On Thursday night, the school board for Buffalo Public Schools sent a clear and scathing message to one of its own: resign or we will find a way to force you off our council. The member in question is upstate real estate developer, former Republican candidate for Governor of New York, co-chair of Donald Trump’s New York state campaign, and all around dumpster fire of vulgarity and bigotry, Carl Paladino. Mr. Paladino earned national attention and scorn when he was asked to reply to a Buffalo weekly about his wishes for the upcoming year. In a fashion familiar to those who have observed his public antics over the years, Mr. Paladino wished for the death of President Obama from mad cow disease contracted by bestiality. He further wished for the death of White House adviser Valerie Jarrett by beheading after conviction for treason. He piled on with a hope that the First Lady “return to being a male” and that she would “return” to Africa to live with a gorilla.
Condemnation of his remarks were swift and pretty much total. While Donald Trump has not yet spoken on the issue, the Trump transition team issued a rebuke calling Paladino’s words “absolutely reprehensible,” and his own son took to the family company’s Facebook page to distance the business from his father’s words. The Chancellor of the New York Board of Regents announced a blistering rejection of Paladino’s bigotry on Twitter:
Further denunciations came from sitting Governor Andrew Cuomo, Mr. Paladino’s alma mater, St. Bonaventure University, and parent groups in Buffalo while official calls for his removal from the school board grew.
In his typical fashion, Mr. Paladino defied his detractors, insisting he was not racist and that his remarks were a form of “deprecating humor.” On his own Facebook page, he insisted that his comments had “nothing to do with race,” and proceeded to go on a lengthy rant about his alleged grievances against the Obamas, including numerous accusations that source from fake news and debunked rumors from the dredges of the Internet…or from emails forwarded by your racist uncle (Ms. Jarrett is an American by birth, Mr. Paladino). He also casually referred to the President as a “lazy ass” and signed off by saying “tough luck if you don’t like my answer.”
Considering the long history of dehumanizing African Americans by comparing them to gorillas and the body shaming African American women endure, Mr. Paladino’s comments were blatantly racist. However, to be fair – his comments were not merely racist. They were also obscene, misogynist, homophobic, and immoral. None of this is that much of a surprise. During his catastrophic run for governor in 2010, Mr. Paladino’s personal email habits became public and let’s just say what he offered to Artvoice is in line with his penchant for racist and sexually obscene material. What was not expected was a revised statement as the controversy deepened where Mr. Paladino said that he had not intended to make those “wishes” public, apologized to the “minority community,” and characterized his words as “inappropriate under any circumstance.” Not that his statement admitting to having made a “mistake” was anything resembling adequate contrition, but the mere fact that a man who has made his public life about never backing down on any horrendous thing he utters felt the need to revise his sentiments in any way shape or fashion is significant. In flailing about to keep his school board seat, Mr. Paladino had to do the one thing he loathes the most: admit an error.
Mr. Paladino’s dire situation was made abundantly clear by School Board President, Barbara Seals Nevergood who said before the Thursday vote, “Words matter, Mr. Paladino….The impact on children of color, especially African-American children is incalculable…..They would like me to tell you, ‘You’re fired.'” Board members argued that Mr. Paladino had broken a trust with parents, especially with minority parents, when he could not express his dislike for the Obama administration in anything resembling respectful words. If he fails to resign, the next step is that the board will seek legal means to end his tenure.
This result is entirely correct for numerous reasons. Mr. Paladino’s ability to make dispassionate decisions has long been in question because of his business interests in the charter sector. He seems incapable of expressing his personal views in a manner that remotely assists the board in seeking the best interests for all children. And despite his frequent avowals to the contrary, his words are those of a racist. While Americans have a Constitutional right to repugnant views, certain positions in society demand a character that is free from those views – and member of a school board is one such position. Within that office, Mr. Paladino is responsible for making choices and policies that directly impact the lives and opportunities of 1000s of children. Their parents and guardians are entitled to know that the people endowed with that authority are free from systemic bigotry. How else can they trust that the board will only consider what is best for them and their children? How can they happily send their children to schools governed, at least in part, by a man who thinks racist humor is personally acceptable? These are people who have entrusted their children to public schools, and their faith in that system is vital to its success.
Mr. Paladino cannot regain the trust needed to serve the families of Buffalo. He must go.
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.
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.
Fresh off their rally with charter school parents and students on October 7th, “Families” For Excellent Schools has announced that they will hold another rally on Wednesday the 21st of October. This rally, which will be held in Manhattan’s Foley Square, will reportedly feature nearly 1,000 charter school teachers predominantly from Eva Moskowitz’s Success Academy network. While some teachers from Achievement First, Uncommon Schools, and KIPP are expected to be present, Ms. Moskowitz’s workforce will be the primary participants, and the network just so happens to have a scheduled half school day so that teachers can show up to the rally for the purpose of pressuring law makers into allowing more charter schools in the city. Chew on that for a moment: a scheduled half day of school. A political rally. The teachers in attendance.
I don’t know about you, but when my children’s unionized public school teachers take a half day, it is because they are in professional development workshops and related activities. They certainly are not being taken from their schools to a rally organized by a lobbying group funded specifically to increase their influence with lawmakers in City Hall and in Albany. In fact, try to imagine this scenario: Chancellor Farina organizes a half day of work for all city schools and then coordinates a rally for public schools with the UFT on the same day and 1000s of public school teachers, rather than using the half day for professional development, show up near city hall to provide the optics. If you can pretend for one second that Governor Cuomo would not be demanding that the Assembly and Senate hold hearings and seek potential sanctions against both the union and the Chancellor, I question your grip on reality.
It would be one thing for “Families” For Excellent Schools to organize political rallies for parents and supporters of charter schools to attend and to use that platform to advocate for more such schools. That is indisputably their right. It becomes much more questionable when those rallies are organized in such a way that Eva Moskowitz closes her schools during multiple rallies, leaving parents with no place to send their children and essentially forcing them to take a day from work to attend so that they and their children add to event’s optics. That is within their rights, but frankly, it is cheap and coercive. But now the network will use a half day of instruction to provide its teachers to send a political message on education policy. And considering the extraordinarily high pressure work environment at Success Academy that is also verified by job review sites, it is hard to believe that very many of the promised teachers for next week’s rally feel comfortable declining to participate.
And it is monstrously unethical: our fully public schools would spark legitimate outrage if they organized a school day around sending their employees to a political rally organized by a lobbyist organization. How can it be tolerable for Eva Moskowitz to use her employees, and students, and parents as window dressing for campaigns to funnel more and more public school funding and public school facilities into her organization that she has repeatedly refused to allow “outsiders” to hold her accountable? What Superintendent of schools has such authority?
It is important to remind ourselves that “Families” for Excellent Schools is a 501 (c) (3) “public charity” that is a front for billionaire backed efforts to radically privatize public education and break public sector unions. While tax exempt law forbids them from backing specific political campaigns, they are allowed to lobby and to “educate” the public which they do by funneling money from a variety of sources such as the Walton Family Foundation, the Broad Foundation, and Education Reform Now – another dark money financed organization connected with “Democrats” For Education Reform. “Families” For Excellent Schools suddenly shot up in revenue from June of 2013 when they reported $1,000,777 in revenue to June 2014 when they reported $12,265,162. Of that, an eye watering $9,137,910 was spent on campaign and advocacy activities, and while their 990 Schedule A cites no portion of their contributions from “individuals” giving more than 2% of total contributions — that means anyone could give $278,103 without it showing up in that part of the form.
This is supposed to be a grassroots organization representing the families of children in charter schools.
And Eva Moskowitz consistently gives them compelling optics at their rallies with children, parents, and, now, teachers – dismissed from school for a “half day” that would get any superintendent in the state fired and possibly prosecuted.
Is Eva Moskowitz running a chain of schools or is she running the lobbying arm for her billionaire backers who see the expansion of the charter school sector as a means for profit and as a means to break public sector unions? Public school advocates certainly hold rallies to support public education, but we have to do so on weekends and after school hours for reasons that should similarly prohibit Success Academy and other charter schools from providing school hour props for “Families” For Excellent Schools. Our appallingly lax rules for tax exempt organizations may allow for this, but there is no reason why our charter school authorizing bodies and the legislators who write school law should tolerate this. We need our representatives in Albany to change charter school rules so that orchestrating the participation of students and teachers in obviously political events during what should be school hours is expressly prohibited.
And then maybe we should explore whether or not “Families” for Excellent Schools is actually within the allowable exempt purposes in the Internal Revenue Code, or whether it is there to use children, their families, and their teachers to enact policies that enrich its donors.
“Families” For Excellent Schools, the hedge-fund and foundation backed advocacy group that has waged constant war on New York Mayor Bill DeBlasio on behalf of the charter school sector in general and Eva Moskowitz’s Success Academy brand in particular, has postponed a planned rally for September 30th due to weather concerns. Ms. Moskowitz’s 34 schools had planned to cancel classes for the morning to boost attendance for the gathering in Cadman Plaza which was to feature Jennifer Hudson. Organizers announced the rally will go ahead on October 7th, but it also comes in the wake of a controversial ad buy by FES in which they accuse Mayor DeBlasio of condemning African American children to inferior educations, presumably by merely failing to embrace 100% of what the charter sector in New York City wants and by not allowing Ms. Moskowitz to simply point at an existing school and say “gimme” any longer.
The ad, entitled “A Tale of Two Boys,” can be easily found, and goes like this: Two young boys, one white and one black, are being walked to school, passing each other on the street. The ad declares that the white child lives in a wealthy neighborhood and has an excellent school and will probably go on to college. The black child, however, lives in a poor neighborhood, is forced to attend a failing school and will not have a chance to go to college. The ad ends by contrasting the two young boys with the white child reading happily in school and the black child looking morose and bored, and then it chides the Mayor for allowing this to happen and declaring that “half a million” children “need new schools”.
The ad, which is costing FES 100s of 1000s of dollars, drew immediate criticism from numerous sources for relying upon racial stereotypes and for using the circumstances of minority children to advocate “solutions” that serve the political agenda of conservative organizations (such as the Walton Family Foundation and the Broad Foundation) who have been pushing privatizing education and breaking teachers’ unions for years. Bertha Lewis of the Black Institute flatly declared the ad racist, and Zakiyah Ansari of the Alliance for Quality Education said, “They are using a black face to push their political agenda, and they make the assumption that all black people are poor…They used our children in a race-baiting commercial.”
Criticism of FES is not limited to the new ad buy. Writing for The Progressive, New York City teacher, activist, and author Jose Vilson notes about the now postponed rally:
Families for Excellent Schools (an awkward name since everyone wants excellent schools surely), prints “Don’t Steal Possible” on red shirts and hands them out across the city. When a whole host of inequitable conditions, including the stratification of rich and poor, steal possibilities (and lives) from children and adults of color on a daily basis, we won’t see similarly impassioned rallies for their rights. When parents have to take off work for a rally or risk their student getting transferred to a local public school that was stripped of funds for losing students to charter schools, that’s also stealing possible….
What’s most disenchanting about the upcoming rally, though, is that the rally doesn’t serve equal and equitable agency for school-aged children. It ultimately serves the agenda of a handful of people who won’t put their shoes to the cement alongside parents who just want their children to thrive in a good school. If the messaging comes from an unknown busybody and not from the very people affected by the schooling of their children, that’s another swindle our children cannot afford.
Allow me to grant FES a crumb of fact within all of this: educational opportunities are not equally or evenly distributed throughout this city, just as they are not within this country. Our nation is deeply segregated by income which becomes in many cases a proxy for segregation by race. A consequence of this is that communities with notable levels of poverty tend to have high levels of poverty, meaning that in order to function well their schools need substantial funding, funding which is denied to them by state and local sources. Many such schools struggle to provide their students with what they need, leading to lower educational outcomes and diminished opportunities. However, Jose Vilson rightly points out that many schools with high levels of poverty actually have excellent programs, skilled teachers, and involved PTAs, and they are unfairly deemed “failures” by groups like FES because of one measure only: standardized test scores. If such schools were also fairly funded and given the resources and capacity to provide all of the services their students need, they could thrive even more. This is hardly an isolated case. The portrayal of schools serving mostly minority and mostly impoverished children as nightmares of uncaring and corrupt adults passing along children without concern is a vicious narrative used to justify poaching off as much as the public system into private hands as possible. “Families” For Excellent Schools’ preferred solutions actually make matters worse for the majority of students.
FES has only a passing relationship with the truth, as demonstrated by Professor Bruce Baker of Rutgers University. Dr. Baker thoroughly destroys the group’s argument that more money per pupil in fully public schools actually harms outcomes by demonstrating that the schools with the highest per pupil spending also have the highest concentrations of special education students and students qualifying for free lunch. Unshockingly, schools with those populations of students need more money per student in general, and achieving higher value added as measured by tests absolutely takes more money. Dr. Baker’s research further demonstrates that the charter school sector, as currently administered, acts in a parasitic manner, siphoning off students who have lower rates of high poverty, learning disabilities, and language learning needs and skimming the resources the fully public schools need to provide appropriate services for the children who remain. While high need districts within New York are face serious underfunding by the state’s own formula for school aid, advocates for charter schools like FES simultaneously call for more resources to be funneled from those public schools and dare to call them “failures” for not thriving.
The nerve of FES running an ad accusing the mayor of allowing African American children to languish is failing schools should be obvious – and deeply offensive – to anyone informed on the issue. There is no doubt that too many schools struggle, but “Families” For Excellent Schools has no actual interest in improving the educational outcomes for all students in New York City. In fact, extending genuine opportunities to all students in New York City is completely antithetical to their operating principles and would damage their brand management strategies.
Nationwide, the charter school sector has well-crafted approaches to winnow down the families who even apply to enter open lotteries – even in states where they are mandated to use random lotteries to prevent them from cherry picking students. While Stephanie Simon’s report for Reuters noted that well known charter operators such as KIPP and Success Academy use simple application forms, that does not mean they seek to retain all of the students who make it into their schools. Success Academy is known, in particular for practices that drive away significant portions of their students as noted here by former New York high school principal and current Executive Director of the Network for Public Education, Carol Burris who noted how Success Academy 1 in Harlem opened with 127 first graders in 2009 but only 82 remained to begin 6th grade (Interestingly, Success CEO Eva Moskowitz denied the accusation of excessive attrition in the comments section, accusing Ms. Burris of ignoring data that showed charter retention was somewhat higher overall than in nearby schools within the city. Of course, Ms. Moskowitz was citing data for the entire charter sector while Ms. Burris was looking at the original Success Academy, and Ms. Moskowitz consistently fails to acknowledge that district schools have to replace children who leave when new students arrive at any time and that every child who leaves her schools represents a family that sought out Success Academy deliberately.)
Families that do seek out and get to attend Ms. Moskowitz’s schools quickly learn what it takes to remain there. A parent handbook for Success Academy obtained by FOIL requests shows that Success Academy requires weekend or additional “academy” sessions for repeat “violations” of its requirements. Excused absences cannot be had for parental illness, transportation problems, or doctor appointments. Parental reading is a daily requirement in K-2 with no exceptions as is parental oversight of homework – which is given only in English. While parental involvement is an important aspect for many students’ achievement, Ms. Moskowitz is essentially mandating parents who are both competent in English and who are in work and family situations stable enough to meet those expectations. A single parent working evenings and whose child care is a relative speaking limited English is going to be unable to fulfill these requirements.
The Success Academy network is not precisely subtle that it neither has the time to work with students who need even minor behavioral accommodations nor is it willing to keep them. Kevin Sprowal was a Kindergarten student in Success Academy who had never been in serious trouble for behavior in three years of pre-school was suddenly disciplined constantly to the point that he felt sick at the thought of going to school. His mother, Katherine Sprowal, received a direct message from Ms. Moskowitz that she interpreted as a veiled urging to transfer, and the school psychologist flatly said her child should be in a different school. It is hard to take the “open lottery” for Success Academy seriously when it immediately begins to filter out five year olds who turn out to have perfectly manageable attention deficit.
The network’s methods are plainly brutal in many respects. In a special report in April of this year (that, of course, drew indignant responses from Ms. Moskowtiz), The New York Times documented the extreme high pressure placed upon the network’s very young children, including practices that are, in turn, manipulative and plainly abusive:
But at Success Academy Harlem 4, one boy’s struggles were there for all to see: On two colored charts in the hallway, where the students’ performance on weekly spelling and math quizzes was tracked, his name was at the bottom, in a red zone denoting that he was below grade level….
Success has stringent rules about behavior, down to how students are supposed to sit in the classroom: their backs straight, and their feet on the floor if they are in a chair or legs crossed if they are sitting on the floor. The rationale is that good posture and not fidgeting make it easier to pay attention. Some teachers who had orderly classrooms and a record of good student performance said, after their first year, their school leaders allowed them to bend the rules somewhat, such as not requiring students to clasp their hands as long as their hands were still….
Success did not allow a reporter to observe test preparations, but teachers and students described a regimen that can sometimes be grueling.
To prepare for the reading tests, students spend up to 90 minutes each day working on “Close Reading Mastery” exercises, consisting of passages followed by multiple-choice questions. The last two Saturdays before the exams, students are required to go to school for practice tests.
Students who do well on practice tests can win prizes, such as remote-controlled cars, arts and crafts kits, and board games. Former teachers said that they were instructed to keep the prizes displayed in the front of their classroom to keep students motivated.
Students who are judged to not be trying hard enough are assigned to “effort academy.” While they redo their work, their classmates are getting a reward — like playing dodge ball against the teachers, throwing pies in the face of the principal or running through the hallways while the students in the lower grades cheer….
At one point, her leadership resident — what the network calls assistant principals — criticized her for not responding strongly enough when a student made a mistake. The leadership resident told her that she should have taken the student’s paper and ripped it up in front of her. Students were not supposed to go to the restroom during practice tests, she said, and she heard a leader from another school praise the dedication of a child who had wet his pants rather than take a break….
At Success Academy Harlem 1, as the original school is now called, 23 percent of the 896 students were suspended for at least one day in 2012-13, the last year for which the state has data. At Public School 149, a school in the same building, 3 percent of students were suspended during that same period. Statewide, the average suspension rate is 4 percent. (A spokeswoman for Success said that the suspension rate at Success Academy Harlem 1 has since declined to 14 percent, and that several of the newer schools had rates below 10 percent.)
Students who frequently got in trouble sometimes left the network, former staff members said, because their parents got frustrated with the repeated suspensions or with being called in constantly to sit with their children at school…
“We can NOT let up on them,” she continued. “Any scholar who is not using the plan of attack will go to effort academy, have their parent called, and will miss electives. This is serious business, and there has to be misery felt for the kids who are not doing what is expected of them.”
Public shaming. Extremely narrow behavioral norms for children as low as five. Extra school work as punishment for not meeting standardized testing goals. Obsessive focus on standardized test preparation. Open and blatant bribes for children who excel on test based measures. Children who can quickly adapt to this and perform on tests as expected are welcome at Success Academy.
Which brings us back to chutzpah. “Families” For Excellent Schools will rally next week with Ms. Moskowitz’s students front and center providing the optics of minority children in need of great schools and opportunities. They will claim to be there for the “half a million” children “trapped in failing schools” (last year, they claimed it was 143,000) and who need “new schools, now” – by which they mean charter schools in the Eva Moskowitz model.
But those charter schools – and Ms. Moskowitz’s schools in particular – do not want all of those children they will claim to speak for next week. They want the children whose parents have stable enough work lives and English proficient enough that they can meet all of the out of school expectations without exception. They want children who do not require any accommodations that would alter their extraordinarily rigid approach to early childhood behavior. They want children who can immediately adapt at the age of five to excessive conformity, who can handle public shaming and extraordinary pressure, and who will emerge from that environment with high standardized scores. Everyone else can go pound sand. More specifically, everyone else can go back to their district schools which now have even higher concentrations of children in high poverty, with serious special learning needs, and with English language learning needs but which have fewer monetary and physical resources with which to help those children. Far from speaking for half a million kids in need of great schools, “Families” For Excellent Schools will use 1000s of children as props to denigrate the work and efforts of 100s of schools and tens of 1000s of teachers and hundreds of 1000s of other children simply because of their test scores. Worse, they will call for even more resources to be hoovered out of those schools – even though the “no excuses” charter sector in New York is 100% dependent upon having zoned schools that will take the children they refuse to accommodate.
“Families” For Excellent Schools does not give a damn about most of the children in New York. Don’t let them get away with claiming they do.