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Are charter schools monopolizing public resources?

April 24, 2014 at 6:24 PM EDT
Charter school enrollment has soared from about 300,000 a little more than a decade ago to nearly 2 million students nationwide. But the expansion of charter schools, whose public funding is supplemented with private donations, has created serious competition for limited resources and space. Special correspondent John Tulenko of Learning Matters reports on the ongoing battle in New York.

GWEN IFILL: A little more than a decade ago, only about 300,000 students were enrolled in charter schools nationwide.

As their growth has soared, especially in cities, nearly 2 million students are now enrolled. In New York City alone, attendance has jumped from 2,300 children a year to nearly 70,000. But that expansion has created serious competition for limited public resources.

Special correspondent John Tulenko of learning matters reports.

PROTESTER: Save our schools! Save our schools!

JOHN TULENKO: In early March, thousands of charter school supporters rode buses for hours to come to Albany, New York’s state capital, to stop a school of theirs from being closed.

NARRATOR: Mayor Bill de Blasio is taking away a public school.

JOHN TULENKO: A $4 million dollar ad campaign drove the message home.

NARRATOR: Don’t take away our children’s future.

JOHN TULENKO: And it quickly became national news.

MAN: The mayor of New York wants to shut down the highest-performing school?

WOMAN: Correct.

MAN: It’s disgusting.

JOHN TULENKO: But what became known as New York’s charter school war had very little to do with the fate of one school. Instead, it was a fight over politics and money between two powerful people.

On one side was New York City’s Mayor Bill de Blasio, a believer in the power of government to change lives, and on the other, Eva Moskowitz, whose school the mayor wanted to close. A former city councilwoman, she’s founder and CEO of Success Academy, the city’s largest charter school network with 22 schools.

EVA MOSKOWITZ, Success Academy: I am a supporter of parent choice. He seems less so. I assume he has genuine reasons for that, but we have a difference of opinion.

PROTESTERS: Charters work! Charters work! Charters work!

JOHN TULENKO: The battle over charter schools, which are publicly funded but privately run, began under de Blasio’s predecessor, Mayor Bloomberg.

MICHAEL BLOOMBERG, I, Former Mayor of New York: I, Michael R. Bloomberg, do solemnly…

CLARA HEMPHILL, He was very pro-charter. He thought we had an ossified bureaucracy that needs really shaking up.

JOHN TULENKO: Clara Hemphill runs, a Web site for New York City parents.

CLARA HEMPHILL: What Mayor Bloomberg did that was so unusual was he said for the first time you can have free space in the ordinary public schools.

JOHN TULENKO: Under what was called co-location, traditional public schools were forced to make room in their buildings for charters.

CLARA HEMPHILL: Sometimes, there are as many as five schools in one building, and in some cases, it’s a very amicable sharing, and in other cases, one school feels that the other school is kicking their kids out of the rooms that they used to be in.

JOHN TULENKO: As charters grew from seven to 182, so did tensions.

NOAH GOTBAUM, Community Education Council: Our experience has been routinely terrible.

JOHN TULENKO: School board vice president Noah Gotbaum represents Harlem, where the charters are concentrated.

NOAH GOTBAUM: They have been given the pick of the resources, the pick of the space. They have much better funding.

That whole wing gone.

JOHN TULENKO: He took us on a tour of a school that had been forced to give up space to one of Moskowitz’s Success Academy charters. We stopped at the physical therapy room.

NOAH GOTBAUM: This is an occupational therapy room? Please. OK, so, what happens? They provide the services in the hallway, in the stairwell, in bathrooms, because there’s no space and because there’s no equipment.

JOHN TULENKO: Compare that, he says, to Moskowitz’s school in this building.

NOAH GOTBAUM: They have smart boards in every room, new lights, bright shiny bathrooms. It’s a tale of two schools.

JOHN TULENKO: They get all this with help from private donations, about $500,000 for each Success Academy school, most of it from wealthy investors on Wall Street.

NOAH GOTBAUM: It is the hedge fund industry. It’s a privatization movement, unregulated.

JOHN TULENKO: And, Gotbaum says, there’s little regulation at the school level either. Charters have been accused of pushing underachieving students out.

NOAH GOTBAUM: Where do you think they have gone? They’re coming right back here.

JOHN TULENKO: Campaigning for office, de Blasio became charter’s most public critic.

BILL DE BLASIO, D, Mayor of New York: Charter schools often get, in co-locations, the very best parts of the schools, and they often do…

JOHN TULENKO: He promised to cap their growth, and make existing ones pay rent. And he singled out for criticism Eva Moskowitz.

BILL DE BLASIO: Time for Eva Moskowitz to stop having the run of the place. She has to stop being tolerated, enabled.


EVA MOSKOWITZ: It was kind of scary. I was worried for our kids. I was worried for the future of parent choice. I was worried for New York as the center of educational innovation.

WOMAN: Get into your rows.

JOHN TULENKO: Far from the disruptive force her critics have described, Moskowitz sees her schools as part of the solution, dismissing criticism that they monopolize space.

EVA MOSKOWITZ: I could take you rooms where we are turning closets into rooms that we use.

JOHN TULENKO: She denies pushing students out, and says private grants make up for public startup funds her schools don’t get.

EVA MOSKOWITZ: People think we have all these advantages that we don’t have. Everyone is trying to make an excuse and do a gotcha, instead of sort of looking at the teaching.

We try and create schools where kids want to fall in love with school. And to do that, you have to have a lot of art and music and dance and debate and chess and robotics.

ANDY MALONE, Principal, Success Academy: Every fifth grader gets computer science. Every sixth grader gets visual art. We’re really looking for a robust 21st century program.

JOHN TULENKO: For principal Andy Malone’s students, or scholars, as they’re called, the school day is two-and-a-half-hours longer. There’s a dress code, lots of rules to follow. And the work itself is demanding.

But the biggest difference, since Moskowitz’s schools are independently run, they’re free from the union and bureaucracy.

ANDY MALONE: If I decide that we’re going to do this radically different thing in reading, or the teachers are going to stay until 7:00 because we have, say, a culture crisis that we want to solve, I have the license as a leader to do that.

There’s sort of no rules. There’s just a high-performance standard that we get to drive after.

JOHN TULENKO: Last year, among the Success Academy scholars, nearly all minority, nearly all low-income, 80 percent scored proficient in math and 60 percent in English, compared to 30 percent in regular public schools.

But none of that swayed the new mayor, who declined our requests for an interview. Straight away, he canceled a co-location plan for one of Moskowitz’s schools, saying it would displace students with special needs.

EVA MOSKOWITZ: He is evicting us. You cannot educate children if you do not have a building.

PROTESTERS: Save our schools!

JOHN TULENKO: In response, Moskowitz shut her 22 schools for the day, sending everyone to Albany. Dozens of other charter schools did the same.

PROTESTERS: Eva, Eva, Eva!

JOHN TULENKO: They chanted her name, but Moskowitz had hardly been working alone.

Families for Excellent Schools, a pro-charter foundation backed by her supporters on Wall Street, paid for the rally, which included a surprise guest.

MAN: Governor Andrew Cuomo!

GOV. ANDREW CUOMO, D, New York: You are here 11,000-strong, and we are here today to tell you that we stand with you. You are not alone. We will save charter schools!


JOHN TULENKO: But, to some, the governor’s appearance had more to with his reelection campaign.

NOAH GOTBAUM: Oh, it’s very clear what brought Governor Cuomo to the rally: political contributions. The hedge industry has donated close to a million dollars.

JOHN TULENKO: What Wall Street wants in return, Gotbaum says, is worth far more.

NOAH GOTBAUM: It’s a money-making venture. Education is a $1 trillion business, huge. But they can’t get to it if the system isn’t privatized.

EVA MOSKOWITZ: It’s a very convenient narrative.

The folks who are giving philanthropically are giving to a variety of causes. They have no interest in making this a business. They’re interested in at-risk kids getting access to opportunity.

JOHN TULENKO: Governor Cuomo’s office denied he was influenced by contributions, saying they represent a fraction of his $33 million reelection fund, and pointing to statements like this one from 2010.

GOV. ANDREW CUOMO: I want you to know my beliefs. I believe public education is the new civil rights battle, and I support charter schools.

JOHN TULENKO: In late March, Governor Cuomo pushed through legislation prohibiting Mayor de Blasio from charging charter schools rent and requiring the city to provide room for them in regular public schools. The charter school fight was over, and Moskowitz and her allies had won.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Reporter John Tulenko has more on the politics of charter schools in New York City. Listen to his podcast, which is on our Education page.