Joel Klein’s memoir, Lessons of Hope: How to Fix Our Schools, chronicles his eight years (2002-2010) as chancellor of the New York City Schools. In this excerpt, Klein reflects on his team’s charter school initiative, one of many reforms pursued during his tenure.
In the fall of 2003, a few weeks after announcing the funding for our new small schools, we launched our charter school initiative. Whatever the tumult so far, we knew this would be the most controversial thing we had done. The idea that a public school system would support and develop new charters to compete directly with its own noncharter schools was unorthodox at the time and remains so today. Typically, school districts resist competition and, at best, wait for outsiders – both for-profit and nonprofit – to raise money, develop plans, and seek approval for charters. That process could take years. But we believed New York City’s kids couldn’t afford to wait for better options.
Although we knew from the outset that charter schools would serve only a relatively small part of our overall population – probably less than 10 percent – we expected they would have a significant impact nonetheless. They would be concentrated in high-poverty communities, serving mostly black and Latino students, where the need was greatest. Over time, some communities, like Harlem, became real choice meccas, where more than a third of the kids in elementary and middle schools ended up in charter schools. Once that happened, it was impossible for the community not to notice whose kids were getting the best instruction, and for other parents to begin to demand more of the same.
I also wanted to encourage an all-hands-on-deck approach to school improvement. Just as we needed New Visions and Urban Assembly to help us start our new small high schools and add talent and program support to them, we wanted KIPP and Achievement First and Uncommon Schools – the biggest and best charter operators on the East Coast – to bring their talents and commitment to support our efforts. We thought that competition, pure and simple, would be good for the traditional public schools and certainly for those families that would suddenly have a choice. And, most important, to the extent the charter schools did well, and we believed in our bones many would, they would put pressure on the public schools to stop making excuses about why they weren’t successfully educating kids from poor communities.
There was also another, more subtle reason we sought to bring high-performing charter schools to New York. The model under which they operated was one that appealed to us, and we hoped it would become a template for how we reorganized the traditional public schools. Charters had much more operational freedom than traditional schools because they weren’t smothered by the micromanaging rules and regulations of the bureaucracy and union contract. They were, instead, pretty much free to determine their own course so long as they got good results for their kids. In short, charter schools were built on a model of empowerment and accountability, which made great organizational sense.
Personally, I couldn’t help but be struck by the fact that the people who operated these charter schools are generally among the most politically progressive people I knew. Yet they did everything in their power to avoid unionization – at least in its current form. That spoke volumes about their view that, when it came to running their schools, a traditional unionized workforce was unlikely to be as successful.
Charters weren’t an entirely new idea, but they had never really gotten off the ground in New York City. As we studied this problem we discovered that money had been a huge hurdle. Operating costs were higher in New York than anywhere else, but this didn’t matter much because that state paid a reasonable, if not generous, amount to educate each child enrolled in a charter. The real reason that most plans for charter schools foundered was because no one could find a proper location. Real estate was both scarce and expensive in many parts of the city. Empty parcels were almost never available, and buildings ripe for demolition or renovation were snapped up by developers who could invest huge sums in construction and then rent or sell space to those who could pay top dollar. Even in poor neighborhoods, where you might find a site, construction was very expensive, due to New York labor costs and building code requirements.
The perfect fix for the real estate problem was to make existing classroom space available to charters, and this is exactly what we decided to do. We could start with the space that we had freed up by shutting down the massive superintendent offices. In addition to those former office quarters, we could also let the charters use classrooms in buildings occupied by traditional schools. Teachers and administrators in those buildings might not want to lose the space, or have their work compared with the efforts of a charter school in the same building, but we believed the space belonged to the kids, not the schools, and if the kids wanted to choose a charter school, they should command their share of the space as well.
To this day the fight continues to rage over our decision to collocate charter schools in public school space. In part, this conflict grew out of the concerns of teachers and administrators in traditional schools who didn’t want to lose the space and didn’t like the competition. But this battle was also a surrogate for opposition to charters more generally. Simply as a practical matter, without the real estate, there would be very few charters.
Of course, the proper conditions for a crop of new charters would include far more than just real estate. We also had to reverse a widespread perception and make clear to the charter community that our school district would welcome them. I did this by meeting personally with most of the major operators, giving them my assurance that I would be in their corner, while making a highly publicized speech announcing that we were determined to turn New York City into “the Silicon Valley for charter schools.” Having invoked this comparison, I was signaling that our charter initiative would not be small or limited. We wanted all the good charter organizations to come to New York and expand. By encouraging this kind of growth, we knew that the charters would feel safe and that they could live in an environment that enabled them to learn from one another.
A robust charter community would also need support in navigating the practical and political challenges that it would face. We didn’t want the public school bureaucracy to smother this nascent (and seemingly threatening) movement, so we ultimately decided to create a private nonprofit organization, called the Center for Charter Excellence, that would become the hub for charter school support and advocacy. As the name implied, we wanted the center to help ensure that our charter schools were indeed excellent; we weren’t supporting charters for their own sake. This initiative mattered only if it resulted in more good schools for our kids. To get the center established, we raised more than $40 million from several large donors – the Robin Hood Foundation and philanthropists Julian Robertson and Joe and Carol Reich – all of whom remained strong, dedicated, and generous charter school backers, and each designated a representative to serve on the new center’s board.
On October 30, 2003, the mayor and I went to Renaissance Charter School in Jackson Heights, Queens. In addition to announcing the Center for Charter Excellence, we committed to opening at least fifty new charter schools in the next five years. We also said we would push for changes in state law that would be conductive to charter development and expansion, including raising the existing cap on the number of charter schools that could exist statewide, something the unions had insisted on limiting in order to make sure charters didn’t grow too quickly.
This announcement was widely perceived to be big news. The message to prospective charter operators – as well as to the rest of the city – was that we meant business. The huge financial backing signaled that we would have the wherewithal to attract new charter operators and give them the support they needed. The reaction from the unions, bureaucrats, politicians, and existing personnel at the public schools was predictably fierce. Aside from the fact that monopolists don’t like competition, politicians don’t like perceived threats to their community schools, where they invariably have strong ties and influence that they have built up over the years. Nor do they like explaining to constituents why some kids could get into a charter school but others couldn’t because there wasn’t enough space. Although it shouldn’t have surprised me, one of the things I found most difficult to accept was the opposition to charter schools voiced by many legislators from minority communities, where the existing schools were failing and charter options were so desperately needed.
In fact, among the first schools to open under our charter initiative was an elementary school in Bedford-Stuyvesant, one of the most challenged neighborhoods in Brooklyn. With extraordinary financial support from the philanthropist Paul Tudor Jones, a successful charter group called Uncommon Schools opened the first all-boys school in the city, called Excellence Academy, converting a building that used to be a place where drug dealers and prostitutes operated into one of the most beautiful schools I’ve ever seen. The kids who attended were from the neighborhood, mostly black boys from low-income families. The principal, Jabali Sawicki, himself a young black man and a former teacher, enjoyed a reputation for leadership that far surpassed what you’d expect from someone in his early thirties. Sawicki himself had lived the American Dream, and he was determined to make it happen for as many other African American boys as he could.
Soon after Excellence opened, I paid a visit and arrived at the same moment that a young boy dressed in a neat school uniform showed up. He immediately said, “Good morning, Chancellor,” which surprised me. As I had learned, most kids have no idea who the chancellor is or what he does. Sometimes, when I went to a school, especially if the media were around, a kid might say, “Who’s that, the mayor?” But that’s about as much recognition as I got. I could only guess that Excellence had taken the time to tell its students who I was and that I would be visiting that day.
When I asked the youngster his name, he replied, “Jamal.” I asked, “What grade are you in?” And he said, “Kindergarten.” I asked, “What do you do in kindergarten at Excellence?” He replied, “We start getting ready for college.” I said, “Jamal, college is a long way away, why would you start getting ready now?” He replied, “Well, college is important, so it’s never too early to start getting ready.”
I never forgot that encounter. As I quickly learned, Jamal’s thoughts were built into every aspect of the school culture at Excellence. Everyone was expected to go to college. Each classroom was named for a college, and the students visited colleges while in elementary school. The school insisted on high standards, its teachers went above and beyond, and its students prospered. Sawicki inspired his teachers and students, whom he treated as if each were his son. After graduating from Excellence at the end of eighth grade, Jamal went on to be an honor student at Bishop Loughlin, one of the best Catholic schools in New York. He hopes to go to college at Harvard or Morehouse and then work for Sawicki, who’s now using his incredible teaching talent to design online interactive courses so he can reach – and teach – kids all over the world. I have often wondered what would have happened to Jamal if he had gone to one of the nearby failing neighborhood schools instead of Excellence.
Despite countless stories like Jamal’s, in the end nothing – and I mean nothing – was more threatening to the education status quo in New York City than our charter school initiative. During Mayor Bloomberg’s tenure, the city opened well over 150 new charters, and as they consistently outperformed the traditional public schools, the demand for them in high-poverty neighborhoods went through the roof. The waiting list in minority communities alone reached into the tens of thousands each year. Among the charters were two opened by the UFT, one on its own and one in partnership with Green Dot, a California-based charter group. Both of them shared space with other schools in our buildings. But these facts didn’t matter. When it came to charter schools, all that mattered was that they competed with the traditional public schools, and, almost without exception, they weren’t unionized. As a result, the unions, led by the UFT and supported by most Democratic politicians, opposed us at every step.
Joel Klein was chancellor of the New York City Schools from 2002-2010.