Charter Schools have found generous support from New York City’s financial and business leaders—How charter schools became the golden calf for New York City elites?
In March of 2014, New York state legislators passed some of the country’s strongest protections for charter schools, schools largely independent from government control, but are publicly funded. The law compelled New York City provide space for charter schools within Department of Education facilities or to pay for rent in private facilities. A direct blow to New York City’s Mayor Bill de Blasio’s plan to charge rent to charter schools, it signified that charter schools in New York City had the political power to guarantee that they were here to stay. How have charter schools managed to become such an unstoppable political force in New York?
The discourse, politics, and governance of charter schools in New York City is dominated by the city’s economics and cultural elite. Wealthy influence has largely allowed charter schools to expand with limited oversight from government and to reimagine public education as an extension of the market economy. The conflicting interests of rich New York elites and those most in need of education reform presents deep ethical and practical problems.
The political success of charter schools can be traced to the overwhelming support they have received from New York City’s business elite. The coalition of financial executives, charter school activists, and parents fed up with the status quo has proven undeniably powerful. Mayor Bill de Blasio originally vowed to curb the rapid expansion of charter schools, but has since soften his stance on charter schools after facing fierce opposition. Charter school networks like Success Academy organize effectively, often using large private donations to bus in parents and students for demonstrations on the steps of City Hall.
Charter schools continue to expand with over fifty thousand students attending 235 schools across the city. With the support of New York City financial elites, charter school advocates have been able to build a powerful political machine to advance the cause. The biggest proponent for the 2014 expansion of legal protections for charter school, Governor Andrew Cuomo, received hundreds of thousands of dollars from prominent charter school advocates like William Ackman, Carl Icahn, Bruce Kovner and Daniel Nir for his reelection campaign.
Not only have New York City’s financial elite put their money and political power behind charter schools, they have become quite involved in their governance. Each charter school is headed by a board of trustees. This board is responsible for choosing school management, providing oversight, and approving any large policy change or expenditure. The governance of an organization is ultimately a reflection of its core ideals. Across the city, these boards have become filled with executives and business interests. In many ways the trustees of a typical charter school look more like a corporate board than a school administration. For example, Success Academy NY, the largest charter school network in NYC, has a board of trustees composed almost entirely of Wall Street executives. Of the Board’s thirteen members nine of them work in finance, while in comparison only three have experience in education or educational policy. Other charter school networks aren’t any better, the board of trustees of Uncommon Schools has more trustees that work for Goldman Sachs than have experience in education.
A major question is why do these hedge fund managers, venture capitalists, and stock brokers care about education and charter schools? What do they get out of it?
The same question could be asked about the Metropolitan Museum of Art, The Central Park Conservatory, or the New York Philharmonic—all of which have boards chaired by investors or real estate developers. In short, it’s about status and power. New York City has a culture of billionaire philanthropy, spurred by a desire to leave a mark on the city. It is an opportunity for elites to cement their position of power within the social-political upper class of the city through performative philanthropy. Previously public education administration and policy was solely the purview of the Department of Education and elected officials—now with the expansion of charter schools there are new opportunities to reshape education under market ideals.
What does education envisioned by Wall Street, but funded by public money look like? Does it value equity, citizenship, and integrity or give special attention to those most in need?
For the most part, no. Instead it incorporates the basic tenets of business: competition, efficiency, and deregulation. The justification goes that once free from union power and bureaucratic micromanagement, schools will be able to innovate and escape the faults of the traditional public school model. However,charter schools offer a solution to the symptoms of inequality while doing little to combat the structural inequalities that allows for both billionaire investors and a public-school population defined by poverty and racial inequality. They are premised on the idea that quality education for all requires an unacceptable restructuring of society and that the idealistic notion of public education as a societal equalizer is unrealistic. Charter schools instead reflect the reality of the capitalist job market and embrace the fallacy of meritocracy—an idea that justifies both allowing charter schools to emphasize competition and concrete metrics like test scores and simultaneously legitimizes huge executive salaries. The cream rises all the way to the top—this idea is built into the very concept of charter schools—that if students are pushed to try hard and compete the deserving will be able to claw their way out of poverty and possibly into the realm of NYC elites.
The answer to addressing the deep-rooted causes of inequality is not to separate and stratify. Charter school governance should be made to better reflected the values of the community and not Wall Street elites. The city should require greater community representation on board of trustees of existing charter schools. Each board should have a member appointed by the Department of Education and a member elected by parents of the students. Charter school boards should be representative of the students they serve. Charter schools should not be used as a means for greater political sway or accruing social capital by New York City’s elites.
New York City’s educational philosophy should not slip any further towards the market policies pushed forward by the financial elites so keen on charter schools. Instead, we must reinvest in schools as civic institutions. They should focus on holistic education that includes civic responsibility, cultural pluralism, and tolerance. Schools should also act as community centers, offering free or low-cost programming including sports, extracurriculars, and opportunities for parents to get involved. Partnerships with local community organizations could help to produce culturally sensitive and locally minded curriculums. Schools should also be required to address basic quality of life inequities by providing services such as healthy and free meals, laundry, and free health clinics. These services should be high quality and available to all students regardless of income. Reinventing schools as equalizers rather than stratifiers become more unlikely the more we allow educational policy to be dictated by financial elites who envision schools as companies rather than academic and civic institutions.