Carmen Farina Needs to Get Over It and Embrace Charter Schools

Carmen Farina Needs to Get Over It and Embrace Charter Schools
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New York City Schools Chancellor, Carmen Farina, speaks to the media at The Laboratory School of Finance and Technology M.S. 223 Thursday, Jan. 2, 2014, in the Bronx borough of New York. (AP Photo/Frank Franklin II)

RCEd Commentary

Carmen Fariña appears to be a terrific educator, someone you really want to see succeed in her job as New York City schools chancellor. Which is exactly why it so painful to watch her enter into a lose-lose debate with the city’s charter schools.

Apparently frustrated by scores of charter schools succeeding far better with low-income and minority students, Fariña recently blurted out that they must be cheating. They must be shoving out their lower performing students. Except she couldn’t prove it, and had to back away from her own words.

First, there’s no reason for Fariña to be throwing down with charters. She wasn’t tapped by Mayor Bill de Blasio to be a debater. Not her strength.

Second, for reasons that are both mysterious and baffling, Fariña continues to shove back against the one force in the city that could truly improve her schools: those same charters she complains about.

Elsewhere in the country, school chiefs are taking just the opposite approach, embracing charters as an important tool for turning around their schools.

New district/charter collaborations were announced in Cleveland, Minneapolis, Rhode Island and Florida, the Center on Reinventing Public Education reported last month. They will join the more established compacts well under way in places such as Denver, Houston and San Jose.

There are good reasons for these collaborations. After years of thrashing about on their own, top charters have recently started to share their lessons-learned. The results can range from hopeful to extraordinary.

New Yorkers are aware of the striking success low income, minority children are experiencing at Success Academies, often besting children from solidly middle class schools. Success Academies are not an aberration.

In Boston, the Brooke Charters take in kids at roughly the same income/minority mix as Boston Public Schools, and yet their students end up outscoring white and Asian students in some of the best zip codes in Massachusetts.

A week ago I visited Achievement Prep in Washington, D.C.’s, Ward 8, the poorest neighborhood in the city. Achievement Prep’s student population mirrors the neighborhood, and yet the student outcomes are striking: Students there outscore community Ward 8 schools by as much as 40 points and compete with schools from the priciest neighborhoods in D.C.

Until recent years, stories such as Achievement Prep and Brooke Charters weren’t reality. What changed?

Take Achievement Prep as an example. This school was organized by Boston-based Building Excellent Schools. With guidance from BES, Achievement Prep launched by incorporating lessons-learned from some of the nation’s top charters:  Roxbury Prep, Academy of the Pacific Rim, Achievement First, Excel Academy and Brooke.

What that meant for Achievement Prep was success from the first day. Only a few years ago, that was unthinkable. Today, among the top charters that share lessons, it has become routine. Unfortunately, that same kind of sharing has not been happening among traditional districts.

So why wouldn’t Fariña want to tap into this new phenomenon? Unclear -- other than the very concept of publicly funded, independently managed charter schools offends her ultra-progressive mindset.

She needs to get over it; other school chiefs have, to the benefit of their students.

In San Jose’s Franklin-McKinley district, Superintendent John Porter invited select charters into his district not just to expose more students to their successful brands but also to force his traditional schools pick up their game. That’s exactly what happened, with neighborhood schools now acting like entrepreneurial charter startups.

In New York, Fariña could do the same. Unfortunately there’s no sign of that yet. The few city charters she visits tend to be schools known for some unique quality she cherishes -- hiring union teachers or serving high levels of special education students.

The academic rabbits, the charters that could offer something to her schools, get the stiff arm -- and conspiracy theories.

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