Charter Schools and WAGPOPS! (Interview)

This article brought to you by a donation to our Writer’s Fund from Five Leaves.

Williamsburg and Greenpoint Parents Our Public Schools! or WAGPOPS! is an organization formed in 2011 by parents of public school students in North Brooklyn’s District 14.

The group, which is the focus of a recent Village Voice story, consists of hundreds of parents and community members “who support and promote schools that are of, for and by the community.”

Just this month, WAGPOPS filed a lawsuit against SUNY, in an attempt to stop Citizens of the World Charter Schools, which is trying to make inroads into District 14, from opening two new charter schools in North Brooklyn in Fall 2013.

The following interview was conducted via email with Brooke Parker, one of WAGPOPS’ founders:

GP: What does WAGPOPS do? When and in response to what was the group formed?

Brooke: Williamsburg and Greenpoint Parents: Our Public Schools! was formed by a group of parents who met on the brooklynbabyhui, a private listserv for local parents of infants and toddlers. In December 2011, “Success Academy Charter Schools” launched a super-expensive ad campaign with “Success Academy” posters all over the Northside subways.  Parents on the listserv then discovered that Eva Moskowitz’ husband, Eric Grannis, was trying to recruit parents off the brooklynbabyhui to push for more charter schools in North Brooklyn. We began emailing each other off-list, only meeting in person months later. None of us expected to become grassroots activists, but like the neighborhood residents who fought Radicac, we responded to a real threat to our neighborhood public schools and became more outraged the more we learned.

GP: How many members are in the group?

Brooke: When we first started WAGPOPS! there were about 30 of us with kids in different public schools across Williamsburg and Greenpoint.  We are super grass-roots, so we can’t give any absolute figures.  But if we tally together the numbers of people who have written letters and emails, signed petitions, attended public Hearings, and signed on to our lawsuit, we’re likely around 600 people. The more public school parents and community members learn about the issues that impact our kids’ education and our neighborhood schools, the more our numbers rise.  For example, when “Citizens of the World” targeted PS147 Isaac Remsen, an excellent small neighborhood school at the border of Bushwick, for co-location, their families mobilized within two days with over 200 people signing petitions.

GP: Are there already charter schools in District 14? Have they been beneficial for the students and community?

Brooke: There are more charters in D14 than any other district in Brooklyn. Charter schools have been found to lead to segregation and D14 is no exception. D14’s percentage of English Language Learners (ELL) is 15.9%, significantly higher than the citywide average, yet only one D14 charter has 10% ELL, the rest of our charters linger around 3-5% ELL and we even have a charter school with 0% ELL.  In contrast, PS84 Jose de Diego by the Grand Street playground is 28% ELL and PS414 Brooklyn Arbor is 29% ELL.  When you compare the economic breakdown of families enrolled in D14 charters, it’s just as egregious.  Our neighborhood public schools have 30% higher populations of Free and Reduced Lunch than any D14 charter. Don’t even get us started with kids with special needs. Now, with “Citizens of the World Charter Schools” is marketing directly to white middle class families, we can see the writing on the wall for radically re-segregating our only recently integrated schools.

Charter schools are particularly ruinous for the neighborhood public schools forced to house them. The NYC DOE does not consider/believe that libraries, science labs, art rooms, music rooms, or mixed space rooms for kids with special needs are “utilized space.” So when a charter school “co-locates” with a neighborhood public school, kids in the public school lose those vital resources, and often are required to have lunch at 10am. Now the NYC DOE want “Citizens of the World” to be housed in the only public middle school in Greenpoint. Parents are justifiably outraged.

GP: Why oppose the “market-driven” approach to education? How have charter schools done countrywide? By whose/what criteria are they “successful”?

Brooke: The “market” for opening up new charter schools in D14 is not community-driven, but based on the desire of outside organizations to use our public school space and profit from our tax dollars. The “market driven” approach to education says that we should open and close schools based on the whim of the market and the standardized test scores of the students enrolled, rather than considering city planning and enrollment trends and targeted support for struggling schools to improve. In a market driven approach there will always be losing schools and that is unacceptable. What parents in Williamsburg and Greenpoint want is to be able to walk their kid to a good school that has small class sizes, robust arts and sports, meaningful curriculum, and experienced teachers. We want more support for our neighborhood public schools.

Charter schools are no more successful than neighborhood public schools – some are good, many are bad. Our neighborhood public schools are better than the charter schools we have and the charter schools we’re being offered. And our neighborhood pubic schools fulfill the promise to educate every child in the community.

GP: If some parents want to send their kids to charter schools, what’s wrong with that?

Brooke: If you replace the term “charter schools” with “vouchers,” (because charter schools at the heart are really a neo-vouchers), you can more easily recognize the implications of prioritizing individual choice over the democratic process. The fact is that charter schools use tax dollars and should be subject to a democratic process of approval. Without that democratic process, charter schools are just like Halliburton or Blackwater.

GP: Why oppose standardized tests? And are standardized tests unique to the charter schools?

Brooke: Standardized tests are one thing. Most of us grew up with standardized tests in elementary school back when they were used to assess how students were doing. It’s the absurd increase in the amount of standardized tests and the recent “high stakes” attached to them that’s new and that parents have issues with. The high stakes make it so that teachers are rewarded or punished based on how their students do on the standardized tests ignoring the impact of student life (poverty or learning disabilities) on test results. Every well respected educator across the country is critical of the “high stakes,” recognizing that the tests are misused and have narrowed the curriculum substantially with disastrous results for students. But testing is a high-profit industry between the tests themselves and the cottage industry of testing curricula and consultants. Charter schools are a big driver of the testing industry – promoting tests as a way to measure schools. We fundamentally disagree with this approach, but parents don’t have a lobbying group to battle Pearson or McGraw Hill.

GP: What do you think of Teach for America? Are most charter school teachers from Teach for America?

Brooke: TFA teachers receive 5 weeks training before being plopped in a classroom and most leave classroom teaching after two years, when studies show that teachers don’t hit their stride in the classroom until three to five years. Parents want trained and experienced teachers with their kids. Charter schools reflect the instability of the teachers they hire with substantially higher teacher turnover than neighborhood public schools. TFA is simply not a sustainable replacement for well-trained experienced teachers.

GP: What role do private investors play in charter schools, particularly in relation to public money being involved?

Brooke: Charter schools (yes, even “non profit” charter schools) can be extraordinarily lucrative for private investors. First, they receive recession-proof public money for every child enrolled, but private investors have added profit incentives with New Market Tax Credits and a variety of other incentives.  Charter schools don’t operate independently, but send a portion of each enrolled child’s tax money (for Success Academy as high as $2000 per kid) to their management organizations. These are no-risk minimal 5 year investments since charter schools have five year contracts before renewal. Add to that the fact that charter schools in NYC have an abysmal closure rate of 4% (vs. nationwide 15%) and even, then, only for financial mismanagement, and you have a pretty strong money-maker for privateers.

Along with the gross profiteering off the back of our children, what’s equally disturbing is the lack of transparency and accountability in charters.  Charters are accountable to their Board of Trustees, not to the public or the parents who enroll their children in their schools. If charters don’t fulfill their promises to their parents, there’s no recourse but to leave the school.

GP: Who is Citizens of the World Charter Schools? Why does that sound so creepy?

Brooke: We’re not sure why they gave their schools such a strange cult-y name, but we can only ask “Citizens of What World?”

Citizens of the World Charter Schools are a chain of charters from Los Angeles looking to expand nationally. WAGPOPS! discovered that there was a group of Silverlake parents just like us who were fighting a Citizens of the World, and they shared lots of information regarding financial and ethical improprieties, from no-bid contracting where they fleeced Los Angeles public schools out of public money by overcharging for building school libraries to trying to extend those contracts to their own schools.

About Joel

Help write/make Handoutzine.com; Boulevardiers, a novel based on the industrial history of Greenpoint: part of Arts & Culture Committee, Brooklyn For Peace; support the Greenpoint Soup Kitchen! @jlchaffee

13 Comments

  1. Janice says:

    Are we really surprised someone with the last name Moscowitz was recruiting people into a money making venture? Theyre all about the $$. All the way to the mayor. How many inflated contracts and project costs in the city all to benefit a certain group? Nobody wants to say it because its not politically correct. Just do some research.

    Not even our children or the public school system are safe from this type of corruption. Thankful to this group of parents for standing up!

    Reply
  2. Chris says:

    Thank you for this interview. However, I would like to hear the argument for new administrations to come into some of these schools as well.

    Reply
  3. Success Academy Fan says:

    I am completely flummoxed by Ms. Parker’s financial assessment. How do the ‘free-market profiteers’ make money off this? The ‘investors’ are actually donors. They are not receiving money back from ‘investing’ in these school. They do get tax benefits from making charitable donations, like they would if they donated to WAGPOPS or any other non-profit organization, but there is no financial return to the investors. Of all the nutty things Ms. Parker has said, and she has said thousands of nutty things, this is by far the nuttiest.

    I’m not sure what Ms. Parker is less skilled to do: understand simple finance and tax rules, or serve as an authority on whether Brooklyn and NYC parents want more and better school options (hint: they do).

    Reply
  4. Cristina says:

    The charter chains are just like any other chain, one size does not and never will fit all, especially in such a diverse community as Greenpoint/Williamsburg. Besides, we desperately need more middle school options and have available space in the existing schools that are better performing than these chains.

    Reply
  5. Lorna says:

    There is a lot of money to be made by the charters and it’s largely because they are uncountable on so many levels. For example, why is Eva Moskowitz allowed to open a Success Academy Charter School as the “lead applicant,” then populate that school’s board with her own people, and then the board hires Success Charter Network, the company of which she is CEO, to manage their operations? In some instances, people who sit on the Network board ALSO sit on the board of an individual school. Even SUNY’s own evaluation of a Success Academy Charter School brings this into question:

    “A concern to the school evaluation team is that board members can hold dual membership on the Network and school boards, possibly creating a conflict of interest.” p. 19: http://newyorkcharters.org/documents/HSA2EvaluationReport2ndYear200910.pdf

    They may try to hide behind their non-profit status, but with such an incestuous financial management model and complete control of revenue, the Network can rake in public funds and then pay themselves as much as they want, even if it exceeds standard compensation, as in the case of Eva’s salary.

    As has already begun to happen in other cities, the next big wave of profiteering in these charter deals will come from real estate. It is probably no coincidence that Gideon Stein — who sits on the boards of 1) a Harlem Success Academy School, 2) the Success Academy Network, and 3) the Tapestry Project (founded by Eva Moskowitz’s husband, Eric Grannis) — is a real estate developer. By foisting co-location on us years ago, Joel Klein created a masterstroke: knowing that public school parents and the union would fight co-locations on ethical grounds, it paves the way for charters to say they need funds to build their own schools. Either way, public schools lose and profiteers win.

    I hope that all parents will read up on this issue. Here are a few articles to get started:

    A brief history of the charter school movement in NYC:
    http://gothamschools.org/2011/08/31/we-read-steven-brill%E2%80%99s-%E2%80%9Cclass-warfare%E2%80%9D-so-you-don%E2%80%99t-have-to/

    Public Role, Private Gain
    http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2008/12/13/AR2008121302079.html

    Insider deals, DOE gives $26 mil to billionaire to build his Red Hook charter:
    http://nycpublicschoolparents.blogspot.com/2012/09/we-fought-invasion-of-ps-15-real-life.html

    What profiteering looks like:
    (“ ‘We can make money solving big problems,’ Bradley said in a telephone interview. ‘When I make an investment, I look for the sucking sound of demand, and there is a huge sucking sound of demand in urban education across the country.’ ”)
    http://www.bloomberg.com/news/2011-06-02/agassi-forms-fund-to-build-charter-schools-with-canyon-capital.html

    An Economic Argument Against Market-Driven Education Reform:
    http://www.scribd.com/doc/78177066/False-Choices-The-Economic-Argument-Against-Market-Driven-Education-Reform

    Pennsylvania Schools’ Financing Fight Pits District Against ‘Charter on Steroids’:
    http://www.nytimes.com/2012/02/05/education/pennsylvania-schools-funding-fight-pits-district-against-charter.html?pagewanted=all&_r=0

    Reply
    • marr says:

      brooke feels she speaks for all parents in D-14 but in reality that is not the case. just as many parents disagree with her views and are strong supporters of the charters that exist in D-14.

      Reply
  6. Marr, The fact is that at BOTH Hearings for Citizens of the World, hundreds of parents showed up opposing the school and a combined 4 parents showed up in favor.

    WAGPOPS! got widespread support across the district with informed parents and by informing parents. We noticed that the only people buying into the Citizens of the World sales pitch were parents of very young children who had no experience with NYC public schools.

    I could make a long list of the false claims Citizens of the World made about our neighborhood schools in order to set their own school in relief. Here are just two examples of how the false marketing worked 1) Citizens of the World Charter Schools told parents that none of our neighborhood schools offered “differentiated instruction,” in spite of “differentiated instruction” being a mandate for NYC DOE public schools for at least ten years. 2) Citizens of the World boasted about their fabulous Everyday Math curriculum, quoting from the Everyday Math sales website. Sounds great, but the NYC DOE mandated Everyday Math years ago (remember the Math Wars?) only to reject it in recent years for all the reasons teachers told them to in the first place.

    The steadfast supporters of Citizens of the World, and there really aren’t many of them (we’ve seen their email lists), can never seem to articulate what they find unique about Citizens of the World. Members of WAGPOPS! have had plenty of discussion on and off the brooklynbabyhui with them about this, so we’re familiar with the paucity of their arguments. I’ve also thoroughly read the Citizens of the World proposal which details (as much as there are any details) the reasons why parents want these schools. When pressed to go beyond “I just want more choice,” the supporters invariably point to the non-union teachers (read: TFA is more white than our public school teachers) and the “diversity” of its student body (with a goal of 55% white, Citizens would definitely be whiter than our neighborhood schools). Draw your own conclusions.

    Reply
    • Paula says:

      I’ve looked at the proposal as well. I’m stumped by the Licensing Agreement between the school and the Network for “intellectual property” at a rate of 3% of revenue, plus the “actual costs of additional services” (management fees). I’m not suprised that they’ve found a way to siphon off 3%, for nothing more than use of a logo and recruiting a couple principals and an Exec Director. Its just that the “actual costs of additional services” is so vague. What does that mean? Its such an unusual way of structuring the relationship. Most other chain Charter Schools have a CMO, whether for profit or non-profit. This one decides to license its “intellectual property” –I’m not sure it really has anything that is unique, other than a name and a logo. How can they get away with that? Clearly the “actual costs of additional services” are management fees, but they don’t want to call them that for some reason, leaving it open-ended. Can someone help me understand this better?

      Reply

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *