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; Boulevardiers, a novel based on the industrial history of Greenpoint: part of Arts & Culture Committee, Brooklyn For Peace; support the Greenpoint Soup Kitchen! @jlchaffee