What a small and politically vicious man New York’s new mayor is. Bill de Blasio doesn’t like charter schools. They are too successful to be tolerated. Last week he announced he will drop the ax on three planned Success Academy schools. (You know Success Academy: It was chronicled in the film “Waiting for Superman.” It’s one of the charter schools the disadvantaged kids are desperate to get into.) Mr. de Blasio has also cut and redirected the entire allotment for charter facility funding from the city’s capital budget. An official associated with a small, independent charter school in the South Bronx told me the decision will siphon money from his school’s operations. He summed up his feelings with two words: “It’s dispiriting.”
Some 70,000 of the city’s one million students, most black or Hispanic, attend charter schools, mostly in poorer neighborhoods. Charter schools are privately run but largely publicly financed. Their teachers are not unionized. Their students usually outscore their counterparts at conventional public schools on state tests. Success Academy does particularly well. Last year 82% of its students passed citywide math exams. Citywide the figure was 30%.
These are schools that work. They are something to be proud of and encourage.
Mr. de Blasio’s move has caused considerable personal anxiety and widespread public anger. The Daily News on Thursday called the nearly 200 Success Academy students who now have no place to go the mayor’s “educational orphans.” A reporter spoke to distraught families. “I wanted the best for my daughter,” said Rakim Smith, 40, a cable technician from Harlem whose daughter Dymond is a sixth-grader at Success Academy Harlem Central Middle School. “Now they’re trying to take it away.” “I don’t know where else I can send my son so that he can have the same level education,” said Fatoumata Kebe of the Bronx, whose 11-year-old son, Ousmane, goes to Harlem Central.
On Thursday Mr. de Blasio went on a sympathetic radio station and couldn’t have been clearer about what is driving his actions. Charter schools may help the poor and those just starting out in America, they may give options to kids who’ve floundered elsewhere, but a lot of them are supported by rich people. There is a “strong private-sector element” in their funding, he said. The mayor agreed with host Ebro Darden that “a lot” of charter schools are funded by big business: “Oh yeah, a lot of them are funded by very wealthy Wall Street folks and others.” When Mr. Darden and co-host Peter Rosenberg suggested that a “campaign” to portray the mayor as anti-charter-school was also funded by big business, Mr. de Blasio, as the New York Post noted, didn’t disagree. “I think you’re providing a keen political analysis there.”
Clever people usually try to hide their animus. This one doesn’t care if you know how he feels about that “element.”
It is true that wealthy and public-spirited New Yorkers, out of loyalty to the city and its future generations, give a lot of money, care and time—the last, time, doesn’t get noted enough—to create and help run many of the city’s charter schools. They should be thanked for this, every day. Again, they do it because they care about children who would otherwise be locked into a public-school system that doesn’t work.
But the people who run the public-school system that doesn’t work—the one where you can’t fire teachers who sexually prey on students and principals who don’t even show up for work, which is to say the public schools run by the city’s huge and powerful teachers union—don’t like the charter schools. And they are the mayor’s supporters, a significant part of his base.
The very existence of charter schools is an implicit rebuke to the public schools. It means they are not succeeding, and something new must be tried. That something new won’t be perfect—no charter school is, and some are more imperfect than others—but people still line up to get into them. And there’s something to the wisdom of crowds. When a school exists for the students, you can tell. When it exists for the unions, you can tell that too.
Gov. Andrew Cuomo, who is not politically inept, made clear this week that he will stand with the charter schools. Mr. de Blasio had come to Albany Tuesday on what is called lobbying day. He brought more than 1,000 people and held a rally to press state lawmakers to increase city income taxes to pay for prekindergarten education. Mr. Cuomo, who had already told Mr. de Blasio that he backs pre-K but not a tax hike, decided to hold his own rally. His crowd, full of charter school students, teachers and families, was much bigger than de Blasio’s. Mr. Cuomo had fiery words. “They say it’s cold out here, but I don’t feel cold, I feel hot. I feel fired up,” he said. “You are not alone. . . . We will save charter schools.”
This was centrist and politically clever, but that doesn’t matter. What matters is that Mr. Cuomo showed not all Democrats are on the same page on education reform, and some are passionately for it.
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We close with a little red meat because there’s something in this story—frightened children, cold political operators—that gets our blood up.
Nice liberals who back school reform are saying some very strange things about what Mr. de Blasio is doing. They’re being awfully understanding. They’re saying you have to appreciate that compared with his political base, the mayor is really staking out a middle ground. He is not going as far as the progressive left wants him to. They want to block all charters. They’re disappointed! The teachers union doesn’t want any charter expansion. And they’re his base!
It is not the job of nice liberals to make excuses for pols who take a good thing from kids just to satisfy a political agenda. It is not the job of nice liberals to forgive a politician acting in a brutish way, throwing poor children from hard circumstances out of good schools.
It’s not the job of liberals to explain that away. It’s their job to oppose it, because this move against charter schools is an opening feint, a showing of mood, and a sign of things to come
The nice liberals of New York are sounding on this very much like frightened French aristocrats in 1792: “You have to understand, Marat is pretty ideological and we’re lucky he’s only cutting off our ears and nose and not our heads.” No, he came for their heads later.
You say,: “He’s not Marat, he’s just a slob.” That’s true. But even slobs need to be opposed now and then.
In this move more than any so far, Mr. de Blasio shows signs he is what his critics warned he would be—a destructive force in the city of New York. When a man says he will raise taxes to achieve a program like pre-K education, and is quickly informed that that program can be achieved without raising taxes, and his answer is that he wants to raise taxes anyway, that man is an ideologue.
And ideologues will sacrifice anything to their ideology. Even children.