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Dear Carmen Fariña: What Are Charter Schools? Chopped Liver?

Today NYC Schools Chancellor Carmen Fariña has an editorial in the Daily News in which she defends “public education” — and, more specifically, the City’s traditional  school system —  from alleged accusations that “they are violent, dysfunctional and that their students leave school without any knowledge.” In fact, claims Fariña, “here in New York City, by every measure, schools are the most successful they have ever been.”

Let’s not tread into #alternativefact land, although I’ll note that many former NYC school students, including me, might beg to differ with the Chancellor’s revisionist history. I’m more struck by her omission of any mention of the role that public charter schools play in the improvement of NYC’s education landscape, as well as her transparent tip of the hat to Mayor de Blasio’s campaign for a second term.

Ms. Fariña writes,

We’ve been told that the way to improve schools is by privatizing them, and that this work should be led by non-educators — fundraisers and executives who’ve never stepped foot in a classroom.

This rhetoric isn’t about what’s best for children. It’s offensive and flat-out false, and its only purpose is to undermine public education — which is the foundation of our democracy.

She doesn’t clarify what she means by “privatizing”  but often that’s code for public schools choice or charter schools, and there’s nothing secretive about Fariña’s charter school sentiments. (She  might mean vouchers but, as Alina Adams pointed out on this blog recently, the Mayor’s Pre-K for All program is essentially a voucher program.)  This past August Alexander Nazaryan described the Chancellor’s “outsized antipathy to charter schools, which she shares with the mayor.” Nazaryan continues,

Charters are public schools, and Fariña could have embraced them as a small but critical component of the education system, one that does an admirable job of educating poor kids of color. Instead, she treated them like pariahs. “They’re charter schools,” she chillingly declared as one fought for space in a public school in Harlem. ”They’re on their own now.

Yet NYC’s school improvement is largely due to the increasing role of charters. The independent schools currently serve  106,600 students, or about ten percent of the total public school enrollment, a record high.  Forty-five thousand children remain on waiting lists, an increase of four percent over last year. The NYC Charter School Center reports that  “there are now 4 applicants for every charter school seat in Harlem and the South Bronx — an example of insufficient supply and overwhelming demand.”

And why the demand?

The National Alliance for Public Charter Schools reported that,

the typical student in a New York City public charter school gains more learning in a year than his or her peer in a district public school, amounting to about one more month of learning in reading and five more months of learning in math. Student performance in Harlem public charter schools was also considered. The results for the typical student in a Harlem public charter school – approximately 25 percent of the city’s charter students – were even more pronounced in math, on average gaining seven more months than his or her peer in a district public school, but less than a full additional month in reading. This study added two years of performance data to a 2010 study, which also found that public charter school students in New York City outperformed students in traditional public schools.

This not privatization, Ms. Fariña. This is the empowerment of parents who can finally make public education choices for their children.

The editorial then goes into great length about Mayor de Blasio’s Renewal Schools Program, which he’ll campaign on this year as a symbol of his progressive prowess.  While there are a few bright spots  — graduation rates for the thirty-one high schools selected for extra funding and services are up to 59% compared to last year’s 54.5% (twenty showed improvements; eleven showed declines) — many of the schools still struggle mightily. Would parents choose to opt out of the traditional system if spots were available in alternative public schools? The waiting list for charters says “yes.”

The Chancellor could emigrate from distortion to reality by acknowledging the role of public charter schools in educational improvement — we’re all in this together, right? —  and the expanding demand for them, especially from low-income parents of color. As far as her campaign rhetoric goes, that’s between her and the Mayor.

What do you think?

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