The State Senate Primaries (Part Two): Basil "Faulty" and the Charter School Boys Choir

GATEMOUTH: And while I share the DLC’s willingness not to invariably come down on the sides of the unions or other traditional liberal allies (say, on charter schools), I find that, on many of these issues (like charter schools), I end up skeptical about the new ideas in actual practice.

LEON WIESELTIER: …The New York Times published a warming story about the rage for charter schools among hedge-fund managers. It appeared in "Sunday Styles," and was a fine glimpse into the current fashion of "social entrepreneurship" and "philanthrocapitalism“….But what irked me… was the usurpation of the moral prestige of the public sector by the social prestige of the private sector…one of the most effective methods for the delegitimation of government in our day has been the notion that charity may do the work of public policy, that private wealth is the answer to social crisis.

To put it another way, the story of the chic charterists was a study in Bloombergism. "Private money can help solve even the most difficult public problems," Michael Bloomberg declared in a blurb for Philanthrocapitalism: How the Rich Can Save the World, a book by Matthew Bishop and Michael Green…"There are limitations to what the state can do," they write, and so it is "no wonder governments, of both right and left, seem increasingly keen for wealthy individuals to give them a helping hand." …It follows, as they write later in their billet-doux to billionaires, that "a growing number of philanthrocapitalists are realizing that one of the most effective ways to leverage their money to change the world is to use it to shape how political power is exercised…

…the Times reported that Bloomberg's first deputy mayor will now serve simultaneously as the chairwoman and chief executive of Bloomberg's foundation. Bloomberg's political use of anonymous charitable gifts through the Carnegie Corporation has been amply documented. This is not philanthrocapitalism. It is philanthrogovernment.

…The signature contribution of the philanthrocapitalist to the American political tradition is the idea that social problems have market solutions. In the midst of our present troubles, however, there is much evidence to justify a new look at the grip of American business upon the American policy imagination.

DIANE RAVITCH: [T]here is something fundamentally antidemocratic about relinquishing control of the public education policy agenda to private foundations run by society's wealthiest people [who] "represent an unusually powerful force that is beyond the reach of democratic institutions.

WIESELTIER: To whom, really, are they accountable? Right now there is no more pressing task for the renovation of our sense of our society than the critical examination of our attitude toward the very rich and the nature of their influence upon our public life.

Yes, yes, yes, I cannot argue with that philosophically, 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 cant’s spread ideals on a cracker.”

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

RAVITCH: As No Child Left Behind's (NCLB) accountability regime took over the nation's schools under President George W. Bush and more and more charter schools were launched, I supported these initiatives. But over time, I became disillusioned with the strategies that once seemed so promising. I no longer believe that either approach will produce the quantum improvement in American education that we all hope for…

…When charter schools started in the early 1990s, their supporters promised that they would unleash a new era of innovation and effectiveness. Now there are some 5,000 charter schools, which serve about 3% of the nation's students, and the Obama administration is pushing for many more.

But the promise has not been fulfilled. Most studies of charter schools acknowledge that they vary widely in quality. The only major national evaluation of charter schools was carried out by Stanford economist Margaret Raymond and funded by pro-charter foundations. Her group found that compared to regular public schools, 17% of charters got higher test scores, 46% had gains that were no different than their public counterparts, and 37% were significantly worse.

Charter evaluations frequently note that as compared to neighboring public schools, charters enroll smaller proportions of students whose English is limited and students with disabilities. The students who are hardest to educate are left to regular public schools, which makes comparisons between the two sectors unfair. The higher graduation rate posted by charters often reflects the fact that they are able to "counsel out" the lowest performing students; many charters have very high attrition rates (in some, 50%-60% of those who start fall away). Those who survive do well, but this is not a model for public education, which must educate all children.

NAEP compared charter schools and regular public schools in 2003, 2005, 2007 and 2009. Sometimes one sector or the other had a small advantage. But on the whole, there is very little performance difference between them.

Given the weight of studies, evaluations and federal test data, I concluded that deregulation and privately managed charter schools were not the answer to the deep-seated problems of American education. If anything, they represent tinkering around the edges of the system. They affect the lives of tiny numbers of students but do nothing to improve the system that enrolls the other 97%.

OK, you have a point,

Still, 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.

The nightmare that is our public school system was exposed, like a nubile and horny teacher at Madison High School, largely through the efforts of the much demonized (and I reserve the right to do so myself) former City Councilwoman Eva Moskowitz, who conducted hearings where, in the words of
New York Magazine:

“She grilled and filleted bureaucrats from the DoE on their sickly science and art programs, the back-of-the-bus Regents-diploma rates for minority students, the pervasive shortage of toilet paper in what was then a $13 billion–a–year operation….In 2003, she torched the teachers union with hearings on seniority rights and work rules…The proceedings, complete with hidden witnesses using voice-distortion technology, were explosive.”

Moskowitz’s hearings, despite their one-sidedness and other elements of unfairness, shined a light on the problems of the system. Sunlight is the best disinfectant, and exposing the problems is a necessary first step to solving them.

Sadly, we shall likely not see such City Council hearings again. The response of the unions was a perfectly legal and totally despicable Working Families Party money laundering operation to ensure Moskowitz’s defeat when she ran for Manhattan Borough President.

It worked, and the lesson was not lost on our City’s pols.

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, but 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.

“According to government sources, the city’s co-located charter schools receive, on average, nearly as much per-pupil taxpayer support (within 5 percent) as the zoned schools, in addition to whatever they rake in from their private benefactors”

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.

As New York Magazine documented, Moskowitz, now a charter school entrepreneur, exemplifies such activities at their most intense:

“Police were called…when she brought movers to take another floor at P.S. 123, piling the zoned school’s belongings in the gym after it neglected to vacate on time…In July 2007, …Moskowitz identified five zoned schools that had declining enrollments “and suck academically.” In October 2008, she informed Klein that she was “most interested in” P.S. 194 and P.S. 241 in Harlem. Two months after that, the DoE moved to shutter those two schools and pass their buildings in toto—a first—to [Moskowitz] But there was a problem: [Moskowitz’ schools] could not accept all the children to be displaced. For one thing, the network has no self-contained classrooms for the profoundly disabled; for another, it takes in no new students after the second grade…When [Chancellor] Klein stayed the closings in the face of a UFT lawsuit, he also advised the zoned schools’ parents to “seriously consider” moving their children to [Moskowitz’] Harlem Success.”

The New York Magazine article chronicles a test prep regimen at Moskowitz’ schools that is nearly maniacal and renders its effectiveness as a measure of real achievement virtually meaningless. Similarly documented are the means in which those who fail to meet the schools standards (which might lower its aggregate scores) are hounded and intimidated out of the schools:

“If students are deemed bad “fits” and their parents refuse to move them, the staffer says, the administration “makes it a nightmare” with repeated suspensions and midday summonses. After a 5-year-old was suspended for two days for allegedly running out of the building, the child’s mother says the school began calling her every day “saying he’s doing this, he’s doing that. Maybe they’re just trying to get rid of me and my child, but I’m not going to give them that satisfaction.”…[a] Harlem Success teacher says, at least half a dozen lower-grade children who were eligible for IEPs have been withdrawn this school year. If this account were to reflect a pattern, Moskowitz’s network would be effectively winnowing students before third grade, the year state testing begins. “The easiest and fastest way to improve your test scores,” observes a DoE principal in Brooklyn, “is to get higher-performing students into your school.” And to get the lower-performing students out.”

This is not just a “Moskowitz" issue, as the New York Magazine article notes:

“Studies show “selective attrition” in the KIPP chain, among others, with academic stragglers—including those seen as disruptive or in need of pricey services—leaving in greater numbers. In one flagrant local example, East New York Preparatory discharged 48 students shortly before last year’s tests, among them seven poor-scoring third-graders.”

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.

I find some of the concerns raised about charter schools less than compelling. Yes, the students are self selected. There is a lottery, but the applicants for the lottery are motivated parents, and children of less motivated parents are left out in the cold.

But that is almost always the case, in any system. Children of less motivated parents rarely thrive. In fact, studies show that children not chosen in charter school lotteries score much better in testing than the public school children whose parents did not enter such lotteries.

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.

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

Some (though not all) of these concerns were addressed in hearings recently held by State Senator Bill Perkins.

Perkins’ hearings publicized the manner in which children were often pushed or “counseled out” of charter schools. They exposed the lack of inclusion by some charter school of special needs children and English Language Learners. They exposed the war for space and resources. They exposed corruption and nepotism; they exposed lack of parental input.

Like Moskowitz’s hearings on the public schools at the City Council, Perkins’ hearing were largely one-sided and often unfair. And like Moskowitz’s hearings, Perkins hearing were, even with their flaws, an excellent example of sunlight as the best disinfectant.

As I said, charter schools are here to stay. Someone had better keep an eye on them. Even the threat alone of more hearings like those held by Perkins helps keep abuses in line and allows for accountability the system does not otherwise provide.

As a result of conducting such hearing, Perkins has a big target on his back. The financially well-endowed pro-charter school network does not want more hearings, and they know if they can kill off Perkins, like the unions and the WFP killed off Moskowitz, such hearings will be highly unlikely in the future.

They are "leverag[ing] their money to change the world is to use it to shape how political power is exercised…”

Not only has Perkins been targeted, but two other charter school critics as well. State Senators Velmanette Montgomery and Shirley Huntley.

Unqualified success for such efforts would be a very bad thing. We need more (though perhaps fairer) hearings about the problems with both public and charter schools.

I’ve known Bill Perkins for 25 years, and
I dislike him intensely. While Perkins is capable of thoughtfulness on a public policy level, as I‘ve documented previously, his well-cultivated aura of independence is as credible as a three dollar bill. Sometimes, Perkins does rail against the Harlem establishment which has nurtured both him and his wife, a high ranking administrator at the Board of Elections (as was once Perkins); but that is only at those times when that establishment has told Perkins to wait his turn.

Perkins has a well financed (courtesy mostly of Charter school and/or Bloomberg connected sources) from another member of the Harlem establishment, Basil Smikle.

Smikle is smart, and possibly less of a snake than Perkins (as my link shows, that would not be difficult), but the monumental insincerity of his effort to portray himself as some sort of reformer is perhaps best exemplified by the fact that he, along with Perkins, showed up at Charlie Rangel’s birthday party (Smikle’s also attracted the support of the County Leader’s political club).

In other word, in electing Smikle, we would be trading Bill Perkins for a politician who, in cultivating his own false image of independence, seems to have chosen Perkins for his role model.

I am thus renaming Smikle as Basil “Faulty.”

Normally, I would join any committee to rid people like Bill Perkins from our polity, but the price of Perkins’ defeat would be an abrupt end to Charter School oversight by our State Legislature, and any other legislative body in our state, and that is far too great a price to pay, so I will hold my nose and support Bill Perkins’ re-election.

In parts of Brownstone Brooklyn, Bed-Stuy, Brownsville and other nearby areas, incumbent Velmanette Montgomery faces a similar primary from another smart, but well connected young man named Mark Pollard. Pollard has built a broad coalition, attracting not only Bloomberg/Charter school money, but support connected with developer Bruce Ratner as well. There are also reasons (albeit, somewhat ambiguous and not conclusive) to suspect that he is the preference of Brooklyn County Leader as well.

Velmanette Montgomery sometimes seems a bit spacey, but she serves a usual purpose. She is largely divorced from political maneuvering, and serves pretty much as the Senate conscience, a voice for the voiceless, fiercely independent and spotlighting issues involving children and other humanitarian concerns.

Mark Pollard would probably be a craftier legislator, but an increase in effectiveness alone would not justify replacing the unique Montgomery with more one smart careerist. Further, outsiders with a vested interest in a specific project, like Bruce Ratner, should not be encouraged in their efforts to game the political process, and folks like the charter school lobby should not be so encouraged either, barring some other compelling reason.

But in the last race targeted by the Charter School Lobby, that compelling reason does exists.

It is time to dump Shirley Huntley.

Though not given to violent outbursts (though she once administered a not totally unmerited
smackdown to the charter school lobby’s favorite sock-puppet, State Senator Daniel Squadron), Huntley is my own female version of Kevin Parker, in that I‘ve twice endorsed her without regard to her own personal qualities, because the alternatives were so dire. . In 2006, incumbent Ada Smith, had recently taken a plea to charges of attacking an aide with a hot caffeinated beverage. “Javagate” was only the latest in a long series of such incidents beginning while Ms. Smith was serving as a Deputy City Clerk. Smith had won her first election to the Senate by beating a convicted felon and a man who’d once attacked a political opponent with a baseball bat, and her luck in drawing quality opponents continued unmatched until Parker and Huntley came along.

So, by 2006, I concluded that it was time for voters to “wake up and smell the coffee” and noted that the “remaining candidate against Senator Smith is Shirley Huntley. I know almost nothing about Ms Huntley, and if I were a voter in this district I’d make sure to learn as little as possible, thereby making a choice a lot easier.”

Huntley won, and in 2008, her luck continued.
As I noted in endorsing Huntley‘s re-election:

“Two years ago, voters in the District did the State a favor by ousting the deeply disturbed Ada Smith for the adequate Shirley Huntley, significantly raising the State Senate’s level of mental health. This year, Huntley is being challenged by former Councilman Allen Jennings (who managed the miracle of making Tom White look preferable to something). Compared to Jennings, Ada Smith looks like Dr. Phil. Despite the fact that my specialty is writing humor, I beg voters here to return Huntley.”

But this year, Huntley has an opponent who is sane. Also smart, like Basil Smikle and Mark Pollard, but without any evidence of pretending his is something he is not. Last year, Lynn Nunes gave voters a chance to have the highly mediocre Tom White face a sane, rational and smart opponent, rather than an Allen Jennings, and Nunes shocked everyone by coming within six votes of victory.

Like White, Huntley is another mediocrity, without any notable achievements, other than helping to
direct state funding to her family. Yes, despite the cries of the charter school crowd, it appears that Senator Huntley does favor government funding for privately-run educational programs, as long as they do it in the privacy of her home.

Huntley has not cast sunlight where darkness needs exposure, in the manner of a Bill Perkins, and she has not served as a voice for the voiceless or a pillar of independence like Velmanette Montgomery.

She will not be missed.

Yes, Lynn Nunes supports charter school. But, as I think I’ve demonstrated here, what we need are articulate and brave voices on both sides of this issue to keep everyone honest.

Losing Bill Perkins in this context and in the manner threatened would be a very bad thing. Losing Shirley Huntley would make little difference. Likely, the charter school forces would not even get the credit.

The lobby most likely to get the credit would be the one in favor of same sex marriage, which Huntley vehemently opposes. The message such a defeat would send is worthy in and of itself.

But even if one does not care much about same-sex marriage, Huntley’s response to being targeted has provided an even better reason for her defeat.

Huntley’s opposition to same-sex marriage is at least based upon principle (albeit misguided), but her efforts to exploit the issue and demonize the LGBT community have forsaken principle for hatemongering.

Recently, Senator Huntley has complained of receiving threats, including some flowers on her doorstep telling her to “Rest in Peace."

She responded by holding a news conference featuring a tableaux of multi-cultural supporters, including a Minster who spoke about how “those who condone it [the harassment] need to be taken off the ballot.”

Blaming Nunes, without evidence, was bad enough, but now Huntley has
blamed the LGBT community, sending out a mailer portraying the supposed threat (which seems more and more suspicious with each passing day) as part of a seamless web of LGBT threats against her.

This is nothing but pure unabashed and despicable gay baiting.

The defeat of Basil Smile and Mark Pollard would be desirable, but there victories would not be tragic.

However, Shirley Huntley’s defeat has now become a moral imperative.