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Laura Waters

The Man Most Responsible for Charter School Growth in New York City

Richard Whitmire’s new book, The Founders, delves into the nation’s top 20 percent of charter operators and analyzes how these “game changers” are reinventing American education for low-income students. Many of the book’s sections focus on leaders of exceptional charter networks, but New York City gets its own chapter. The featured player here is not a charter leader, but Joel Klein, former chancellor of the New York City Department of Education. This is appropriate since Klein came in cold, yet engineered sustained change in the largest and most politically-charged school system in the country.

Insane and Future-Proof

Klein had two goals. One, Whitmire writes, was “to do something any other school chief would consider insane: disrupt his own schools with built-in competition.” Second, Klein aspired to make his innovations “bulletproof,” efforts so firmly embedded into the public school landscape that they would remain immune from either the artillery of the United Federation of Teachers (UFT, the city’s militant teacher union), or less reform-friendly mayors. When politicians select school leaders, they typically choose them from within the ranks of what Klein in his own book calls the “sclerotic, politically-controlled bureaucracy” that is the NYC Board of Education. Instead, Bloomberg went for an antitrust lawyer with no ties or indebtedness to politicians or lobbyists—one who, in fact, turned down a $2 million gig to take the post. Whitmire describes Klein as a “fearless change agent” who was determined to disrupt the status quo, rattle a moribund monopoly, and offer equitable academic opportunities to the city’s neediest students.

Radical Carrots

In a nod to the urgency of systemic school improvement, Klein eschewed “boutique” or “mom and pop” charter schools. Rather, he was focused on scale, how to aggressively develop a sector of reliably high-achieving independent schools that would offer choices to low-income parents. During his first year, Klein didn’t touch charter development, but in his second year he convened meetings with top charter management officials (Dave Levin of KIPP, Norman Atkins of Uncommon Schools, Dacia Toll of Achievement First, Geoffrey Canada of the Harlem Children’s Zone, Eva Moskowitz of Success Academies) and convinced them to either establish networks or expand existing ones. The cost of real estate makes establishing independent public schools in New York City challenging. Charter schools are usually on their own when it comes to buying facilities, but Klein offered a “very large carrot” to top charters in the form of rental fees of $1 per year inside unused or mostly unused school buildings. Whitmire quotes Klein: “We took the view, and it was controversial, that the schools belonged to the children.” In July 2003, Bloomberg and Klein held a press conference at a KIPP school in Harlem newly housed in a district building. Mayor Bloomberg stated:
We said we would put children first when it comes to education—and by creating a new school where offices once stood, we are doing just that. We applaud KIPP for their academic achievements and for their continuing commitment to New York City’s schoolchildren.
Whitmire regards Klein’s recruitment of top charter operators as “the most radical” and “most successful” accomplishment of his tenure. Klein even started an organization, the NYC Charter School Center, which Whitmire says would have been [pullquote position="left"]unthinkable in any other city under any other leadership. When Klein started his tenure in 2002, there were 2,400 students enrolled in charter schools. Now, there are 216 charter schools serving 106,600 students—10 percent of public school enrollment in the city—with another 44,000 students on waiting lists. But are these reforms durable? New York City got a swift answer to this question upon the inauguration of Bloomberg’s successor, Bill de Blasio, who is far less friendly towards charter schools and far more so towards UFT. One of de Blasio’s first moves was to go after “the co-located charters despised by the unions.”
The result: thousands of minority parents and their children turned out for massive demonstrations in both New York and Albany. These were parents for whom the status quo had definitely changed. De Blasio famously backed down.
According to Whitmire, Klein accomplished his goals: swift and permanent change.
Laura Waters
Laura Waters is the founder and managing editor of New Jersey Education Report, formerly a senior writer/editor with brightbeam. Laura writes about New Jersey and New York education policy and politics. As the daughter of New York City educators and parent of a son with special needs, she writes frequently about the need to listen to families and ensure access to good public school options for ...

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