Aug 31

Across the United States, millions of families are entering that perennial time period of anticipation, anxiety, excitement and hustle-bustle: Back To School.   In the majority of cases, parents choose their schools for their children indirectly, by moving into a neighborhood where the public schools meet their needs.  In a large minority of cases, families are stuck with the public school tied to their zip code, unable for one reason or another to move to better pastures.

In a smaller minority of cases, a private school is selected and paid for, often while simultaneously paying the local taxes that fund their would-be public school.   Some of these private schools choose their students with rigorous admission processes, where the applicants voluntarily subject themselves to all sorts of trial and tribulation, firm in their beliefs that the rewards will justify the means.

And in the tiniest minority, when like an “oversubscribed” bond offering the school has more applicants than slots, the school chooses the students randomly, by lottery.

What would make any parent reach for such a brass ring? A powerful independent documentary, “The Lottery”,  directed by Madeleine Sackler and released late in April seeks to shed some light on this situation.   It’s a film that no parent, voter, or teachers union member, should miss.

Within the first ten minutes of the film, the stage is set:

“The notion that one has to get lucky to get a first rate free public education, it shouldn’t be that way.”

– Eva Moskowitz, Founder and CEO, Harlem Success Academy

“The frustrating thing for me, frankly, is that we’ve proven we can do it.  We have proven in every city, in every community around the country that any child can learn at the highest imaginable levels.  We see kids coming from the most challenging of circumstances that are fortunate enough to get into a good school be it a private school, a good public school, a good public charter school and that just excel.  And so there really can’t be any more excuses.  The question is, is why we don’t have more of them?”

– Cory Booker, Mayor of Newark NJ and a member of Democrats for Education Reform

“The charter schools are essentially an option, where we call them public charter schools, because they are schools that are created with public dollars so that they get funded by our state through our city.  They’re able to hire teachers exempt from the traditional union strictures on who you can hire, and you are able to create curriculum that you think will best educate young people.  You get the charter for five years.   Now one of the great things about charter schools is that it is totally accountable.  If you don’t run a decent school you will not get your charter renewed and essentially, your school will be closed, and we think that’s fair, that in the end, if you take money to do this kind of work you have to deliver for children.”

– Geoffrey Canada, President and CEO of Harlem Children’s Zone

One is immediately compelled to imagine the impact if all government programs were “closed” if they were found to not be delivering for society, but that’s another story…

The film introduces four families, each with their own special challenges, and follows their progress through the state-mandated lottery process, each hoping to win a spot at New York’s Harlem Success Academy and be instantly transported out of their educational despair.   Watching the events unfold is heartwarming, heart-wrenching, and everything in between.

An Economic Wolf in Sheep’s Clothing

President Obama makes this observation in the film:

“African American, Latino students, are lagging behind white classmates, in one subject after another, an achievement gap that by one estimate costs us hundreds of billions of dollars in wages that will not be earned, jobs that will not be done, and purchases that will not be made.”

Similarly, Geoffrey Canada points out that in New York City, it costs around $13,000 per year to educate a child, but in comparison, it costs two to three times that amount to imprison someone.   He also notes that as a country we lock up millions of people at these kinds of costs.

One can rightly deduce that the issue of under-educating our population is ultimately one with profound economic consequences:   Wages never earned are also never saved, invested or taxed.   Jobs not done represent goods and services not produced.   And purchases not made affect the very demand side of the equation that believers in big government insist can be stimulated with government spending.

Yet many people often assume that charter schools can produce good results because they have better funding, logistical, and/or demographic advantages when compared with public schools.   And sometimes these people sit on the boards and city councils of public schools.  Witness this exchange between Moskowitz and a board member, during a hearing on charter school expansion, in which Moskowitz is introduced as “a former colleague, the former chair of the Education Committee”:

Eva Moskowitz: “PS194 was failing when I was a kid, and we’ve had reform after reform after reform after reform and I think parents deserve in real time, something better.  You know, if you’ve got a kindergartner, you can’t wait five years.  Your kid will have already not learned to read.”

Lewis A. Fidler:  “You’re comparing apples to bananas.  If you’re going to look at the factors that are most important in a quality education and compare them… I didn’t ask why your class sizes are smaller…”

Moskowitz:  “But ‘why’ matters…”

Fidler: “…I just aspire to having my class sizes smaller, too.”

Moskowitz: “OK, well you wouldn’t like our schools very much because our class size is very big.  In kindergarten, we have about 27 kids in kindergarten.”

Fidler: “Alright, so your class sizes are higher than the average?”

Moskowitz: “Correct.”

Fidler: “How about special ed and IEP’s?”

Moskowitz: “We have higher than the zone schools we’re co-located with.  We have about eighteen percent on average in the four schools.   I have one school where it’s higher, it’s about 23%, and at my other schools it’s about 16%.”

But that’s not the most remarkable exchange in the film:

Maria Del Carmen Arroyo:    (to Moskowitz) “You, in your testimony, said “Council member Jackson, we both live in Harlem.’   I… for the record…  Do you live in Harlem?”

Moskowitz:  “I grew up in Harlem and I live in Harlem.”

Arroyo: “You live in Harlem currently?”

Moskowitz: “I do.”

Arroyo: “Would you share with us a street?”

Moskowitz: “I, I have three young children, so I would prefer not to.  Are you questioning that I’m telling the truth?”

Arroyo: “Yeah, uh, I am.”

The crowds are audibly uncomfortable, but it is Arroyo who continues at this point with an explanation as to why Moskowitz is arrogant.  Truly incredible stuff.

The Wizard Behind The Curtain?

What becomes quickly obvious in the film is the role of the teachers unions in all of this.   Although it would be easy to cast the entire blame on them, it would perhaps be easier still to say their PR people made a catastrophic error not defending their point of view more thoroughly in this film.  According to Sackler, this was their choice. Simply put, charter schools are an existential threat to teachers unions.

The film notes that according to the US Department of Education, of New York City’s 55,000 tenured teachers, 10 were fired in 2008.  One reason for this is that a typical firing procedure runs about $250,000.   So given budgetary constraints, keeping a mediocre teacher on staff, in a perverse way, can be sold as a cost saving measure.

ACORN demonstrates in front of PS194

Community organizing, against the community

From references to “thuggish tactics”, to paying ACORN to attend anti-charter school rallies, to American Federation of Teachers president Randi Weingarten’s tortured response to Charlie Rose’s simple question of whether or not bad teachers should be fired, to multi-faceted descriptions of an “education-political-complex”, this film will rightfully put the unions on the defensive.   It is high time.

Some people claim that charter schools don’t produce results any better than good public schools.   Suppose that were true.   What these people miss is that these “same” results are being achieved without a union, which furthers the case that unions are not required to produce good results.   It’s a classic example of a productivity gain:  A process that suddenly produces equal or greater outputs with fewer inputs.

What is then also missed is that the union itself extracts an enormous real cost to the public itself.   Here’s the chain of events:

  1. In states like New York, the teachers unions are the largest lobbying organizations to the state legislature and integral to the political process, almost exclusively on the Democratic side of the aisle.
  2. The unions raise their funds from the salaries and wages of their “members” (where “membership” is often compulsory).
  3. These salaries and wages are funded by the public, primarily through local taxes.

In a very real sense, the union represents a tax to the teacher, and like any other tax, one that is ultimately paid by the consumer.    I’ve argued before that I’d gladly see the best teachers paid even more than they receive now.   However, there should be no appetite for the public funding the very organizations that seek to bleed them dry.   Hundreds of millions of dollars in recaptured annual union expenses would go a long way towards providing better compensation to the best teachers.

But even more profound still, is the following:   Where is the union public relations campaign making the case that their very existence improves educational outcomes?

A rift in the making?

Lest you be led to believe that Moskowitz is some kind of Republican or Libertarian shill, it is interesting to note that in one of the “extras” of the DVD version of the film, Moskowitz describes herself as a “die-hard Democrat”, who notes that “thankfully, we have a Democratic president who gets this”, with ‘this’ being the need to make structural changes to the entire educational system.

Unfortunately, that traditional Democratic funding engine has literally passed a “vote of no confidence” on President Obama’s plans.   But with more and more of the media piling on to the enraging truth that public employee unions are one of the chief catalysts of federal, state and local financial distress, Obama may be able to get away with thumbing his nose at this constituency.

Perhaps largest impediment to real change is summed up best here, along with a fantastic counter-perspective:

“The controversy comes about because of adult politics and because adults are affected by it.  When I close down a large high school, not everybody in that high school is able to find another job immediately and that causes concern.  But we don’t view the school system as a job system.  We view the school system as an education system for our children”

-Joel Klein, Chancellor, New York City Department of Education, on shutting down failing schools

Early in the film, there is a scene of children reciting the multitude of times Dr. Martin Luther King includes the words “let freedom ring” in his famous “I Have A Dream” speech.   The irony of our current system putting the needs of adults before those of children, in many ways robbing them of their freedom, is too rich, and all too sad.

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