by Liza Featherstone
Here Comes Success
Much of Brooklyn’s school District 15—which includes Park Slope, Carroll Gardens, Cobble Hill, Boerum Hill, and Red Hook—is a comfortable, brownstone-studded idyll, with schools so popular that they drive up real estate values and boast long waiting lists. Many of the district’s parents are privileged and have, commendably, used their advantages to improve their local public schools, insulating them from the budget cuts that devastate the rest of the borough. But an escalating charter school battle serves as a jarring reminder that even District 15 parents are still only the 99%—and that it’s the 1% that runs the show.
Education entrepreneur and former city councilwoman Eva Moskowitz plans to open a new branch of her Success Academies in the district, as well as one in Bed-Stuy. She already operates several other schools, including in Harlem, the Bronx, and the Upper West Side. In Cobble Hill, the unlucky District 15 neighborhood in her sights, she’s not welcome. A survey conducted by Moskowitz’s own organization found that only five percent of respondents in District 15 would consider sending their children to such a school. Dissenters besieged a November information session on Success, as well as a hearing at the proposed Baltic Avenue site. Members of the Panel on Educational Policy (PEP) have already received more than 450 e-mails opposing Success Cobble Hill.
As in most such fights in New York City, the opposition focuses on the use of physical space. That’s understandable, given the research showing that traditional public schools sharing buildings with charters tend to suffer. There are already three schools in the building in which the Department of Education proposes to install Success Cobble Hill. Community leaders say that an early childhood center offering pre-K and kindergarten would be a better use of the building’s limited extra space, given the dearth of public pre-K in Brooklyn and the importance of early childhood education. It’s New York City, and in education as in all areas of life, we’re obsessed with our scarce, expensive space. But in these real estate scuffles, it’s easy to lose sight of larger reasons we should fear the spread of Success Charter, and organizations like it, throughout Brooklyn.
Almost everyone on the Success board of directors hails from hedge funds and private equity firms. Why would we want to put the same people whose greed critically injured our economy in charge of educating our children? “Report Card” would not hire people lacking impulse control, with a demonstrated penchant for demented risk-taking, to watch our child, even for a few hours. Yet two members of Success Academy’s board are partners in Gotham Capital, a hedge fund financed mostly by notorious junk bond trader Michael Milken. The rest of the gang is deeply implicated in the reckless financial antics that have mired Brooklyn neighborhoods in foreclosures and unemployment. The hedge fund class has a track record of failure and destruction, and its very existence is a sign of a society rotting from the top. Does anyone really want the folks who brought us the Great Recession to be in charge of anything that matters?
And what about the values that the hedge fund crowd models for our kids? What could be worse? We discourage—sometimes even forbid—our own children from playing with selfish bullies. Yet our leaders are happy to place such people in charge of our kids’ education.
In District 15, parents are active in running the schools. They show up to PTA meetings. They help out in the classroom. When they see programs missing that they want for their kids—whether it’s sustainability or French—they agitate. Sometimes they even show up and create those programs through their own volunteer labor. When parents in these neighborhoods disagree with decisions made by teachers or principals, they have a voice. When they disagree with a city policy affecting their school, many of them will complain to the Community Education Council or even the Department of Education itself—using what’s left of our democratic process to appeal.
At Success Academies, by contrast, the 1% runs the schools for the 99%. But public schools are not supposed to be charities. In fact, in the 19th century, the move away from charity schools, toward a publicly funded, publicly controlled system, was a significant step toward a more democratic society. That’s progress we’re rushing to undo in our own century. A public school is not supposed to use the generously donated largesse of the rich to benefit a handful at the expense of the many; rather, the public school system is supposed to use our resources as a body politic to educate everyone.
That is the crucial point we miss when we redefine quality public education as a marvelous favor bestowed by the elite upon a lucky few. Eva Moskowitz need not care if her charters take space from public schools or take children—and therefore funding—from them. In District 15, Success Cobble Hill could deal a severe body blow to excellent schools already dealing with severe budget cuts—but Moskowitz is not in the business of worrying about that. She has no reason to be concerned that her schools sometimes kick out underperforming, ill-behaved, or special needs children. She does not need to figure out how to educate the kids who aren’t welcome in her schools, or whose schools are made intolerable by sharing space with too many others. She doesn’t have to worry about the effect of Success Academies on the system as a whole. She’s in the business of philanthropy, which is all about allowing the 1% to get credit for helping the less fortunate, even as it creates winners and losers, and forces recipients to bay for the crumbs. Her job is to make her schools look good, and she has no reason to care how she hurts other schools—and many children—in the process.
Success Charter, bringing the wisdom of the private sector to public education, spends staggering sums, not on educating children, but on marketing. Our neighborhoods are blanketed in slick mailings and billboards advertising Moskowitz products. Juan Gonzalez of the Daily News has reported that in 2009 – 2010, Success spent $1.6 million on such marketing. That means the chain spent $1300 per child to lure kids—and therefore money—from other public schools. These marketing blitzkriegs escalate competition and give Success an edge over traditional schools in the war for middle-class parents, an advantage not based on better performance but on better advertising. When we allow Success into our neighborhoods, then, we’re allowing our own tax dollars to subsidize an organization that will then spend heavily to undermine our public schools. Success is not an organization that exists to further the public good, but to perpetuate itself, to build its own brand and that of its creator.
Even though Success Academies take public money and use public space, the public has little oversight over how the organization spends its money. We also have little say in how its schools share public space, whether they help or hurt our communities, whether they operate in our neighborhoods at all, or how they decide which children to educate. Says Patrick Sullivan, the Manhattan borough president’s appointee to the Panel for Education Policy, “I don’t think most people understand the importance of the governance issue.”
The worst aspect of the D.O.E.’s plan to bring Success Academy to Brooklyn is that there may be little that anyone—parents, teachers, students—can do to stop it.
There will be a public discussion before the PEP votes on it on December 14, though the D.O.E. is doing its level best to ensure that dissenting Brooklyn families—and Occupy D.O.E. activists—stay home that night. That PEP meeting was originally supposed to take place at the High School of Fashion Industries, which is in Chelsea, easily reached from all over the city. At the end of November, the D.O.E. announced that the meeting would be held, not in Manhattan, but in Corona, Queens. The new location, at Newtown High School, takes nearly an hour, with several train changes, to reach from Cobble Hill. The D.O.E.’s move evokes the World Trade Organization’s effort to avoid anti-globalization protesters by moving its meetings to Doha. (Apologies to Corona readers for the comparison but “Report Card” is sure they would feel the same about, say, Cobble Hill.) Sullivan describes the move as “very unusual …I’ve never seen them move [the PEP meeting] to a less accessible location like this.”
D.O.E. officials say that the High School of Fashion Industries’ auditorium was undergoing a renovation, which would not be finished in time for the PEP meeting. They’ve also said that the Corona location will make it easier for Queens parents to comment on proposals affecting schools in Queens. The funny part is, there are no such proposals on the agenda.
As “Report Card” has pointed out (see “Our Fake School Board,” Sept. 2011), the majority of PEP appointees work for the mayor, and they already know how they’re voting—with the mayor. Mayor 1% wants Success Academies to expand and prosper; for obvious reasons, he sees nothing wrong with the very wealthy running our lives. After all, Bloomberg’s political career is based on the slightly depraved, medieval notion that it’s okay for one of the richest people in the city to be the mayor.
But it’s still worth dragging ourselves to Corona for the PEP meeting. If our opinions meant nothing at all, Bloomberg and Walcott wouldn’t be so eager to stifle them. We need to have a public discussion about who runs our schools, and to demand a more democratic kind of school reform, one that begins with families having a say. Says Sullivan, the father of two public school students and often the lone voice of dissent on the PEP, “When we cede control of our children’s education we lose respect, dignity, and ultimately our ability to influence anything else.”
Liza Featherstone is a writer who lives in Clinton Hill. Her son attends kindergarten in District 15.