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.”
Success Academy declined to answer several specific questions about the staff members’ claims, but offered the following statement:
Last week, 11,000 charter school families and educators voluntarily showed up to a rally in Albany despite frigid temperatures and a long bus ride. They did so because their children’s right to a high quality public education is under attack, and they wanted State lawmakers to know how much their schools mean to them. It was an inspiring and emotional event filled with people who care deeply about the power of public education to change lives.
City councilman and education committee chair Daniel Dromm said he will hold an oversight hearing about whether Moskowitz violated any state education regulations. “It’s shocking to me that a CEO thinks they can close a whole set of schools and then bus those children up to Albany for totally political rally. I have deep questions about the appropriateness of that,” Dromm told The Nation. “She’s using children as pawns in a political war, and that’s very problematic.” Dromm also said he has concerns about the source of funding for Success’s political activity; the organization receives public funding and is a c(3) nonprofit, which may devote only a limited portion of their activities to lobbying. According to Dromm the hearing, tentatively slated for April, will also focus on other aspects of charter school finances, including compensation for executives like Moskowitz, who made $475,244 in 2012.
While students are the face of Moskowitz’s campaign, the financial muscle comes from Wall Street. The trip to Albany was paid for by Families for Excellent Schools, a nonprofit chaired by a venture capitalist named Paul Applebaum. Although the group’s mission is to “grow a movement of families and schools that drives grassroots demand for legislative and electoral change,” four of the five founding board members, including Applebaum, work in the financial sector. Families for Excellent Schools is also behind a multimillion dollar ad campaign and a website, charterswork.org, which is currently promoting the hashtag #SaveThe194, referring to the 194 students who attend a Success Academy in Harlem whose application for co-location was one of the three denied by the de Blasio administration. (Read Jarrett Murphy’s blog post herefor more background on the co-location decisions.)
Co-location is a controversial practice in which a charter school moves into a building already occupied by a traditional public school. De Blasio has promised to break from Bloomberg’s education policies on co-location as well as on the practice of allowing charters to operate on public property without paying rent. The free rent charters enjoyed under Bloomberg allowed them to use their money—from taxpayers, as well as federal grants and donors—for classroom resources, glossy public relations campaigns, and aggressive expansion. During his campaign de Blasio said he would charge rent to charters, which would put $92 million per year into city coffers, according to the Independent Budget Office. Charter advocates say paying rent would disadvantage their students and could put many schools out of business, although a majority of public schools across the country pay to use public facilities.
Moskowitz emphasized this sense of existential crisis in communications with families and faculty ahead of the trip to Albany. “We will close our schools for one day to keep the mayor from closing them forever,” reads one letter to parents, urging them to attend the rally, where governor Andrew Cuomo promised protestors that “we will save charter schools.” Multiple employees who spoke to The Nation characterized this rhetoric as alarmist and misleading. “Our parents have been led to believe that we are the answer for their children,” one said. “We’re definitely capitalizing on that whole notion.”
Another said that she didn’t believe all parents were fully aware of what they are participating in. “I don’t mean that in a condescending way. I mean that the info presented is not necessarily accurate and it’s entirely one sided. This is being framed as a second or third civil rights movement, and I think that’s a racially charged power play—considering our demographics—to manipulate people.”
Teachers at Success are told they have a dual mission: to teach the children in their class as well as advocate for children everywhere to have access to high-quality education. The rally in Albany wasn’t the first time Moskowitz has closed schools for a political event; she did so in October for a pro-charter demonstration on the Brooklyn Bridge in anticipation of de Blasio’s election. Asked why they worked at Success if they disagreed with the school’s advocacy activities, the staff members told The Nation the two rallies marked a real turning point in how much pressure they felt to engage politically and in public, rather than simply as teachers in the classroom. “Since the Brooklyn Bridge rally I find myself in fundamental opposition to what they’re doing,” said one teacher, who has been looking for work elsewhere. “Frankly, I need the health insurance and I need to pay rent.”
“It’s never been as political as it been now. If this continues going this way it will be very hard for me to stay,” said another, who has worked at Success for several years and spoke admiringly of the network for providing her with “unparalleled” resources in the classroom, and of her students and colleagues. The atmosphere is particularly difficult for teachers who believe their students are getting a good education at Success and want that to continue, but are simultaneously uncomfortable with the administration’s political tactics. “We’re a very, very young organization, and the only way that this could work is if young people in their first jobs are fearful to ever speak up and say anything. If they say ‘jump’ we ask ‘how high.’” She continued, “It makes me really sad. I’m a public school teacher. I should not be fearful of my job.”
The political battle isn’t likely to fade any time soon. The state Senate is reportedly considering a budget that would pre-emptively bar the city from charging rent or rescinding co-location permits, and the rally in Albany seems to have been successful in setting Governor Cuomo more firmly against de Blasio’s education platform. Success Academy and a group of parents have filed separate lawsuits over the co-location reversals, while public advocate Letitia James is suing de Blasio over the forty-five co-locations he did approve. Some charter schools are distancing themselves from Moskowitz’s aggressive tactics; thirty boycotted the trip to Albany because it was scheduled to coincide with another rally at the capitol in support of de Blasio’s proposal to expand access to prekindergarten. Meanwhile, de Blasio has only just begun trying to implement the education policies that New York City voters implicitly yet resoundingly endorsed when he won in a landslide last fall.