School Choice Wars
Though National School Choice Week ended a couple of weeks ago, reactionary rhetoric and political clashes are just heating up.
With National School Choice Week behind us, the battle – and it is a battle – to free our children from a monopoly by zip-code public education system is being fought on fronts all over the country, and in red and blue states alike, more and more Democrats are breaking ranks and joining Republicans in the fight.
In New York City, Eva Moskowitz, runs the wildly popular and thriving Success Academy Charter Schools – ten of the 22 schools are in Harlem – which cater to 6,700 students from overwhelmingly poor and minority families. They scored in the top 1 percent in math and top 7 percent in English on the most recent state test. You might think that this would make her a welcome figure in the Big Apple. But turns out that new mayor Bill de Blasio (and fellow Democrat) along with his teacher union friends, have it in for the charter operator.
The Wall Street Journal asks and then answers a question,
How did Ms. Moskowitz, a hero to thousands of New Yorkers of modest means whose children have been able to get a better education than their local public schools offered, end up becoming public enemy No. 1?
She is the city’s most prominent, and vocal, advocate for charter schools, and therefore a threat to the powerful teachers union that had been counting the days until the de Blasio administration took over last month from the charter-friendly Mayor Michael Bloomberg. Assailed by Mayor de Blasio and union leaders, Ms. Moskowitz is fighting back with typically sharp elbows.
“A progressive Democrat should be embracing charters, not rejecting them,” she says. “It’s just wacky.”
Perhaps they “should be embracing charters” and quite a few do. However, many more who claim to be “progressive” are anything but. In fact, the teachers unions and their fellow travelers who slavishly fight against any meaningful education reform are really reactionaries. And it’s no secret that Moskowitz has had a teacher union problem for years now.
… in 1999, Ms. Moskowitz won a council seat representing Manhattan’s Upper East Side. Three years later, she took the helm of the council’s education committee. A competitor for that chairmanship was a Democratic councilman from Brooklyn, Bill de Blasio.
Ms. Moskowitz says the union had previously controlled the committee and set its agenda, even providing cue cards to members. At a delicate moment for the UFT’s talks with City Hall on a new contract, Ms. Moskowitz held hearings on the teachers union’s work rules and other restrictions in the contract. That move secured the enmity of Randi Weingarten, who ran the local union then and is now president of the American Federation of Teachers.
“The unions decided to get political retribution and they succeeded,” Ms. Moskowitz says. The UFT led the opposition to her failed 2005 bid for Manhattan borough president. Ms. Moskowitz soon after decided to try to reform in New York another way, starting the inaugural Harlem Success Academy. It was quickly bounced from its shared home at a public school.
“Randi Weingarten came in and said, ‘Over my dead body,’ ” according to Ms. Moskowitz. But a former political sparring partner, then-Schools Chancellor Joel Klein, became an ally. The Bloomberg administration wanted to “flood the zone” in Harlem with alternatives to failing district schools. Half the kids in Harlem today attend charters, among them KIPP, Democracy Prep and Harlem Children’s Zone. Across New York, 70,000 students go to a charter.
The next time a teachers union leader insists that they are really “for the children,” please refer the true believer to Eva Moskowitz.
Then we have President Obama, who favors charter schools but draws the line at privatization. He well knows that if he came out in favor of vouchers, the unions would throw him under the school bus. But as a lame duck, one has to wonder why he is still holding that position. The president was forced recently to address the voucher issue head on when Fox’s Bill O’Reilly confronted him on Super Bowl Sunday.
Mr. Obama said that the means-tested voucher programs in Milwaukee and Washington, D.C, “didn’t actually make that much of a difference,” and added, “As a general proposition, vouchers have not significantly improved the performance of kids that are in these poorest communities.”
In fact, the president is dead wrong. Study after study has shown that vouchers improve student outcomes and have the biggest impact on low-income minorities. Additionally, private schools are taxpayer-friendly – doing a better job for less money. As writer Jason Riley points out,
Mr. Obama’s problem with vouchers is not that they don’t work. Rather, it’s that they work all too well and thus present a threat to the education status quo and the teachers unions who control it. Democrats like Mr. Obama are deeply dependent on union support–so dependent that they will sometimes tell bald-faced lies about school-choice research on national television and hope that no one notices.
On a national level, Senators Lamar Alexander (R-TN) and Tim Scott (R-SC) have introduced legislation that would help poor and disabled kids as well as military families.
Under Alexander’s legislation, states could opt to allocate the newly-consolidated funds to low-income parents, giving them much more say over how their child’s share of federal education dollars are spent. Parents could use the money to help pay for private school, supplement their public or public charter’s school’s budget, attend a public school outside their home district, or cover the cost of tutoring services or home schooling materials. Each child would get an average of $2,100 in annual federal aid, under the proposal.
Scott released the CHOICE Act, which stands for the Creating Hope and Opportunities for Individuals and Communities Through Education Act. The bill would allow special education dollars to follow children to the school of their choice.
… Scott’s bill would create a five-year, $10 million pilot program to offer military families scholarships of up to $12,000 for use at public or private schools. (The cost of the program would be offset by a decrease in the U.S. Department of Education’s salaries and expenses account.) Scott is also seeking to boost the number of students receiving aid under the D.C. Opportunity Scholarship program, a federally-funded voucher program for low-income students in Washington.
Needless to say, the National Education Association is not in favor of this kind of help to those in need. On the union’s legislative page, it gives a “jeer” to both Alexander and Scott for introducing the voucher proposals.
On the state level, there is more bad news for the unions. They will need to extinguish fires in Oklahoma, Tennessee, Alaska, Indiana, Wisconsin and elsewhere, as school choice and other education reforms have been embraced by many on both sides of the political aisle.
Of course there are still plenty of legislators who, having thrown in their lot with the union crowd, are vehemently anti-choice. On the NEA website, California Rep. George Miller (D-CA) gets a “thumbs-up” for demonizing National School Choice Week.
Many of my colleagues on the other side of the aisle, and their strategists, have embraced so-called ‘school choice’ as part of their rebranding efforts, to appear more caring … This new effort even has a warm and fuzzy name: the Growth and Opportunity Project. This is political posturing at its worst … If you ask most parents in America, they will tell you that their first ‘choice’ is for their neighborhood school to be a great school.
Yes, Mr. Miller, that would be nice, if all neighborhood schools were “great.” But they’re not. And if your local school was not up to par, you wouldn’t want to send your kids there, now would you?
Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-AK) also gets a shout-out from NEA for her “reaction to so-called school choice.”
I have always had great anxiety with the thought that we’d take public money, state money, and send it to private schools.
Think Pell Grants, Ms. Murkowski. Think G.I. Bill. Just think.
The reactionaries among us – certain educrats and legislators and of course the teachers unions – won’t go away easily. But “Choice Spring” has arrived, and the pro-choice movement has taken root. As parents, children and taxpayers get a taste of freedom, there will be no turning back.
Larry Sand, a former classroom teacher, is the president of the non-profit California Teachers Empowerment Network – a non-partisan, non-political group dedicated to providing teachers with reliable and balanced information about professional affiliations and positions on educational issues.