Op-Ed: NYC failed to learn from charter schools

We are in a mess.

The charter school movement in NYC was born as part of a national drive in the 1990s.

When I was a member of the NYC Board of Education, Mayor Rudy Giuliani and I met with Milwaukee Mayor John Norquist and saw his city’s charter schools in action. We thought they would be a good idea for NYC. As I understood it then, this was not a pilot program for the city to replace public education. It was not a union-breaking vehicle. It was to be a beacon of experimentation.

Giuliani wanted charters to share successful practices — i.e., teaching techniques and lesson planning — with public schools to help attain educational excellence. The result would be more student achievement citywide.

But charters are a little like trickle-down economics. In concept, there is merit, but there are flaws in the application. Charters have done little to change public schools as we hoped they would, and there was no substantive collaboration in Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s administration to transform public schools.

We are in a mess. The proliferation of charter schools is adding dozens of highly paid principals and administrators. Let’s call charters what they’ve become: a cottage industry, growing out of good intentions, but ultimately sucking money from public schools. In NYC, charters have grown from 17 with about 3,200 students in 2002 to 183 serving 70,000 students.

I can only imagine that if Giuliani’s original intent for pilot charters had been implemented, we would have an energized public school system. It could not be done during Giuliani’s administration, and the growing charter system remained separate in Bloomberg’s tenure.

Mayor Bill de Blasio is right to slow the expansion of charter schools. Parents deserve a voice in their public schools. They deserve relief for their neighborhoods’ poor public schools. Their kids don’t deserve to be jammed into a building with one or two schools. They deserve a system with an extraordinary portfolio of value from Harlem to Port Richmond. And they deserve a cooperative hand extended from the mayor’s office to the teachers, the administrators, the parents and the kids.

Charter schools have not been the answer to NYC’s education needs.

Jerry Cammarata, a former board of education member, is dean of student affairs at Touro College of Osteopathic Medicine in Harlem.

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