Charter School Blues

The failures and shortcomings of traditional public education, particularly in urban areas, are too numerous and well known to be listed here. But there are glimmers of hope and innovation, and few know that better than parents in poorly served neighborhoods who have won the charter school lottery. 

One of the city’s leading advocates for charter schools, former Councilwoman Eve S. Moskowitz, is trying to bring a charter to the Upper West Side, that bastion of progressive politics and home to relatively well-off families who nevertheless have concerns about the quality of their local schools. One school in the neighborhood, for example, is in the bottom quarter among city schools for English proficiency-a reminder that poor public schools do not inflict their misery on the poor and disenfranchised alone. Ms. Moskowitz, who preaches the gospel of charters with the zeal of a true believer, would like to give families an alternative to the rules-bound, unacceptable status quo.

This should be a no-brainer, but bear in mind that this is the Upper West Side, where ideology takes precedence over common sense. And so Ms. Moskowitz is being treated, at least by some residents, as though she were a prime-time host on Fox News. Local activists (it would be interesting to know how many of them are actual parents in actual public schools) have blocked two possible locations for Ms. Moskowitz’s charter. To hear the critics tell it, charter schools are part of the vast right-wing conspiracy and not, as happens to be the case, a creative alternative to the same old same old. While critics accuse charter school advocates of various offenses against progressive orthodoxy, the schools are supported by that fellow in the White House who so excited Upper West Siders a few years ago.

One of Ms. Moskowitz’s most effective opponents is an organization calling itself New York Communities for Change. Its leaders surely have a fine, though unintended, sense of irony, for the organization serves as a ferocious obstacle to change. If the leaders of Communities for Change truly were interested in reform, if they really were intent on advocating for those who desperately need change, they would get behind Ms. Moskowitz and the charter movement. They would support schools that put the interests of students ahead of the agenda of the teachers’ union. And they would demand that the state authorize more charters-in fact, they might consider opening a charter of their own. After all, the union has one.

The ideological machine, however, demands blind, unthinking loyalty. Because conservatives and right-leaning think-tanks were among the original supporters of charter schools, they must be stopped. Reactionaries posing as reformers portray Ms. Moskowitz as a threat to public education when she, and others like her, represent a welcome breakthrough. Charter school supporters mustn’t give up. Reform never comes easy. And who would know better than the Upper West Side’s comfortable progressives, who, once upon a time, sought so earnestly to challenge the old ways of thinking.

Charter School Blues