Charter schools are in the news, what with HBO's John Oliver slagging them on Last Week Tonight as hotbeds of criminal behavior and thievery (alas, he would have done better to turn his ironic gaze to principals in Detroit's traditional public-school system).
One New York charter that's just opened is connected with music mogul P. Diddy, who cut the ribbon at East Harlem's Capital Prep this week:
"I want Harlem to have the best schools," Diddy read. "The best of everything," he added, in an address about ten minutes long….
Diddy largely kept to a script, except when he told students directly from the lectern to do their homework and to get excited about work in class.
The other off-script exception was when PIX11 was able to get close enough to him after the ceremony to ask how he really feels about six years of planning a school finally coming to fruition.
"Instead of me complaining about education," he said, "I want to do something about it. So that's why I'm starting this school."
The day-to-day operations of Capital Prep are handled by Steve Perry, a controversial educator whose schools in Hartford, Connecticut were both successful and highly criticized. Perry's Capital Prep in Hartford started as a charter and then morphed into a traditional magnet school. Critics say while it's true that Capital Prep sent 100 percent of its mostly lower-income graduates to college, there was an attrition rate of 35 percent between sixth grade and senior year. But perhaps it's Perry's outspoken views about teachers unions that really get under people's skin. Here he is, quoted disapprovingly in a 2013 Washington Post story:
"I know in polite company, you're not supposed to talk about the unions," Perry said. "But I will. I know you're here. I hope you hear me, because I'm tired of you. Every time you fight to keep a failed teacher in a school, you're killing children, and that's not cool.
"Every single time you make a job harder to remove someone who is simply not educating, and everybody in the building knows they're not educating, you're killing your profession, you're killing our community and you're making it harder on yourselves.
"It's high time we call the roaches out and call them for what they are. I've been to too many cities where the excuses pile up, one on top of the other. You know what happens with those excuses? They kill our kids."
Elsewhere, the Huffington Post says that both Diddy and Perry have anger issues, so they are perfect together.
And yet, the New York school that just opened seems to be doing something right. WPIX reports that one of the school's new students is sixth grader Cameron Louis, whose mother is sending him there despite a long daily roundtrip:
He has a commute of 20 miles a day from Queens Village, near the Nassau County line.
Louis's mother said she's optimistic that the commute is worth it, as is the time she put in to deciding to come to Captial Prep Harlem in the first place.
"I listed my pros and my cons," she said in an interview after the first day of classes, "and there were a lot of cons because of the distance, but I thought why not try it?"
"I love my son, and would do anything that's best for him, so I thought, 'I'm gonna give it a shot.'"
There is no question that charter schools, which operate with about one-third less public money per student than traditional public schools but are freed from many regulations and rules, fail on a regular basis. And so Capital Prep may well hit the skids. But failure isn't what defines charters vs. traditional public schools. After all, public schools fail all the time, too. The difference is that when charters fail, they close down. Students and their parents leave and go elsewhere. Traditional public schools, in contrast, often stay open indefinitely and even often get extra funding to address their deficiencies.
Charters expand the choices of parents, especially lower-income parents in cities. And in strict, randomized control trials that compare similarly situated students, there is an abundance of evidence showing that charters reduce gaps in learning between white and black students. Diddy's school, which joins charters operated by celebrities ranging from rapper Pitbull in Florida to tennis great Andre Agassi to Mark Zuckerberg in New Jersey to Oprah Winfrey in several states, may or may not succeed. But as long as it's open, it's creating more choice for at least a few hundred kids.