Progressives Fight to Keep Poor Kids Trapped in Failing Schools

With NYC's per pupil spending at $20,000, why can't public schools afford pens?


Annaly Lopez with her daughter Renee outside Success Academy ||| Credit: Jim Epstein
Credit: Jim Epstein

Annaly Lopez moved to Harlem two years ago when she and her young daughter Renee got a great deal on an apartment. But there was a catch: Her new building was zoned for P.S. 149, a notorious elementary school where 82 percent of third graders failed the state achievement tests and violence among students is common.

"Just because I live in the 'hood, why should I have to send my kid to a bad school?" says Lopez, a 26-year-old single mother who had Renee when she was 18.

Renee eventually won a spot at Success Academy, New York City's largest charter school network, which has been at the center of a raging debate over how to provide a quality education for poor kids. Critics claim that the rise of Success Academy and other charters is a plot by billionaire hedge fund managers to undermine public schools—an effort that will ultimately create a "two-tiered" system of haves and have-nots.

But as Annaly Lopez' story demonstrates, charters are chipping away at the two-tiered system that already exists by providing parents a way around the greatest injustice of urban education, which is that the quality of a child's school is often determined by where her parents can afford to live. Unlike traditional public schools, charters don't discriminate by address, so they provide opportunities for students like Renee to have the same high quality education as rich kids.

"I don't want Renee to follow in my footsteps," says Lopez, who dropped out of high school when she got pregnant. "Education makes you feel like you can do anything."

With Renee destined to enter the first grade at P.S. 149, Lopez starting a frantic search for alternatives. She applied to several charters—including Success Academy, which accepts about one in five applicants through a lottery—but at first nothing panned out. So she did what many New York City parents do to avoid sending their kids to their zoned schools: She lied about her address so Renee could enroll at P.S. 31, a school in the Bronx that Lopez describes as "mediocre but better than P.S. 149." Renee entered the first grade at P.S. 31, but struggled academically. In the meantime, Lopez continued applying to charter schools.

She'll never forget the day the package arrived. "It was a big orange envelope that said 'Success' and I knew right then, because if it were another rejection they wouldn't have sent me a big envelope," she says. "I started crying."

New York City's soaring real estate prices have made the top districts increasingly off limits to everyone but the well-to-do. And yet New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio (D), who in his inaugural speech promised "to put an end to the economic and social inequalities that threaten to unravel the city we love," opposes charter schools. In February, he blocked the opening of two new Success Academy branches (and the expansion of a third) by reversing a decision made by the prior administration to allow them to share buildings with existing public schools.

De Blasio's efforts backfired. There was a protest in Albany that drew widespread attention, a strong statement of support from Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D-N.Y.), and then a state budget deal requiring the city to provide charters either space to operate or facilities funding. With his poll numbers plummeting—and after a private meeting with Bill Clinton, in which the former president warned that the issue was turning into a public

relations disaster for his administration—de Blasio softened his anti-charter rhetoric and promised to find homes for the displaced schools.

Charter school critics argue that when students like Renee are allowed to flee their district assignments, it hurts the kids left behind, whose parents often lack the knowledge or motivation to look outside the zone. They also complain that traditional schools are losing valuable classroom space as charters move into their buildings. (P.S. 149 shares its building with a branch of Success Academy.) Writing in The New York Times Magazine, journalist Andrea Gabor recently made the case that charter schools enroll and retain fewer kids with special needs than traditional public schools, warning that the city is in danger of allowing "policy makers to enshrine a two-tier system in which the neediest children are left behind."

The solution to the problem Gabor identifies is to free all New York City students from the shackles of residential assignment. Lousy schools are particularly damaging to students with special needs; as four states have demonstrated, kids with special needs would be much better off receiving vouchers to attend private school, which are better equipped to provide the aggressive interventions they need.

Charters have to compete for their students, so the most successful have done away with the bureaucratic procedures that get in the way of teaching. At P.S. 31, Renee developed a speech problem and was having difficulty learning to read. But Lopez couldn't convince the school to provide her with extra help. "Renee's teacher was excellent, but she was rehearsed to tell you what you can and cannot do," says Lopez.

When she requested that Renee receive extra tutoring, the teacher told her that to qualify first she'd have to wait for her second report card to come out; if the report card indicated that Renee was in danger of being held back, then she'd be evaluated for an Individualized Education Program (I.E.P.), which is an official learning plan designed for struggling students. If Renee qualified for an I.E.P, only then would the school give her extra help. Lopez wanted to get her daughter outside tutoring before she fell behind any further. She pleaded with the administration to bend the rules, but her request was denied.

At Success Academy, Renee immediately got the extra help, and in general the staff is more responsive to her needs. Lopez could only communicate with Renee's teacher during school hours at P.S. 31. Now she's in touch with Renee's teacher by email and phone on evenings, weekends, and school breaks. A couple weeks ago, when Lopez was struggling to help Renee with a math problem, she called the teacher, who immediately emailed her a cell phone picture of the solution.

"As soon as Renee walked in the door, someone was there to shake her hand. It just had a different tone." Lopez says that in her experience traditional public school teachers project an air of dissatisfaction and like to "talk about how they don't get paid very much," while at Success Academy she's "never seen a teacher who didn't look happy."

Charter schools often do a better job at getting their resources into the classroom. Barbara Darrigo, who's the principal of P.S. 149 and shares her building with Success Academy, recently complained to The Wall Street Journal about a lack of funding. "I'm in the red," she said. "I can never create a classroom that looks like [Success Academy's]—the new lighting, the sleek furniture, the technology…A pen is like gold here."

With taxpayers kicking in about $20,000 per pupil in New York City, why can't Darrigo afford to buy enough pens?

Renee's class is called "Morgan State University," which is named after the college her teacher attended. Lopez likes to refer to Renee as her little "scholar," which is common parlance at Success Academy. "I just liked the ring of it," she says. "It makes them feel important and all the kids know that the plan is for them to go to college."

P.S. 149, the school Lopez wanted to avoid at all costs, may be improving. The school had three different principals in just five years; then in 2011, Principal Darrigo took over. According to one parent commenting on the website Greatschools.org, she has "brought light and hope" to P.S. 149 by changing the "culture and tone of the school to a much more positive one."

That's not surprising. Studies have shown that competition from charter schools makes traditional schools better. P.S.149 can no longer count on every kid in the zone enrolling there, and Success Academy's record of achievement—on full display in the very same school building—gives P.S.149 something to aspire to. Maybe someday parents will actually choose to send their kids there.


Click below to watch my Reason TV story on NYC's charter school battle: