Twenty years ago this summer, I was a founder of the first charter school in New York state: the Sisulu-Walker Charter School of Harlem.
Ten years ago, then-New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg praised charter schools as key to education success. But this summer, Mayor Bill de Blasio declared that he “hates” charter schools. Bill Clinton and Barack Obama championed charter schools, but many current Democratic presidential candidates now disparage them. What has happened, and why?
After years of never-ending political attacks by the traditional education establishment, New York charter schools are winning academically but struggling politically. They are winning with the long under-served minority communities who best know them; African American and Hispanic Democrats nationwide support the creation of charter schools by a 51% to 35% margin, according to Education Next’s 2019 poll. However, white Democrats now appear to oppose charters by a 57% to 33% margin and, I believe, may badly misunderstand the facts. Still, the facts do support charter schools. The hating should end, and the best public schools -- charter or traditional -- should be allowed to flourish.
Let’s all recall why charter schools were created in the first place.
My chief community partner in starting Sisulu-Walker was Dr. Wyatt Tee Walker, the near legendary civil rights leader who had been executive director of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, Martin Luther King Jr.’s right hand in Birmingham and elsewhere, and chairman of Al Sharpton’s National Action Network.
Walker had “come north” in 1966, and as a local minister, he had watched the traditional public schools in Harlem and other poorer communities fail year after year, decade after decade, for over 30 years. He viewed charter schools as a civil rights issue, and as the best chance to break the unending history of education failure in Harlem and elsewhere.
“As I worked on other justice issues (housing, employment), I was frustrated that I had no tools to better the school system that served the families in my congregation,” Walker wrote in the forward to the book “A Light Shines in Harlem.”
“I became convinced that quality education was the inevitable component of the struggle that I had given my life to. That’s what led me to dive into the charter school movement. I have no regrets whatsoever,” Walker added. “In my most reflective moments, I believe this is where Dr. King would be if he were still alive.”
The little neighborhood school we started – Sisulu-Walker on 115th Street -- now serves 213 children, grades K-5. It opened its doors on Sept. 8, 1999, and is both New York’s longest-running charter school and the only charter school to survive from that pioneering year.
Sisulu is governed by local civic and community leaders and is led by an outstanding principal, Michelle Haynes, who grew up near the school and began at Sisulu as an assistant teacher in the founding year 1999. Like all charter schools, Sisulu is tuition-free and open to all. Under New York’s charter school law, it receives about 30% less funding per child than a traditional public school. It has never had use of a public school building and has always had to pay rent out of its already reduced budget. About 96% of Sisulu’s kids are African American or Hispanic (many from Central Harlem, District 5); about 90 percent qualify for free lunch; about 21 percent receive Special Education; and about 6 percent are English Language Learners.
Despite always needing to do more with less, the parents and teachers at Sisulu have used the “tools to better the school system” that Dr. Walker sought, and have used them well.
On the latest state exams, over 75% of Sisulu students tested in the top two performance categories (i.e., proficient or highly proficient) in math, vs. approximately 47% for all New York state students, 46% for all New York City students and 31% for Harlem District 5. On English language arts, Sisulu kids scored about 65% in the top categories vs. 45% for all New York state, 47% for all New York City, and 25% for Harlem District 5. Just as importantly, the parents and teachers of Sisulu-Walker have had the freedom and respect that, in the past, only money could buy: the freedom to control your own future and to choose the school that your child attends.
Overall, there are now about 292 charter public schools in New York state, serving about 130,000 students, and they also outperform the traditional public schools. Charter schools had 59% math proficiency vs. the state’s 47%. They had 54% ELA proficiency vs the state’s 45%.
What causes this outperformance for charter schools?
It is not cherry-picking the “best” kids. The charter school movement was built on the idea that all children can learn, and charter schools are tuition-free and open to all by law, with a lottery used to choose students in case of a waiting list. When Stanford University did a rigorous study to compare students of equal ability and desire (some of whom won the charter school admissions lottery, and some who lost), they found that charter schools raised learning levels, often by months of learning time each year.
It is not because of an inherent opposition to unions. New York’s charter law was originally written so that large charter schools begin with a union as a matter of law, and teachers at small charters can adopt a union at will. Dr. Walker was a strong supporter of organized labor as an ally of the civil rights movement. My own past activities include work with and for many unionized schools, including successful efforts to turn around schools and save union jobs from state takeover or closure.
It is not because charter schools are “for profit” vs “nonprofit,” a perpetual red herring issue. All New York charter schools have always been nonprofit 501(c )3 charities by state law. The so-called for-profit schools were ones where the community leaders hired professional education managers to advise them, just as they hire professional lawyers (“for-profit” lawyers) or architects (“for-profit” architects). The ability to hire and fire experts empowered the local leaders, and often gave them the critical start-up support they needed. In any case, about 10 years ago, charter school opponents made it illegal in New York for new schools to hire professional education managers as a way to prevent leaders like Dr. Walker from opening schools like Sisulu ever again.
The real reason a charter school succeeds is because of the entrepreneurial energy and talents of the school community itself.
Think of the traditional public school bureaucracy of Harlem in 1999 as a giant, monopolistic machine that everyone is sentenced to use; that is delivering failing results day after day, year after year; that never gets better; and that never has any competition to get better.
Charter schools are like little islands of freedom launched around the giant machine. Each must be licensed by the state (i.e. chartered) to regulate quality, but otherwise they are free to create: to offer programs based on core knowledge, or dual language, or a longer day, or whatever best idea they can conceive. The results of each effort depend on the team running it. There is no magic bullet for success, and the “customers” (the teachers and parents) decide where to go. The good projects grow, and the bad ones are shut down. Eventually, even the staff of the state machine realizes that the local kids can do better than the system ever expected, and so raise the system’s quality and goals as well.
Here in New York, the parents in Harlem, the Bronx, and elsewhere have voted in support of charters in the most important way possible: by entrusting their children to the better performing local charter schools. There are about 50,000 names on waiting lists for admissions to New York City charter schools. The families in Harlem and elsewhere who support charter schools know these schools firsthand, while charter opponents from outside the community may be too influenced by political messaging, or campaign fundraising power, separate and apart from real-world knowledge.
How can anyone “hate” a high-performing, succeed-against-all-odds little school like Sisulu? In truth, the real opposition to charter schools is driven by the traditional education establishment’s desire to protect money and turf; that is, because “money follows the child.” Yet competition can often improve traditional public schools, and Sarah Cordes of Temple University has found that “students whose [district] schools are near charters do better, and the closer the charter is, the better these [district school] students do.” Further, a good fraction of money does not follow the child. If, for example, every child in New York City except one joined a charter school, there could be as much as $5 billion or more left in the traditional school budget with that last student.
In considering charter schools, you can look through the lens of the managers of a monopoly machine concerned with losing customers to the upstarts opening around them.
Or you can look through the lens of Dr. Wyatt Tee Walker and the pioneering parents, children and teachers who started Sisulu-Walker 20 years ago; from the perspective of good people trapped in a failing education system for decades and desperate for a chance to have the respect, voice and freedom to build a newer, better public school of their own.
“In the charter school movement,” Walker wrote, “I am continuing the work of Dr. King that has far-reaching meaning. Every American child is deserving of a quality education.”
On the 20th anniversary of New York charter schools, haters should stop hating. The best performing public schools – charter or traditional – should be allowed to flourish, for the good of children and the civil rights of all.