Charters, Diversity and the Middle Class

Minnesota first passed a law allowing for charters 25 years ago. Today there are more than 7,000 charter schools in more than 40 states. In Detroit, Washington, Gary, and New Orleans more than 40% of public school students attend charters. More than 84,000 students attend charter schools in New York City. The stereotypical charter school is located in a poor district, serving poor children. Allowing many parents a certain mental distance; charters are something that helps other people's children. Diverse schools like ICS are growing, but they are not common.


In November Massachusetts voters were asked to allow more charter schools. (We have a cap in New York too, but it is not even up for a vote). Despite multiple academic studies showing the enormous difference charters make for their students’ success, the proposal failed. Unions, facing falling revenues, ran a $22 million campaign asserting (public) charter schools somehow “take” money from (public) district schools, scaring better off voters in places like Brookline and Newton. Progressive icons like Elizabeth Warren, in this case, took an anti-progressive position.

ICS supporter Robert Pondiscio responded:

If the [question fails], don't point angry fingers at selfish Massachusetts voters: Blame falls equally upon a movement that has long been a bit too enamored of its own civil-rights-movement-of-our-time rhetoric to worry much about building a constituency among the middle class.

In New York our schools (public, private, charter, district) remain vastly unequal and rarely integrated. On the Upper West Side of Manhattan, where the EPA could declare Trump supporters an endangered species, there's an ugly integration debate brewing. In 1964, Malcolm X noted, "You don't have to go to Mississippi to find a segregated school system." (John Oliver covered this in his typical style, here.)


Massachusetts, site of the tragic bussing fights of the 70s, features some incredible charter schools, like Match and Brooks; leaders at these schools set an example for all of us and helped me personally and very concretely when I was starting ICS. Massachusetts has long been the acme of high standards and high achievement. A kind of City upon A Hill.

Like me, some Brooklyn school leaders are deeply committed to diversity: Brooklyn Prospect, Hebrew Public, Community Roots, Compass, the Success Academy school in Cobble Hill. As in Massachusetts, being able to borrow from their examples and experience was critical to our success.

Principal Ellen Borenstein tells our kids that in life there are good choices and bad ones. And our goal should be to learn from our bad choices to avoid repeating them.

Poor families trapped in poorly-performing district schools will suffer most from the decision of the voters of Brookline, Weston, and Wellesley to maintain the charter cap. By recommitting to the idea of serving ALL families with meaningful choices, the reform movement can redeem itself from this moment.