The increasing demand for charter schools, and the educational options they provide, has been elevated by the belief that urban schools need dramatic improvement. But why hasn't this push produced more results? The story of five forgotten schools serves as one example of the hypocrisy of some school reform—opponents of major change claiming they want to improve schools but being satisfied with merely blocking change.
In December 2000, at the prodding of former mayor Rudolph Giuliani, the New York City Board of Education made national headlines by initiating a bold reform to improve five of its most chronically poor-performing schools. The schools were to be partnered with a private manager to turn them around. Edison Schools, Inc., had been selected, after a lengthy review process involving multiple applicants, to run PS 161 in Harlem, PS 66 in the Bronx, and MS 320, MS 246, and IS 111 in Brooklyn.
But there was one stipulation. The parents at each school had to vote to approve the initiative. In no time local activist organizations and the city teachers union, all with vested interests in keeping the schools under direct board control, launched a noisy campaign of misinformation, denouncing Edison as a profiteer, the mayor as an enemy of public education, and the board as a bunch of backroom dirty dealers. The initiative was voted down in all five schools.
Lost in the debate was the tragic disservice these schools were doing to children. In January 2001, while activists were defending the schools against outside intervention, the schools were quietly failing most of their students. On average only 19 percent at each school achieved proficiency on the New York state reading assessment. Of course, the protesters promised to work for the schools' improvement after the voting was over.
But what happened? One school, IS 111, was closed and another, MS 320, was reconstituted. The four schools that remain open in their new or original forms continue to fail their students miserably. Two years later reading proficiency rates have improved only 4 percentage points on average.
Meanwhile, Edison has been working with community groups elsewhere in the state—the Bronx, Buffalo, Rochester, Albany, and Riverhead—to open six charter schools. These schools serve children with high levels of economic need whose test scores two years ago looked just like the scores in the five New York City schools. But today, those charter schools have taken their students to promising heights, raising their state reading scores an average of 17 percentage points. One has to wonder whether this kind of progress could have come to the five schools, now sadly forgotten, in New York City.
The New York City Board of Education has been dissolved, replaced by direct mayoral control of the schools. The new chancellor, Joel Klein, is not beholden to any of the groups that squelched the partnership with Edison. The politics of school reform now hinges on the support for Mayor Mike Bloomberg, who appoints the chancellor. Thus far Chancellor Klein has shown tremendous resolve to buck the status quo, maintain a focus on children at all costs, and embrace ideas his predecessors found too hot to handle. For the sake of the hundreds of troubled New York City public schools, let's hope he keeps it up.