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In Defense of Public Education

June 25, 2015
By Cynthia DiBartolo, 
Founder and CEO of Tigress Financial Partners

Hedge fund managers threaten public schools.
Hedge fund managers threaten public schools.

New York, NY – Public education is a right.  It is a guarantee that represents our government’s commitment to the ideal that all children deserve an education. It ratifies that our nation’s future prosperity, our children’s future, depends on the quality and integrity of this critical institution.  

I was fortunate enough to attend private schools when I was growing up on Staten Island, first at St. Joseph Hill Academy and then at Wagner College.  However, for the majority of students across the state, private education is not an option. 

Public schools are not going away.  They are, and will continue to be, the primary means by which we educate the vast majority of our children.  As such, it is incumbent on us as citizens, and our representatives in government, to ensure that funding and supporting our public schools, and our public school teachers, remains a top priority. 

Unfortunately, in New York State, and across the nation, public education has come under attack.  The biggest culprit in New York has been hedge fund managers and ‘reform’ advocates, who stand to gain financially from the proliferation of charter schools.  

Piggybacking on politicians, who are as unwilling to fund public education as they are willing to accept funds from charter backers, these ‘reform’ advocates have convinced many that replacing struggling public schools (or as many public schools as possible) with charters is the solution to the beleaguered state of education in New York.  

It is clear that New York Governor Andrew Cuomo was successfully courted.  In his 2015 State of the State address, the governor called our public education system “broken,” and advocated “tough reform” whereby ‘failing’ schools would be subject to takeover “by a turnaround expert.”

The governor went on to say that funding was not an issue when it comes to struggling public schools.  He blamed teachers unions and teacher tenure for lagging student achievement, and called for increased standardized testing in the evaluation of public school students and teachers.  Finally, he demanded that the cap on charter schools be raised (by 100 or 22%), making clear, in no uncertain terms, that he planned to replace ‘failing’ schools with state funded charters.  

While the final NYS State Budget did not include a raise in the cap on charter schools (following public and political backlash) it is clear that this administration will continue to resist desperately needed increases in public education funding in favor of the expansion of charters.  

Charter schools represent a unique opportunity to experiment with alternative curricula and approach to education, but their space in the education landscape should remain that, experimental. 

If the governor believes that charters have figured out a way to address poor student achievement then our state’s education system would be better served by promoting dialogue between charter and public schools, not wholesale replacement, which looks dangerously like a step towards privatizing education, or at very least the engendering of an unfair two-tiered system.

Our public education system must work for all children.  Our children’s future must not be determined by lottery. 

Charter schools operate in a landscape with very little accountability and almost no governmental oversight.  Where accountability does exist, numerous loopholes abound – including those that allow charters to determine their own disciplinary systems (which are all too often used to expel ‘problem’ students and shepherd them to public schools), leave empty seats where it serves their purpose (despite the overwhelming application rate), and to relocate at will (allowing them to exploit zoning to their advantage).

Moreover, not all charters succeed and their data on student achievement is notoriously challenging to access, in contrast to all other New York state funded schools for whom disclosure of such data is mandated.  

Because of this it is difficult to tell how, if at all, charters outperform public schools.  And there is no one model for charter schools.  There are dozens of Charter Management Organizations (CMO’s) with varied approaches to education reform, and even more varied rates of success.  

Public school teachers say they feel shackled by standardized testing and diminished funding, yet the governor demands that the cuffs be tightened further.  Lack of funding and resources (to the point where many teachers pay for their own classroom supplies) is toxic to incentive and morale; ultimately limiting teacher and, consequently, student potential.

Since the release of the governor’s proposed education reforms parents, students, educators, administrators and citizens across New York State have turned out in protest.  In a dramatic response to the governor’s ‘reform’ initiatives nearly 180,000 parents statewide have withdrawn their children from required standardized tests. 

Public studies have made it clear that funding (both from the state and generous private investors), space, and freedom to innovate are key to the charters that succeed, resources and freedoms that are lacking and increasingly threatened in public schools – often by the very same politicians and investors who stand to benefit financially from charter expansion.  

Finally, public school teachers and principals deserve the same freedom that allows the best charter schools to succeed. Innovative and creative curricula is essential to improving education in New York, curricula that cannot be implemented in public schools subject to the standardized evaluations that the Governor has insisted be used to judge which teachers and schools are ‘failing’ and need to be replaced.    

A common sense approach to improving education in New York – one that respects the rights of teachers and the needs of all of our children – is what our teachers and students need and deserve.  This is impossible if we continue to pass the buck by investing in charters at the expense of public education. 

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