By Diane Ravitch and Avi Blaustein
The battle between NYC Mayor Bill de Blasio and Eva Moskowitz, CEO of the Success Academy charter chain, has blown up into a national controversy, covered on national television, the New York Times, and the Wall Street Journal.
Mayor de Blasio had the nerve to award the Moskowitz chain only five of the eight charters that it wanted, and Moskowitz has been on the warpath to get all eight, even if it means pushing kids with disabilities out of their public school classrooms.
What is missing from the controversy so far is any interest on the part of the journalists in basic facts. Instead, what is happening is a public relations battle. Moskowitz has attacked Mayor de Blasio in multiple media appearances, and no one in the media has bothered to check any of her claims.
Let's fill that gap.
On MSNBC's Morning Joe, Ms. Moskowitz claimed that Success Academy 4 in Harlem is the "highest performing school in New York State in math in in fifth grade." This is obviously an odd metric to use in judging a school. Picking out one subject in a single grade should raise suspicion among the media, but it hasn't.
It is also not true. On the fifth grade state math test, the students at Success Academy 4 are, in fact, #8 in New York City (tied with another school) and presumably even lower when compared to schools across the state. The fourth grade math test scores are #54 in New York City (tied with six other schools). The third grade math scores rank #63 in New York City (tied with 6 other schools). The school's rankings are even worse in English. The fifth grade English test scores rank #59 in New York City (tied with seven other schools), the fourth grade English test scores rank #81 in New York City (tied with five other schools), and the third grade English test scores rank #65 in New York City (tied with eight other schools).
The school is not the "highest performing school in the state" in any grade.
Moskowitz's interviewers have said that the students at Success Academy 4 are the "most disadvantaged kids in New York City," to which she assented. She has said "it's a random lottery school. We don't know who they are."
We do, in fact, know who the students at Success Academy are. They are not the most disadvantaged kids in New York City. Harlem Success Academy schools have half the number of English Language Learners as the neighboring public schools in Harlem. The students in Success Academy 4 include 15 percent fewer free lunch students and an economic need index (a measure of students in temporary housing and/or who receive public assistance) that is 35 percent lower than nearby public schools.
Moskowitz's Success Academy 4 has almost none of the highest special needs students as compared to nearby Harlem public schools. In a school with nearly 500 students, Success Academy 4 has zero, or one, such students, while the average Harlem public school includes 14.1 percent such students. With little sense of irony or embarrassment, Moskowitz has attacked Bill de Blasio for preventing the school's expansion inside PS 149. Her school's expansion would have come at the cost of space for students with disabilities. The school has already lost "a fully equipped music room ... A state-mandated SAVE room ... A computer lab... Individual rooms for occupational and physical therapy ... and the English Language Learners (ELL) classroom," due to earlier Success Academy expansions in the same building.
Moskowitz said, referring to the students in her schools, "we've had these children since kindergarten." But she forgot to mention all the students who have left the school since kindergarten. Or the fact that Harlem Success Academy 4 suspends students at a rate 300 percent higher than the average in the district. Last year's seventh grade class at Harlem Success Academy 1 had a 52.1 percent attrition rate since 2006-07. That's more than half of the kindergarten students gone before they even graduate from middle school. Last year's sixth grade class had a 45.2 percent attrition rate since 2006-07. That's almost half of the kindergarten class gone and two more years left in middle school. In just four years Harlem Success Academy 4 has lost over 21 percent of its students. The pattern of students leaving is not random. Students with low test scores, English Language Learners, and special education students are most likely to disappear from the school's roster. Large numbers of students disappear beginning in 3rd grade, but not in the earlier grades. No natural pattern of student mobility can explain the sudden disappearance of students at the grade when state testing just happens to begin.
Moskowitz made a number of other claims during her Morning Joe appearance. She said "we are self-sustaining on the public dollar alone." In fact, Success Academy spends $2,072 more per student than schools serving similar populations. This additional funding comes from donations by the very same hedge fund moguls who have donated over $400,000 to Governor Cuomo's re-election campaign (charter supporters in the financial and real estate sector have contributed some $800,000 to Governor Cuomo's campaign).
Moskowitz has said "in terms of cracking the code that's what we've set out to do." But we don't need charter schools to crack the code if the cryptographic key is to keep out the neediest students and kick out students with low test scores. Public schools could do that too. Then they too would have higher test scores and a high attrition rate. They don't do it because it would probably be illegal. And besides, it is the wrong thing to do. Public schools are expected to educate everyone, not just those who are likeliest to succeed.