May 1 2014

Kids of Color as Props in Charter School Drama

Two white public figures square off in managed debate

Education NYC

When Eva Moskowitz closed her chain of charter schools for a day to stage a photo op at the state capital, attendance was not exactly voluntary (Nation, 3/14/14).


The media-hyped, high-profile war of words between fledgling New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio and Success Academy CEO Eva Moskowitz came to a head when two separate education rallies converged on New York’s state capital Albany in March. Stories, political analysis and a seemingly never-ending supply of punditry took the city by storm.

This microcosm of the national conversation over public education displayed media’s predictably narrow parameters of debate, between a corporate reformer and a moderate (but still charter-friendly) liberal. In this case, Moskowitz was incensed that the mayor had only approved three of six expansion plans for her charter network. But it also showed how, in order to really add drama to a political back and forth between two white public figures, media and corporate reformers alike use black and Latino children as “political footballs” while steering this “civil rights issue” towards a notable right-wing home field advantage (Huffington Post, 3/13/14).

As FAIR Blog (3/19/14) recently pointed out, media’s defense of the charter school system usually goes hand in hand with a defense of the wealthy. Why should anyone doubt the altruism of hedge-funders funding certain segments of the charter movement? If you question the intentions of the wealthy or of corporate reformers like Moskowitz, perhaps you’re feeding into the “war against children” that Republican lawmakers like Rep. Eric Cantor (R-Va) say is being waged (Washington Post, 2/28/14).

But media need to “balance” that conversation with someone symbolic of an opposing view. For those not inclined to agree with Cantor or join in Moskowitz’ public hyperventilating about her charter network’s lack of preferential treatment by the city, then the new mayor represents the other end of the allowable education spectrum for a media establishment so averse to progressive politics that it draws the line at moderatism.

This isn’t spelled out in so many words, but it’s quite obvious when you read through the coverage. Take a New York Times editorial (3/17/14) that asked de Blasio to “renounce” his “divisive rhetoric” on education. While the Times’ take on Moskowitz and de Blasio was more nuanced and less sensationalistic than coverage from conservative tabloids like the New York Post (“A War on Children,” 3/11/14), it still managed to peg the position of the new mayor, who it conceded wasn’t waging any “war,” as the other side of the coin—ignoring concerns from educators and activists that charter expansions were still the norm. (De Blasio approved 14 of 17 charter expansions.)

The Nation’s Jarrett Murphy (3/3/14) has pointed out the Times’ attempts to frame de Blasio’s liberal-leaning cabinet picks as “ideological” but his less progressive picks (read: holdovers from the Bloomberg era) as “managerial.” It’s precisely that skewed view that moves the political goalposts to the right. In this case, his position was described as “ambivalence” towards charters and “at odds” with other Democrats (like New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo)—confounding the Times (2/27/14). When moderate charter support is measured against (stronger) establishment support, truly critical voices further left are completely out of bounds.

With narrow, binary coverage of a Moskowitz/de Blasio showdown (“Mayor de Blasio vs. Charter Schools, Round 1,” New York, 2/27/14), black and Latino families are spotlighted to add credence to an imaginary “war” on children—and also to obfuscate the role of the wealthy.

During the media firestorm that followed the standoff, the Success Academy CEO was flanked by black and Latino parents during press conferences. At the Albany rally—which the New York Times (4/3/14) subsequently reported was organized at Cuomo’s behest—images of thousands of children of color (given the day off to attend) wearing matching shirts filled airwaves and front pages. And a barrage of ads, paid for by donors like hedge fund heavy Paul Tudor Jones, put “a face to each of the students impacted by the decision—mostly black and Hispanic students” (CBS, 3/6/14).

Even though wealthy donors funding a parent-led political campaign flirt with questions of astroturfing, a family’s desire to see their kids succeed academically is understandably mixed in with a practical desire to see the school succeed politically.

But the popularity of charters in communities of color points to longstanding inequities in public education along racial lines—not a desire for a corporate vision of reform. Corporate reformers, and their benefactors, supplement coverage that glosses over this context (and views of parents of independent, non-network charters) with a campaign heavy on the emotional appeal of families of color fighting for their schools.

In that sort of political and media environment, someone like Moskowitz (who has reportedly cut corners in achieving high standardized test results—Diane Ravitch’s Blog, 2/28/14) can posture herself, and her non-stop parade of charter schools and expansions, as the moral equivalent of Harriet Tubman.