- - Wednesday, January 24, 2018

I am a Democrat who believes in public charter schools, and in the post-Obama era, that seems to increasingly make me an outlier in my party. Currently, more than 3 million children attend public charter schools in the U.S. They serve a greater percentage of poor minority students than traditional public schools, and the empirical evidence of more than a dozen gold-standard studies indicates they are producing significant academic gains for these students.

Yet despite their effectiveness and popular support among under-served families, a recently released American Federation for Children poll indicates that Democratic opposition to charters has spiked.

The network of 46 charter schools I lead in New York City, Success Academy, enrolls mostly low-income black and Hispanic students, and yet our schools outperform every district in New York State, including the most affluent and well-funded. I have come to believe that school choice is the most powerful lever we have to improve public education — but I didn’t always believe this.

I am the grandchild of teachers and union activists and had always considered myself a “lefty.” I experienced first-hand some of the inadequacies of district schools as a child — I attended a failing and deeply segregated school in Harlem — but I firmly believed that district schools could be fixed and was skeptical of charter schools.

This view changed when I became a New York City councilmember.

My goal in seeking public office was specifically to work on improving the city’s district schools. I spent significant time visiting schools and speaking to parents. While most people understand that schools in poor communities tend to be worse, there is a difference between reading about this in an article and visiting a school where you know that among all those hopeful children, only 5 percent are reading at grade-level; or coming face-to-face with a mother who is desperate because she knows her son isn’t learning anything at his school but can’t move him to a different one because of lack of resources.

Such firsthand experiences caused me to examine my views carefully.

When I was appointed to chair the Education Committee, I launched a series of hearings to address the root causes of the issues I was encountering. These hearings revealed the depth of the system’s dysfunction: textbooks arriving halfway through the school year because of a disorganized central office; years-long construction projects because of corrupt contractors; out-of-date curriculum because of inertia; under-performing staff members kept on because of heavy-handed labor contracts.

Interviewing principals, superintendents, and teachers helped me understand how the job protections in these contracts created a vicious cycle. Teachers felt they’d been dealt an impossible hand: their principal was incompetent or their students were already woefully behind or their textbooks hadn’t arrived or all of the above. They didn’t feel they should be held accountable for failing to do the impossible, so understandably they wanted job protections.

However, these job protections made success even harder for principals already struggling with the system’s dysfunctionality, so they too wanted job protections. Nobody wanted to be held accountable in a dysfunctional system — but the system couldn’t be cured of its dysfunction until everyone was held accountable.

I came to believe that in order to have any chance of fixing this system, we needed to radically change the labor contracts. At the time, Mayor Bloomberg and the teachers union were negotiating the contract and the mayor was holding firm against lockstep pay, seniority, and life tenure. But then the Teachers Union brought 20,000 teachers to a rally where potential Democratic mayoral candidates spoke. The message was clear: sign a new contract or we’ll back your Democratic opponent. In October, the City capitulated, signing a new contract with none of the sought-after reforms.

This development had a profound impact on my views of public education: If somebody as powerful and committed as Mr. Bloomberg couldn’t make fundamental reforms, I didn’t see how anyone could.

That’s when I began to take seriously the argument for charter schools. I came to see that people who were defending the current system were really defending a theoretical ideal. The reality is that children attend school in the real world: it seemed unwise to reject a viable alternative unless there was good reason to believe the ideal was achievable. I had come to believe it wasn’t.

So I arrived at my belief through personal experience, not because of ideology or partisanship. The same is true for many parents in inner city communities, where support for charter schools is far higher than among the white and affluent. These parents have direct and often generations-long experience with inadequate public schools.

The reluctance among liberal Americans to embrace charter schools — particularly those who are white and affluent — I believe stems from the opposite: they have long exercised school choice by moving to the suburbs or private schools, and thus have little exposure to the schools that the urban poor are stuck with.

In truth, charter schools are not about privatization or politics. They’re about empowering parents who don’t want to sit helplessly by while their children attend failing schools. As such, they deserve support from every Democrat — and every American — who is committed to advancing equality and opportunity for all our citizens.

Eva Moskowitz is the author of “The Education of Eva Moskowitz” (Harper Collins), a memoir of her battle to transform New York City public education.

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