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Roundtable: Do Charter Schools Worsen Inequality of Two-Tiered Education System, or Help Address It?

StoryFebruary 11, 2010
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We host a roundtable discussion on charter schools and the controversial closing of ninetten New York City public schools with New York State Senator Bill Perkins, one of the most vocal state lawmakers against lifting the cap on charter schools in New York; Seth Andrew, superintendent and founder of the Democracy Prep charter school in Harlem; Daniel Clark, Sr., the field director of advocacy group Parent Power Now!; and Leonie Haimson, executive director of Class Size Matters. [includes rush transcript]

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: We turn now to four guests here in New York for a discussion about charter schools and the controversial closing of nineteen New York City public schools.

Bill Perkins is on the phone with us. He’s a New York state senator representing Harlem. He’s been one of the most vocal state lawmakers against lifting the cap on charter schools in New York.

We’re also joined by Seth Andrew, a superintendent and founder of the Democracy Prep charter school in Harlem.

Daniel Clark, Sr. is the field director of Parent Power Now!, an advocacy group for public school parents. His son is an eight grader at the Democracy Prep charter school in Harlem.

Leonie Haimson is with us, as well. She is executive director of Class Size Matters. She also edits the blog

So, why don’t we begin with Bill Perkins, New York state senator from Harlem? What are your concerns?


Well, I think charter schools are a violation of civil rights, in the sense that they are only being put in communities of color, only in those communities that are above the so-called 96-to-60 dividing line. They are schools in which they have not been accountable in terms of what success they are achieving. They have not been accountable in terms of making sure that all the students are being given in our public school system the same types of services. They are over-saturating communities like Harlem. They are closing down schools in communities like Harlem, placing them only with charter schools, forcing, you know, children out of these schools, not providing even the kids in the public schools with the same type of services that they’re providing charters, especially when those charters are co-located with public schools.

You know, I founded the first charter school in New York City, the Sisulu Charter School, obviously trying to see if this experiment would have some opportunities that all of our children could benefit from. And it turned out quite the opposite.

And so, there is a serious movement on the part of the Mayor and the powers that be in the city to force charter schools into communities, even the — of color. Even the Mayor has said that charter schools are the private schools for communities of color. This, in my mind, is a statement of separate and unequal.

JUAN GONZALEZ: Well, Daniel Clark, you have children in charter schools. You are also a field director for — of Parent Power Now!, which is attempting to build parental support for charter schools. Your reaction both to the report from UCLA and to Bill Perkins, Senator Bill Perkins’ claims?

DANIEL CLARK, SR.: Well, I tell you, I think the senator does have one strong point. But if I were in Bayside, if I lived in Bayside or Park Slope or even the East Side, I wouldn’t be here. But I happen to live in Central Harlem. And they’ve been failing my kids for a long time.

I did some research. I knew I was coming over, so I called an aunt of mine. Back in 1975, she struggled, with three kids, single parent, to keep her son in Saint Aloysius, which is a Catholic school. And the family asked her, “Well, why don’t you just send him to public school?” And she, back then, said, “Because I want him to have a future.”

The schools were failing then, and that’s thirty-five years ago, and they’re failing now. And if the schools were doing better, if we were in Bayside or Park Slope or East Side or Upper West Side, there wouldn’t be a need for charter schools. The schools are awful, the district schools. And parents who don’t have money — unfortunately, I’m not doing as well as my aunt did, so I can’t afford to send my son to Saint Aloysius or Rice High School. I’m stuck with the district school, which, in my case, is about to be closed, and should be.

If it weren’t for Democracy Prep, where he goes now, if it wasn’t for that option, that choice, God forbid, I don’t know what would happen to my son. And so, I’m organizing parents, and I’m fighting so that people like me, parents like me, who aren’t rich, can have a choice, and whose kids, who they love, can go to a school that’s excellent, like Democracy Prep.

JUAN GONZALEZ: What about the issue that the UCLA study raises about the increasing segregation that’s resulting from the charter school movement? Do you have concerns about that at all?

DANIEL CLARK, SR.: Well, honestly, I know down the block is a district school, and it’s 100 percent black and Spanish. I know Democracy Prep is 100 percent black and Spanish.

For me, honestly, it’s an escape from a terrible school. I guess I can’t afford to get into those issues right now as a parent. My son is thirteen now, and I want him in a school where he’ll have a future. And the school that we go to, for eighty-one seats, there were 1,542 people applying for just eighty-one seats. And those are people who live in my building. Those are people who live down the block. Those are people that I meet in supermarkets. And there’s a reason. The reason is twofold: one, the school is doing well academically; and second, I think even more importantly, tragically, is that the district schools aren’t. And everybody in Harlem knows it. And Harlem is a metaphor for Brownsville, is a metaphor for Bedford-Stuyvesant, is a metaphor for South Bronx. Unfortunately, where there are parents of color and kids of color, the schools are failing, district schools.

AMY GOODMAN: Leonie Haimson, what’s your answer to this?

LEONIE HAIMSON: Well, I think one of the problems that we see here in New York City is that the charter schools, as the national studies show, enroll fewer numbers of English language learners, special education kids, and poor kids, than the communities in which they sit. We are seeing a massive number of school closings. Some of these schools got “A”s, in the administration’s own accountability system, in order to put charter schools in their place.

Many times, kids sit in this building — one charter school, one regular public school. The charter school has smaller classes, more equipment, laptops, whiteboards. The regular public school kids walk by these classrooms every day and feel like that they’re second-class citizens.

I also have concerns about the fact that we’re essentially privatizing huge chunks of our public school system. The people running these schools — not all of them, but many of these charter schools — are hedge fund managers or the children of hedge fund managers who are billionaires, who are essentially taking control of our public school system and undermining the strength of our neighborhood public schools. Very often, the line for charter school advocates is that we’re increasing choice for public school parents, but we’re also decreasing the choice of public school parents to be able to send their kids to strong, stable neighborhood public schools.

JUAN GONZALEZ: Seth Andrew, you’re obviously not a hedge fund manager, and you’ve been running one, Democracy Prep, now. What do you think is the advantage and even your concerns about your fellow charter school leaders, in terms of some of the legitimate criticisms that have been raised?

SETH ANDREW: Well, first, thank you so much, Juan and Amy, for having us. This is a really important discussion, because it’s all about giving parents power.

And I agree with Dr. Orfield on one thing, which is, this is the civil rights issue of our generation. Public schools in zoned communities, like Central Harlem, like ours, are failing on a massive scale. They’re failing to educate students, and I think we agree on that. Probably everybody in this conversation agrees on that.

And the question then is, what do we do right now to give parents like Mr. Clark and others the opportunity to go to a great school? And unfortunately, the opponents have made some things up. So, Dr. Orfield’s study, I’m sure, is 100 percent true, which is, we serve higher percentages of low-income black and Latino students. Now, if you look at where charter schools are — Senator Perkins is right — we’re in Central Harlem. We’re in the places where traditional zone schools are failing and have been failing for decades.

But what frustrates me the most is when they make these broad assertions about ELL and special ed students that are fundamentally false, but worse than that, that are misleading to parents. So, Democracy Prep is a public charter school in Harlem. We enroll by a public lottery. Anybody is welcome. When we have an incoming class, 25 percent of those students enroll with IEPs or 504 plans, special needs students. Twelve percent enroll with English language learner needs. That’s more than our Central Harlem district. So, let’s just start there.

But separate from that, if you look at our average ELL performance, it’s four percent. Why? Because 100 percent of our students, after two years, are no longer ELL. So if you look at an average, of course you’re going to say we serve fewer ELL students. But that’s because they learn English, and they’re able to succeed academically.

So we need to make sure that every parent has this choice. And unfortunately, you know, a lot of our politicians, Senator Perkins included, has been fighting parents in his own district from getting a choice and getting an opportunity to have a great public education in a public charter school. So, all we want to make sure is that parents have a choice.

Now, if charter schools are bad, close them down. No question about that. If they’re failing students, if parents don’t want to go, close them down. But unfortunately, right now, the options are so bad, every parent in Harlem, literally almost every single sixth grade applicant, applied to Democracy Prep charter school in Central Harlem. And so, that means we’re not creaming, we’re not picking the best students. Ninety percent of our kids come in below grade level. What we want is to make sure every parent in Harlem has that high-quality choice. And until we can do things like lifting the charter school cap, which Senator Perkins opposes, and making sure we have equal funding, we won’t have that.

And so, you know, Ms. Haimson is correct in one thing, which is that, you know, we want to make sure that all kids have whiteboards and laptops and SMARTBoards. We can’t do that right now in charter schools, because we get dramatically less funding than a traditional public school. We receive $12,000 a year, compared to the school next door which receives [$18,000] to serve exactly the same kid. Now that is separate and unequal. That is what is the most civil rights violation here that we see today.

AMY GOODMAN: Seth Andrew, superintendent and founder of Democracy Prep charter school in Harlem. We’re going to come back to this discussion. Daniel Clark, Sr. is field director of Parent Power Now! His son goes to Democracy Prep. Leonie Haimson is with us. She is head of Class Size Matters. And New York state senator from Harlem, Bill Perkins, is on the line with us. We’ll be back with all of them in a minute.


AMY GOODMAN: Again, our guests are, well, the founder of a charter school in Harlem — his name is Seth Andrew — and a father of a student who goes to Democracy Prep, Daniel Clark. We’re also joined by Leonie Haimson. She is opposed to the charter schools. And New York State Senator Bill Perkins, on the line with us. I’m Amy Goodman, with Juan Gonzalez.

JUAN GONZALEZ: Well, Seth Andrew, I’d like to ask you, because I’ve been delving into the issue of the charter school-public school debate. It’s a raging issue in virtually every community in New York and, I think, across the country now, as more are increasing.

One of my concerns has been that, because charter schools are independent, they don’t get the kind of monitoring and review of their spending practices, of their compensation policy. So, for instance, you are one of the rare charter school leaders who actually gets paid about the salary of a normal principal, but you have — right in Harlem, you have people like Geoffrey Canada of Children’s Zone, who’s getting paid $500,000 a year to run a couple of schools and a youth program. You’ve got Eva Moskowitz of Harlem Success, who pays herself $350,000 a year. Huge salaries for people who are essentially running small schools. And so, there is no oversight or no monitoring of the expenditures of these public schools. And I believe this has the potential in the future for huge financial scandals, in terms of the fact that you are essentially decentralizing the public school system through these charters. Your response to that issue?

SETH ANDREW: Well, I think the first is, my mom told me never to talk about people’s salaries, so, you know, no matter how jealous I am. So the first point is that this is not about pay, this is not about salary. This is about great schools. And if Geoffrey Canada and the Harlem Children’s Zone are educating kids to go to college and to change the world and do amazing things, well, God bless him. We should pay all educators like doctors and lawyers. That’s exactly what we should be moving towards. In fact, we pay our teachers about 20 percent more than they would make if they were at a zone public school. So, this is not about pay; this is about high-quality schools. And honestly, whatever it’s going to take to get there is really important.

As I said before, we receive less public dollars than a traditional public school. We’re in a fiscal crisis right now, and the school next door spends $18,000 per pupil through the traditional public system. We spend [$12,000], and we‘re getting dramatically better results. Democracy Prep is the number one school in Harlem. We’re one of the top ten schools over the last two years in the City of New York, on less money, with no facilities that are given to us by the DOE, as a right. We have to fight for every single inch that we have. And the bottom line is, our kids are doing better. We just need to let parents have a choice. So if Mr. Clark and other parents have a choice, they’ll make the right decision for their kids.

AMY GOODMAN: Leonie Haimson, you keep shaking your head when he says that the charter schools get more — get less money than the public school right there.

LEONIE HAIMSON: Yeah, we actually believe that they are overcompensated per student, because if you look at the school level, regular public schools get about $8,000 per student, whereas charter schools get $12,000 per student. Plus, many charter schools that are co-located get their facilities, their custodial services, their electricity and their energy for free from the Department of Education.

But beyond that, I do share Juan’s concerns about the lack of regulation and oversight. One of the contentious issues in Albany right now is whether to raise the cap. And one of the bills that would allow the cap —-

JUAN GONZALEZ: And by “the cap,” you mean the number of charter schools.

LEONIE HAIMSON: The number of charter schools, which is now capped at 200 in New York state. One of the things that the legislators were pushing for was say, “Yes, we will raise the cap, but we will allow the state controller to audit the spending practices of charter schools in the state,” which is reasonable, considering they are spending taxpayer money. And the charter school lobby was vehemently opposed to allowing the state controller to audit those funds. Essentially, what we’re encouraging now in our public schools in New York City and throughout the country is a form of deregulation, which has proven disastrous for our financial system, as seen in the current economic crisis. I think we need more oversight, more audits for both charter schools and regular public schools. I think, in too many cases, we don’t know where -— how the money is being spent. And there are outrageous salaries being made. There’s also chains of charter school operators called EMOs that charge something like 25 percent per student to manage the charter schools. And that’s money that should be spent in the classroom, not spent on profit-making enterprises.

SETH ANDREW: So, just because I agree, that’s a really important point —-

AMY GOODMAN: Seth Andrew.

SETH ANDREW: —- we shouldn’t have —-

STATE SEN. BILL PERKINS: Yeah, can I get in here?

AMY GOODMAN: We shouldn’t have for-profit, you know, public schools. That doesn’t make any sense. So I agree with that wholeheartedly. But the bottom line is, we want to spend public dollars wisely. And charters are spending them far more wisely than traditional schools right now. I agree, if there’s administrative bloat in the traditional system, we need to decentralize it so we have more efficient use of those dollars in classrooms.

AMY GOODMAN: State Senator Bill Perkins, you’ve been dying to get into the conversation here, and I know, interestingly, this issue of for-profit chains running schools -— isn’t a for-profit chain running the school that you had — you once started, Victory?

STATE SEN. BILL PERKINS: Victory Schools is a for-profit chain that’s making an extraordinary amount of money as a for-profit manager of these charter schools. And I think that, again, I can appreciate any parent that is hungry for their child’s education, and I can understand why charter school parents are lining up in desperation to get into these charter schools, because the city is starving the public school system and focusing only on the charter schools.

I believe that these charter schools are running operations that are behind the scenes, that are not transparent, that are not accountable. And my office will be organizing some hearings to begin to look at exactly what’s going on with the charter schools in terms of their financing, in terms of their grades, in terms of who’s managing them, who’s not managing them, what’s going on. So I think that they — not only in communities of color, but they’re operating in the dark, and they’re operating in ways that we would not allow any other schools in this city, and perhaps even in this country, to operate.

Charter schools came on board with the promise that they could do better for less. They were never expected to be as — compensated as much as — per student as much as the regular public school. That was their whole point, that they could do better for less and, furthermore, that they didn’t have to be in the public schools. They came on board with the expectation that they would be able to open up schools outside of the public school system and provide a first-class education for less. No sooner than they became — that they got on board, that they started advocating for more money. And not only that, they began advocating to be a part of those public schools, to take over those public schools. So it’s a switcheroo kind of a thing. They came in with one expectation, and now they’re in the public schools creating all kinds of chaos. And the Mayor is closing down schools, with the plan of putting in these charter schools. And I think it’s outrageous that they’re getting paid so much.

AMY GOODMAN: Daniel Clark?

DANIEL CLARK, SR.: Can I just respond, as a parent? You know, it’s funny. My son plays a game called “backwards day.” And, you know, we go through the whole routine, everything backwards. I think the senator plays that also. I mean, it seems like he can’t wait to support a school that’s failing, like the one that’s about to be closed.

STATE SEN. BILL PERKINS: No, that’s not accurate. That’s not — don’t say that. Don’t say that.

DANIEL CLARK, SR.: And I’ve heard you publicly two weeks ago, three weeks ago at Abyssinia, support Ace Academy, which ought to be closed, because the numbers are so bad, because they’re having sex in the hallways. Right? Because they had fifty-four instances that —- ’03-’04, and in one semester. And a school like that ought to be closed. Any other neighborhood, it would be closed. But because our standards are so low in Harlem, people like you, Bill Perkins, support schools like that and attack schools that are doing well, like Democracy Prep, simply because it’s a charter. That’s dogma. That’s theoretical, which is fine, because I don’t know where your son is, but mine is doing well. And I have to be practical, because he’s thirteen now. And for the other parents, the other 1,461 who didn’t make Democracy Prep this year, they feel the way I do, Senator, and they’re your constituents.

STATE SEN. BILL PERKINS: Well, if I may -—

JUAN GONZALEZ: Well, I’d like to ask —-

STATE SEN. BILL PERKINS: Let me say something, if I may.

JUAN GONZALEZ: Yes, yes, Senator Perkins?

STATE SEN. BILL PERKINS: That’s not fair. I’m not trying to undermine anybody’s child in terms of the education opportunity that they deserve. All I’m saying is -—

DANIEL CLARK, SR.: That’s what your bill does.

STATE SEN. BILL PERKINS: Sir, the bill that I have talks about over-saturation, talks about co-location, talks about the fact that charter schools are being forced into public school settings and there’s all kinds of problems that are taking place. You know that, and I know that. Every school that’s failing should be made into a successful school. Nobody’s trying to limit opportunities for our children. The reason I opened up the Sisulu Charter School was because of the despair that has been taking place in our community. The problem is that the way that the charter school movement is taking place now is not a way that I believe is in the best interest of the public schools for all the children.

JUAN GONZALEZ: I’d like to ask Seth Andrew a question. You said, and Daniel Clark said, that the public schools are failing. But in the suburbs, public schools are not failing. They’re doing very well. And in other parts of the city, upper-income parts of New York City, public schools are doing well. So, why is it that only in the minority areas of the city are public — is the public school model failing?

SETH ANDREW: Well, there’s a couple things that a school like Democracy Prep does well and does differently than a traditional school. We have a much longer school day. We pay our teachers better. We make sure that we have a really tight school culture that has safety and structure for all kids. We make sure that if a teacher is not good, we let them go. And if a teacher is great, we give him a promotion and a raise. And so, those are things that every school should be doing. And unfortunately, because of a 165-page contract right now, teachers in New York City can’t do that. If you have a bad teacher, they’re not going anywhere. They have tenure, they’re staying. They may end up in a rubber room, they may end up in the ATR, but they’re not going anywhere. And the sad thing about what Senator Perkins —-

JUAN GONZALEZ: But that’s true with the suburbs, too. Most suburban schools are unionized also.

SETH ANDREW: And so, what we have now is a model in the urban communities. And this is true across the country. There are hundreds of these schools, that we call sometimes “no-excuses schools,” because we don’t take any excuses for high performance. We want to make sure every kid succeeds. And those no-excuses are proving that low-income kids of color, kids with special needs, ELL kids, just like at Democracy Prep, are performing -— beating Westchester County. Right? So our math scores beat Westchester County. And so, you know, Senator Perkins had the luxury of going to private school, but our families don’t have that luxury. Right? They had a choice, and we don’t. And then he stands up and says he wants to open schools and keep them open like this. This is the middle school next door, gets $18,000 a kid to educate the same exact kid. And as you might imagine, red is bad. This isn’t test scores. This is the parent, teacher, and student opinion of their own school. Right? Then you ask about a school like Democracy Prep. It’s a very clear option about what parents, students and teachers think about us. And we should just make sure we have more schools like Democracy Prep in the same building, serving the same kids, as that red school.

AMY GOODMAN: We have ten seconds. Leonie Haimson?

LEONIE HAIMSON: Yeah, I’m very concerned about the fact the DOE, the Department of Education, is trying to close down schools that are getting “A”s, in Harlem and elsewhere, in their own accountability system to put charters in their space. I’m also very concerned —-

AMY GOODMAN: Five seconds.

LEONIE HAIMSON: —- that there are bitter battles going on in neighborhoods all through the city, where they see the charter schools stealing classroom space, libraries and intervention spaces for our neediest special ed students.

AMY GOODMAN: That’s it. We have no time, but we’ll continue to follow this story. Leonie Haimson, Daniel Clark, Seth Andrew, Bill Perkins, thanks for joining us.

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