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Charter School Reform in New York: Profiting From Poverty

As public schools open their doors and begin the “drill and kill” test-prep instruction required to satiate the state’s voracious appetite for measurable outcomes, the New York City school system as a whole continues to hobble on to the next precipice of educational improvement. Bullied by political winds, new Schools Chancellor Harold O. Levy must demonstrate that the system can change for the better under his watch.

To do this Levy is taking an anticipated but controversial step: namely, he is opening doors for private sector companies known as Educational Management Organizations (EMOs) to potentially transform some of the city’s worst performing public schools into charter schools. Essentially, charters are public schools that are granted more autonomy from district regulations and the supervision of the Board of Education, while at the same time expected to provide greater “accountability” to both the particular communities they serve as well as the state. This autonomy often translates into principals getting hiring and firing power in exchange for the promise of higher levels of student achievement, a relationship not necessarily correlated. Ideally, charter schools are a community-based movement to spur urban educational reform, but the rapacity of for-profit companies looking to feed off the public school system throws the whole endeavor into question.

The “failing” schools that Levy wants to transform are known as Schools Under Registration Review (SURR), and are part of a special district, grouped together like recalcitrant misfits. SURR schools are complicated and desperate—many are located in areas of highly concentrated poverty, and suffer from the lack of well-trained or certified staff, empty libraries, and rapid principal turnover. Despite systemic inequalities, this inability to provide an education means that the children these schools serve are continuously at risk of being even more marginalized in the future. Yet the tendency is to let these schools stay open, continuing to provide a steady diet of nothing. This is where charter schools become attractive to some—if they fail to demonstrate academic success within the five years of their charter contract with the state, they will be closed.

A History of Educational Improvement

Improving schools that are chronically underperforming is not a new quandary for the public system. In fact, the city has a long history of educational reform efforts, some of which have been successful when properly supported. The most well known to date has been the small schools movement, which attempts to make schools intimate places of learning rather than nightmarish warehouses. In light of that, Levy’s push for charter schools, which can be small by design, might make some sense. But his proposal also appeals to those who fervently believe that the public sector, somehow synonymous with a Cold War Soviet-style bureaucracy, cannot change itself and must take lessons in competition and efficiency from the market. Only the know-how of bullish business can correct the faulty production of damaged goods, or so the thinking goes.

A public school that consistently fails is subject to punitive measures. It can be taken over by the state and “reconstituted” as a new, improved school with a clean roster of administrative staff and faculty. Although the reconstitution is considered to be an extreme measure by the district and state, this is not unlike what Levy has proposed for test-bed SURR schools. Significantly, the twist in all of this is that his proposal virtually requires that applicants for managing SURR-to-charter schools be profit-seeking EMOs. This moves against what has been at the heart of school battles in New York since the dramatic days of the 1968 teacher strike: community control of local public schools.

The Issue of Community Control

Community control advocates often argue it to be an integral part of improving education, particularly for students of color. Known for its small schools, innovative curriculum, and high performing students, District 2 has sustained this movement through the creation of small magnet schools. By offering high quality public education, magnet schools were originally intended to encourage voluntary racial integration by drawing in a range of urban students, thereby hindering white flight from the cities. New York also boasts a collection of New Vision schools. These tend to be small, more alternative in their approach to curriculum, and have, with varying success, offered reform models. Given these existing educational improvement efforts, why establish charters now? In other words, why not reconstitute SURRs as magnets and commit to community-developed efforts that target concentrated poverty?

Charter schools appeal to strange bedfellows and, as a result, are gaining popular, political, and federal support. On one level, they appear to be a community-based movement offering parents and teachers local control and input into their children’s education. Theoretically, they will be free of burdensome regulation and distant, administrative malaise. At the same time, they are also enticing to those who see them as offering a kick in the ass to that same behemoth public system—a form of precocious competition to spur privatization. Detractors worry that charters are the first step in validating a market-driven model for all public education, of which vouchers, or public money for private schools, are one controversial example.

At-Risk Student and Accountability

Authorized by the Board of Regents, charter schools are publicly funded entities. As such, they are obligated to be tuition-free, admit students by lottery, provide sage facilities, and follow all federal civil rights requirements, including special education services. There is a loophole here, however. Charter schools are only obligated to offer special education services to a degree, and this depends on their scope and size. If they cannot provide assistance, students are redirected back to the district.

This is tricky ground. In New York, the law that authorizes charters mandates that schools pay special attention to “at risk” student populations, meaning those with greater cognitive, behavioral, physical, and economic needs. Curricular innovation and school choice are also features of the law, but it is the “at risk” factor that makes Levy’s decision to let EMOs run the city’s worst performing schools so problematic. EMOs have yet to prove they can serve special needs students. Rather, they are known for both mediocre test scores and high levels of faculty dissatisfaction, and for “pushing out” hard to teach students through excessive school-ordered suspensions. In 1995, for example, Kylee Jones was suspended from the Edison-run Boston Renaissance Charter School no less than 20 times in one year for disrupting class. Jones, whose parents were undergoing a separation, was five years old. Unable to deal with disturbance, Edison encouraged staff to apply unusual disciplinary measures, including the use of “therapeutic restraints.” As a result, Edison was investigated by the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights. It seems that charter schools run by for-profit companies cannot prioritize the educational needs of at risk children and still gross returns from the same severe conditions faced by entrenched district public schools.

Along with the train wreck intersection of special education and privatization, another dilemma exists: accountability. It is a popular phrase, but there are few agreed upon criteria to assess schools except standardized exams, making it likely that corporate-managed charters will be evaluated according to their ability to control finances rather than their educational records. As schools are mandated into conversion and charters are meted out as punishment for failure, the question of closure returns. If Levy decrees charters, then there is little political incentive to revoke, even if schools cannot raises test scores in five ears. If SURR-to-charters are shut down, will poor communities then be left without a local school to serve their children? Is reconstitution the better model?


Currently, New York has at least 18 charter schools in operation, enrolling over 2000 children. Eleven of these are managed by for-profit companies that use a “Back to Basics” curriculum, despite research disputing whether such programs really provide “at-risk” students with an adequate education. While few question the need for mastering basic skills, the implicit expectation here is that students in failing schools are not suited for academic rigor. Why would companies that see dollars accruing from scaling back services and the creation of a uniform curriculum invest in the needs of “at risk” students who, in effect, blow the profit line?

To be eligible to apply for chartering, potential EMOs must demonstrate prior “success” with inner-city student populations, although there are no explicit guidelines for that. As well, the application requires that organizations bidding for the charter school contract have had experience operating a school with an annual budget of $1.5 million or more and a population of over 450 students. As a result, small non-profit and educational entities are knocked out of the running. So much for community control. Only those with enough venture capital to experiment can afford to apply.

Enter Edison, the number one for-profit public school management company nationwide. Although it does not have a stellar track record, and both Baltimore and Hartford have chosen not to renew contracts due to disputes over money and the quality of education services, Edison is the leading SURR-to-charter candidate in New York. What is the motivation for the private sector to get in on such a volatile social enterprise? In short, it is the chance to be first in what could potentially be a very lucrative game as EMOs expect profit will be made from scale up and franchise.

On the National Level

Charter schools are dotted across a continuum of political agendas, but a dominant conservative atmosphere means that even if charters and vouchers have hints of populism (choice for those who have none), the infrastructure in which they are implemented may make a progressive charter movement untenable. Unfortunately, the notion that the private sector can “do it better” has gripped the nation’s public schools systems. In theory, charter schools can offer independence and innovation to better meet the needs of all students. But with the current emphasis on reforming schools based on business models, the promise of charter schools will probably not be realized, particularly if they are handed to large companies that have little or no track record in innovative and effective education practice. Opening the bidding process nationwide to win the managing contract for the SURR schools raises serious questions about the chance for community control of public schools.

At present, community control stands to be co-opted by those motivated by profit instead of learning, by companies not interested in changing the opportunities of disenfranchised communities. At the most basic level, parents must have accurate information regarding what EMOs actually accomplish, especially in contrast to successful charter schools being run by nonprofit community-based organizations in other states. Parents need to know about other alternatives because not all public schools fail. Most importantly, progressive educators cannot sit idle while a market-driven conservative agenda undermines support for public schools via the privatization route of charter schools, threatening the educational opportunities for the kids who need them most.



Meghan McDermott

MEGHAN MCDERMOTT is a Local Editor and contributing writer for the Brooklyn Rail.

Julie Thompson

Julie Thompson is a contributing writer for the Brooklyn Rail.


The Brooklyn Rail

OCT-NOV 2000

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