When it comes to New York City's public schools, one thing is not in dispute: there are problems, a lot of them. The city's kids have below average math and reading scores, and very high drop out rates - of 50 large US cities, NY is close to the bottom, at 43rd.
And while there are disagreements about the reasons for these problems, the big dispute these days is about the solutions, and specifically, about the role of charter schools and their relationship to "traditional" public schools.
One skirmish took place recently, in the basement auditorium of the Ralph Bunche Trilingual School on West 123rd Street in Harlem. The room was almost full, as parents and community residents held a tense "town hall meeting" with school Chancellor Joel Klein.
Increasing the number of charter schools has been a major priority of Bloomberg and Klein's Department of Education. Plans are set for fall openings of 24 more, bringing the total to 123, and the mayor is pushing the state legislature to allow him to add another 100. Charter schools would then make up 22% of all schools in the district.
At the meeting, parents' questions focused on the area's charter school explosion (24 of 29 charter schools in Manhattan are located in Harlem). Many expressed anger and frustration with the DOE's policy of placing charter schools in existing school buildings, which most cities do not allow. Existing schools have been forced to cut space usage and programs or move to other less desirable locations.
Even parents who said that they don't oppose charter schools in principle, talked about the "separate and unequal" situation that is developing, the fomenting of divisions within communities, and the negative impact on the children in the regular schools when their learning and recreational space is usurped by a charter school, often without discussion or advance notice.
But some parents were there to support the charters -- the charter school "movement" has relied on the fact that many families are indeed desperate for better schools for their children, and the worst schools are mainly in working-class, especially Black and Latino, communities.
Klein claims that the DOE has only the children's interests at heart, and that charters give parents choices and advance school reform. The idea is that charter schools can do better with less, and can experiment with educational approaches, unfettered by the restrictions (read union rights) within the public school system.
But national research has shown that in fact, many charter schools are falling short, with one study finding that only 17 percent offered students a better education than public schools - and that 37 percent were actually worse.
New York City's charters have had better results, on the other hand. What is different?
One big part of the answer is that they do not, in fact, have "less" resources. Those charter schools that are housed in public school buildings (two-thirds of the total) receive approximately the same amount per pupil as public schools do. And charter schools have access to other resources: high powered (and highly paid) CEOS and governing boards, favored relationships with DOE officials and other connections with Wall Street and the corporate world, and NYC has a lot of that.
Parents are obviously motivated by their children's needs, but Bloomberg and Klein's motivation is another thing entirely.
The Chancellor said at the meeting that the DOE only wants the best for children in neighborhoods like Harlem. But in 2008, the DOE enacted budget cuts that disproportionately hurt the highest poverty schools, and cancelled out the positive effects of increased need-based funding from the state.*
In 2005 and 2006, Bloomberg successfully fought efforts that would have reduced class size, a proven way to enhance learning and reduce the achievement gap. His opposition was undoubtedly due to the proposal to fund this by continuing the city's tax surcharge on personal incomes over $500,000.
And just last month, the mayor's handpicked Panel on Educational Policy voted to close 19 schools despite overwhelming community opposition and expert testimony about available alternatives, including federal funds, for turning these troubled schools around.
The bottom line is that Bloomberg's dream of school reform is a corporate one: weakened union protections for staff and teachers, an expanded role - and profits - for the private sector, and as little public funding and regulation as can be gotten away with. That scenario cannot provide quality education for all children, which is what the growing movement is fighting for, and which like all the issues facing working people, will require unity and mobilization to win.
*"New York City's Contract for Excellent: Closing the Funding Gap or a Funding Shell Game" http://www.aqeny.org/action-information.php, report by the Alliance for Quality Education and the Fiscal Policy Institute found that the DOE cut more from the schools with the highest poverty rates.