On the first Tuesday in March, thousands of students, parents and teachers rallied at the New York state capitol in Albany to protest what the media quickly dubbed New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio’s “war” on charter schools and minority students. Eva Moskowitz, the founder of the Success Academy charter network and one of the mayor’s fiercest critics, closed all twenty-two of her schools so that students and staff could participate in what she called “the largest civic field trip in history.”
But it wasn’t merely a field trip; the rally was a political event, in protest of de Blasio’s decision not to approve plans for three Success Academies to co-locate with traditional public schools, and more broadly his proposal to charge rent to charters occupying city school buildings. (The mayor approved forty-five other co-location proposals, five of them put forward by Success Academy.) Moskowitz has been the most vocal opponent of the new mayor’s education policies, though few have been enacted. As the debate intensifies, staff and students at Success Academy are being increasingly drawn into the political battle—or pushed into it, according to several employees who spoke to The Nation on condition of anonymity.
“I don’t want to say it’s hostile, or abusive, but definitely I feel that coercive measures are taken,” said a staff member who works in the school’s administration. “The rally really demonstrated this lack of boundaries.”
The teachers and staffers who spoke to The Nation said that although they were never told they would lose their jobs if they did not attend the rally, they didn’t think they had much choice and were afraid to ask for an exception. “An option was not presented. The schools assigned everyone with a job, so you were either going to be an instructional coach or a bus captain,” one teacher explained. “They weren’t really asking us if that’s what we wanted to do. They were telling us that that’s what we were going to do instead of teaching for the day.” Many charter schools like Success are nonunionized, and celebrate the fact that they can fire teachers more easily than schools with teachers’ unions can; many charter teachers have described a culture of fear resulting from job insecurity.
Because all of the schools in the Success network were closed, parents who did not want their children to attend would have had to keep them home or find alternate childcare, with a week’s notice. The schools sent home fliers and put stickers on the jackets and backpacks of students asking families to accompany their children to Albany. “[De Blasio’s] threats to overturn approved school co-locations and to assess rent to public charter schools are placing our schools, and your scholars, at risk,” reads a letter sent to parents. Although civics lesson plans were prepared for the bus ride, one teacher said that some students watched movies instead, including The Lottery, a documentary about a Success Academy in Harlem.
“It feels a little exploitative,” another teacher said about taking students to Albany. “They’re five. They’ll hold whatever sign you hand them and believe whatever you tell them.” The teacher acknowledged that parents had the choice to keep their children home from the rally but added, “I did wonder what parents would do if they couldn’t come on the march—how they would arrange for child care.”