03/14/2014 10:44 am ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

In New York's Fight Over Charter Schools, a Tale of Two Cities (and Two Selves)

At the New Teacher Center conference a few years ago, I watched a master teacher model a great way to introduce students to new material. She projected a single image onto the screen in our conference room -- it was Liberty Leading the People -- and asked us a single question, over and over again: "What do you see?" Any observation ("I see a strong woman") would prompt a second question from the instructor ("What's your evidence?"). It was fun, and illuminating, and after ten minutes, based on nothing more than our own close observations, we were ready to study the French Revolution.

I was reminded of that workshop recently, when I saw someone on Twitter share the following picture:


Absent any context, what do you see? And what is your evidence?

Now let's try another one, this time a 30-second video:

Or this one:

Again, what do you see? And what is your evidence?

If you're someone who closely follows the news about school reform, you already know that the standing woman in the photograph is Eva Moskowitz, the founder of the Success Academy network of charter schools in New York City. You know that her salary -- $475,000 a year -- is twice that of the NYC Schools Chancellor. And you know that the video, and others like it, appeared shortly after Mayor Bill de Blasio announced he was canceling plans for three of her schools in New York City -- and allowing virtually every other charter proposal to proceed.

It's been disconcerting to watch this fight escalate -- particularly because, as I've said repeatedly, issues of school choice are complicated. Nuance is required, and once again, nuance is nowhere to be found. But there's another issue I see playing out in this fight, and that picture, and those videos, and it's the one we really don't want to talk about: the extent to which our current reform efforts are either redefining, or merely reinforcing, traditional notions of race, privilege, and power.

Indeed, the battle between the Matriarch and the Mayor isn't really about co-locations, or charter schools, or the right of a parent to choose: it's about the ongoing tension between our country's delicate, dual allegiance to the core values of capitalism (consumption & competition) and the core values of democracy (conscience & consensus). It's about a mayor's clumsy attempt to swing the ideological pendulum back -- perhaps too far -- in the direction of democracy by making a political point. And it's about whether it's OK or a little shady that a white woman can make a personal fortune by dramatically raising the test scores of poor black and brown kids.

Personally, I think it's a little shady. Not because schools like Success Academy are inherently wrong or misguided, but because it's a vivid example of the ways in which our society in general, and public school reform in particular, has shifted its moral center to the capitalist side of the values continuum. In that world, competition is king, and to the victor goes the acres of diamonds.

This is an old tension, and an ongoing argument between two competing sides of ourselves. Plato first laid it out for us, in The Republic, when he said that liberty was democracy's greatest good. What type of liberty will generate the greatest good, however, has been debated ever since, though philosophers have clarified the distinction. One vision, described as the liberty of the ancients, refers to the need for people to have a voice into the policies and politicians that govern their lives. The other, the liberty of the moderns, speaks to the right of each individual to pursue his or her own private interests free form state oversight or control.

I would suggest that the core of the current fight over school reform policies can be traced back to which side of the liberty equation speaks to you most. Consider the central rallying cry of the charter school movement: My child, My choice. Consider the rallying cry on the other side -- less pithily stated, but the essence is, public schools are the foundation of a healthy democracy (gotta work on that messaging, guys). Or consider the words of Khari Shabazz, the principal of Success Academy's fifth Harlem location, in an interview with a reporter from the New Yorker. "They are going to be competing for spaces in colleges and universities across the country," he said of his students. "Coming from the socio-economic background that they're coming from, it's important to learn to be competitive. And none of us work for free."

There's nothing wrong with that statement; it's simply a market-oriented approach to school change -- a liberty of the moderns worldview, if you will -- and it's a view that's very much in line with the larger sea change in American society. "Markets don't just allocate goods," says Harvard's Michael Sandel. "They also express and promote certain attitudes towards the goods being exchanged. And what has occurred over the past thirty years is that without quite realizing it, we have shifted from having a market economy to being a market society. The difference is this: A market economy is a tool -- a valuable and effective tool -- for organizing productive activity. A market society is a way of life in which market values seep into every aspect of human endeavor. It's a place where social relations are made over in the image of the market."

For a society in which social relations are deeply rooted in a shared history of race-based inequality and oppression, will the application of market thinking to public schools result in the erosion, or the entrenchment, of those legacies? Indeed, the center of the fight in NYC seems to be about what will happen when the considerable wealth and influence of a capitalist economy begins to remake the institution that was founded to be the ultimate safeguard of our democratic society. It's about what happens when educators start to make private-sector salaries by improving achievement in communities that have been left behind. And it's about what happens when two increasingly entrenched groups of people debate the future of public education from perspectives that can sometimes feel mutually exclusive.

This is what makes modern school reform so complicated. It isn't that one side is evil and out to ruin America, and the other is righteous and out to save it -- though both sides have claimed exactly that; it's that the values people are working from to solve our most intractable problems are, in many ways, diametrically opposed.

Which takes me back to that picture, which feels like a Rorschach test for the values you bring to this debate. Does the imagery make you uncomfortable, even angry? Or does it seem like much ado about nothing, or perhaps even a positive representation of precisely what you want to be fighting for?

Knowing where we stand on the values question doesn't immediately lend itself to any clear-cut, system-wide solutions. But perhaps it can clarify what we're actually fighting over, and why any effort to find the happy medium between our democratic and our capitalistic selves may prove as elusive as the search for Plato's ideal republic -- now 2,500 years long, and counting.