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.

Invasion Of The Charter Schools

When the hipsters of Williamsburg, Greenpoint, and Bushwick are ready to add a little hipster to the family, we inevitably join the Brooklyn Baby Hui. The hui (it's a Maori term for "community," natch) has all the information anxious new parents need on making their own organic beet purees, which Mayan-style woven baby carrier and wool diaper covers to pick out at Caribou Baby boutique, and how to co-sleep on your vacation to Istanbul. I've lost a big chunk of my life to the hui since I had my baby in the winter of 2011.

But starting that spring, the list exploded into flame wars, deleted posts, trigger warnings, and bans on longtime members. The source of the friction was the entry of two charter elementary schools into the local District 14. First came Success Academy, a controversial and aggressively expanding chain founded and run by former City Councilmember Eva Moskowitz. Then, in April, Moskowitz's husband, Eric Grannis, an attorney who runs a separate charter-promoting organization called the Tapestry Project, e-mailed the hui to gin up support for Citizens of the World, the first planned East Coast outpost of a Los Angeles–based chain that arrives trailing its own cloud of protest and scandal.

Success Academy Williamsburg opened this past fall. Citizens of the World was approved in December to open in the fall of 2013—unless a lawsuit by local parents, who have taken their campaign from the hui to City Hall, manages to stop it. In other words, a full-on cage match is brewing near the shops and bars of Bedford Avenue. But it's more than just #firstworldproblems—it's a struggle over the urban soul and a microcosm of the national education debate. Each side claims to be concerned only with what's best for all children, implying that others are acting out of spite, greed, or bad faith. But the basic principle in play here is simple: Who should decide the educational needs of a neighborhood?

P.S. 84 Jose de Diego in Williamsburg. After years of work by local parents, the school is
“balanced,” but on a knife’s edge.
Photograph by Kelly Schott
P.S. 84 Jose de Diego in Williamsburg. After years of work by local parents, the school is “balanced,” but on a knife’s edge.
Success Academy CEO Eva Moskowitz pulls down more than $300K per year.
edworkforce.house.gov
Success Academy CEO Eva Moskowitz pulls down more than $300K per year.

"Choice is not a problem. Quality is not a problem. Parents in this district don't have complaints about our teachers. City planning says these new charters are a bad idea."

Brooke Parker answers the door of her rented Greenpoint townhouse in her sweatpants, two days after Christmas. Her kindergartner is racing around with a playdate. Parker has lived in the neighborhood for 20 years and has two daughters and a stepdaughter. She used to work in film; her husband, Erik Parker, is a well-regarded contemporary artist. She is funny, profane, intimidatingly well informed, and talks almost nonstop for more than an hour. The co-founder and representative of Williamsburg and Greenpoint Parents: Our Public Schools (WAGPOPS), the parent group spearheading the opposition to Success Academy and Citizens of the World in District 14, she has a bracing message for outsiders like Grannis and Moskowitz coming into the neighborhood: "What the fuck? Who the hell are you? How do you get to decide we need a new school?"

This isn't some Waiting for "Superman" scenario wherein charters swoop in to save a broken, overcrowded public school system. Quite the opposite. As a rule, Williamsburg's schools are neither overcrowded nor broken. With Hispanic and Italian families priced out and white families moving in, the number of children in District 14 is actually dropping (when you don't count the Satmar Hasidim living south of Broadway, who propagate enthusiastically but tend to shun the public schools). So there is plenty of room in the local schools, and parents aren't obliged to send their kids to the one they're zoned for—they essentially have their pick of the neighborhood. And plenty of the existing choices are quite good. "Several district schools in the neighborhood received an 'A' or a 'B' on the 2012 Progress Report," notes Devon Puglia, a Department of Education spokesperson.

The flip side of under-enrollment, however, is that it opens up a vacuum in the district school buildings. Charter elementary schools like those in Moskowitz's chain, Success, save money by "co-locating" in existing school buildings; they see the depopulated hallways in a place like Williamsburg as an empty niche waiting to be exploited. Already, the 28 elementary schools in the neighborhood include five charters. If Citizens of the World goes forward with the sixth, Williamsburg will rival only Harlem in its charter school concentration. There are 136 charter schools in the city today, enrolling 5.4 percent of the city's schoolchildren—more than twice the percentage nationwide. Fifteen more charters were authorized to open this fall across the city. The wave seems to be building.

The New York State Charter Schools Act of 1998 authorized the establishment of charter schools in New York State in an effort to promote choice and innovation: "Charter Schools offer an important opportunity to promote educational innovation and excellence," as schools.nyc.gov insists. "Charter schools bring new leaders, resources, and ideas into public education." Here, as elsewhere, charters have been seen either as a life rope from the skies or a Trojan horse designed to turn public education into a voucher-based commercial enterprise.

Charters operate independently and autonomously, free from union work rules that prescribe everything from the length of the school day and school year to pension packages. Teachers' unions have seen them as a threat from the jump and have been tirelessly opposed: Not only are these non-union shops a threat to teachers' collective bargaining power, but charters also compete with district schools for tax money and other resources.

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