been able to command the obsequiousness of politicians seeking the Republican nomination. The New York Times recently reported that as long ago as the last Fall, when Mr. Trump’s candidacy was showing far more staying power than was assumed possible, that an anti-Trump super PAC was proposed to help make the candidate unpalatable to voters – but not a single donor stepped forward.
To be sure, getting caught in the line of Mr. Trump’s fire can be catastrophic for regular people. The Times also highlighted how Trump’s prolific use of Twitter focuses his ire on targets at all levels. Cheri Jacobus is a Republican strategist and contributor to a number of media outlets, and when she criticized Donald Trump for failing to participate in the last debate before Iowa, he unloaded on her – and was quickly followed by a swarm of his followers who relentlessly attacked her for days. In the same report, editor of The National Review, Rich Lowry, admitted that even the top Republican donors are afraid to take on Mr. Trump out of fear of his ability to send a tidal wave of negative publicity at them.
It would appear that the donor class, by and large, are cowards.
I can sympathize with a figure like Ms. Jacobus who, despite her reasonably influential political perch, has to fend off social media attacks on her own. That is no doubt time consuming, highly disruptive, and, worse, stressful given the attacks ranged from merely nasty to outright sexist and vulgar. But what, exactly, does a man like Sheldon Adelson fear? Or the Koch brothers? Or Paul Singer? People like this have spokesmen for their spokesmen, yet the fear of being mocked on Twitter drove them away from even trying to oppose a man whose influence on the Republican Party they loathe? More likely, they fear too much attention focused on their quiet, behind the scenes, roles as Kingmakers and agenda setters within the political system. Daniel Shulman, who has documented the nearly 40 year long effort by the Koch brothers to change American politics via foundations, grants, and backing candidates for office, wrote inVanity Fair:
One thing that has held the Koch network back so far, in addition to the Trump backers within their ranks, is the concern that taking on Trump would inevitably draw the thin-skinned tycoon’s legendary invective, which it almost certainly would. If the Kochs go after Trump, rest assured that he will take every opportunity to highlight how he’s being attacked by a cabal of billionaires seeking to control the outcome of the election. And this more or less explains their caution to this point. By taking on Trump, the Kochs risk lending credence to his claims of being an outsider who is battling against a corrupt political system rigged by the elites.
Does this sound familiar to supporters of public education today?
But the billionaires backing all of this and using the leverage of tremendous wealth to circumvent democratic processes do not, generally speaking, care to do all of this for themselves and go well out of their way to shield their efforts from public scrutiny. It is hard to forget the scene of former CNN anchor Campbell Brown going to Stephen Colbert’s Comedy Central show to tout her campaign against teacher tenure – and steadfastly refusing to even hint at who was funding her efforts. Her rationale? Protesters might bother her benefactors:
CB:Yeah, we are raising money.
SC: And who did you raise it from?
CB: I’m not gonna reveal who the donors are because the people (pointing toward window) are out…
SC: I’m going to respect that because I had a super PAC. [Audience applause.]
CB: I hear you. But, part of the reason is the people who are outside today, trying to protest, trying to silence our parents who want to have a voice in this debate…
SC: Exercising First Amendment rights…
CB: Absolutely, but they’re also going to go after people who are funding this, and I think this is a good cause and an important cause, and if someone wants to contribute to this cause without having to put their name on it so they can become a target of the people who were out there earlier today, then I respect that.
Just to be clear the “people who were out there earlier today” was a small group of mothers and teachers with hand made signs:
This pattern is hardly isolated to Campbell Brown’s efforts either. While hedge fund manager Whitney Tilson is less shy than most about openly explaining his goals of influencing Democratic politicians to adopt privatization goals, his organization, “Democrats” for Education Reform funnels large sums of cash and influence from a variety of sources, mostly groups like the Walton Family Foundation. When education reform’s paid advocates found that they had trouble responding to public education supporters on social media, former Obama administration DOE official Peter Cunningham was simply granted $12 million dollars to found the “Education Post” to “create a better conversation” but also, in his own words, to create “the ability to swarm” on social media and to “hire” and “subsidize” bloggers. While Bill Gates is far more visible than most financiers of education reform, one of his biggest efforts to date was managing to organize 45 states and D.C. to adopt the Common Core State Standards without most parents or teachers realizing it was happening – by aiming almost entirely at power brokers and foundations in between election cycles.
Wherever you turn in education reform today, you find a think tank, or 501(c)3, or astroturf group, or pseudo-media outlet being paid handsomely to create the public impression of organic support for reformers’ ideas. Direct and natural engagement with the public is not one of their stronger skill sets. Which loops back to Republican donors and their unwillingness to confront Donald Trump. On the one hand, it looks ridiculous that some of the nation’s wealthiest and most influential individuals are so afraid of negative public attention that they dithered for months, but on the other hand given how successfully they have influenced public policy without having to bother with actual democracy and given how bipartisan majorities of American voters already think the system is rigged in favor the ultra-wealthy, it makes sense that those most blatantly manipulating the system would hesitate to step out of the back rooms and into the public’s view.
The good news for advocates of public education is that Trump’s level of ignorant bullying and outright vulgar bigotry is hardly necessary to make education reformers uneasy about scrutiny. For Campbell Brown, a few teachers and mothers with Sharpies rattled her ability to lie about teachers’ workplace protections on behalf of her donors. Peter Cunningham needed $12 million in foundation cash to pay bloggers to counter the efforts of working teachers with blogs and on social media who are defending their profession for free. The vast sums of money spent by Bill Gates to prop up and support the Common Core State Standards have not prevented dwindling support among parents and teachers as they grow more familiar with its impact on schools. Helping to keep light shining on how the donor class is pushing policy without the public’s consent goes hand in hand with the how harmful those policies have been. They’ve repeatedly shown that they dislike scrutiny.
Twenty-five years ago, author and activist Jonathan Kozol published what remains one of the most important examinations of educational inequity ever printed, Savage Inequalities. The book is a direct and searing look at how districts serving urban minority children suffered from segregation, inequitable funding, and crumbling facilities while serving student populations suffering the worst deprivations of poverty. It is a story of malign neglect where school funding based upon the value of a community’s property compounds the economic and environmental violence inflicted upon helpless children. Kozol criss-crossed the country from East St. Louis, Illinois to New York City, to Camden, New Jersey, to Washington, DC, examining schools and speaking with the students in them. What he reported should have shaken America to its core. Consider the following from East St. Louis:
East St. Louis – which the local press refers to as an “inner city without an outer city” – has some of the sickest children in America. Of the 66 cities in Illinois, East St. Louis ranks first in fetal death, first in premature birth, and third in infant death. Among the negative factors listed by the city’s health director are the sewage running in streets, air that has been fouled by the local plants, the high lead levels noted in the soil, poverty, lack of education, crime, dilapidated housing, insufficient health care, unemployment. Hospital care is deficient too. There is no place to have a baby in East St. Louis….Although dental problems don’t command the instant fears associated with low birth weight, fetal death or cholera, they do have the consequence of wearing down the stamina of children and defeating their ambitions. Bleeding gums, impacted teeth and rotting teeth are routine matters for the children I interviewed in the South Bronx. Children get used to feeling constant pain. They go to sleep with it. They go to school with it.
Later in the chapter on East St. Louis, a 14 year-old girl spoke about the annual celebration of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and startled Mr. Kozol by calling the reading of “I Have a Dream” perfunctory. She explained her thinking: “We have a school in East St. Louis named for Dr. King. The school is full of sewer water and the doors are locked with chains. Every student in that school is black. It’s like a terrible joke on history.”
In the years since Jonathan Kozol wrote Savage Inequalities, great changes have happened in the U.S. economy. Our Gross Domestic Product has grown, in chained 2009 dollars, from $8.9 trillion to $15.9 trillion. Internet use has become almost universal as has mobile cellular use. The Dow Jones Industrial Average opened 1990 at 2810.2, and it closed 2015 above 17,000. In 1987, Forbes magazine published a list of 140 international billionaires, 44 of whom lived in the U.S. By 2012, that list swelled to 1,226 – 425 of them living in America. With such incredible increases in wealth and life changing technologies, one would assume that it would be hard to replicate Mr. Kozol’s exegesis on inequality in America.
But one would be wrong.
In the 2012-2013 school year, the federal government estimated that 53% of the nation’s school buildings needed repairs, renovations, or modernization at an estimated cost of $197 billion. It has long been known that adverse building conditions have discernible impact on student achievement and on teacher morale and effectiveness. 60% of schools serving communities where 75% or more of students qualify for free and reduced price lunch needed such repairs compared with 48% of schools where 35% of students qualify.
Poverty in the United States dropped from a high of 22.4% of the population in the late 1950s to its lowest point of 11.1% in 1973, but in 1980 it began to rise again, reaching 15.3% in 1993 when it began to decline until the year 2000. Today, the Census Bureau reports that the poverty rate sits at 14.8% where it has stayed roughly unchanged since the end of the Great Recession. Poverty’s reach is not distributed evenly in society with African American and Hispanic citizens living below the poverty line at rates twice as high as White and Asian Americans. 21.1% of children aged 18 and younger live in poverty. Of the 34 member nations of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, the United States’ child poverty level is only surpassed by 5 nations. In the time since the publication of Savage Inequalities and today, whatever progress that has been made in reducing poverty in the United States has regressed considerably.
Family income has lost ground it gained in the past 25 years as well. In 1990, median household income was $52,623, and it rose to $57,843 in 1999; in 2014, it was $53,657. In 1986, the average starting wage for a person with BA was $44,770, but by 2013, it had only risen to $45,500 while average starting wages for workers with no college fell from $30,525 to only $28,000. The stagnation and lost ground of large swaths of American families manifests in health outcomes. While the top quintiles of income earners have gained years of life expectancy since 1980, the lowest quintiles have remained unchanged for men and have actually declined for poor women. The United States has a staggering imprisonment rate of 698 per 100,000 population – outpacing Rwanda, Russia, and China – leaving millions of citizens with dismal employment prospects and no ability to vote.
These figures would be stunning enough in their stark detail, but recent, horrifying examples, make it clear that the tragic personal situations that were detailed a quarter of a century ago by Jonathan Kozol still haunt us. Consider the unmitigated disaster still being uncovered in Flint, Michigan. The city, after years of cutbacks, was placed under a state appointed emergency manager in 2011 who had the power to appeal local decisions and make cost cutting a primary goal. That manager, Darnell Earley, blames the Flint City Council for switching from the Detroit water system, supplied by Lake Huron, to the Flint River (as a temporary source until a new system came online), but members of the council flatly deny this and local reporting cannot find reference to using Flint River water in council resolutions. However the switch was made, the result has been a calamity. In order to use the heavily polluted river water, it had to be treated, but as soon as the water came on line, residents complained about the color, smell, and taste of the water despite assurances from Mr. Earley’s office that it was safe to drink. For 18 months, Flint residents could see the problems with their water with their own eyes, but hidden from view was a worse danger: the treated water was corrosive and leaching metals, including lead, from the aging pipes in Flint. It took a pediatrician, Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha, to uncover the depth of the matter – with parents complaining about hair loss and rashes in their families, she pulled lead level records and found rates had doubled or tripled.
The circular firing squad of local and state officials blaming others for the crisis is on full display, but that does not change the fact that serious problems with Flint’s water were evident within months of the switch. By October of 2014, General Motors reached an agreement to switch water sources because the water from the Flint River was too corrosive to use in their engine manufacturing facility. GM’s water change came at a cost of $400,000 a year and had the approval of the emergency manager – even though the water continued to be piped into resident’s homes. Flint officials and the state appointed manager knew in October, 2014 that the water every person in Flint was drinking, including all of its children, was unfit for use in a factory. By summer, 2015, researchers from Virginia Tech University had confirmed that lead particulate levels in Flint drinking water was far beyond safe levels, some samples containing a mind-boggling 2000 parts per billion. Despite this, the city was not reconnected to Lake Huron sourced water until October, and the now corroded pipes continue to leach toxic metals into the city’s drinking water.
The reality here is both frightening and harsh, but there is a simple truth at the heart of it. If the citizens of Flint have been poisoned by their own water supply and if the children of Detroit attend schools that are decaying and full of mold and mushrooms it is because we have let it be so. The United States of America has never been collectively wealthier at any time in its history, but our commitment to the well being of all of us has not been this low since before the Presidency of Theodore Roosevelt – and the distribution of wealth has not been this unequal since before the Great Depression. We look at the total money spent on education and declare that it is “a lot” of money without bothering to ask what needs to spent to make certain that every child comes from a safe and healthy community and has a safe and healthy school to attend. That this question is not on the lips of every candidate for the Presidency is a stunning indictment of our current social order.
Moskowitz has grown used to adulation in the media as well. Jonathan Chait believes that Moskowitz is a “hero of social justice” and declared her schools “a staggering triumph of social mobility” – an odd claim for a school network that has not graduated a single high school student yet. Chait chalks up opposition to Moskowitz solely to unions grousing that her non-unionized faculty have such staggeringly high test scores. The New York Times’ Daniel Bergner authored a piece for the weekly magazine that was an astonishing exercise in hagiography, plainly ignoring almost any input he got that was not laudatory. Interestingly enough, Mr. Bergner pretty much signaled his intention to write such an imbalanced piece in the comments section of this WNYC story — almost 6 months before his article in the Times was published:
Daniel Bergner from Brooklyn
There’s something bizarre about the way the charter school story tends to be reported by the New York media….Success, the charter organization that’s been most vilified by Mayor DeBlasio, has a stunning record of academic achievement. It’s a record that puts many traditional public schools to shame. This should come at the top of any story like this one by WNYC….Money matters, yes. But the biggest question is how a school run by Success in Harlem, a school that teaches mostly underprivileged kids, has managed to out-perform every single public school in the state on math exams. Let’s look closely at that. We all might learn something infinitely valuable.
In July of this year, billionaire hedge fund manager John Paulson, gave a single $8.5 million gift to the network for creating even more schools. My goodness, but it is good to be Queen.
But things have unraveled a bit for Moskowitz. First, The New York Times ran a fairly comprehensive story in April covering the network’s record of very high standardized test scores and its similar record of extreme practices, including public shaming of students with low scores and practice test environments so high pressure that young children wet themselves. Moskowitz immediately wrote an email to her network’s employees to complain that the article, which included both positives and negatives, was “slanted” and that the Times was “out to get us.” Moskowitz erroneously claimed that the article was the “first time” that the Times had given Success Academy “even moderate praise” — apparently forgetting the Sunday magazine feature by Daniel Bergner less than a year previously. In her email, she continued her long standing habit of telling her employees and families that the outside world is out to get them: “We are disrupters, we are changing the status quo, and that threatens a system that has existed more or less unchanged for decades.”
The new school year began in a manner to which we have grown accustomed: Moskowitz’s political allies in the billionaire funded astroturf organization, “Families” for Excellent Schools, running hit ads on Mayor DeBlasio. The ads were racially charged, accusing the mayor of leaving over half a million students in “failing schools” (up from last year’s accusations of 140,000 students suffering that fate), and the ads drew immediate and harsh criticism. Moskowitz used two scheduled half days of classes to provide students, families, and teachers as window dressing for different “Families” for Excellent Schools sponsored rallies, an action that would likely get any public school superintendent swiftly fired. Moskowitz also teased the media early in October with a planned big announcement on the 7th, which turned out to be her stating that she would not seek the mayor’s office in 2017 as many of her supporters had anticipated. Instead, she declared she would continue to focus on education where she compared the work of her network to the development of the iPhone.
Things went south rather quickly from there.
On October 12th, PBS Newshour aired a story by retiring veteran education reporter, John Merrow, detailing the use of repeated suspensions on children as young as 5 years old within the Success Academy network and accusations that Moskowitz uses her 65 infraction long discipline policy to repeatedly suspend students she does not wish to educate until parents withdraw them from school:
The piece, which includes lengthy segments of Moskowitz looking uncomfortable while claiming her schools don’t suspend students for many of the very minor infractions that are listed as suspension worthy (Mr. Merrow includes the entire disciplinary code, verbatim, on his personal blog), also included material from a mother and son who were willing to talk on camera about some of the incidents that led to his repeated suspensions from a Success Academy. While those incidents were quite minor, his mother also speaks about her son having outbursts, allowing a reasonable viewer can infer that his full range of behavior was broader than discussed on camera, and the mother says her son was suspended in first grade for losing his temper. The mother and son take up a grand total of one minute and 12 seconds in the over nine minute long story. Although the story says their names, I am not going to do so for reasons that should be evident next.
Eva Moskowitz was not happy.
In a lengthy and accusatory letter to PBS that she posted to Success Academy’s website (and to which I refuse to link), she demanded an apology from PBS, disputed Mr. Merrow’s factual findings, and was especially incensed about the inclusion of material from the mother and son who were willing to go on camera. She released a series of a email communications where she claimed Mr. Merrow misled her (although to my reading they also seem to indicate that she wanted practical editorial control over the story), and then she did something that any ethical educator should find completely unthinkable: she detailed specific incidents from the young man’s disciplinary record, including verbatim text of email communications from teachers about particular events. PBS Newshour responded with a clarification that acknowledges the story should have allowed Moskowitz an opportunity to respond on camera to the allegations but that also defended the accuracy of Mr. Merrow’s piece overall.
The reason that I refuse to link to the Success Academy letter or to name the mother and son in this piece is because of a federal law that should have limited Moskowitz’s response to the Newshour segment. The Federal Education Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA) forbids schools and school officials from releasing education records to anyone without prior approval from a parent or a student (if that student is over 18). While I am not bound by FERPA in this matter, as a matter of ethics, I find it appalling that Moskowitz would respond to the situation by publicly releasing information on a child, now ten years old. While the mother and son did go on camera to discuss some of his disciplinary problems at Success Academy, they did not approve of the release of his full disciplinary record and FERPA is written in such a way that such express permission must be granted. Even if one is inclined to think that Merrow did not play fair in his story, the only fully legal response from Moskowitz, and the only one Mr. Merrow could have aired, would be: “We cannot discuss his whole record without permission, but suffice to say, there was more going on than his mother said.” It is also the only moral response, but Moskowitz has always had a scorched earth approach when it comes to her reputation.
Moskowitz’s bad month was not over, believe it or not.
On October 29th, The New York Times ran a blockbuster story that the principal of Success Academy in Fort Greene, Brooklyn, Candido Brown, kept a list of 16 students entitled “Got to Go,” meaning they were students he wanted to leave the school due to their difficulties in adjusting to the strict disciplinary policies. Kate Taylor’s story confirms that the mother of one student on the list was actually told that Mr. Brown would have to call 911 if her daughter, who was six years old at the time, continued to defy rules. Nine students on the list withdrew from the Fort Greene Success Academy, parents reported their lives disrupted by constant calls to pick up their children early, and four of the parents told the Times they were directly told they should seek another school. While the “got to go” list may have been restricted to Principal Brown’s school, other sources reported similar behavior at other schools in the network. One principal told employees not to automatically send re-enrollment paperwork to certain families, and another source described a network attorney describing the withdrawal of a particular student “a big win” for the school. Other sources described network staff and leaders “explicitly talked about suspending students or calling parents into frequent meetings as ways to force parents to fall in line or prompt them to withdraw their children.”
Moskowitz quickly threw together a press conference on October 30th with many of her network’s principals standing behind her and denied that Principal Brown was following Success Academy policy. She affirmed her support for the tough disciplinary practices of her schools but insisted they were about having high standards and denied any intention to use them to drive away undesired students. In an interesting twist, Moskowitz declared that, despite advice from others, she would not fire Principal Brown, asserting “at Success we simply don’t believe in throwing people on the trash heap for the sake of public relations.” (That fate after all, is reserved for Kindergarten children) Principal Brown then took the podium in tears and took full responsibility for the “got to go” list, saying “I was not advised by my organization to put children on the list. I was not advised by my organization to push children out of my school.” Moskowitz, true to form, sent an email to staffers on the 30th where she, again, accused the media of having “conspiracy theories” about Success Academy – because when faced with the slow unraveling of your organizational mythology, the best thing to do is harp about how outsiders are out to get you.
It is, honestly, puzzling that Success Academy would continue to go through this charade trying to convince people that they do not force students out as policy – given that in 2010, they pretty much admitted it in the open in a lengthy portrait of the growing network in New York Magazine. Consider this from the last section of the article:
At Harlem Success, disability is a dirty word. “I’m not a big believer in special ed,” Fucaloro says. For many children who arrive with individualized education programs, or IEPs, he goes on, the real issues are “maturity and undoing what the parents allow the kids to do in the house—usually mama—and I reverse that right away.” When remediation falls short, according to sources in and around the network, families are counseled out. “Eva told us that the school is not a social-service agency,” says the Harlem Success teacher. “That was an actual quote.”
…. “They don’t provide the counseling these kids need.” If students are deemed bad “fits” and their parents refuse to move them, the staffer says, the administration “makes it a nightmare” with repeated suspensions and midday summonses. After a 5-year-old was suspended for two days for allegedly running out of the building, the child’s mother says the school began calling her every day “saying he’s doing this, he’s doing that. Maybe they’re just trying to get rid of me and my child, but I’m not going to give them that satisfaction.”At her school alone, the Harlem Success teacher says, at least half a dozen lower-grade children who were eligible for IEPs have been withdrawn this school year. If this account were to reflect a pattern, Moskowitz’s network would be effectively winnowing students before third grade, the year state testing begins. “The easiest and fastest way to improve your test scores,” observes a DoE principal in Brooklyn, “is to get higher-performing students into your school.” And to get the lower-performing students out.
So we’ve known this since at least 2010. Eva Moskowitz does not believe in serving children with special needs as required by federal law, and the network openly scoffs at individualized education plans, blaming them on bad parenting. Her schools don’t provide needed resources and counseling, favoring repeated suspensions and harassing parents until they leave. Moskowitz, referencing special needs children, directly told teachers that the school is “not a social service agency.”
But we’re supposed to believe Principal Brown came up with his “got to go” list all on his own.
And just to make the month complete: Moskowitz is heading for another legal showdown. This time, it is over her insistence that the city of New York give her money allocated for pre-Kindergarten providers but not require her to sign the city contract that every other provider, including other charter schools, has signed. Success Academy already has 72 pre-K students, and the network would be eligible for $10,000 per student in funding, but city Comptroller Scott Stringer declared that Moskowitz cannot decline the contract that every one of the other 277 approved pre-K providers has already signed. This is true to form for Moskowitz who has won other legal fights to prevent any state or city authority from oversight over how she spends the public money she receives. Given how other charter providers have already signed the same contract, some grudgingly, this fight seems more geared towards maintaining her special status as the charter network entirely above public accountability of any sort than over much else.
I suspect that Moskowitz will bounce back from this month. After all, she still has Governor Cuomo in her hip pocket (although he isn’t winning many popularity contests himself). More importantly, she still has her billionaire backed political machine designed to bend public opinion and politicians to her cause, and there is no indication that they are going anywhere. She is still the driving force behind the largest charter network in the city, and her goal of 100 schools is still probably attainable. However, in a very real way, I suspect one thing is changing permanently.
Moskowitz is losing total control of her situation.
Success Academy is run in a very particular way. It has a dynamic, forceful, and very visible personality at the top of the organization. The policies, tone, and demeanor of the organization flow entirely from that person who exerts an extraordinary level of control of the operation right down to the classroom. There is a very narrow band of acceptable behaviors and attitudes. Teachers who embody those behaviors and attitudes can rise very quickly with some becoming school principals in their mid-20s, and students who do similarly well are rewarded with toys and other goodies. Those who do not thrive are subjected to rigorous and frequent “corrections” that either mold them into proper form or convince them to leave. The network has an arguably paranoid attitude towards “outsiders,” frequently declaring to themselves that figures in the press and public are out to get them because they have cracked the code and are disruptors of the status quo. Those who leave and speak out about the network’s inside information are viciously attacked.
But Success Academy has grown far too large to keep the lid on everything now. Moskowitz enrolls 11,000 students in 34 schools. She has around 1000 teachers and staff. With such numbers and given their policies, there will likely be 1000s of former “scholars” and 100s of former teachers in short order, and all of them are not going to be intimidated into silence about what they saw while there. The simple fact is that Moskowitz absolutely cannot keep total control over what people say and know anymore, and it is her own policies of driving away students she does not want and burning out teachers that has put her in this position. So even if she fully recovers from this month, I think it is likely we will see many more months like this.
A week ago, the hunger strike by community activists in the Bronzeville neighborhood of Chicago fighting to re-open Dyett High School as an open enrollment, neighborhood school with a focus on global leadership and green technology came to a close. Two hunger strikers had already dropped their action due to growing health concerns, and the remaining members decided that their victories warranted living to fight on. They have sent a ringing message about the importance of community schools and community voices. Despite the stubborn refusal of Chicago Public Schools to endorse their years in the making plan which included numerous Chicago institutions and thorough research and despite Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s petty refusal to acknowledge the hunger strikers without being forced, there are genuine victories that can be attributed to these activists. Before the hunger strike, they forced CPS to commit to reopening the school. During the hunger strike, CPS announced its idea of a “compromise” to make the school open enrollment but without the focus on global leadership and green technology.
Shortly after the hunger strike ended, Jitu Brown, spoke with Robin Hiller of the Network for Public Education. Mr. Brown, who participated in the hunger strike, is a lifelong resident of Chicago’s south side, a long time community organizer with the Kenwood Oakland Community Organization, and the national director of the Journey for Justice Alliance. After briefly describing what must have been the best bowl of soup in his life, Mr. Brown explained to Ms. Hiller what he saw as the strikers’ accomplishments:
“We’re very clear on the accomplishments that have come as the result of, not just the hunger strike, but the work of organized parents and students in Bronzeville. You know, last year we rallied together and we made the district commit to reopening it. The district tried to run a runaround on us and make it a contract school. And this year we won that fight, and it will be a public open enrollment neighborhood school. We are in conversation with the district because we will not, we will definitely be part of the infrastructure regarding how that school is developed. There’s some agreement on using the green technology and global leadership as staples in the curriculum. So we, at 34 days, as people began to get seriously ill, you had a number of people that had been hospitalized, and the response from the city let us know they would let us rot. And the fight is bigger than this fight for Dyett High School. We are winning this fight, and we will continue to win it.”
It is important to note that among the dozens of schools closed under Rahm Emanuel’s watch, the Dyett High School campaign is unique in getting a closed school reopened and in preserving it as an open enrollment school governed by the Chicago Public Schools instead of turned over to private contractors seeking to earn profits off of public education.
Mr. Brown was also very clear about the central challenge in the fight for public education — inequity and the glaring examples of it within Chicago that reflect shameful national trends. While the Bronzeville activists were starving for the sake of an open enrollment school, Mayor Emanuel, who has consistently claimed budget woes while closing schools in predominantly minority communities, unveiled the plans for a $21 million annex to relieve overcrowding at the Abraham Lincoln Elementary School and a $14 million dollar annex at Wildwood World Magnet School — both of which are majority white. Mr. Brown noted how often it is that the greatest disruption and the greatest deprivation of resources are inflicted upon schools that serve the neediest children – schools that are then deemed failures and turned over to privatized operators:
“There’s a huge fight now that I hope this hunger strike has helped to energize and that is the fight for sustainable community schools not only in Chicago but around the country. You shouldn’t have cities like New Orleans where the largest base of African American home owners in the United States are labeled as refugees and their city is taken from them. They lose their county hospital. They lose their schools and now virtually every school in New Orleans is run by a private company that makes a profit off of administering what is supposedly a human right. Children in New Orleans have a perfectly good school across the street but they can’t go because they didn’t win the lottery to go.”
Mr. Brown also expounded upon the challenges that will face the community now that the hunger strike is over and that Chicago Public Schools will move ahead, having signaled they are not open to genuinely listening to the community itself:
“Where we go from here is we sent a message to the district is that you can no longer come into communities and snatch away the institutions that our taxes pay for and that you will respect community voice or you will meet community outrage. What we need to realize now is that the privatization movement needs to die…..There is no such thing as school choice in black communities. This should be a clear illustration of that to everyone. We chose a neighborhood school. We chose global leadership and green technology. And they fought back against it because they are not used to black people practicing self determination. But we have that right as any other community does to say this is what we want for our children.”
This work ahead is going to be difficult. Already, CPS is signaling that while they moved ahead with Dyett as an open enrollment school, they have no intention of including the community in its operation. On the 24th, CPS announced that the new principal of the re-opened school will be Bronzeville resident and current principal of Clark Magnet High School, Beulah McLoyd. While Mr. Brown said that Ms. McLoyd is an excellent educator, he expressed concern that, yet again, the community members who have demonstrated unwavering commitment to the school were not included in any discussions about the school’s leadership. The Chicago Sun Times also reported that local council elections to run the school will not be held for at least three years, meaning decision making can completely bypass the neighborhood. As if to drive home this point, CPS held a hearing on the boundaries of the re-opened school, but they held it in the evening on Friday – at their downtown headquarters, almost 7 miles by I-94 from Walter Dyett High School. From The Sun Times:
“They want to appear with this hearing that they gave the community an opportunity to speak out. But it’s 6 p.m. on a Friday night. This should have been held in the community,” said Bronzeville resident Anthony Travis. “This turnout is what they wanted so they can go back and say, ‘Oh, the community didn’t care.’ But that’s not true. People went on a hunger strike, went to jail for Dyett. I got arrested twice. For them to pull this shenanigan makes no sense.”
The “sense” is sadly the kind of sense all too prevalent in Rahm Emanuel’s Chicago and in many cities whose underfunded and sabotaged schools serve students in poverty: the “sense” of community silence where people from outside the community determine what is or is not available. Mayor Emanuel’s CPS gave just enough to say to the press that they “met” the protestor’s “halfway” but it will shut them out of every other decision making process for as long as possible.
In the face of that, it is remarkable that Mr. Brown and his fellow activists remain positive, but the vision that drives the #FightForDyett is one that can energize an entire movement to maintain our public education system as a public good as well as an individual good. Near the end of his interview, he said:
“My lived experience working with children – and I’ve worked with African American children, I’ve taught white children, I’ve taught Latino children – my experience is that all children need is consistency, love, and opportunity. And that consistency has to be constant opportunity, constant equity, constant belief that they can be anything. And that is demonstrated by the places we put them in, the opportunities we give them. Every child can excel. There is no group of people who is better than the others. We are different. You know, we have different cultures, but we all bring something…. and we should not stand for inequity. Because an inequitable school system an inequitable system denies us the joy of knowing each other. It denies us the joy of building a country together. Building a community together. Building a system together. And we have for too long – I mean our white brothers and sisters, but I mean as Americans period — we’ve ignored the racism that flows through this country, that feeds it like food. We’ve ignored it.”
Constant opportunity. Constant equity. Constant belief. And a recognition that as a nation we have a long way to go before we can claim to be past the racist legacy of our history. That’s a set of core beliefs we should all be able to acknowledge if we truly care about all children.
The hunger strike by 12 parents and community activists in Chicago fighting for an open enrollment, fully public, high school in the Bronzeville neighborhood will soon pass the one month mark. Ten days ago, Chicago Public Schools announced a “compromise” that would have Dyett re-open as an open enrollment school but with an arts based focus instead of the as the Global Leadership and Green Technology school that was submitted by the Coalition to Save Dyett. That school proposal, developed over the course of years with assistance from the University of Illinois at Chicago, the Chicago Teachers Union, the Kenwood Oakland Community Organization, Teachers for Social Justice, Black Metropolis Convention & Tourism Council, Blacks in Green, the Chicago Botanic Garden, and the Annenberg Institute, was submitted earlier in the year when CPS solicited proposals to re-open the Dyett campus. The announcement of an arts based school was done suddenly and with no discussion with community members who have been fighting for years to keep a fully public high school open in Bronzeville.
And so the hunger strike continues, including continued public pressure on CPS and elected officials, and candlelight vigils outside the Obama family home:
Mr. Hockenberry asked her why the hunger strike was continuing when the city had agreed to an open enrollment school:
“…the decision to re-open Dyett as an open enrollment school we already had that decision last year to re-open it. What we’ve been fighting for is to have it as the global leadership school. What they’re trying to give us is not what the community asked for. They never brought us to the table to make this decision. Many people think that it’s a win for us, but we don’t see it as that. We don’t feel that that’s victorious, and for that reason, that’s why we’re in day 25 of the hunger strike.”
Peter Greene of Curmudgucation made an excellent point about this on his blog shortly after the CPS decision was announced:
Emanuel faced an ever-growing mess, and he had to decide what to save, what absolutely could not be sacrificed in salvaging some sort of end to the public hunger strike. And he decided the one thing that he absolutely could not give up was the policy of keeping community voices silent. Okay, let them have open enrollment. But don’t let them speak. Don’t let them have a say in making any decisions about the school. And just to make it clear, don’t use their years of research and planning for the school design– because that’ll make it clear who’s still in complete control of what happens in their school.
This effort to run around the community activists – the very people who have been in Bronzeville trying to make Dyett a success despite the continuous history of being undermined by Chicago Public Schools from day one — allows Mayor Rahm Emanuel to claim he met the protestors “part way” and made a “compromise” while entirely ignoring their voices. The move was for public relations, not for the community and their goals.
And what are their goals? Ms. Stogner explained that to Mr. Hockenberry as well:
“I would envision Dyett being a school that’s connected to the other schools in the community, the grammar schools. You’re talking about a school that has a beautiful garden, a rooftop where you can have a garden. Everything is geared toward green technology where our kids would be ensured to have a future in green technology and be sure that they’ll have jobs. Yes, we like arts and all that. That’s fine and dandy. But our kids can do more than dance and sing and jump around…..It’s crazy when I was listening to the statement that you played from the mayor and they always say that they want to do what’s best for the children. This is not what’s best for our children. When you talk about community, the community should be involved in the decisions, and we were not involved. We submitted this plan. We’ve been working on this plan for well over five years, so it’s funny that he said you’re doing what’s best for our community. You don’t know what’s best for our community, or we wouldn’t have had 49 schools closing at one time. Tell the truth and say what it is. They just want to make money off the backs of our children, and they feel like they can just come into our community and take what they want. But we’re not having that anymore.”
This vision is incredibly powerful because it is not simply about what kinds of schools are available for the children in Bronzeville, but also it is about whether or not the community itself will be heard when it plainly makes clear what is desired. It is also about pointing out that when communities are called upon to “sacrifice” during times of economic crisis, the bulk of that sacrifice comes from communities that are disproportionately black, brown, and poor:
Julian Vasquez Heilig makes this abundantly clear in one of his recent posts about the Dyett hunger strikers. Chicago Public Schools spends $13,433 per pupil. How does that compare to wealthy, suburban communities uneffected by school closures or the need to go on a hunger strike to highlight the plight of their schools? Seneca Township spends $25,289 per pupil. Sunset Ridge spends $22,683. Evanston Township, $21,428. Ms. Stogner is keenly aware of this:
“The mayor — he’s one of the biggest gangsters I’ve seen in a long time. Yes, anyone who doesn’t value our kids that already speaks to what kind of person our mayor is. Anyone who closes schools — those are community institutions. Where else would our children have to go? What schools need is to be invested in, not disinvested in. It’s easy to take away all the resources from these children and these schools and say that they’re failing. But what did you do to make sure that they were excelling? You took everything. They don’t have libraries. No resources. You take out all of our black and brown teachers, people who love and care about our kids, who can teach them their history. That’s not what you want, but you have money for charters, turnaround schools. I have a problem with that. Everybody should have a problem with that.”
The perversity of this is abundantly clear: we task public education with offering opportunity to those willing to take it in our society, and to ensure that such opportunity is equitably available, we charge truly public schools with taking and accommodating all the students who arrive at their door, regardless of circumstances. It is one of the most truly democratic exercises in our society and it has historically expanded its reach as we have expanded the political and social franchise as well. But there is one glaring obstacle to it truly functioning that way: the same economic inequality that infuses and segregates our society along race and class similarly segregates our schools into institutions offering astonishing opportunities and institutions struggling to keep up with the needs that arrive every day without equitable funding. That term, equitable, is important because when a school has a high concentration of students with needs that must be accommodated, the appropriate per pupil funding will almost certainly be greater than in communities where almost all children come from comfortable homes with abundant family resources.
And yet, instead of that promise, they are given closed schools, fired teachers, unaccountable charters, and blighted neighborhoods; so the hunger strike continues.
The #Dyett12 require all of us to ask just what would we sacrifice for the principals of democratic education and community voices in our own schools? I have to confess that I have been entirely lucky in my life in this question. I grew up in a suburban Massachusetts town with well resourced schools. My own children are growing up in a neighborhood of New York City where we have never had to question if they would have access to excellent public schools. My children go through their lives never knowing what it is like to be suspected of wrong doing simply for the color of their skin. Residents of our borough who live a mere two miles from us are not so lucky and live with injustices we can read about but will never experience. That in the city of Chicago in 2015 there are people who have been on hunger strike for nearly a month to simply have what their peers in the suburbs never even question – an excellent, fully public school – is heart breaking and infuriating at the same time.
Ms. Stogner and her fellow hunger strikers offer a glimpse of a potential shifting of our education debate in this country to one that listens to the voices from the ground up instead of imposing solutions from above that more often than not hurt rather than help. When asked about her family, Ms. Stogner said:
“My grandson, I brought him out with me yesterday for the first time because I felt like he needed to know why when they’re at home eating, and grandma is just drinking water, why she isn’t eating. I need him to understand that you are important, you do matter. I don’t want him to believe that people can just come in his neighborhood and tell him he’s not good enough to have s school to go to up the street from him, a good community school, a great community school, a world class community school. He needs to know whatever you believe in, you stand up and you fight for it by any means necessary.”
We should all be teaching lessons so valuable to our children.
New Jersey Governor Chris Christie is expected to make his long anticipated announcement that he will seek the Presidency, and he will do so at Livingston High School where he was president of his graduating class. Knowing Governor Christie, the event will be long on biography and personality and short on specifics. He is at his old high school, no doubt, to assert himself as a home grown, New Jersey “original.” There will be a bit about how he is a “real” leader with experience “getting things done.” We’ll hear some talk about how he is who he is, and that he only knows how to be honest and authentic. The electorate will be given a choice to either take him as he is or not, but he certainly “won’t change who he is” for the sake of votes. This makes him “different” from other politicians.
Chris Christie’s persona and governing style may be multifaceted, but perhaps nothing is more emblematic of New Jersey’s governor than his ongoing, strained, relationship with the Garden State’s professional teaching corps. Governors across the country from Wisconsin’s Scott Walker to New York’s Andrew Cuomo have waged high profile battles against their state’s teachers, and Governor Christie can hold his own among the most aggressive of them — adding his own personal flare for anger, broken promises, and constant blame shifting. All of these factors have contributed to the governor’s plummeting approval ratings in his home state, and a few of them are highlighted here.
Chris Christie Doesn’t Keep His Promises And Then Blames Others
Despite this and despite his promises, Governor Christie almost immediately pushed for and got a pension reform bill that he claimed fixed the pension system and would leave it solvent. To be fair, the system had been shorted money owed to it from the state under a series of governors, but for a man who claimed in his campaign that he would leave pensions alone, it was a betrayal. His utter refusal to keep up with the state’s promised payments into the system while teachers and other pubic workers had their contributions automatically deducted from paychecks and had to accept smaller benefits is a bigger betrayal. Governor Christie’s refusal to make the state’s promised contributions to the fund have put it even deeper in the hole and led to a series of credit downgrades. Governor Christie just recently applied his veto pen to the state budget to slash the legislators’ call for a $3.1 billion payment into the pension fund, actually accusing others of “gluttony” for demanding that he make the payments into the system that he bragged would save it in 2011. Setting aside the irony of calling others gluttons when the governor has racked up almost $83,000 in taxpayer funded bills at the concessions for Giants and Jets games and a host of other charges indicating he enjoys the perks of his office, there is another, more ominous reason, why Chris Christie has nerve calling lawmakers and teachers “gluttons” for demanding he live up to the law he proposed.
When Governor Christie took office in 2010, New Jersey paid Wall Street firms $140.5 million annually to manage aspects of the pension system. By 2014, that figure ballooned to $600.2 million — $1.6 million A DAY — meaning that over $1.5 billion of pension funds have gone to Wall Street in the form of fees since Christie took office. The astronomical fees are in part because the administration shifted large portions of the pension fund into high fee hedge funds that promise higher returns for their fees but which have seriously underperformed with New Jersey’s money. Additionally, there are serious questions about whether or not Christie has been showering pension management onto supporters and donors. This year, the governor proposed sending $100 million of pension fund money to KSL Capital, a firm whose founder, Mike Shannon, donated $2.5 million to the Republican Governors’ Association, $500 thousand of which was donated when the RGA was spending $1.7 million for Chris Christie’s 2014 reelection campaign.
But retired teachers drawing a $41,000 a year pension are “gluttons.”
Chris Christie Won’t Fund New Jersey Schools
Governor Christie may be hoping for some home town love appearing at Livingston High School, but he will be doing so in a district he has squeezed financially, like he has for all school districts in New Jersey. Entering office with New Jersey still reeling from the financial crisis, Governor Christie cut the state education budget by $1 billion below what the state aid formula said it should have been. And even though the 2008 State Funding Reform Act and its funding formulas have not been changed, the Christie administration continues to underfund New Jersey schools leaving districts to try to find other sources of funding, a stretch in a state with already very high local property taxes.
In fact, Livingston, a district of roughly 5600 students, is supposed to get $4,312,693 in state aid according to the SFRA formula, but the township is only slated to get $2,536,196, a shortfall of over $1.7 million. Statewide, education funding remains over $1 billion underfunded, and the administration has shown no interest in ever bringing the funding back up to what is legislatively required.
Chris Christie’s Education Policies Suit Politics Not Our Students
The Governor recently unleashed a bit of chaos on the state’s schools by announcing that New Jersey would back out of the Common Core State Standards and begin to develop its own, better, standards just for New Jersey, citing federal interference in the CCSS that was making them not work. Mind you, Governor Christie was singing quite a different tune to a convention of charter school boosters at the 2013 KIPP School Summit:
Of course, Governor Christie intends to keep New Jersey in the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers (PARCC) which are supposed to aligned with the Common Core standards, and he will continue to use the results of those examinations for teacher evaluations. The idea, therefore, that New Jersey will see some major shift away from the standards is highly suspect since major policy incentives that require teachers to use them will remain firmly in place. It is hard to escape the conclusion that Governor Christie is about to make a lot of noise and expend significant resources on writing “new standards” just so he can stump in Republican primaries claiming that he is resisting Common Core and distinguish himself from former Florida Governor Jeb Bush, who at least has the integrity to stick by his own bad ideas.
Political gain is almost certainly behind his refusal to make full pension fund payments as well. Getting a pension reform bill through the New Jersey legislature was an important political win for the new governor while refusing to fund the reform and creating another crisis gives him a new chance to attack public employee unions as he seeks the Republican nomination. Governor Christie talks a good game about respecting local control because it is politically resonant, but when it comes to majority African American and Hispanic districts in Camden, Jersey City, Patterson, and Newark, he shows no sign of relinquishing state control of the schools that has utterly failed students and teachers for years.
A disastrous example of this is the callously designed and ineptly implemented One Newark school “reform” plan for Newark Public Schools that is due to get a “new” leader in the person of former State Commissioner Chris Cerf who is replacing the widely reviled Cami Anderson (appointed by Chris Cerf). One Newark was set into motion in 2010, when Newark Mayor Cory Booker, accepting Mark Zuckerberg’s $100 million donation and with Chris Christie’s enthusiastic support, sent $2.8 million of grant money to the consulting firm Chris Cerf established to make a school reform plan for Newark — just before Governor Christie tapped him to take over the entire state as Commissioner where he directed nearly $20 million of Zuckerberg’s money to a variety of consultants. Unsurprisingly, the One Newark plan that was put into motion emphasized turning as many schools as possible into charters, the one sector of education beloved of Wall Street and for far more than philanthropic reasons.
For Governor Christie, education policy serves to pander to political interests — abruptly switching standards, taking a chunk out of public unions — or it serves to satisfy the interests of political donors — funneling pension money into hedge funds, turning schools in profit making ventures for investors. Actually educating children is an afterthought.
Governor Christie’s Famous Temper May Be Authentic But It Shouts Down Real Criticism.
Chris Christie’s temper and temper outbursts are integral to his brand. He gains fans and YouTube hits by responding to critics with a pointed finger, a snarl, and a sharp rejoinder to “shut up.”
And its all an act to cover up his own errors and portray himself as a victim. Some of Governor Christie’s most famous outbursts have been directed at teachers.
There was the time that he accused teachers of using students as “drug mules.” There was the time he claimed the NJEA was praying for death and put up ads that said he hated children, but the “prayer” was merely a joke in moderately poor taste and the ad in question said nothing of the sort:
Chris Christie’s temper may have served his brand so far, but it has not really served his constituents. In fact, it is most often used to avoid answering legitimate questions. Consider how former Asbury Park City Councilman Jim Keady went to a Christie photo op on the Shore where he was bragging about the recovery from Hurricane Sandy. According to Keady, despite Christie’s claims of being hands on and on top of the storm recovery, 80% of funds had yet to be dispersed, and he was treated to the “full Chris Christie.” The Governor got to yell, bluster, and tell a resident from a town hard hit by the storm to “shut up,” but he did not have to discuss the growing list of problems with the state’s storm recovery that has left almost all of the 8000 residents eligible for funds to rebuild their home out in the cold.
So when you see Chris Christie get angry and get in the face of either the national press corps or some potential constituent, keep in mind that he is probably yelling to avoid answering a legitimate question.
Governor Christie is a Secretive Bully
Many people are familiar with the Bridgegate scandal and also familiar with the investigations that have never linked Chris Christie directly to the vindictive lane closures unleashed on Fort Lee by his appointees. People may be less familiar with the aura of petty payback that typifies this administration and its dealings with stakeholders across the state. Chris Christie may have not ordered the disaster on the George Washington Bridge, but much like Henry Plantagenet who bemoaned, “Who will rid me of this troublesome priest?” and was shocked – shocked! – when his henchmen murdered Thomas Becket, Governor Christie comes off as ridiculous when he cannot imagine why anyone in his administration would do such a thing. Perhaps they were taking the governor’s example to heart on how to treat people who do not do what you want them to do. For example, Rutgers political science professor Alan Rosenthal was given a glowing tribute from the Governor upon his death, but shortly after Professor Rosenthal cast a tie breaking vote on a redistricting commission against Republicans’ favored proposal (after the Republicans on the commission refused a compromise plan), Governor Christie used his line item to veto to cut funding for a fellowship program at Rutgers run by Rosenthal. Small wonder, then, that the Christie administration has been in court 22 times fighting efforts by watchdog groups and journalists to get information they have a right to obtain under New Jersey’s open records laws. And when documents are produced? WNYC’s President Laura Walker says they came to the radio station so heavily redacted as to be “all but meaningless.”
This is not the record of a tough talking, straight shooter who knows how to lead. This is the record of a opportunist who uses the public resources at his disposal to harm constituents and then to tell them to shut up when they question him.
I work in New Jersey in teacher preparation. I live in New York, and my children attend public school in New York City. I often lament that on one side of the Hudson River, Chris Christie is gunning for my profession while on the other side, Andrew Cuomo is gunning for my children. Chris Christie will spend today launching an effort to bring that special kind of leadership to the rest of the country. May the country wise up to it and deny him any further national stage either as a candidate for the Presidency or as a member of a future President’s cabinet.
One thing is not in question: Anderson had a particularly difficult relationship with both parental and political stakeholders. She slated schools to close even though they were meeting their growth targets. She abruptly stopped attending school board meetings in an effort to not face parents angry at the impacts of reforms on their children. The summer enrollment process for parents to simply put their children’s names into the system to have a school selected was poorly thought out and insensitively implemented. State lawmakers waited for a year for Anderson to finally show up to a committee meeting to discuss her performance as superintendent. Even if One Newark were indisputably a net good for Newark Public Schools, the sheer incompetence displayed when doing a basic job of a superintendent, effectively communicating with and balancing the overlapping needs of all of the stakeholders in public education, should have long ago disqualified Anderson from her job.
Allow me to indulge in a moment of praise for the young activists of the Newark Students’ Union who have been Profiles in Courage this past year. When many of the organizations run by adults have been far too quiet, these young people have stood up and demanded that the media and public at large pay attention to what has been thrust upon Newark’s children, families, and teachers in the name of reform. Their protests have brought national attention to Newark, and almost certainly contributed to Anderson’s departure.
It is not hard to understand why Cerf might be looking for new employment opportunities after little more than a year at Amplify. The technology venture is struggling mightily with expensive contracts, breakable hardware, and buggy software. Anderson’s mounting problems and inability to lead may have provided him with an opportune moment to jump ship. It is unclear how many people in the country would be willing to step into the mess that exists in the Newark Superintendent’s office, and Cerf will certainly bring an intimate knowledge of the plans to completely change public education in Newark. After all, he, along with former Mayor Cory Booker and Governor Chris Christie, was central in using Mark Zuckerberg’s $100 million donation to set the process in motion, setting up an expensive consulting operation before he was appointed to Commissioner’s office.
So this bizarre situation, where the state’s former highest education official will now run a school district whose outgoing superintendent reported to the incoming superintendent’s former underlings, may, as hard as it is to believe, be even worse for Newark. As New Jersey teacher and Rutgers graduate student, Mark Weber notes on his personal blog:
This is why the S-L (Star Ledger) is almost certain to run an editorial very soon lauding Cerf ([editor]Moran’s neighbor in the very reformy town of Montclair) as the perfect pick to lead Newark’s schools to new heights. Because he’ll do exactly the same things Anderson is doing right now — but he’ll do it with a smile. He won’t fly off the handle when people dare to mention his own kids. He’ll show up to school board meetings and nod and take notes and promise to take everyone’s views under advisement.
It’s also worth noting this same destructive idiocy was at play in Cerf’s policies later, when he ran the entire state’s education system. But this is how Cerf was trained. His (and Anderson’s) time at the NYCDOE under Joel Klein, coupled with his involvement in the Broad Superintendent’s AcademyBook Club, formed his “creative disruption” mindset: use test scores to justify closing public schools and let privately governed charters take over. And if that’s not feasible, reconstitute the schools, generating as much instability as is possible.
So Christopher Cerf is cut entirely of the same cloth as Cami Anderson with precisely the same training in philosophy and education reform. He is a strong proponent of a business oriented view to schooling as if our public schools were similar to old business models that have failed to compete against consumer innovation. He has no problem inflicting entirely unproven changes upon the education of 10s of 1000s of children because he believes “creative disruption” is just as valid a means of innovation in education as it is in consumer electronics. Apparently, it is okay if some students get the Apple Macintosh 128K education while others get the Coleco Adam.
What makes Cerf stand out is not his policy differences with Anderson (of which he has precisely none). It is his political ability, connections, and powerful patrons, including Senator Cory Booker, Governor Chris Christie, and former NYC Chancellor Joel Klein. There is no reason to believe that he will not plunge straight ahead with One Newark and turn Newark into the “charter school capital of the nation.” There is no reason to believe that anything more than lip service will be paid to local control from a new superintendent who formerly ran the state with total disregard for local control, especially in the districts controlled by the state and subjected to maximum disruption regardless of local concerns. The only thing to expect is that Chris Cerf will be skilled at inflicting harm upon Newark for however long he is in that office.
So Newark, please meet the new boss — and watch your back.