By Tim Wolcott
I wish getting consensus weren’t so complicated for progressives, but it is. I wish educating our youth weren’t so complex, but it is. I wish I could just label Gov. Cuomo a panderer to hedge fund managers selfishly pushing for charter schools, but that would be an over simplification.
According to the New York Times April 3, 2014 article by Javier C. Hernandez and Susanne Craig, “Cuomo Played Pivotal Role in Charter School Push” in New York City. Not only did Gov. Cuomo help rally supporters for the expansion of the cap on NYC charter schools; new charter schools there are to pay no rent and as they expand can even push public school students out of their shared buildings. Why would Gov. Cuomo risk potential bad publicity in order to champion charter school development in NYC and upstate as well?
The near-sighted political answer is that it is what the majority of people ‘want’. A 2013 Gallup Poll indicated that two out of three Americans support new charter schools in their communities. The results aren’t surprising to me when one considers the self-serving attacks on public education based on the dubious validity of standardized tests and teacher assessments. Most liberal politicians like Gov. Cuomo lead by following the polls.
A more comprehensive study by Stanford University’s Center for Research on Education Outcomes derived from 21 years of data and resulting in 90% of charter schools reporting, concluded, like previous studies, that students in most charter schools are doing worse or no better than students in traditional public schools. However, it did indicate that blacks, Latinos and students whose first language wasn’t English had better educational outcomes in charter schools as compared to public schools. That finding needs to be examined further. Was the improvement in these latter groups’ performance due to different educational methodology, increased hours of instruction, selection bias toward more engaged parents, primacy of English and Math instruction at the cost of reduced or eliminated arts and sports programs or a probable combination of all of these factors? Both public and charter school parents deserve clear answers to that question.
The more insightful political answer to why Gov. Cuomo trumpets ‘school choice’ is his campaign financing. Education Reform Now is a nonprofit advocacy group that lobbies state and federal public officials to support charter schools. ERN has donated $65,000 to Cuomo campaigns since 2010. Furthermore, Gov. Cuomo’s re-election campaign received hundreds of thousands of dollars from billionaire charter school supporters. Which begs the next question - why do the ten highest paid hedge fund operators have close ties to charter school development? The short answer is assured profit.
The Community Renewal Tax Relief Act of 2000 provides tax incentives to businesses that locate and hire residents in economically depressed urban and rural areas. According to Alan Singer in the Huffington Post 5/20/14, "Why Hedge Funds Love Charter Schools”, a tax credit as much as 39% enables business investors in charter schools to double investments within just seven years. This tax credit is combined with job creation credits as well as interest payments on the money they are lending out.
Another question comes to mind – why are hedge funds investing primarily in charter schools in these economically depressed areas - why aren’t they investing in infrastructure development or energy efficiency retrofitting? Could it be that the public school purse offers deep pockets to hire employees and get rent free space?
Some facets of charter schools appeal to me. Improving academic performance for historically disadvantaged students is laudable. A strong education as an antidote to poverty resonates with me. However, having charter schools operate outside of government control does not. Let’s keep the benefits of our public educational systems going to our children, not hedge fund managers or politicians.