Invasion Of The Charter Schools

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.

It is the commercialism, expansionism, and self-interest that gets Moskowitz's opponents riled. In 2010, Moskowitz's private not-for-profit took in $12 million in funding, $3 million of it from the state and the rest from private donations. It paid Moskowitz, the CEO, $336,402 in salary that year, according to Success's tax returns. Moskowitz has said that she wants eventually to open 40 schools across New York City; six more Success Academies are already planned for the fall of 2013, three in Manhattan and three in Brooklyn.

"We've had a good relationship with long-established charter schools like Children's Charter 1 and 2," says Wilson. "Our first real fight was with Success." Wilson says the CEC tried for months to get someone from Success to come to one of its meetings; they finally sent a communications director, which "left a bad taste in our mouth." This year, District 14 lost an A-rated high school, so they asked the city to replace it. Instead, "we were told we'd get Citizens of the World. We were like, you've got to be kidding me."

So the neighborhood groups got organized and lawyered up. Advocates for Justice, a local public-interest law firm, filed petitions last year to stop the opening of Success Academies both in Williamsburg and Cobble Hill, but they were dismissed due to statutes of limitations. The parents' groups argue that they didn't hear about the schools in time to register objections, due to the same meager public outreach they were complaining about in the first place.

Abby Johnson, 30, is principal of Success Academy Williamsburg, which focuses relentlessly on college graduation. “What’s wrong with offering more choice to kids?” she asks.
C.S. Muncy
Abby Johnson, 30, is principal of Success Academy Williamsburg, which focuses relentlessly on college graduation. “What’s wrong with offering more choice to kids?” she asks.

"I don't think people are against charter schools in general—our office has actually fought to keep some open," says Advocates for Justice attorney Arthur Schwartz. "It's that they should not be developed by people who don't care about the communities. In Williamsburg in particular, parents have worked really hard to have these integrated, well-balanced schools that a lot of people really want to go to, both yuppie parents and Hispanic parents. And plopped in the middle are these schools that change the balance. The concern is that they start pulling children out of schools that are actually functioning really well."

In January 2013, Advocates for Justice filed a new suit against SUNY's board of trustees, the organization that authorizes new charter schools in New York City, to stop Citizens of the World's entry into District 14. A long list of local officials—including Borough President Marty Markowitz; councilmembers Stephen Levin, Lisa Bloodgood, and Diana Reyna; State Senator Martin Dilan; Assemblyman Joe Lentol; and Congresswoman Nydia Velázquez—has spoken out in favor of both suits, each of which argues that the charter organizations failed to comply with state regulations requiring broad community outreach to secure feedback and support for the proposed schools. For example, Citizens of the World claimed in their applications that they held information sessions at mixed- and low-income housing units. As their sign-in sheets showed, however, the sessions were actually held in Schaefer Landing and Northside Piers, high-end glass towers on the waterfront whose city-mandated affordable units are located elsewhere. (Citizens of the World says it also did outreach at six local Head Starts.)

Whatever outreach they did do doesn't seem to be working: At the public hearing for Success Academy Williamsburg on January 17, 2012, there was one couple in favor of Success and approximately 400 parents against. At a second hearing, in February, there were three local parents in favor, plus dozens of Harlem supporters bused in for the occasion.

The irony of all this skirmishing is that both sides claim to have the same goal: a high-quality school with a balance of kids of different colors, incomes, and abilities, something rare in a country where schools are more segregated than they have been since 1968.

"My parents grew up in Jim Crow in the South before the civil rights movement," says Tesa Wilson. "They were sent to a school that was subpar in every way. I have a real problem when children in this day and age don't get equality of treatment."

The fear underlying the hot rhetoric from opponents of chains like Success and Citizens is that for these charter schools, "diversity" really means picking off white and high-income families, the organized and affluent ones with the social capital and the time to agitate to make public schools better—the ones who would otherwise stay in and strengthen local public schools.

Currently, New York City charter school applicants are far more likely to be African-American than the average public school student, a pattern that's true nationwide. According to a study, "Choice Without Equity," by the Civil Rights Project at UCLA, 70 percent of black charter school students nationally attend highly racially isolated schools that are 90–100 percent black.

Moskowitz, who attended the prestigious (and public) Stuyvesant High School in Manhattan before moving on to the University of Pennsylvania and Johns Hopkins, says she's trying to reverse that trend. Hence Success Academy's expansion into neighborhoods like the Upper West Side and Cobble Hill, where the chances of attracting diversity—i.e., white children—are better than in Harlem or the South Bronx. "It's Martin Luther King–ish and old-fashioned, I know," says Moskowitz, in a rather unlikely comparison. "But people going to school with people that are different than themselves is a very positive, healthy experience."

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