It was Monday morning, and the folks at Morning Joe were already steamed. Joe Scarborough had his Very Serious scowl face on while Mika Brzezinski's eyes were flashing with poised rage.
Their target: newly elected New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio who had arrived for the ritual grilling now so popular on broadcast television. And the topic: first, a softball lob about expanding pre-k education ("Who would be against that?") with some polite back-and-forth about "how are we going to pay for it."
But the real matter at hand was the subject of charter schools (starting around the 9:00 minute mark in a 28-minute segment). After a brief video clip of Governor Andrew Cuomo speaking at a rally of charter school fans in Albany, Brzezinski started the accusations toward de Blasio, "Are you against charter schools?" Doesn't your position seem "personal?" And from Scarborough, "Doesn't it look like your targeting Eva Moskowitz … What don't you like about Eva Moskowitz?"
Eva Moskowitz of course, is the operator of a celebrated chain of charter schools in New York City who has generated much controversy by earning nearly $500,000 in annual salary – way more than New York City Chancellor earns – to procure free space for her schools by co-locating in existing public schools and forcing out school children from their current classrooms.
De Blasio quickly brought some perspective to the discussion by relating some facts that clearly demonstrated his even-handedness – some would even say deference – to charter schools co-locating in existing public schools. As education historian Diane Ravitch verified in her Huffington Post column the same day, "The new mayor, having inherited 45 co-locations, decided to approve 36 of them."
Regarding new charter school applications, "of 17 charter schools that applied, 14 were approved," and the charter chain operated by Moskowitz, Success Academy, won five out of the eight new schools it wanted.
Does that sound anti-charter to you?
This is what the debate about education policy – and charter schools in particular – so often comes to: So much sturm and drang about a favored trinket from the "education reform" tool box while matters of way more importance get neglected or even abused.
What could be more important than charter schools?
Whose Children Matter Most?
Mayor de Blasio pointed out that the children who were being targeted to give up their current facilities to make way for a charter co-location happen to matter too.
In this case, the two schools being occupied by the charters, PS 149 and 811, serve special education students. Parents at those schools recently put together brief video in which they describe how much they and their children love their schools.
Success Academy schools, meanwhile, have reputations for practicing "zero tolerance" discipline policies that often target special education students for harsh punishments such as suspensions and expulsions. In fact, at Harlem Success Academy, the school that would take over space in PS 149 and 811, "22 percent of pupils got suspended at least once during the 2010-11 school year, state records show … far above the 3 percent average for regular elementary schools in its school district," according to Daily News reporter Juan Gonzales.
Success Academy schools also have a reputation for high attrition rates, likely the result of harsh discipline policies and pressure to score high on tests, which these schools have a reputation for. According to a report at Inside Schools, an independent news outlet from The New School, "Just because a child gets into Harlem Success does not mean he or she will complete 5th grade there."
In the June 2012 article, "According to figures on the school's New York State Report Card, 83 students entered kindergarten in 2006-07, the school's first year of operation. When that class reached 4th grade in 2010-11, it had only 53 students – a drop of 36 percent. Harlem Success also took in a 1st grade class with 73 students in 2006. When that group reached 5th grade, it too had shrunk appreciably – by 36 percent. The attrition accelerated as the classes advanced."
More recently, edu-blogger Gary Rubenstein took a sharp pencil to the supposed success of Success Academy schools and found other troubling signs. At the Success school that has been around the longest, since 2007, of the original 83 kindergarteners the school started with, only 47 took the sixth grade test last spring. Of 73 first graders, only 35 took the seventh grade test. "Overall, they have ‘lost’ 47% of the original two cohorts," Rubenstein concluded. "If this is one of the costs of having such high test scores, I’m not sure if it is worth it."
So here you have a new charter school – with a troubling track record with special education students and a troublesome tendency to push out students – muscling its way into the space where vulnerable students were being well served – at least according to the parents and the students.
Why aren't these considerations at least as important as the fate of yet to be created charter schools?
The Morning Joe crew were having none of it.
"Why be hostile to charter schools?" asked Willie Geist, rounding out the trio of hosts, and the Morning Joe crew accused de Blasio of not "working with the governor," Cuomo, who is a charter school supporter.
What's Really Worth Getting Riled Up About
While charter enthusiasts were getting riled up about the fate of a handful of their favored schools, a troubling report about the condition of the nation's public schools was released last week.
As reported by Education Week, a new, nationally representative survey from the National Center for Education Statistics found that the general physical conditions of America's schools are so bad that "upgrading the nation's public K-12 school buildings to a 'good overall condition' would cost about $200 billion."
Over half of all public schools need to spend about $4.5 million per school, on average, on "repairs, renovations, and modernizations to put them into good condition." Not surprising, perhaps, since "the average age of public schools' main instructional buildings is 44 years," the survey found.
Further, schools where 75 percent or more of students are eligible for free and reduced-price meals – like the schools being targeted for charter co-locations in New York City – are in such bad shape that "the percentage in need of substantial upgrades to reach good condition is 60 percent."
Anecdotal reports of the worsening physical conditions of America's public schools have been well circulated on the Internet. Last month, news outlets reported a campaign on Facebook, – called "Repairs Not IPads" – that shows the terrible conditions in Los Angeles public schools, with photos of broken sinks, busted computers, and insect infestations.
Similarly, an exhibit of photos taken in New Jersey schools last year, showed that students in that state's most resource-starved public schools "walk down hallways covered in mold, take tests in asbestos-filled classrooms and trod across floors peppered with rodent droppings," according to an article in The Huffington Post.
Closer to the studios of Morning Joe, a recent survey conducting by New York City labor union 32BJ SEIU found that the City's public school facilities and capital budgets have been cut significantly. "The City spends a smaller percentage of its total education budget on maintenance and operations than six of the seven largest school districts in the country. New York City reports less than two percent of school buildings to be in 'good' condition and the majority to be in only 'fair' condition. The City is forced to triage a growing list of building deficiencies while hundreds of schools fail to meet accessibility, environmental, and building code criteria."
Targeting Poor Kids For Funding Cuts
Of course, the experience of attending a dilapidated school is not universal. The SEIU study found that schools in the most impoverished Census tracts in the city were in the worst condition. "The higher the percentage of students who qualify for free or reduced price meals, the worse the condition of the facility."
In fact, discriminating against the schools poor children attend is a national condition. Yet another recent study, also reported by Education Week, found state governments have responded to recent budget recoveries by still being stingy with school funding, "with about half the states making cuts and 14 spending less in 2011 than in 2007."
But more alarming, "most states did not allot more money for high-poverty districts," with only 14 states funding high-poverty districts at higher rates than low-poverty districts. In other words, most states now give school districts that need money the most, the least, while schools with more well to do kids are left better off, in general.
Among the grossest offenders, the Morning Joe crew may have been interested to learn, was the state of New York and Governor Cuomo.
Lead author of the report cited above, Rutgers professor Bruce Baker looked at funding inequities in New York and found schools serving high percentages of impoverished children and needing the most help from the state are "screwed." And he contended, "Current leadership in New York State has done little to really help – and arguably much to hurt" the schools serving the state's poorest children.
Baker, in another post, found fault with Cuomo's leadership in particular, stating Cuomo "a) has deprived districts in some cases of over $6,000 per pupil in state aid they are supposed to get, and b) has imposed local tax limits that prohibit those districts from even partially closing the gap the state – the Governor – has created for them."
Baker concluded, "What the New York public should NOT tolerate, is a Governor and Legislature who refuse to provide sufficient resources to high need schools and then turn around and blame the schools and communities for their own failures. (all the while, protecting billions of dollars in separate aid programs that drive funds to wealthy districts)."
New York's state leadership, and Governor Cuomo, have done such a poor job of funding the public school that a lawsuit has been filed arguing "that by cutting K-12 funding over the last several years, state officials have failed to live up to their constitutional obligation to provide an adequate educational experience for students."
A recent New York Daily News op-ed accused Governor Cuomo of increasing funding for privately run charter schools – "even as he continues failing the large majority of New York students by underfunding traditional public schools."
The op-ed author, a community organizer, cited a shortfall of state funding of $7 billion that has left the City's class sizes "the highest in the state" and has resulted in cuts to "arts and music programs, Advanced Placement courses and services for the highest-need students."
With New York City schools "lacking even the most basic classroom needs," the author contended, "Cuomo is looking past hundreds of thousands of students and their families to dish out promises to a small number of parents whose kids attend charter schools."
Ratcheting up the anger at Cuomo, New York City-based public school advocacy group New York Communities for Change put up a petition drive on the Internet demanding the governor "stop ignoring New York's public school students."
Keeping The Narrative Unreal
Determined to keep the focus on the "emotional part of the story," as Morning Joe's Brzezinski put it, education reform enthusiasts played up the hysterics of charter schools as an ideological cause.
Peggy Noonan took to the pages of The Wall Street Journal to release a completely unhinged screed calling de Blasio a "small and politically vicious man" who "doesn't like charter schools" because "they are too successful to be tolerated" (with alarmingly high rates of suspensions?).
Michelle Rhee biographer Richard Whitmire found a platform at the New York Daily News to accuse de Blasio of having "blatant disregard for judging schools based on whether they actually succeed with students" (while retaining only about half of them?).
Moskowitiz herself closed her charter schools and hired buses to transport parents and students to a rally at the state capital steps in Albany featuring Governor Cuomo. (One wonders what outrage from the reform community would ensue should New York City public schools close their doors to stage a rally for fair and equitable school funding?)
Back to Morning Joe, only de Blasio seemed to show any concern that education policies shouldn't "take away a kid's science lab … take away their chance to go to a gym … make them eat lunch at 9 in the morning" in public schools that are getting continuously disrupted and undone by defunding and charter co-locations.
Right now, across America, there are millions of public school children underserved by increasingly dilapidated facilities, over-capacity classrooms, and fewer services for their special needs.
But when self-avowed education "reformers" rail and gnash their teeth over the fate of charter schools that exist only on paper, while millions of underserved school children in the public schools we have here and now are subjected to increasingly decaying, decrepit conditions, who is being the real zealot?
Jeff Bryant is Director of the Education Opportunity Network, a partnership effort of the Institute for America's Future and the Opportunity to Learn Campaign. Jeff owns a marketing and communications consultancy in Chapel Hill, N.C., and has written extensively about public education policy.