New Yorkers Contesting Push by Bloomberg and Klein to Privatize Public Schools

"The immediate problem facing upper District 3 and students attending Harlem schools is that the [New York City Department of Education], without the input and participation of the community, is closing down our community schools and replacing them with others that serve only a narrow group of children. Students in the schools they are shutting down are being dispersed without regard for them or their families."

New York public schools are facing the same 'phase out' privatization lies as Chicago's. Substance photo by John Lawhead.So declared a letter from parents, elected parent representatives and community organizations to Chancellor Joel Klein following an announcement in March that three schools, two in Harlem and one in Brooklyn would be closed and replaced by schools run by two chains of charter school operators.

The move was just one part of an ongoing, wholesale closing of neighborhood schools that has become central in a battle over the direction of public education in New York City. Over the winter nearly a dozen school closings were announced by the NYC DOE. The unilateral decision making was met with a surge of protests unlike any time since mayoral control was begun in 2002.

Recent protest at P.S. 72 in New York. Substance photo by John Lawhead. Not every threatened school community rallied to defend its school but many did, including M.S. 399 in Bronx, I.S./P.S. 72 in East New York, P.S. 150 in Brownsville, P.S. 144 and P.S. 241 in Harlem and Louis D. Brandeis High School on the Upper West Side of Manhattan. The local daily newspapers and most of the broadcast media ignored the ruckus. Participants and supporters shared video clips of rallies on Youtube and the education blogs. In late March a conference was held, entitled "Defend Public Education," by a coalition of grassroots teacher groups and several United Federation of Teachers caucuses that brought together teachers, students and parents from several of the affected schools. This event, attended by about eighty people, was the first such gathering to compare first-hand notes about the school closings, high-stakes testing for students and the long-term excessing of teachers across the city. Joel Klein and Mayor Michael Bloomberg made an effort in 2008 to raise their national profiles as "school reformers," often hitching this self-promotion to a campaign for increasing charter schools. However, the decision to directly replace zoned schools with charters at the city level was something of a provocation. It threatened to antagonize erstwhile supporters of the Mayor's "school reform" agenda and unsettle some key alliances in a year when the legal framework for mayoral control is being reconsidered by the New York state legislature. A lawsuit was filed to stop the plan by the UFT and the New York Civil Liberties Union. The suit claimed that the changes required approval by the local Community Education Councils (weak successors to local community school boards). “Zoning laws are the one small area of oversight that parents were allowed to keep under mayoral control," declared Executive Director Donna Lieberman in an NYCLU press release. The DOE quickly reversed itself and said that the schools could remain open but would share space with the charters. Klein wrote letters to parents in the schools previously targeted for phase-out, stating as much and urging them to transfer their children immediately, naming adjacent zoned schools and pointedly giving them both names and contact information for area charter schools to apply to.

Brooklyn students protest privatization of public schools. Substance photo by John Lawhead.This shrinking of neighborhood schools and forcing them to share space with new charters is a familiar arrangement for the poor and largely African-American areas of the city where the charters have proliferated. The more than eighty charter schools in New York City are nearly all confined to the Bronx, Harlem and north Brooklyn. Although the charter operators receive millions in corporate and foundation largesse, they are given space by the city without cost to them. As the website of the Harlem Success Academy gloats: "We could raise millions and build a gorgeous new facility with all of the bells and whistles... [but] we take a different approach..."

The tens of millions received from private sources that are not used for bells, whistles or new buildings allow the schools to cap class sizes at levels well below that of the city's neighborhood schools, some as low as 18 students, and offer arts, music and technology programs not seen in zoned schools. It also goes to pay salaries like the $371,000 collected by Eva Moskowitz in 2007. Moskowitz is a former member of the New York City Council who is now the CEO of the Harlem Success Academies. Teachers at Harlem Success work longer hours and like all but a handful across the city are without union representation. They typically quit in droves at the end of the year and have to be replaced. One quarter of the teachers in Moskowitz's first academy were gone in a year. Reliance upon the patronage of Bloomberg and Klein (whose city education department is commonly called "Tweed" in reference to its headquarters which are housed in a restored landmark building, the old New York County Courthouse, built by William M. "Boss" Tweed at phenomenal expense, bloated by embezzlement, during the 1860s and 1870s) goes well beyond sharing space. Figures in the campaign for charter school expansion have played key roles in helping to set up political organizations to promote Klein's "reform" agenda and mayoral control. For instance, a recently disclosed donation of $500,000 from former schools Chancellor Harold Levy's hedge-fund management firm to Al Sharpton's organization, the National Action Network, was channeled by way of Democrats for Education Reform, a national advocacy group for charters. The money went to Sharpton as he was beginning a propaganda tour with Klein much of which involved the promotion of charters.

Klein often presides at lotteries for places in charter schools which have become media events with Klein extolling the parents' desire for "choice" and their apparent satisfaction with the inherent genius of free enterprise unfettered by regulation. The so-called "choice" the parents seek is never perceived as a flight from Klein's own mismanagement, overregulation, narrow curriculum choices or oversized classes.

The favor and admiration was recently reciprocated as contingents of placard-waving charter school parents appeared at the New York State Assembly Education Committee hearings on mayoral control held in each of the city's five boroughs from January to March. Juan Gonzalez, a columnist for the Daily News called them the mayor's "shock troops." In Brooklyn they carried signs that read "mayoral control = better schools."

Parents, teachers, students and community leaders have joined the New York protests. Substance photo by John Lawhead.More than a hundred had rallied in the morning but by the afternoon the group had thinned out. Gonzalez also reported that "disgruntled charter school parents" told him their principals require them to attend."

The show of support might perhaps constitute the groundswell that never materialized for the actual "school reform" initiatives Tweed has planned, implemented and abandoned in favor of new initiatives. For Bloomberg's mayoral control, installed by the legislature and operating in the absence of any direct popular mandate it is no small matter that his regime enjoy some semblance of public enthusiasm. The mayoral-control experiment of the last seven years was shaped at the outset by lessons learned from Edison takeover fiasco of 2001. It no doubt influenced Bloomberg's demand for mayor control and his continuing demand that his power not be divided in any way. It also played a role in his successfully courting and enjoying the support of groups who opposed the Edison takeover plan, including ACORN and the UFT. In 2001 Chancellor Harold O. Levy announced a plan for Edison Schools Inc. to take over the management of five public schools. He selected the schools from the state's SURR list. The regular SURR process (Schools Under Registration Review) included the now-all-but-forgotten concept that the closing of schools should be carried out as a last resort. The state provided schools on the SURR list with increased resources, three years of intensive monitoring and clearly defined goals that would allow the schools to get off the list.

Levy’s plan was to jump the gun and put the schools under private management more quickly by way of getting majority approval from parents, if not the much hoped-for groundswell. At first Edison Schools was entrusted with publicizing the plan. Students were promised computers to take home and the New York daily press joined in with a chorus of approval. However, in response to a lawsuit ACORN and other communities organizations were allowed to distribute less-than-flattering fact sheets about Edison to families involved in the decision. Mail-in ballots were required. After hearing both sides the parents defeated the plan by a four-to-one margin.

The defeat of the plan together with other events souring Edison’s prospects resulted in dramatic losses for investors. In the immediate aftermath of the vote the New York Times attempted to digest the development. A reporter interviewed parents at P.S. 161 in Harlem, one of the schools targeted by the plan. Under the headline “Parents Explain Resounding Rejection of Privatization of 5 Schools" some stark responses were offered. “Some parents said they did not know the schools were in trouble,” the reporter writes and continues, “Nearly all said they were afraid that their children would be used as guinea pigs in a business experiment.”

If Albany lawmakers do nothing by June of this year the legislation providing for the grander business experiment that it began in 2002 will expire. Most elected officials have staked out a “mend it, not end it" position toward mayor control, denouncing much of the mayor's actual record but holding fast to the concept of centralized authority and the "school reform" agenda.

The hearings involved long summaries of an institution brought out of control by a lack of democracy though not always in those words. Speakers denounced the lack of “voice” or "consultation" by parents and their representatives, the privatizing of public policy, the lack of transparency, the extravagant spending on testing and review systems, no-bid contracts, cost overruns, the squandering of money directed by the state to lower class sizes, and the failure of Tweed to follow state education laws. The proposals to "mend" mayoral control with a new law face a disturbing challenge in Tweed's tendency to scoff at laws. For parents and rank-and-file educators who have been focused on school-level educational issues there is frustration with the plans to reform the "reformers," many of which seemed intended merely to widen the circle of those participating in the deal making and preclude direct democracy of the sort that led to the rejection of the Edison plan in 2001.

Randi Weingarten, president of both the AFT and UFT testified before the New York State Assembly Education Committee in early February. She argued that basic decisions about the schools system should be debated more and described how Tweed often left the union with no option but “going to the streets, to sue, to grieve, to embarrass the school system in the public press.” She went on to say, “ultimately, that doesn’t feel like the way to do things when the mission of this institution every day should be to educate the children... We've got a lot of power. When you do it in the streets it makes us really powerful. When you do it inside behind closed doors, where you’re trying to make the best interests of the children paramount, it makes us less powerful.” Few would disagree that the teachers' union has become less powerful in recent years. It might be attributed both to a preference for closed-doors deal making as well as being politically outmaneuved by Bloomberg. It also stems from Weingarten's tendency to use the same reform rhetoric spouted by Klein and Bloomberg. Raises for teachers' were a "reform" designed to draw better teachers into the schools. A bargaining agreement in 2005, dubbed a "school reform" contract by the factfinders brought dramatic concessions from the teachers' union, adding time to the school day and taking away transfer rights, school decision making, and the right to grieve letters to file. Tweed also unilaterally changed school financing so that school would be penalized for hiring teachers with higher salaries. With the loss of seniority rights, Klein by closing schools has created a surplus of teachers, called Absent Teacher Reserve teachers or ATRs whose numbers have reach some 1700. Many of these teachers have been in excess for several years. Despite an agreement at the end of 2008 to subsidize schools who hired teachers in excess, only a handful have got positions in the months since while Tweed has continued to recruit and hire hundreds of new teachers.

On the march in New York City. Substance photo by John Lawhead.The weakening of the position of teachers in the schools had the effect of giving principals more power and diminished collective planning and decision making. Tweed's emphasis on principals as the "instructional leaders" of the school has made them virtually exempt from previous constraints, including the state law requiring consensus and a real role for school leadership teams.

Klein who loves the relatively tiny portion of educating done by charter schools has only infinite disdain for any "gradualism" when it comes to changing the "status quo" of the school in his charge. He is the shock therapist with the incomprehensible priorities: bewildering, breakneck administrative reorganizations, an erratic school grading system, new schemes for bonuses, threats and all manner of school improvement by remote control, the condemnation and abandonment of what he controls, and the school closings. He never shows any interest in what has worked so far and what hasn't, which leads some observers to see a modern-day Lord of Misrule in the proceedings, perhaps something worthy of what the former GE chief and management guru Jack Welch called "creative destruction."

Leonie Haimson, a parent and school advocate, writing on the New York City Public School Parents blog, wrote that the Tweed strategy seemed like an effort to "create such incompetent, dysfunctional government that the public will no longer support the notion that the government can provide useful public services, leading to further privatization and the undermining of the whole notion of the public good." Teachers who never wanted to be part of any lousy schools wonder, who wins from the closings and reorganizations? Concerned about "failing" schools? Poverty schools are like the overmedicated patient that eventually needs a different pill for every function. How will the dizzy, disordered, hysterical, somnolent, depressed school ever get "fixed" when it is such a lucrative prospect for the education companies? Profits are predicated on students and teachers' lack of control over the institutions where they work and learn. How many of the products, the packaged teacher-proof lessons, the training and consulting, interim assessments would be exposed as unnecessary if school communities could find a way to use their own judgment and solve their own problems?

The activists who organized the "Defend Public Education" conference in March have formed a much broader group called the Grassroots Education Movement that is seeking to work with parent and educator groups throughout the city. On May 5 a forum was held to discuss the charter school conundrum and was well was attended by parents and educators.

Mike Fiorillo of the Independent Community of Educators (ICE) described a "corporate-philanthropic-academic complex" that was using civil rights rhetoric to undermine public control of public institutions. Cecilia Blewer of the Independent Commission on Public Education said the word choice is something to be suspicious of. "Some choices cannibalize others."

In the discussion a parent of two children in charter schools discussed an administration's opposition to her forming a parents' association.

A teacher from a "conversion" charter presented a rebuttal to some of the claims that charters exclude students with special needs. Someone else distributed a handout that illustrated as much in a set of graphs. A parent representative from Queens discussed how the folks attending could get beyond preaching to the choir.

There was debate about whether the campaign for scaling up charter schools had hijacked what had once been a grassroots effort or whether charters had racist roots in segregationism. Many agreed that the threat of privatization required redefining the purpose of education. Another speaker Akinlabi Mackall, of Black New Yorkers for Educational Excellence spoke about "the unglamorous day to day work" of building a movement to create something different. �

This article was originally published in the print edition of Substance, May 2009. Copyright 2009 Substance, Inc. Reprint permissions are hereby granted to not-for-profit and pro public education groups and for teaching purposes. Please give full credit to Substance, Your subscription to Substance helps provide timely and accurate news about the fight to save public education in the face of corporate media lies.


May 26, 2009 at 5:58 AM

By: George N. Schmidt

Editor, Substance

Substance will continue to expand publication of articles from around the USA showing how corporate "school reform" is working from a common plan to privatize public education, create charter schools to destroy existing public schools, and undermine the 200 year tradition of free and democratic public schools in the USA. Send your examples with pictures if possible to: Csubstance @ Substance for $16 per year to Substance, 5132 W. Berteau, Chicago, IL 60641.

May 29, 2009 at 8:52 AM

By: lois ross

retired teacher

I am against privitization of the public schools. And for the tradition of free and democrfatic public schools.

May 29, 2009 at 10:46 AM

By: To Be Like John Brown

Florida Teacher

Back before the US Civil War, standardized tests would have measured an "achievement gap" between white children and children of color. But the abolitionists would never have allowed it to be described in such absurd terms. The Quakers, Frederick Douglass, and Harriet Beecher Stowe would have put the blame for the testing disparity where it belonged, on slavery! That vicious racist institution made it a crime for a child of color to pick up a book and even attempt to learn to read.

In this day and time, those of us who seek to meet the corporate attack on the public schools should be very careful about fighting that battle on the enemy's terms. The slaveholders would have loved to debate over an "achievement gap" while the existence of slavery was ignored. Today, the masters of US public education oversee an apartheid-like system where teachers of color are steadily disappearing from the classroom. Little wonder they are so determined to make their stand on the "achievement gap" while the society's fundamental racism and the profound and disproportionate effects of severe poverty on children of color are ignored.

Look at the all-star line-up of public school bashers who revel in the "achievement gap" charade and pose as civil rights crusaders before deciding to play the game on their terms.

George W. Bush

Rod Paige

Margaret Spellings

Ruby K. Payne

Eli Broad

Joel Klein

Michelle Rhee

Arne Duncan

Bill Gates

Paul Vallas

Jeb Bush

Wendy Kopp

Newt Gingrich

Rush Limbaugh

Michael Bloomberg

Armstrong Williams

Did the election of Barack Obama change everything? Did the election of Abraham Lincoln end slavery?

Does racism still exist in the United States? Today we await the facts in the killing of NYC Police Officer Omar J. Edwards before a verdict is rendered.

Paul A. Moore


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