Does Ed Towns Even Have a Position on Charter Schools (Or Anything Else)?

To my surprise, a local black activist of the “progressive” school has reacted with much disdain for my inclination to support Hakeem Jeffries for Congress against Ed Towns.

BPA: The points I repeatedly raise are designed to show all the reasons by Jeffries will NOT end up running against Towns. David vs. Goliath PRIMARY battles are not that sexy to Democratic donors unless the Goliath is quite evil. Brooklyn political history shows that very few incumbents seeking re-election -- particularly those with huge districts -- are considered "evil" by primary voters. The Jeffries operation is doing a good job of generating free press and hype that will help to position him for 2014. But those who know know very well how hard a challenge to Towns will be and how waiting until 2014 is the practical strategic move when the nation is focused on Democrat vs. Republican battles. There are indeed other questions that need to be answered regarding Jeffries' support, but they are minor compared to the strategic reality. This is not to say that Hakeem won't end up in Congress. His chances are excellent, but not this year.

GATE: Look, I'm not even sure Hakeem ends up living anywhere near ET's district, but he seems to have a donor base independent of normal Dem donors. He also seem to care less about the daunting nature of challenging incumbents. Further, he has a skill set such that his survival in life does not depend on finding and keeping government employment. Combine this with ET's weaknesses (recent losses, lacks of  money, new enemies, public repudiation by his colleagues) and the chance that someone else might beat ET if Hakeem doesn't make the race, and I think the odds are high that Hakeem will not be impressed by your analysis.

Reacting to these comments, Colin Campbell had his own take.

COLIN: the best time to take on an established incumbent has gotta be right after redistricting, rather than the cycle immediately after.

Right after redistricting, both the incumbent and the challenger are introducing themselves to a good chunk of voters for the very first time ;)

As far as the nation being distracted in 2012, I'm not sure if that'll be the case at all as there'll be very little else on the ballot for Democratic primary voters in that area.

But my activist acquaintance was not deterred. I was greeted in the morning by a new email. 

BPA:  thought you'd want to see this ...

From: Mona Davids

Subject: Hakeem Jeffries' Privatization & Union Busting Agenda

Hi all,

In July 2011, Jeffries did a flip flop on charters & charter co-locations betraying parents and attacking the NAACP & UFT for standing up for all children. He did this for DFER money.  We responded to his selling out with our press release at:

Now, Jeffries, the only elected to attend this charter town hall meeting yesterday is ramping up his sellout campaign to the privatizing, union busting charter lobby. Apparently, this is nothing new for Jeffries, he flip-flopped/sold out on Atlantic Yards too.

Jeffries knows the truth about charters not serving ALL children, charters do NOT outperform district schools, many refusing to establish PA/PTA's, pushing out students with special needs, high teacher turnover, high student attrition, incompetent boards, financial mismanagement AND board malfeasance. He knows all this but instead of holding charters accountable, he's selling our children and teachers out for charter money.

The Parents Union doesn't have DFER money, we need your support at our fundraiser so we can fight sell outs like Jeffries who puts his career before out our children, working people and the 99%.

Parents AND Teachers (especially in BK), we must organize and fight back. Jeffries MUST NOT be elected. Our children's education and futures, our schools and YOUR jobs are at stake!  Jeffries is NOT going to Congress!

Attached was an article describing an appearance by Hakeem at a Town Hall held by the Charter Parent Action Network in Bed-Stuy. 

I responded

GATE: as you know, I'm more a charter skeptic than a charter opponent. I think the teacher's unions have created their own problems by opposing every effort at accountability--I'd be much more inclined to oppose charters if they did not do so

Send me something where he says (like Kevin Powell) that he supports a two state solution "For the Time Being,"  and I'll be alarmed.

BPA: Ha, ha, ha!  You're hilarious!

Well, I'm in your camp on charters (being on a charter board and having a kid in a charter school), but I totally oppose co-locations and I believe that any co-located charter should be paying rent to NYCDOE.

I definitely agree that the AFT/UFT have not helped themselves at all on the charter front. 

I think the real issue here for Hakeem is flip-flopping and credibility.

I will not dwell here overly much on my very nuanced and somewhat ambivalent view of charter schools.

I think Charter Schools are wrong  in principle; but tell that to a parent zoned for a failing or even mediocre public school (I am one such parent). As Fred Astaire said on “The Bandwagon”, “you can’t spread ideals on a cracker.”

So, while I care about principles, I care more about what works.

Further, charter school are a fact of life.

Between the piles of cash enticing submission to the temptation exemplified by President Osama’s “Race to the Top” funds, and the pressure of Mayor Bloomberg multi-tentacled bankrolls, charter school in New York are here to stay, at least for the foreseeable future.

In large measure, those opposing charter schools, most prominently the teachers’ and other educational unions, have themselves to blame of this situation.

Barring being caught naked in a classroom en flagrante delicto, it is easier to legally smoke a Camel through the eye of a needle than to fire a tenured educator in the city of New York.

Truly, public schools, teachers, administrators and other personnel need to be held accountable. Sadly, this is not what is occurring. Instead, we are getting charter schools.

Charter schools are the opposite of accountability. As New York Magazine noted, charter school are funded with public money, but autonomously owned and operated, and largely free of government oversight. Schools showing adequate student progress, as defined by state tests, which are notoriously taught to, can pretty much do what they please.  

The current City administration’s attitude seems to be to give charter schools carte blanche. Anecdotal evidence indicates the administration is more interested in helping them obtain private funding than they are about obtaining such money for the rest of the system. They seem to get more favorable treatment as well in the war for school space.

Also documented is an atmosphere of dictatorially imposed conformity I doubt the elitist boosters of such schools would tolerate being imposed on their own (read “white”) children.  

There are other problems with charter schools. Many are nests of corruption and nepotism, the flavor of the day for the modern poverty pimp of the 21st Century. In many places, charter school have allowed fringe groups with strange ideologies to use public money to dubious purpose. Even in New York, there has been a disturbing trend toward setting up academies of ethnic cheerleading, some of which barely skirt First Amendment establishment clause issues.

But parents desperate for their children to get a good education have a right to schools which afford their children that opportunity. The fact that so many of our school do not do so is exactly why charter schools have become the flavor of the month. It is exactly why charter school are here for the foreseeable future.

So, the question is no longer “Should charter schools exist,” but rather “how shall charter schools exists?”

Given the City’s shortage of space, but the existence of underutilized space in many schools, I don’t oppose co-locations in principle; though I think I do oppose them in practice, at least if it’s one of  Eva “Cruella” Moskowitz’s  schools. However, I don’t favor the City’s charging rent to a City funded school. What’s the point? 

I made many of these points (some verbatim) and more in an article last year, in which I concluded we need articulate advocates of both viewpoints within the Democratic Party, and most importantly, more accountability for both public and charter schools.

To return to the subject, on this issue and others, like Atlantic Yards, Hakeem Jeffries tends to nuance himself to death, but on this issue, as with Atlantic Yards, he often gets to a place near my own thinking. Further, I‘ll take this moment to remind BPA that he surely prefers Hakeem’s Atlantic yards nuance to ET’s full-throated support of Ratnerville.

But the real question here is “Does Ed Towns even have a stand on Charter Schools?

As I’ve documented before, on so many issues, ET’s thought processes, if one can even call them that, are quite embarrassing.

Let me review here some points I made in 2006.

“A reader, one Jesse McCollum, has responded to my column outlining the case against Charles Barron by making the concomitant case for Ed Towns…To sum up, the case is that “Ed Towns brings home the bacon”. This is essentially the case that many Democrats, Towns among them, made for years on behalf of Alphonse D’Amato. My response to that argument was always that D’Amato stood for all the wrong things. The argument against Ed Towns is entirely different; Ed Towns stands for nothing at all.

Take the issue largely responsible for this primary, Towns’ support for the Central American Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA). As a Thomas Friedman reading, Bill Clinton Democrat aware of the roots of Clinton’s eight straight years of economic growth, I find opposition to Towns based on this issue to be somewhat vexing. I would normally oppose Towns for any reason, or no reason at all, but not for this reason. Why cannot organized labor understand that trade barriers are ultimately counterproductive? Has anyone who supports protectionism ever read a history of the depression? The names Smoot and Hawley should live in infamy alongside those of Taft and Hartley. Sadly, Labor does not need to beat Towns to win this race; all they need to do is prove that anyone who defies them buys themselves a well-financed primary opponent. Most members of Congress are risk adverse and will draw the obvious conclusion. Ironically, while many Democratic members of Congress courageously supported Clinton on NAFTA, Ed Towns was not among them. A Google search indicates that his voting record is 70% anti-free trade.  So, one must assume that, on CAFTA, Towns traded his vote, one time only, without regard to any big picture.

In the early seventies, “Congress Watch”, a Ralph Nader project staffed by the likes of Mark Green, published a study of Congress, in which Manhattan’s Ed Koch, pretty much the group’s model of an ideal public servant, explained that Congressional votes divided into three groups. There were moral issues, on which one voted their conscience; areas in which one had special expertise, in which one followed their intellectual conclusions; and all other issues, where one tried to vote in a manner reflecting what their constituents would do if they possessed all the facts. Naturally, there are other decision making models. There is, for example, the “what are you offering me?” model. I would regard it as incredibly elitist to argue that it was illegitimate for a representative from a poor district to use virtually every opportunity which presented itself to cut the best deal for his constituents. And, this is undoubtedly the model Ed Towns sees himself as following.

Still, there would seem to be limits. The City’s Republican State Senate delegation has argued for years that their signing onto the Republican Party agenda is a price worth paying for the millions they bring home to their constituents. But, is it not pennywise and pound foolish to facilitate aid formulas which ultimately hurt their constituents far more than the momentary benefits brought by the pork they bring home?  Likewise, if free trade ultimately hurts working people (or, for that matter, ultimately benefits them), isn’t it foolish to vote the opposite way for, say, the payoff  of a couple of small business loans for constituents?

Moreover, even the poorest Congressional districts have the right to occasionally expect their representative to vote their conscience; say, on matters of war and peace.  But, to Ed Towns “war” and “peace” translate into nothing more than “whore” and “piece”. On April 28, 1999, the House of Representatives voted on two resolutions concerning our efforts to stem the tide of genocide in Kosovo. One resolution sought to restrict the ability of President Clinton to deploy ground troops, the other supported the concept of air strikes. Members had the opportunity to take any of three positions which could have been justified as principled. They could have supported the air strikes and the President’s right to deploy ground troops, in the name of stopping genocide; or they could have opposed both, in the name of moral opposition to military actions when we were not under attack; or they could have pragmatically split the difference, and supported only the air strikes.

There was, theoretically, a fourth possibility, which virtually everyone agreed made no sense. One could support the President being able to deploy ground troops, while opposing the air strikes. But, who could possibly support that? Yet, that was the way Ed Towns voted. Those who cared searched for a rationale: soldiers going into combat were always issued cigarettes, but the combustibility of jet fuel made smoking in the bombers impossible; maybe ET was just being the Marlboro man again. Slowly, the real story became apparent, as members of ET’s staff told constituents that ET voted as he did on ground troops because the President called and asked him for his vote. Clearly, as the other vote was a freebie no one was willing to pay for, Towns decided it was an opportunity to throw a bone to the peaceniks, not understanding that his lack of consistency made him look like a fool. It was that rare example in politics when having a moral compass would have yielded some positive personal benefits.

Other times Towns seems to be making it up as he’s going along. A few years ago the House voted on a resolution, sponsored by the Republican leadership, condemning Nation of Islam Minister Khalid Muhammed for a speech which was outrageously racist, anti-Semitic, and anti-Catholic (it was also notably homophobic, but one doubts this bothered the Republican leadership). Towns was one of the few members who voted no, saying he was a First Amendment absolutist, and such resolutions had a chilling effect on free speech. Frankly, I’m pretty much a First Amendment absolutist myself, and I don’t see how a sense of the Congress resolution threatens anyone’s rights; no one’s speech is restricted, in fact the debate is expanded. But, there were legitimate civil libertarians, including San Diego Congressman Bob Filner, a man who’d spent his career working for Jewish organizations, who took the exact same position as ET, so I was willing to give Towns the benefit of the doubt.

Then, the other shoe dropped. A few months later, First Amendment absolutist Edolphus Towns voted to repeal the First Amendment by voting for a constitutional amendment criminalizing flag burning. As I understand it, the Towns position is that it’s wrong for Congress to condemn someone’s repugnant speech, but it’s fine for Congress to incarcerate them for it. More likely, the rationale for the conflicting positions was “I already give the Satmar Hasidim a car load of money, and am to the right of Likud on the Gaza Strip, so the Jews are taken care; it’s time to give the Sonny Carson crowd some love; and the flag burning stuff ‘ll play well among the white folks in Georgetown and the Vet groups.”

So, if the real issue here for Hakeem is flip-flopping and credibility, why should we assume, against all history, that ET’s stance is any different?

A short bout of research on the matter of ET and Charter schools indicates that while Hakeem Jeffries sends his child to a traditional public school, ET sent his daughter Deidre to Packer Collegiate Institute (before she got into Brooklyn Tech) and that Deidra’s strange foundation, named for ET’s mom, and initially registered to a staffer on ET’s payroll, allegedly helps student get into charter schools. 

Meanwhile, ET’s son Darryl voted in the Assembly to increase the cap on the number of charter schools and sends his daughter to a prestigious New England boarding school.  

But what about ET himself?

As expected, the record is three things: scant, mixed and completely lacking in intellectual coherence.

According to Project Vote Smart, Towns supports federal funding for charter schools. However, given the opportunity to put our money where his mouth is, Towns voted no on reauthorizing the DC opportunity scholarship program. Further, when it came to the Empowering Parents Through Quality Charter Schools Act, Towns took money from both sides, and then missed the vote. In his own district,  Towns has supported the creation of charter schools while seemingly opposing their actually having any place to operate.  

Interestingly enough, though  Jeffries was the lone elected official to attend the Bed-Stuy Charter Parent Action Network  Town Hall event, staffers representing a few other electeds participated.

It should surprise no one that one of those was Congressman Ed Towns.

There is only one aspect of the education debate where Ed Towns’ position is clear.

As someone who’s rendered mediocre service for a tenure of nearly three decades, one can be sure that ET strongly opposes any efforts to replace “Last in, First Out” with a system based on merit.

Beyond that, nothing else is really certain.   

You don’t like Charter Schools or you don’t like flip-floppers, so you think you might not like Hakeem? 

As almost always, I have one question:

“Compared to What?”