In 1991, I abandoned a bucolic life upstate to take a job as a science editor at Scholastic. The energy jolt of coming to the city had an immediate and lasting effect, and in the 27 years since my wife and I moved to Queens, I’ve founded three businesses, two nonprofit organizations and, most consequentially, two charter schools that are focused on what we used to call the “liberal arts.”
These two schools — Our World Neighborhood Charter School in LIC and Academy of the City Charter School in Woodside — are my most gratifying adventures as an educator and entrepreneur. Both reflect the dazzling mosaic of western Queens and delight in helping students internalize this legacy to become compassionate world citizens.
Both schools have solid leadership, community and parent representation on their governing boards and programming that is about as “progressive” as possible given the obligations of their charter contracts to produce high outcomes on tests. The schools are highly regarded, highly sought and, consequently, both have depressingly long wait lists of students who were not selected in the lotteries.
These are exactly the kind of schools that our mayor, schools chancellor, Board of Regents and elected officials say they want for our children. We could and should see more of these new kind of neighborhood schools throughout the city — but we will probably not in the near future. Only a handful of charters remain to be granted under the current state charter cap, and given the political landscape and the acrimony created around chartering, it’s unlikely that raising the charter cap will be considered in Albany next year.
The state Senate, once a reliable charter school ally and kept in Republican hands in no small part by money from charter advocates, has fallen to the blue wave; the Democrats, now firmly in control, will not be in any rush to cut deals with their tormentors.
How we got to where we are could become the storyline of musical theater as the posturing of all players has been nothing short of operatic. The cold war between Mayor de Blasio and Eva Moskowitz, who runs the city’s single largest charter network, is more than five years old with neither able to summon the gallantry to recognize each other’s accomplishments. The tone-deaf language and tactics used by some charter advocates has left enormous damage in its wake.
It will take time and tact to heal the wounds. The question for those who seriously care about schools is what have we learned about trying to change a large and unwieldy public educational system in which so many stakeholders demand a say.
For charter school advocates, the forced pause in the growth of our sector presents an opportunity for reflection. The charter movement itself has been ruptured by the outsized influence of institutional money, the relentless push for scale and a near-obsessive focus on academic outcomes.
It’s time for us to return to the democratic and teacher-empowered principles that are our legacy if we care about the future of this experiment.
In the end, it’s the lessons learned at our little community-oriented learning laboratories that have the greatest promise for creating the schools every family dreams of having for their children. But in order to get there, we will all need to comport ourselves to incremental change, trust the democratic process and take a humble approach to changing the world.