2010-01-29 / Columnists

The Rockaway Beat

Shredding the Myth That Charter Schools Are A Sure Cure For Poor Education
Commentary By Howard Schwach

While the media excoriates our state legislators for not jumping on board Arne Duncan’s vision of education in America, I for one am very glad they did not cave in to the bribe that Duncan was offering school districts, including those in major cities, to move to a federal system of education, where the executive branch would take control of everything from curriculum to testing to how the schools function.

I look at the “Race to the Top” money as akin to the money that Mayor Michael Bloomberg offered to James Sanders Jr. in the form of a new technical school for Rockaway if he would vote to extend term limits.

Sanders caved in and gave the mayor what he wanted – a third term. Have you seen the new technical school? Have you heard about plans for the new Rockaway school?

The last thing we need is to allow the feds to tell us how to education our children.

Think about it. Allowing the feds to control our schools is the beginning of the proverbial slippery slope that could one day lead us to teaching “intelligent design” rather than real science should some neoconservative loony one day become Secretary of Education.

Duncan’s plan, however, plays right into the hands of Mayor Michael Bloomberg, who wants to break the UFT by setting up as many non-union charter schools as possible.

Speaking last week of the failure of the legislature to pass an unlimited charter school bill, Bloomberg said, “There are tens of thousands of New York City school children on charter school lists and they deserve better than this.”

Better than what, Mr. Mayor. By your agency’s own accounting, more than 90 percent of the city’s schools earned either an A or a B rating this year.

If your public schools are so great, then why are children being harmed by remaining in those A and B schools?

That’s called “hoisted on your own petard.”

And, in fact, many charter schools are not all that great.

The Peninsula Preparatory Academy (PPA), Rockaway’s only charter school, got one of the few F ratings on the DOE’s report card in 2008. It worked its way up to a C last year, but it is still considered by many school people to be one of the worst charter school in the city.

It’s report card grade mirrored that of PS 225, a school that was closed down and reorganized because of “persistent failure.”

State Senator Malcolm Smith “owns” the PPA.

He was the school’s founder and took part in all of its many incarnations from MS 53 to Foam Place to the trailers at Arverne By The Sea.

He may no longer have a financial interest in the school, but he most certainly has an emotional interest as its founder and protector.

It is clearly Smith’s school. So, it comes as no surprise to anybody that it will never close its doors no matter how bad it is educationally.

There are those who argue that Smith can do anything he wants for the school – even give it $100,000 of your money to buy computers – as long as he has no financial interest in the school.

I don’t believe that is true.

What Smith did may not be illegal, but it smacks of the immorality and double-dealing that we have come to expect from our state legislators.

Smith has, in the past, taken campaign contributions from Victory Schools, the group that gets more than $350,000 a year of your money to administer the school that Smith founded (and funded).

Smith then pushes the Senate to more than double the number of allowable charter schools in the state.

I wonder if I am the only one who sees something unsavory in all this, or is it simply politics as usual.

There is big money to be made in education, particularly in the charter school game.

Eva Moskowitz was once the City Council’s education committee chair. Now, she is the CEO of the Success Charter Network, with four schools in Harlem (all in public school buildings). She earns nearly $350,000 a year. Deborah Kenny, the CEO of Village Academies Network (with two schools in Harlem) earns more than $400,000 a year. You get the picture. In addition, each of the for-profit organizations has a mass of vice presidents and directors, each earning more than $150,000 a year.

Where does that money come from? Largely, from your taxes.

Now the mayor and his minions keep telling us that charter schools do a great job, much better than the public schools that are unionized.

Take a look, however, at the facts.

A Stanford University study recently took a look at the education provided by charter schools in relation to public schools.

The study found that only seventeen percent of the charter schools had better results than the corresponding public schools. In addition, 83 percent of the charter schools had similar or worse results.

Forty-nine percent of the charter schools produced no significant gains in math while 71 percent showed no significant gains in reading.

Diane Ravitch, a nationally-know educational expert, wrote that the Stanford results “shredded the myth that charter schools are a sure cure for poor education.”

Charter schools in New York City do better than those averages for several reasons, Ravitch says.

Seventy of the city’s 99 charter schools have been provided with much-needed public school spaces, sometimes forcing exemplary public school programs aside to make room for the charter.

Communities, particularly in Manhattan and northern Queens have been fighting this incursion for years.

I believe that this is what is happening with Beach Channel High School, which many in the know say is being closed to make way for a PPA high school unit.

We have been assured even by some of Smith’s colleagues in the State Legislature that his aim is to get space at Beach Channel for another charter school.

In addition, Ravitch says, few of the city’s most at-risk kids get into charter schools, largely because their parents do not know how to play the lottery game.

Of the public school’s 50,000 homeless students, for example, only 100 attend charter schools.

Special education students admitted to charters include only those with the mildest handicaps because the charters are not mandated to have the services that severely handicapped students need.

In addition, those students who have problems in the charters are often counseled to return to the more traditional public schools from whence they came.

Less than four percent of the students in charters are English Language Learners, less than 10 percent get special education services.

Those are the realities. Think about that the next time the Mayor tells you that kids are being harmed by remaining in public schools.

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