A week after he rammed through legislation that would strip an estimated 2.7 million New Yorkers of health care, House Speaker Paul Ryan was greeted with jeers and protests in Harlem yesterday when he visited a branch of the controversial Success Academy Charter Schools.
Protesters, who had been waiting for Ryan’s arrival for more than five hours by the time his motorcade pulled onto 118th Street at 2 p.m. yesterday, chanted, “Shame, shame shame!” as he entered the building, and “Ryan! Come out! We’ve got some things to talk about!” during his brief visit.
More than half of the protesters appeared to be focusing on Ryan’s efforts to roll back the Affordable Care Act. “After what he’s done with health care, I don’t understand why he would be invited here,” said Liliete Lopez, a blind Bronx 40-year-old who works with the Center for the Independence of the Disabled. “He’s all about putting people with disabilities in institutions. He’s not about equality.”
But many demonstrators were also taking the opportunity to protest Success Academy, the charter school juggernaut, and its founder, Eva Moskowitz. Success Academy has made aggressive plays for expansion in New York City, often at the expense of existing public schools. The location at 118th Street was opened a decade ago in a building that already housed multiple public schools. Mindy Rosier, a teacher at a special needs school that shares the building with Success Academy, told the Voice that over the years, the Moskowitz school has expanded into space that the public school students badly need.
The fact that Ryan was visiting the controversial charter school but not the public schools in the same building troubled some protesters. “There’s more than one school in this building, that’s the iniquity in it,” said Mary Riley, a 74-year-old from Harlem, whose children graduated from public schools. “We can’t stand for this divided site. There’s no reason for it. Public officials need to support public education.” (When Ryan finally arrived, he did make a brief visit to a public school classroom on the site before touring Success Academy.)
Public Advocate Tish James joined the protest out of solidarity with New Yorkers who could lose their health care under a Ryan plan, she said. “I doubt seriously that Paul Ryan cares about the children in this school,” she told the Voice. “He cares nothing about those black and brown children whose families might lose their health care. He could care less about the children whose parents might be torn apart by immigration enforcement.”
James avoided criticizing Moskowitz or Success Academy, however. “I’ve got no problem with the school,” she said, “because you can’t argue with the results of Success Academy.”
Moskowitz touts Success Academy’s high test scores, but reports suggest those results may be achieved in part by a policy of pushing out students who require more attention. Last year, the charter school company was sued by parents alleging that Success Academy downplayed, ignored, and failed to accommodate students with special needs. Video leaked last year showed a first-grade teacher taking the school’s high-stakes and discipline-heavy approach to an emotionally abusive extreme, though the school said the conduct shown in the video was not representative of Success Academy.
Moskowitz has a contentious relationship with Mayor Bill de Blasio, but she has more powerful friends. She turned down an offer to become President Trump’s secretary of education and has been a vocal supporter of Betsy DeVos, the charter school champion who ultimately took that position. Shortly after the election, Moskowitz hosted Ivanka Trump at the same Success Academy location that Ryan visited, and she broke with other educators in stressing her willingness to work with President Trump.
Moskowitz and the Trump administration have more than ideology in common — they share a benefactor. Robert Mercer, the reclusive hedge-fund billionaire who guided and bankrolled the Trump campaign, also gave more than a million dollars to Success Academy during 2014 and 2015.
“The reason Paul Ryan is here is because he was invited by Eva Moskowitz,” said Zakiah Ansari, advocacy director for the Alliance for Quality Education of New York. “In her school, she claims to educate black and brown kids and yet continues to cause trauma to those very children by inviting people like Ivanka Trump and Paul Ryan. She praises Betsy DeVos. So the question becomes, why? Is it about using black and brown children as political pawns for her political agenda to privatize our schools? Is it her agenda to use our black and brown babies to get money for her expansion? I have to say yes.”
In a statement after Ryan’s visit, Moskowitz said that the Speaker “took the opportunity to see firsthand what is working.” Ryan also issued a statement praising Success Academy. “The quality of teacher training and preparedness was extraordinary,” he said. “They have a lot to be proud of, and these remarkable kids are getting a great education. That’s what matters — giving every kid a fair shot at the American Dream.”