“A true New Yorker,” New York Mayor Bill de Blasio declared at a rally this February, “stands up against hate.” Unless, apparently, that hate is directed at people who successfully educate poor kids without unionized teachers.
At a Democratic cattle call last Friday in front of the National Education Association (NEA), the largest labor union in the country, de Blasio exceeded the contempt of even Bernie Sanders for public schools operated by non-governmental entities.
“I’m going to be blunt with you,” the fourth-tier Democratic presidential aspirant barked, loping around the stage and jabbing his finger for emphasis. “I am angry about the state of public education in America. I am angry about the fact that you are disrespected on a regular basis in this country, despite doing such important work. I am angry about the privatizers! I am sick and tired of these efforts to privatize a precious thing we need, public education. I know we’re not supposed to be saying ‘hate,’ our teachers taught us not to. I hate the privatizers, and I want to stop them.”
The mayor, whose school system of 1.1 million currently includes 123,000 kids attending charters, made it clear that it’s not just the comparatively narrow category of for-profit entities that he’s against, but the entire concept.
“We need a federal government that finally takes responsibility for funding education in the way it needs to be done in this country,” de Blasio said. “That’s what I want to focus on. Get away from high-stakes testing, get away from charter schools. No federal funding for charter schools. By the way, too many Republicans, but also too many Democrats, have been cozy with the charter schools. Let’s be blunt about it: We need to hold our own party accountable, too. And no one should ask for your support, or no one should be the Democratic nominee unless they’re willing to stand up to Wall Street and the rich people behind the charter school movement once and for all.”
Befitting a candidate hated nationally (and almost locally) even more than President Donald Trump, de Blasio came in for some hot fire from his hometown media. The New York Post editorialized against “De Blasio’s charter school lies.” The Daily News, not normally in political agreement with its tabloid rival, came at Hizzoner with receipts. “His anger isn’t aimed at the man in the mirror, who spent $800 million in taxpayer money promising and miserably failing to deliver ‘fast and intense improvement’ in struggling traditional public schools,” the paper snarled, before really getting personal:
Let the record show that a man wealthy enough to afford to buy a home in Park Slope, who was therefore able to send his son and daughter to fine public elementary and middle schools and then onto selective public high schools, now wants to deny alternatives to poorer families whose neighborhoods are often plagued with underperforming schools.
Quality educational options for me, not for thee. We know we’re not supposed to be saying “hate,” but we hate supposedly progressive hypocrites.
The open prejudice that New York progressives—especially white New York progressives—have against charters has already started to take its toll. The November 2018 election brought to Albany a bloc of anti-charter Democrats, some of whom campaigned “to get rid of” non-unionized public education. Sure enough, the legislature last month elected not to lift the cap on the number of charters allowed in New York City, despite clearly demonstrated demand from parents and a willingness to supply among operators. In 2018, nearly 53,000 students ended up on charter waitlists, unable to obtain the 27,000 available seats.
“Charters routinely outperform other public schools and have proven to be a lifeline for working-class black and Latino parents looking for a sound education,” wrote locally beloved NY1 News Political Anchor Errol Louis in a fiery Daily News piece. “In the 2017-18 school year, according to the New York City Charter School Center, an astounding 58.6% of black students in city charters scored at or above state achievement levels in math, compared with only 25.4% in regular district schools. For Latino students, 56.9% hit the mark in math at charter schools compared with 30% in district schools.”
Just last week, one of those charters, Success Academy Bronx 2, saw all 53 of its eighth-graders earn a five out of five on the state algebra exam, despite being situated in the nation’s poorest congressional district and having 90 percent of its population qualify for free or reduced student lunch. Half of the public school kids in the same district failed the test.
De Blasio was confronted about these glaring disparities Tuesday by Errol Louis:
Louis: … 53 percent of the charters kids are African American, 38 percent are Latino, 81 percent are low-income free and reduced lunch, and they’re outscoring the traditional public schools in every measurable dimension.
De Blasio: We know that.
Louis: I understand where there are problems, like, you know, there are 53,000 people on this waiting list and so forth, but there’s nothing you can learn from them?
De Blasio: We—again, I say we partner with the ones that share those values of inclusion. We work with them—best practices are shared both ways. I think there are some charter schools that do good work, I think there’s some charter schools that are test-prep factories, I think there are some charter schools that are exclusionary, and that goes against everything I believe in.
It’s bad enough that de Blasio’s policies are harming kids in New York. But the anti-charter prejudice he’s tapping into is rapidly becoming a core Democratic Party value. The other presidential candidates at the NEA forum—former Vice President Joe Biden, Sen. Kamala Harris (D–Calif.), Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D–Mass.), Sen. Bernie Sanders (I–Vt.), former congressman Beto O’Rourke, Julián Castro, Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D–Minn.), Washington Gov. Jay Inslee, and Rep. Tim Ryan (D–Ohio)—mostly piled on the charter movement. Only O’Rourke, who used to be a full-throated supporter of charters, dared to suggest that “there is a place for public, nonprofit charter schools,” but he quickly got to the “but”: “But private charter schools and voucher programs, not a single dime in my administration will go to them.”
What used to be a fairly mainstream Democratic idea, championed by the likes of Barack Obama, Biden, and pre-presidential-campaign Sen. Cory Booker (D–N.J.), has now become something candidates feel like they need to furiously backpedal from. This Chalkbeat survey of 2020 educational policy positions makes it clear the mildly reformist tendencies of Obama Education Secretary Arne Duncan are not likely to be seen again from a Democrat any time soon.
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