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John Thompson: One Sided Hardball in New York Charter Fight

Guest post by John Thompson.

When Bill de Blasio was elected mayor of New York City in a landslide, new hope came to New York City schools. De Blasio named a veteran educator, Carmen Fariña, as chancellor. He risked offending loyal constituencies by offering a generous compromise to charter schools. De Blasio set to work planning and funding pre-kindergarten. It looked like de Blasio marked a sea change from the scorched earth edu-politics of the Bloomberg years. And, it must be emphasized, there remain many reasons to be just as hopeful about de Blasio's new approach to school improvement.

But elite backers of competition-driven reform, like Eva Moskowitz of the Success Academy charter chain and Governor Andrew Cuomo, counter-attacked with a venom that is shocking even for them. Ironically, despite the moderation of de Blasio's first charter school decisions, Moskowitz's and Cuomo's worst assault on the new mayor was directed at his decision on school co-locations. De Blasio inherited 17 applications by charter schools seeking to share the space of existing schools. The new administration approved 14 of those applications, including two by Moskowitz's Success Academies.  

In response, Moskowitz did something that public school educators would never consider. She closed her 22 charter schools for a day and bussed their students to Albany for an anti-de Blasio rally.

The New York Times Ginia Bellafante, in How de Blasio's Narrative Got Hijacked, explained the difference in the way that Moskowitz et. al and de Blasio and his teacher allies fight these charter battles. In doing so, she highlighted a broader difference between the ways that market-driven school reformers, and teachers, our unions, and our allies such as de Blasio approach school improvement.

Bellafante reports that it is not widely understood that two of the Moskowitz schools that were denied approval for co-locations were elementary schools that would have been placed in high school campuses. That practice is "problematic." The third proposed co-location was to be at an already overcrowded school. And it would have displaced a large number of children with special needs.

A first reading of Bellafante might suggest that Moskowitz, Cuomo, and charter school advocates hire better, high-dollar public relations firms, but it is more complicated than that. Let's think for a second what could have happened if the roles were reversed and teachers had laid the groundwork for the NYC charter conflict by adopting the reformers' media tactics. Imagine a commercial with the archetypical, grave narrator's voice, "Eva Moskowitz wants to kick special education children out of their home school. ... What type of person does something like that?" or "Moskowitz seeks to place helpless elementary school children in the same building as tough, inner city high students ... Why is she so cruel?"

So, why don't teachers and our unions play that sort of hardball?

The tactics of school reformers might be effective for maximizing profits in the free market system. Some win, some lose, and some win big time. The Masters of the Universe-type winners get an extra ego boost.

But, vicious no-hold-barred competition cannot improve the lives of children.

The poison dumped on adult educators always flows down onto the children. For that reason, education requires a politics of the "Big Tent." It might not be an ideal system, but the best approach to education is having as many stakeholders as possible inside the tent, peeing out when necessary. Moreover, outsiders who are pissing into the tent shouldn't insult our intelligence by claiming that their urine has a special ingredient (testing) that just upsets adults, but which is nutritious for young minds.

Bellafante raises a second point which is relevant to the rest of the nation's school wars, not just the NYC battle. She adds that de Blasio seems to have been ambushed by Cuomo, a fellow Democrat. "De Blasio went into this thinking that he and Cuomo were friends," an insider said, speaking said, "but Andrew Cuomo doesn't really have friends."

That brings us to another fundamental difference between reformers and teachers unions. Teaching is about trusting relationships. The same should be true of edu-politics. Teachers unions represent both, our adult members and students and their families. In the long run, we cannot represent the principle of public education without nurturing the bonds of mutual respect and common decency. Regardless of whether it is true of the politics required to maximize economic success or other types of power, educators and our representatives must embody the principle of "my opponent is my opponent, not my enemy."

Unions are problem-solvers. They do not exist to discover transformational theories of change to promote "disruptive innovations." Unions, fundamentally, seek win-win change. They must be inclusive. Their handshake must be good. Unions must treat opponents the way they want teachers to be treated. And, because they must respect the democratic process where all stakeholders have a voice, unions ordinarily produce incremental improvements for the poorest children of color.

I have been a member of numerous political organizations. In my experience, none have been more honorable than teachers unions and other education organizations, such as the Network for Professional Educators. Sometimes, it feels like we are unnecessarily battling reformers with one hand, as we fight poverty and other challenges in our classrooms. Sometimes, it is tempting to contemplate whether we should adopt the same scorched earth tactics as our opponents.

There is a nonfinancial reason, however, why we can't employ the same vicious spin. The buildings we work in are the places that our students learn in. It is our job, to the best of our abilities, to shield our kids from both the toxicity of high-stakes testing and market-driven school reform. We are fighting for public schooling for all. We are preparing children for healthy lives within a democracy. What good would it do to defeat the worst of corporate reform if public schools lost their Open Society soul in the fight?

That being said, this latest round of school reform with the Cuomo/ Moskowitz axis shows the same situational ethics as the Rhee/Klein/Bloomberg reformers. The common thread is a willingness to treat children as collateral damage in their assaults on adult enemies, while claiming that all children will benefit after the educational "status quo" is destroyed. In this case, however, a dynamic new mayor and a school chancellor of proven excellence are being subjected to the worst that can be thrown at them. And, the collateral damage could be early education. How sick is that?

 What do you think? How brazen are Moskowitz and Cuomo? Why do they feel free to attack opponents in such an unrestrained way?

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