Is Success Academy Fighting to End Inequality?

The Success Academies Charter Schools closed down last Wednesday and bussed thousands of their teachers, parents and children to Cadman Square in Brooklyn. All of the participants wore t-shirts that read “I fight to end inequality.” Children and parents carried signs that read “Great schools for ALL” and “Separate and unequal still.” On either side of the stage, giant monitors played text such as “Great Schools Now” and “Every Child, Every Zipcode.” Over the course of four hours, children recited spoken word poems, parents gave speeches shaming the public schools for their failures, and entertainers such as DJ Jazzy Jeff and Jennifer Hudson performed for the crowd.

A friend of mine who teaches at one of the Success Academy schools described this scene to me, and suggested I write about this rally, which was staged by Families for Excellent Schools. After doing some very light research into these two organizations, I found it strange that they would put on a rally for “school equality.”

The pro-charter advocacy group Families for Excellent Schools organized the event and the attendants all came from charter schools. According to a white paper from FES, the New York City schools can be divided into two systems: one is a “ladder to prosperity” serving mostly white and Asian children, and the other is a “tunnel to failure” serving mostly black and brown children. They also note that the median income of the neighborhoods where schools succeed is $120,651, while the failing schools have a median neighborhood income of $40,707. According to a document from Success, teachers are meant to tell parents that this rally’s purpose is “to call on Mayor de Blasio and the rest of our city’s leaders to end this system of inequality.”

Even if we were to accept this definition of the problem, which is simplistic to the point of being suspicious, are Success and FES the appropriate advocates for solving this issue of inequality? The obvious subtext of the rally, which is eerily avoided in nearly all of its publicity, is that the city should open more charter schools. Success has been staging rallies with FES like this one for years. In 2014, Mayor de Blasio decided to disallow the opening of three new schools that Success had planned, and FES and Success partnered to stage a rally in Albany. One of the speakers at that rally was Governor Cuomo, whose participation may have been helped by the fact that Success’ backers contributed $400,000 to his campaign. This retaliatory event was planned in tandem with a televised ad-campaign, much of which directly attacked de Blasio, for which FES paid over $4 million. The mission of the 2014 rally was much clearer–let our schools open–and had very powerful effects. With Cuomo’s help, the state laws changed, taking the power out of the mayor’s hands for approving a new charter, forcing the city to find public space for a charter schools and disallowing any way for the city to charge rent to charters.

Since the spring of 2014, the pro-charter messages at these events has become more and more obscured. At the 2013 Albany rally, the T-shirts read “#charterswork.” In 2014, the slogan changed to “Don’t steal possible,” which intended to frame the de Blasio administration’s decisions to halt the growth of charter schools as inhibiting opportunity for the “143,00 children trapped in failing schools.” This year’s message of “fighting inequality” seems to deliberately hide the obvious mission of expanding charter schools.

In addition to their public rallies, Families for Excellent Schools maintains a lobbying arm that is extremely active in the state legislature. In 2014, they broke lobbying records, contributing $2.9 million in one month alone. According to the Nation, FES’ lobbying helped tip the state legislature from majority democrat to majority republican. The organization receives large donations from the richest New Yorkers. FES is not the only organization who has benefited from the philanthropy of Wall Street. In the 2013-2014 school year, Success received $28 million dollars of private funding, which was almost half of what they received from public funds that year. Success’s finances are impressive. In 2013 they moved their offices from Harlem to Wall Street, and took out a $31 million lease for the next 15 years. In the same year, they paid $519,000 to a political consulting firm. These advantages are felt at the schools as well, where, according to an article from the Times last year, “the closets teem with notebooks, folders, pencils and pens.” Every middle school student is given an iPad, and the schools offer their students the kind of extracurricular activities–art, music, chess, theater, dance, basketball and swimming–that you are likely to see cut from the public schools.

According to the New York City Charter School Center, charters serve less than 9% of the 1.1 million children in the New York City school system. Although FES claims that school funding does not affect a school’s efficacy, it seems obvious that Success owes its achievements in part to its incredible wealth. These two organizations command an overwhelming amount of political attention and financial support, all to benefit a very small percentage of the city. Allowing more charters to open may or may not be a good thing, but it’s clear that it will not significantly impact the inequality of New York City schools.

Now this may all be old news to people who pay attention to this sort of thing. But the first thing that bothers me about this rally is that Success and FES must be well aware that their work will not significantly affect these “two school systems” that they so resoundingly condemn. Even if we let alone the fact that FES has drawn this division in the public schools for a rhetorical purpose and accept their definition of the problem, it’s obvious that charters like Success only introduce a new form of inequality into the system. That the benefactors of this new network are mostly low-income students doesn’t take away from the fact that the organization functions as a separate entity with better access to philanthropy and political protection than the “tunnel to failure” schools. In this sense, charters are actually the cause of a separate and unequal system; the kind of system that this rally is pretending to fight.

And yet, Success and FES have mobilized teachers and families with false information and an incomplete portrayal of their role in our unequal society. This leaves me with a few questions. What does it mean for a privileged school to use the voices and bodies of their families to push an agenda that contradicts the message that these families have been told they are supporting? What does it mean for a charter school to use disadvantaged families to further expand their privileges? What does it mean for a school to pretend to support equality while it pushes an agenda that only benefits the few?

(And of course I’m leaving aside a number of very important concerns. The verdict is still out on whether or not the public should support policies to expand charter schools. It’s also not clear that this particular school, Success Academy, really does have great schools by anyone’s standards other than their own. A lot has been written about the school, and the most reliable report from Kate Taylor portrays what many would feel is not a school they would call great. I’m also ignoring the fact that charter schools, whose selection process affects their population, should not be lazily compared with public schools who have no selection process. Or whether it is ethical for a school that receives public funds to close for the day and pay to bus it’s teachers and students to a political rally. These concerns are worthy of deeper investigation, but that must be for another post.)

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