Governor’s Emphasis on Charter Schools is Missing the Point

David R. Jones, The Urban Agenda

Our public schools offer every young person the opportunity to learn the skills necessary to participate and succeed in society and the labor market.  At least, that’s what they are supposed to do.  But we all know that schools are very different in distinct neighborhoods of our city.  And we would hope that the main goal of New York’s public education policy would be to mitigate these inequalities.

But this is not the target our Governor seems to be aiming for.  Instead, he’s currently pushing an education agenda focused on charter school expansion and on rewarding rich charter school donors. Specifically, he’s calling on Albany to raise the cap on charters by 100 schools while offering tax credits to make it easier for well-heeled private individuals to support the schools financially.

I hope that the governor’s approach is based on an authentic policy belief, and is not related to the fact that he has received inordinate amounts of campaign donations from hedge funds and other Wall Street entities that lead the charter school agenda.  But it sure looks fishy. And it’s a squandering of money and energy that could be used for real good in achieving educational equality.

For the record, I am not opposed to charter schools. But sometimes I believe our elected officials need to be reminded of the original premise behind these schools. As envisioned by the late educator and UFT President Al Shanker, charter schools were supposed to be laboratories for innovative school models, academic reforms and “best practices” that could be implemented throughout the larger public school system to the benefit of all students. That clearly has not happened. Instead, what we’ve seen in New York City is the growth and prospering of well-known charter school networks through slick advertising and well-financed advocacy that has artificially increased parent demand while advancing the dubious notion that these schools are helping to achieve racial justice in education. How much the charter school movement really understands or cares about the concerns of parents who send their children to public schools is debatable.

What is clear is that charter schools, which serve about six percent of the city’s student population, appear to be the flavor of the month policy push for those who would like to believe that the deep, systemic socioeconomic inequalities that we face can be solved by non-deep, non-systemic solutions.  It’s always easier to blame entities like teachers unions, who may have their faults, but are not the reasons why schools in poor communities underperform.

The Governor’s “Education Tax Credit” proposal is perhaps the ugliest part of his non-grand plan.  His proposal would actually allow the same 1 percenters who have supported him financially to pour more private money into charters and get a tax break for the privilege of using their cash to influence this hotly contested educational debate.  As James Parrott of the Fiscal Policy Institute has argued eloquently, the plan is a “radical and unwise policy” that runs counter to any notion of progressive taxation.  That this proposal takes the form of a credit, rather than a deduction ( as with a charitable donation), means that it will benefit the state’s richest individuals, partnerships, and corporations - those who have the money to buy a stake in education politics.  Every other existing state tax credit (the EITC, the Child Care Credit, etc.) is targeted to supporting working families. The Governor’s proposal looks far too much like quid pro quo for all of the donations that the governor has received from the same individuals who would benefit from it. This handout represents the worst type of fiscal policy.

It simply does not make sense to tinker around the edges of our school system by creating incentives to grow charter schools when our public schools remain so vastly underfunded.  New York State owes $2.2 billion in new funding to our public schools.  This astounding amount was quantified – and ordered to be paid – in the lawsuit brought literally decades ago by the Campaign for Fiscal Equity (CFE).  The invoice was effectively sent twenty years ago by the Court of Appeals, and payment is long past due.  Here is just one example of this underfunding, at a school level: Boys and Girls High School, near where I grew up in Brooklyn, is owed about $2.4 million from New York State.  Think about what could be done to support that school’s nearly 900 students with that amount of money.  You can find more at http://www.howmuchnysrobbed.nyc/, where you can learn exactly how much Albany owes every specific school.

Let’s give our public schools a real chance to succeed by making sure they have the money to do so, and let’s support them to develop academic programs and supportive services that can reach every student, regardless of the neighborhood they live in, regardless of whether they entered into a school lottery or passed a certain exam.  We can’t wait any longer.

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