Richard Cohen: Illogical hostility toward charter schools

March 17

In the war between the rich and the poor, I’m enlisting on the side of the underdog — the rich. What a drubbing they’ve been taking! Across the nation, but particularly in cities such as New York and Washington, the rich are incessantly accused of being slyly manipulative and self-serving. For instance, they support charter schools. Apparently, there is nothing worse.

I am mystified. Charter schools are not private schools. They are free public schools open to any student, usually by lottery. Some rich people support them, provide funds for special programs and, in return, get vilified for their efforts. One columnist, citing the pay package of charter-school chief executives, referred to a “gilded crusade,” another to an “all-out campaign by the elite.” You would think we’re talking about the “gilded” and “elite” getting their kids into some fancy school. Instead, they’re helping poor children.

Take Carl Icahn. You know him as a corporate raider, which he is. Less well known is that he created and supports seven charter schools in New York City, all of them in the Bronx — all of them with student bodies reflective of the city’s poorest borough.

Or take the Harlem Village Academies. Katie Couric is on the board. So are Hugh Jackman, John Legend and Rupert Murdoch. It pays its chief executive $499,000 annually, but this is private money, and Harlem Village has been raising test scores — in other words, giving student after student a better chance of succeeding. What’s that worth?

“Giving back” is a tiresome cliche, but you’d be surprised how many people have made it a personal obligation. I’ve met Icahn just casually, and yet I know a bit about him. We both attended an unheralded genius factory named Far Rockaway High School. (Three Nobel Prize winners!) He’s just a product of the middle class who was fortunate enough to get a great public education and wants to re-create the conditions that made him a success. This is hardly a moral failing.

As always with the rich, they want things done their way. When it comes to schools, they want either no teachers union or a pleasantly pliable one. I understand. Charter schools are very tough on teachers — a schoolroom version of survival of the fittest. The union is out to protect the weakest teachers, even miserable ones. Like the National Rifle Association, the union fears the slippery slope: Ban assault weapons, and next it will be handguns. Fire a teacher for poor performance, and next comes dismissal for something trivial.

When the rich insist that lower taxes would do wonders for the poor, the orphaned and the grievously widowed, I detect the faint aroma of self-interest. But when they plump for charter schools, the only ulterior motive you can find is that down the road, years from now, society will benefit and so, as night follows day, will they. I can live with that.

The United States has always had a love-hate relationship with its rich. But lately, there’s been more hate than love. Some of this is deserved — tell me again what’s moral about short-selling stock and why hedge-fund managers should enjoy a lower tax rate than their secretaries? But some of it reflects middle-class stagnation and the widening gulf between the rich and everyone else. Bill de Blasio ran for mayor of New York promising to narrow the gap. He won going away, and the rest of the country has paid attention.

De Blasio seems cool on charter schools. He has said they have a “destructive impact” on the school system and, in his campaign, demanded that they pay rent for using public school facilities. As a result, charters have become emblematic of the “two cities” mantra — one really rich, the other disproportionately poor. The rich are characterized as having their way with the school system for their own benefit. The hostility is so illogical it has to be based on raw resentment. Pardon me for suspecting that some charter school critics would rather hurt the rich than help the poor.

New York is witnessing progressivism run amok. So far the damage has been minimal and the pushback has been fierce, but charters are in a real fight. Say what you will about New York or Washington charters, but by the usual measurements — test scores, etc. — they are succeeding, some of them stunningly so. Maybe in time the gains will prove ephemeral and failure is just over the horizon. Still, that’s better than the old system. With it, failure was a certainty.

Read more from Richard Cohen’s archive.

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