Campbell Brown: NYC Charter Schools — Surging Parent Demand vs. Reluctant City Leaders

By Campbell Brown | August 10, 2016

Photo: Getty Images
A classic scene finds Buster Keaton trying to walk into a strong wind. He leans into it with all his force — like a ski jumper over his skis — before being blown back spectacularly into a heap.

The image captures what resistance to New York City charter schools looks like today. Demand is unceasing: In 2008, the city was home to 78 charters educating 24,000 students. In 2016, more than 200 charters enroll almost 100,000 New York City children. According to the New York Charter Center, there were no available seats for nearly 43,000 of 65,000 applicants last year, swelling waiting lists across the city.

New polling results from Quinnipiac reflect the growth — and suggest that it represents a changing paradigm in the way New Yorkers think about educating their children. Slightly more than half of city voters, 51 percent, said they would prefer that their children attended charter rather than district schools. Only 37 percent approved of how Mayor Bill de Blasio — who has barely muffled his hostility to charters — is handling the schools.

In the Bronx, which has suffered most from struggling schools for which the mayor prefers to lower expectations rather than repair, two-thirds of voters said they preferred charters.

De Blasio and his confederates at the United Federation of Teachers continue to launch political broadsides, but this is an empty distraction. Affinity for the schools among everyday New Yorkers isn’t ideological or an endorsement of a school governance model — all the parents I talk to make their choice for a simpler reason: In this city, students learn considerably more if they attend charters.

A district-charter achievement gap has opened, the latest evidence arriving in Monday’s release of 2016 state test results.

To be sure, comparisons with past years are inexact because of changes to the test and test-taking rules.

But if, as Eva Moskowitz and others have argued, similar ELA gains in New York City (7.6 points) and statewide (6.6 points) probably reflect the benefit of new changes, the much larger charter growth (13.7 points) is a powerful indication of improvement.

The gap is sharper, even stunning, when comparing perennially high-performing charter networks to traditional schools. About 82 percent of students in the Success Academy network were proficient in ELA and 94 percent in math. The state’s five highest-performing schools in math were all in the Success network, as were two of the five highest-performing in ELA. (Full Disclosure: I am on the board of Success Academy)

Extraordinary results, and vast parent demand for the learning experiences that make the numbers attest to, are here to stay. Seen not so long ago as a curious outlier or, inexplicably, as a get-rich-quick scheme, charters are now part of the genetic code of New York City public education.

Which raises a question: If so many people want them and many are among the state’s best performers, why in the world does the mayor oppose them? (He denied this when pressed recently, lecturing reporters about stereotyping him without ever actually identifying anything favorable about charters.)

The question has enormous consequences. If the city’s education establishment, led by de Blasio and co-charter-buster Michael Mulgrew, the teachers union president, were serious, they would do whatever was necessary to build great schools for disadvantaged children.

That would entail aligning contractual work and seniority rules with the needs of students, and reducing central oversight so that it didn’t unduly limit the flexibility real life demands or impede new ideas with little gain in accountability.

There’s no reason to believe that Mayor de Blasio has the ambition or will or capacity to do this. And there’s a long history showing that Mulgrew will fight any potential alteration of union control.

Instead, our leaders go low, as Michelle Obama would say, demonizing charters on charges that always prove to be false or misleading and lobbying to prevent more seats from becoming available to a city that wants them, hurting students whose lives they have the power to change.

In the long run their effort will fail. The demand and the need are too great. Check your head, Mr. Mayor. I bet you know which way the wind blows.

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