The big losers in NYC charter fight: students with disabilities

FILE - In this Feb. 16, 2014, file photo, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, left, and New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio attend a Black, Puerto Rican, Hispanic and Asian Legislative Caucus Weekend church service at the Wilborn Temple in Albany, N.Y. De Blasio’s first 100 days as mayor of NYC were marked in nearly equal measures by accomplishing campaign goals and committing political blunders. Most of his time and energy was spent on his signature campaign promise - to tax the city’s rich to pay for universal pre-K. That resulted in only a partial victory after the surprise entry of Cuomo, who rejected the tax idea and offered to fund pre-kindergarten through the state budget. (AP Photo/Mike Groll, File)
New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, left, and New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio in Albany in February.                    (AP Photo/Mike Groll, File)

With big bucks from Wall Street supporters behind her, charter network operator Eva Moskowitz won a fight she started with New York Mayor Bill de Blasio over charter schools. De Blasio got politically hurt in the battle after being steamrolled by Moskowitz and Gov. Andrew Cuomo — but in the end, it isn’t de Blasio who will pay the most. At P.S.  149, it’s students with severe disabilities.

The recent fight was over the issue of charter schools co-locating in the same buildings as traditional public schools. Some already do, including several in Moskowitz’s Success Academy charter school network. De Blasio inherited  from former mayor Michael Bloomberg plans for 45 co-locations  (some charters into traditional schools, others traditional schools into other traditional school buildings) and decided to approve 36 and reject nine.

Seventeen of the 45 involved charter schools; he approved 14 and denied three. Those three were proposed by Moskowitz’s charter network, though it is important to note that de Blasio approved five Success co-locations. Why didn’t he approve the other three? Decisions were based on criteria including disallowing elementary schools from being co-located in high schools and refusing to allow co-locations that could affect space needed for special-needs students.

Moskowitz, as I explain here, waged a multi-million dollar public relations battle with cash from backers on Wall Street and with Cuomo on her side. Ads lamented the “eviction” of students from her charter, which didn’t exactly square with the facts, because the middle school hadn’t yet been started. The New York legislature wound up passing a law that barred de Blasio from stopping co-locations. In essence, the legislature passed a law for her.

So who in the end will pay the most? P.S. 149 is a school in Harlem where students with autism and other disabilities from the Mickey Mantle School P.S. 811 have also attended for years. The two schools have lived well with each because they had enough space to have their own facilities. But when Moskowitz was allowed to open an elementary school there in 2006, a space crunch developed that impacted special-needs students.

According to this New York Daily News story, the P.S. 811 kids lost a library and some classrooms that year, and then in 2007, when Moskowitz expanded her elementary school, they lost their music room, art room, technology room and began sharing the cafeteria. Today space is tighter than ever and it can be hard to find a room for children’s therapy sessions, according to this Columbia  Daily Spectator story.

Now that Moskowitz has permission to expand her presence at P.S. 149 to include a middle school, something has to give space-wise. Who is going to leave? The students with special needs, who will have to be given another space, somewhere, in the city. Education historian and activist Diane Ravitch put it this way on her blog:

“They will be evicted to make room for Eva’s new middle school. Will any billionaire run ads to protest the genuine ‘eviction’ of these kids? No, they are powerless. And they don’t have high test scores. And in this society, if you don’t have high test scores, you have fewer rights and privileges.”

Valerie Strauss covers education and runs The Answer Sheet blog.
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Valerie Strauss | April 14