The Committee Chairman, Robert Jackson of Washington Heights, gaveled in at 1:00 p.m. DOE officials, led by Deputy Chancellor, Chris Cerf, were on the hot seat for the next three hours. I presented for the NY Charter Schools Association around 6:00 p.m. along with James Merriman, CEO of the NYC Charter School Center. By 9:30 p.m., it was done (and I was already on a northbound Amtrak train back to Albany).
My rundown on the players in this drama, though hardly exhaustive, follows:
Committee Chairman, Robert Jackson: Impressive all day as he maintained order, discouraged clapping and any other inappropriate behavior. He held the Department's feet to the fire, and gave everyone a chance to present. Jackson has never been a charter school enthusiast, but appears to keep an open mind and also seems to be acknowledging that they are more and more popular, especially in his upper Manhattan council district. He was clearly bothered by recent parent meetings involving the closure of P.S. 194 in Harlem and the division between district and charter parents that was on display at this meeting, events which were the backdrop to the hearing itself. Mr. Jackson also attended the ribbon-cutting on the Democracy Prep Charter School building last September in Harlem. That's progress.
Eva Moskowitz: A tiger. She is afraid of no one, and minced no words. She is a former City Councilwoman, who chaired the Education Committee, and is now head of the Success Charter Network that operates four charter schools in Harlem. In her presentation to the Committee, she extolled competition in public education, called for closing bad schools (which the Committee resisted) and put the tension and acrimony right where it belongs: on the "union-political-educational complex" that fights competition in public education, even if it means having bad schools doing harm to students indefinitely waiting for the "fix." This take-0ff on President Eisenhower's "military-industrial complex" was apt.
Councilwoman Helen Foster: This Bronx Councilwoman displayed a attitude toward the four "white" all-male DOE senior staff presenting to the Committee, and that she was at least hoping for a "token" to be part of the DOE presentation. Besides insulting fellow African-Americans, Ms. Foster no doubt forgot that at least two prior directors of the DOE's charter school office were accomplished African-American females who went onto better positions, rather than remain with the Department.
Elizabeth Green: The crack reporter for the Gotham Schools website, she reported that the United Federation of Teachers was feeding questions to Council members during the Q & A with the City DOE. Ms. Green has provided a revealing anecdote of the bigger picture: that the UFT calls the shots with most City elected officials. This is especially pathetic in that City Council members aren't stupid, and don't need anyone feeding them questions to ask. Her story also revealed more evidence that makes a mockery of UFT's public mask of supporting charters.
Leo Casey: UFT's Vice President (one of them, anyway) invoked the late Albert Shanker, former UFT and AFT president, a great patriot who was one of the original founders of the charter school idea, i.e., deregulation in exchange for accountability. This claim to charter fame is typically used by unions to imply some moral authority for the present-day UFT to rail against anything about charters it doesn't like. For example, Casey hates that fact that charter management organizations, which he mistakenly called charter "maintenance" organizations, are opening concentrations of schools in the south Bronx, Harlem and Central Brooklyn. To which I say, good for the students in those needy areas. It's odd and unfortunate that Casey and many others resent "outsiders" (which are a very small number, anyway) coming to the City to operate great schools, which better serves students, brings more private dollars to public education, and provides more jobs for City residents. The City and State of New York need more people like that, not fewer.
Nicholas Tishuk: The Director of Programs and Accountability at Renaissance Charter School, is a passionate believer in education, district or charter, and works at one of the City's very best schools, located in Jackson Heights. He was concise and focused to the Committee late yesterday, and spoke specifically to the state legislature's funding cut to his school of more than $500,000. He also opposed the City Council's resolution 1889 calling on the state legislature to make siting charter schools even more difficult. Renaissance is on the Gotham Schools blog today feeling betrayed by the unions over their role in the legislature's gutting of charter funding for next year. No doubt this view is widespread, if unspoken by others.
James Merriman: CEO of the NYC Charter School Center, reminded the Committee that the two systems in the public school district are not district versus charter, but public schools in upscale neighborhoods versus those in low-income neighborhoods. Such as been the case for decades, and its charter schools that are bringing high-quality public schooling to those poorer, less-equal areas of the City. Bullseye.
Councilwoman Maria del Carmen Arroyo: This Bronx Councilwoman is generally a supporter of charter schools, but made no secret of her dislike of Eva Moskowitz, saying that since she had no personal relationship with Eva, she could get tough with her. Tough is one thing, rudeness is another. Ms. Arroyo didn't bother masking her contempt. One example was when she demanded to know where Eva lived, since she didn't believe Eva's statement that she lived in Harlem. Chairman Jackson had to intervene to end this silly, disrespectful line of questioning.
Councilwoman Melinda Katz: Queens Councilwoman was fired up, going after the City DOE officials. She may have been one with the UFT scripted questions. There was a complete disconnect between her and Deputy Chancellor Cerf, as though they were talking past each other. When Katz was done with her five minutes of questioning, she vanished for the rest of the day. She said what she wanted to say, no matter the response of DOE. Too bad.
Councilman John Liu: This Queens Councilman tried his best imitation of Law & Order's Jack McCoy. The Councilman should practice a better line of questioning, which was flawed and embarrassing. For instance, he was none too impressed with the Quinnipiac poll showing more than 70 percent of City registered voters favored more charter schools, dismissing this by saying that "100 percent" of people want better schools. Wow! Ya scored one there, Councilman!
Eric Nadelstern: Chief Schools Officer for the City DOE, a 38-year veteran of the City schools, which means his pension probably would exceed his salary, if he chose to retire. Good thing he's not retired, as he was a cool, articulate defender of the Department's policies and motives throughout the afternoon, often diffusing uptight Council members' questioning. Mr. Nadelstern also was a founder of Middle College Charter School, a conversion charter that had to convert back to a district school after a new Chancellor, Harold Levy, took over for Rudy Crew in 2000, and welched on the district's prior commitments to the conversion charter by cutting its support.
Me (Peter Murphy): My focus was to remind the Committee that in 2007 the state Legislature looked at the issue of placing charters in district buildings, and mandated new notice and public hearing requirements and longer review and approval timelines for charters. If the City Council really wants to urge the legislature to change the charter school law, it should request charters get state facility funding to equalize resources with district schools. That way, more charters can afford independent space in the City and be less reliant on residing in district space; or, pay the district for leasing space, thereby generating more state funding to the City's coffers.
Students from Democracy Prep Charter School: They presented toward the end, in the evening after I was howeward bound. I heard they were fantastic, and they waited patiently all afternoon and evening in the service of charter schools. They got quite the civics lesson in the process. They attend a great school in huge demand. They are blessed and know it, and wanted the Committee to know it, too.
Charter Sitings Ain't Broken, Need Little Fixing
By the time I departed the hearing after six and one-half hours, it seems to me this fuss about charters is overblown. The City Department of Education arguably overreached when it proposed to close low-performing schools, including PS 194, and then put charter schools in their place. That makes sense, but it's caused a backlash and was imprudent to attempt simultaneously. With the UFT-ACLU lawsuit in the works, the City backed down. This incident is one of a handful of incidents where the placement of charters caused community noises that got the attention of elected officials. These, however, are the exceptions, not the rule.
Charter siting has gone extremely well and free of rancor, overall. It's not broken and doesn't need fixing beyond the City going the extra mile in making sure that every politician and their community board/council/education self-important person is given some more heads-up.
for The Chalkboard
Disclaimer: The Chalkboard is hosted by the New York Charter Schools Association (NYCSA) as a place where members, public education advocates and others can view and respond to informed commentary on timely public education and charter school issues. The views expressed here are not necessarily the official views of the NYCSA, its board, or of any of its individual charter school members. Anyone who claims otherwise is violating the spirit and purpose of this blog. To comment on anything you read here, or to offer tips, advice, comments, or complaints. please contact TheChalkboard.