By Alex Distefano
By Scott Snowden
By Anna Merlan
By Steve Almond
By Jena Ardell
By Jon Campbell
By Alan Scherstuhl
By Tessa Stuart
Though Weingarten insisted that the ugliness of the hearing "had nothing to do with us," it was hardly a coincidence that in the union-orchestrated world of Quinn and Jackson's Council, charters were treated like a contagion as scary as the swine flu.
The hearing itself was scheduled in response to Klein's attempt to close two Harlem traditional schools in phases by 2012 in favor of charters. Only 124 children would have been affected by the phase-out next September, and all of them were granted priority admission to five district schools with better scores or Moskowitz's charter (where 95 percent of the third-graders are reading above grade level). But Weingarten financed a lawsuit against the closings, causing the chancellor to quickly reverse himself. The closing was cancelled before the scheduled hearing, but Jackson nevertheless went to a Harlem rally and urged backers of the district schools to back his own committee session by arriving an hour and a half early, before the expected champions of charters arrived.
"I'm not saying their kids don't deserve a space," said Jackson, as if the students who attend charters aren't part of the public school community. "But if you want to open up a charter school with your own rules, then build your own." The rally was partly orchestrated by ACORN, the community organization that received $1.2 million in payments from the union between 2005 and 2008. The celebrants followed Jackson's speech with the chant, "We are ACORN, the mighty, mighty ACORN," and Jackson urged, "I hope to see the red flag with the acorn in the middle at City Hall early." The group showed up in large numbers. In fact, one of the UFT lobbyists at the hearing, Francine Streich, is a former ACORN organizer who is married to its New York field director, John Kest.
ACORN, the union, and their Council allies were championing schools that had received D and F ratings from the department, with only 22 and 38 percent of the students reading at grade level. After the hearing, scores rose in one school to 54 percent. The union appeared to prefer a school that was rejected by 85 percent of the parents of this year's zoned kindergarten kids (who sent their kids elsewhere) over Moskowitz charters that 3,500 parents signed up for, even though there was only room for only 475 students. In fact, when parents zoned into one of the traditional schools were given a choice between sending their child to kindergarten there or Moskowitz's charter, five times as many chose Harlem Success.
The UFT and its allies tried to portray the Harlem Success move into the district schools as an expansionist space-grab by Moskowitz, but her still-new kindergarten-through-third-grade charters either add new grades each year or force current students to leave, just like the UFT's own elementary school charter. The DOE now plans to keep the two district schools open. One will share space with a Moskowitz academy.
The union also argues that charters reach only 3 percent of city students, and dismiss them as irrelevant to resolving the larger issues of the system. But if charters demonstrate how successful schools can be when unleashed from the contract, they become the rationale for dumping the contract that serves the remaining 97 percent of children.
The charter battle has become a public relations nightmare for the usually savvy Weingarten, whose wild swings at these predominantly successful schools have left only her bruised. In a recent debate on NY1 with Moskowitz, the backpedaling Weingarten said Moskowitz's schools were "doing great" and even praised her as a "really good City Council chair," the position Weingarten allies had forced her to surrender.
Weingarten even retreated on her own contract, saying it was "something that happened over 40 years," and that she was quite willing to tailor one to Moskowitz's schools and other charters. While this pullback may have been primarily triggered by the media and Bloomberg's reaction to the debacle of the Council hearing, charters are also complicating her relationship with the Obama administration.
Arne Duncan, Obama's new Secretary of Education, unwittingly took on Weingarten when he blasted the $50 million shorting of charters in the new state budget. "I have two children," he told the Post, recognizing traditional and charter schools as equal members of the public school family. "I'm not going to treat my son differently than I'm going to treat my daughter." Questioned about this disparity by the Voice, Weingarten bizarrely contended that charters were seeking "preferential treatment" in the budget, which she said made her "very sad," contending that "everybody got frozen" equally.
But in fact, traditional schools in the city get a third of their budget from the core state aid that was frozen, while charters get up to 90 percent, making the freeze disproportionate. It was also precisely what state union vice president Alan Lubin lobbied state legislators to do. Even Weingarten's union ally, the Council of Supervisors and Administrators, said the freeze, which also pegged charters alone to the spending levels of two years ago, caused a "funding inequity" that's "creating unnecessary divisions" between district and charter schools.
Obama has also called for "lifting the caps" imposed in states like New York on the number of charters that can be granted, caps that are another result of UFT legislative muscle. The union stalled charter legislation until 1998, when then-governor George Pataki finally got the Democratic assembly to approve a bill for 100 charters by packaging it with a pay increase for legislators and new benefits for teachers. New York was the 34th state to approve charters, and Weingarten was the reason. She then thwarted Bloomberg efforts to raise the cap to 200 until 2007, when then-Governor Eliot Spitzer won it as part of an agreement that institutionalized a new state school aid formula that helps the city.