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Former City Councilmember Eva Moskowitz, with Bloomberg's union-busting blessing, is pushing her Success Academy edu-franchise into Brooklyn. The natives aren't buying.
What about "innovation and excellence"? Well, your mileage may vary. According to a 2009 study published by Stanford, only 17 percent of charter schools nationally outperformed nearby public schools, and 46 percent did about the same. In New York State, charters tend to do much better, with more than half beating their district equivalents in math.
But the issue at stake in Williamsburg is not the virtues or the evils of charter schools. This is about the basic American democratic principle of local control, the notion that families should have meaningful input in determining their own educational needs and that a few entrepreneurial carpetbaggers pulling down six-figure salaries—with the backing of an unabashedly free-marketeering, union-hating mayor—shouldn't be allowed to trample parents' rights in order to advance their own philosophies and agendas.
Whether they are not-for-profit or for-profit, and they can be either, charter chains are businesslike—and they compete aggressively for students. Success Academy spent a reported $900,000 on marketing last year, including $250,000 to the lobbying, PR, and crisis-management firm SKD Knickerbocker. The chain also bought space for a set of large ads in the Bedford Avenue L subway stop.
Both Success and Citizens of the World are zeroing in on Baby Hui habitués like Miwako Dai, a lawyer who has lived in Williamsburg since 2006. "After our first child was born, I started worrying that there were no good public school options in this neighborhood," she says. "We looked at schools and properties in Williamsburg and other parts of Brooklyn with the hope of relocating to a good public school zone but didn't find anything that was convincing enough to make us move." She says she was "skeptical" of Success at first, but "my son is challenged at Success and comes home with a curious mind every day."
According to Parker, the charters are picking off newer residents in the neighborhood who also happen to be new parents. "This all started on the Brooklyn Baby Hui, which, as my stepdaughter calls it, is 'white people's problems,'" says Parker. "What stroller [to buy], blah, blah, blah. Very few people on the hui have kids who are already in school. And that's how the charter schools do their marketing. They go right to people who don't have kids in schools, and they feed directly into any fears you may have about urban education, and then say they have the solution for them."
Many parents have the same shimmering vision of the perfect public school: one that's progressive, with art and gardens and recess, but also with strong academics and good test scores without getting too obsessive over test prep. It's cozy and friendly with a strong community but not too many fundraisers or committee meetings. It's not crazy competitive to get into; it's integrated and diverse, but not depressing or scary or over-strict.
In short, it sounds a lot like P.S. 84 Jose de Diego, on Grand Street and Berry.
P.S. 84's success is the product of years of hard work. In the mid 2000s, police officers were regularly attending PTA meetings there to try to keep peace between the Hispanic parents in the upper grades and white parents putting their kids into the kindergarten. The school went through several principals before finding peace in 2009 with the hiring of Sereida Rodriguez-Guerra, who grew up in the neighborhood and has two children at the school. P.S. 84 hosts fundraisers by the likes of TV on the Radio's Tunde Adebimpe and bake sales to benefit Occupy Sandy. In the past two years, a giant, colorful mural has appeared on the building with the help of local community organization El Puente.
"P.S. 84 is a progressive, balanced-literacy, project-based school," says Stephanie Anderson, whose daughter is in the dual-language second grade. "We're building a 1,500-square-foot rooftop greenhouse; we've got a working hydroponic classroom, relationships with local community organizations, performance arts, dance, music." Anderson got involved in WAGPOPS, she says, because she loves her school so much. Parker and Anderson and their fellow parents argue that P.S. 84 and similar neighborhood public schools are achieving a delicate balance on the knife's edge of gentrification—a balance that is threatened by the entry of outside charters.
"Nothing that they offer is unique or needed," says Anderson. "Our neighborhood schools are being overrun in a way that defies any logic."
For Mayor Bloomberg, as well as his former schools chancellor, Joel Klein (now an executive at Rupert Murdoch's News Corp., where he oversees Amplify, the company's "education unit"), and his current one, Dennis Walcott, the logic is business logic. The three men are some of the most prominent boosters of charter schools nationwide, and when they talk about education, they speak the language of choice, investment, and free markets. "We're committed to developing a portfolio of schools for families to choose from," says Puglia, the Department of Education spokesperson. "While there are excess seats available [in District 14], communities have asked for more parent choice and additional high-quality options."
Who exactly the "community" is and what they've asked for is just the question at stake in District 14. "There are schools in the area with real needs," says Tesa Wilson, a mother and longtime neighborhood resident who has served eight years on the local parents' school advisory board, known as the Community Education Council, or CEC. When charter schools co-locate, they compete with the "host" school, which may well have lost resources as it lost head count. The CEC in District 14, for example, has asked for the past seven years to have enrichment programs reinstated, libraries reopened, and new high-quality middle and high schools established to relieve the pressure on the district magnet schools, says Wilson. Instead, they got new kindergarten classes run, outfitted, and freshly equipped by Success Academy.