Charter schools are the sexiest thing going in New York City education. They are fountains of educational innovation in that city, even as charters languish in many other parts of America. Those schools are not without their own unique set of controversies beyond the typical ones regarding unions and privatization, however. As outlined by Amy Pereira and Trymaine Lee in an article titled “A Day in the Life of a Divided School,” one of the most hotly contested education issues in that city is school co-location, the practice of allowing charter schools to occupy public school buildings while public schools are housed there as well.
The article, along with a photo essay by Thomas Prior, tells us the heartbreaking story of how this policy draws clear lines between students who have access to the resources they need and those students who do not. These charter schools often have freshly renovated halls and classrooms, the latest educational technologies, and flourishing recreational spaces. And all of this happens in plain sight of the students unfortunate enough to land on the lean side, the losers of a lottery system that’s only fair in terms of its cold mathematical odds. While the article is rather strongly anti-charter (and I tend to use more caution in evaluating such broad issues), the authors make some undeniable points about the unique cruelty that is endured by the have-not students that learn within those buildings.
What happens when one group of children is afforded some of the best resources available from the government and private benefactors while another group is suffering from the same old paltry conditions, and those disadvantaged students must look on from within the exact same building? The latter group sees for themselves everyday exactly what they’re missing out on. They’re just like Charlie Bucket passing the candy store day after day. They’re the witnesses to a sanctioned separatist movement within their own school buildings.
I don’t mean to argue that those involved in creating and maintaining charter schools, including those that co-locate with public schools, feel that their students deserve better schools than other students (one parent alleges this in the article.) Quite the contrary, I believe that charter school advocates genuinely wish they could give every single child a quality education, whatever that might look like. However, these schools operate with a ‘save the ones you can’ mentality. Although I’ve heard the same from public school teachers, the model of charter schools can’t help but operate with this notion at its very core. As of yet, the independence that those schools seek is not compatible with a state-wide or even city-wide approach. For now, many of these schools start one building, or one subsection of a building, at a time. And they capitalize on government and private resources while they’re doing it. The ones in New York City have been savvy enough to take advantage of opportunities like rent-free building space.
And we should not overlook the role that traditional public schools have played in education leaders’ decisions to start their own charter schools. Those decisions didn’t take place in a vacuum. Those founders have looked at the sprawling bureaucracy of an education system that bleeds teachers and lets its buildings crumble. They have seen a system that disproportionately harms poor children and children of color. Traditional schools need to reflect on and account for their contributions to the creation of this movement. However, many of the issues that lead to schools’ decline come from outside the school gate. Only so much of education is in the hands of teachers and building administrators. Regardless, those issues are coming home to roost in schools themselves, and that has manifested in a unique and troubling way in New York City. The students are the ones who have to deal with those consequences.
Yet again, it’s clear that the adults in this situation gave no consideration to the consequences of these policies on the most disadvantaged students. One wonders if those in power willfully chose to disregard the thought of consequences. This article makes plain the psychological and spiritual toll of co-location, the compounding effects of anemic resources and the oh-so-close proximity of exceptional ones. Trying to learn in an under-resourced school is hard enough without knowing that the children on the floor above you have everything that they need.
How can we expect a 9-year-old to understand and accept the luck of the draw? How can we expect teenagers to not become angry and hardened when they see their peers getting a good education when they can’t get one themselves? Their resentment is completely understandable. I would be mad too.
I’d like to conclude by referencing my very first blog post, which I begin by saying, “Ever tried to explain charter schools to a Canadian? It’s . . . difficult.” People abroad think that American education is odd enough as it is. The idea of giving taxpayer money to an independent yet public group to teach children however they choose is seen as absurd. I have to think that they would view putting multiple schools with multiple administrations and a wildly variable range of resources into the same building is akin to something out of a Jonathon Swift novel. You might as well be talking about cities, and their schools, that float among the clouds.