8:48 am May. 12, 20117
This winter, orange fliers advertising a K-8 charter school planned for Bedford-Stuyvesant began appearing on the doorsteps of apartment buildings and houses in the upmarket neighborhoods of Brooklyn Heights and Cobble Hill. I live in Cobble Hill, and have two children already enrolled in a top-rated public elementary school around the corner from my house. In the week before the charter’s April 1 enrollment deadline, I received six fliers, making a total of 12.
The mailers were the work of Eva Moskowitz, the famously combative charter-school champion and former city councilmember who is now C.E.O. of the Success Charter Network.
The paper blitz is a familiar tactic for Moskowitz, who has been blanketing neighborhoods annually for the past few years in a much publicized effort to build an education empire. She’s had great success generating interest this way, in part because the neighborhoods she has targeted in the past have housed the city's poorest-performing public schools. Parents in those neighborhoods have typically responded to her marketing by scrambling madly for the relatively few slots being offered. (Moskowitz's strategy was detailed in Madeleine Sackler’s documentary The Lottery, and was the subject of a congratulatory policy paper released by the Democrats for Education Reform, the influential political action committee run by former Daily News reporter Joe Williams.)
But there’s something significantly different about this latest round of outreach from Moskowitz, who currently runs seven schools in Harlem and the Bronx, all of which fit neatly into the popularly understood charter-school mandate of providing options to low-income families zoned for poor-performing public schools. This time, she’s going after the middle class.
Moskowitz has spent a total of $800,000 on advertising for the school she's planning for Bed-Stuy, much of it on outreach to middle-class families—who live near and sometimes not so near the school—as well as on a Success Charter Network school that is scheduled to open this fall on the Upper West Side on the new Brandeis High School campus.
During a recent interview at one of her Harlem schools, Moskowitz bridled at the idea that her latest projects represent a departure from her previous ones, or that they are any less well aligned with the mission of charter schools.
“I’ve never believed the charter movement was exclusively for socially and economically disadvantaged kids,” she told me.
Moskowitz said that long ago, in her pre-Council days, she applied to the city to start a charter school on the Upper East Side, only to withdraw the application when her political career took off.
“It was incredibly radical back then,” she said. “You can live on a posh street and be zoned for a very terrible school.”
The Upper West Side “has failing schools,” she said, adding that despite vocal opposition to her new charter, she received between “700-800 applicants” for the 188 available spots.
“I didn’t design schools for poor kids,” Moskowitz said, finally. “I’m designing schools to be world-class.”
THIS WOULD SEEM TO BE A TIME OF UNPRECEDENTED opportunity for the charter-school movement, and for Moskowitz, to expand in New York. Overcrowding is at an all-time high in many parts of the city, to the point where some kindergarteners are being turned down by their zoned schools. There is a charter-friendly administration in City Hall, which is being strongly encouraged by a charter-friendly White House.
Last year, after a protracted fight in which the teachers' lobby was ultimately outmatched by the combined lobbying efforts of Michael Bloomberg and the charter-school movement, the legislature in Albany increased the state’s cap on the number of charter schools from 200 to 460. New York currently has 125 charter schools, with a large cluster of them in Harlem and in the South Bronx, educating a total of 38,000 students. They number only 4 percent of the city's schools. (Compare that to D.C.’s 40 percent.)
This means that there’s room for charters to proliferate, which they’re going to need to do to show themselves to be viable over the long term to their financial backers, who quite explicitly see what’s going on as a fight for survival with traditional public schools. This goes for individual charter organizations, too: they have to grow in order to demonstrate sustainability. According to Jeffrey Henig, a professor at Teachers College, proponents of charter schools were placing an ever-increasing emphasis “on multiple organizations opening multiple schools,” in part due to pressure from donors who see themselves as “catalysts, not banks.”
Robin Lake, associate director of the Center on Reinventing Public Education, a research center at the University of Washington, says a lot of networks have faced economy-of-scale challenges that few predicted. The chains have expanded only to discover that they have some of the same money-sapping bureaucratic issues that the public schools have.
“[Operators] are really ambitious and entrepreneurial and they think they can do anything,” Lake said. “But they’ve hit some bumps in the road.”
Moskowitz has said that it is her goal to open and operate 40 schools.
IT HAS BY NO MEANS BEEN AN EVEN FIGHT BETWEEN charter schools and their traditional public counterparts.
Despite the fact that they depend on public money to operate, charters are exempt from many state and local regulations, so they can create their own curriculum and hire as they please. They are also in a position to be selective about student admissions, unlike zoned public schools, on top of the fact that the parents who vie for spots in the charter self-select, as a group, for relatively high levels of engagement with their children’s education.
Then there’s the funding. The New York City Charter School Center calculates that charters receive $3,017 less per student than traditional public schools, which sounds like a positive statistic. But that figure applies to charters that are not housed in public school buildings. This is an important distinction because last year, according to figures released by the New York City Independent Budget Office, charters housed in public school buildings (that’s two thirds of them) actually received $649 more per pupil in public support than traditional public schools. (In 2009-2010, that meant $16,660 per charter pupil, and $16,011 for each public pupil.)
The free space, free maintenance and free security services that charters receive when they are housed in existing public schools—the perks that are often so resented by those very public schools—are a prerequisite for the Moskowitz model to function as it does. According to NewSchools Venture Fund director and Success Charter board member Jim Peyser, without the deal on rent-free space, the network would be forced to stop expanding.
The challenge for the charters, under these circumstances, isn’t so much to compete with public schools, but to satisfy their nonprofit boards, whose members directly or indirectly generate much of the non-public money for these schools, and to impress the public. This is because a lot of what the charters need to flourish—like that free space in public-school buildings and their per-pupil allotment of public money, which many charter operators say is still too low—will require the city and the state to remain hospitable to them even after Bloomberg, their hard-charging champion, has left office.
“This is ultimately a political question and ultimately about public support,” Peyser told me.
HARLEM SUCCESS ACADEMY 2 WAS LAUNCHED WITH about 175 kindergarten and first-grade students. According to an independent auditor’s report filed with the Charter Schools Institute, the school received more than $1 million in contributions and private grants and $19,000 in donated legal services for the school’s first year, starting in the middle of March 2008, when operators began building up the school, and finishing at the end of June 2009, when the school year ended. But in addition to that money, the school received $2.3 million in state and local per-pupil operating revenue, $490,000 in federal grants, and $150,000 in state and city grants. So for that school year, for that school, taxpayers contributed approximately $3 million.