Charter school leader pushes kids to become her personal lobbyists

By David Sirota , written on March 6, 2014

From The News Desk

Charter schools have long been loved by the private sector, and the rich. And for good reason.

They are technically public schools, and so they receive lots of public money, but they are privately run, often by for-profit companies. Their ratio of administrative spending to instructional spending is often higher than the ratio in traditional public schools. Though that has left charter schools typically performing no better than traditional public schools, it has translated into a taxpayer-subsidized gravy train of spending on unproven technology from education corporations; it has raised the prospect of major private profits for investors; and it has delivered outsized paychecks for those who run charter networks.

Charter schools have provided much the same jackpot to lawmakers. As just one iconic example, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo has traded support for charter schools for massive campaign contributions from the same financial industry that has funded the movement to privatize the public school system. As part of the bargain, Cuomo has at once demonized public school employee pay, while promoting charter school leaders like Eva Moskowitz whose taxpayer-subsidized salaries are far higher than their public school counterparts.

As if all of this wasn't troubling enough for the future of public education, now it seems the charter school movement is asserting the right to unilaterally shut down their schools and turn kids into campaigners and lobbyists for the charter school industry, potentially at taxpayer expense. Indeed, earlier this week, the New York Daily News reported that Moskowitz, a national charter school icon, announced classes would be cancelled at her 22 taxpayer-subsidized schools and "that hundreds of parents and students will be bused to Albany to protest" on behalf of Moskowitz's charter school network.

The purpose of the protest was to amplify Moskowitz's demand that her privately run, publicly funded company be allowed to expand into existing traditional public schools and use public buildings without paying rent. Among other things, that would provide an infusion of public revenue to pay Moskowitz's $475,000 a year salary. It would provide such an infusion of public cash even though Moskowitz is trying to prevent public officials from auditing her network's finances.

What is big news here is not a wealthy education entrepreneur using her own political clout to protect her own economic interests. That's standard operating procedure in American politics.

No, what is potentially precedent setting is Moskowitz's possibly using taxpayer money given to her school for the purposes of educating kids and using it instead to finance a political protest that deployed those kids as lobbyists for her agenda. Also precedent setting is what this does to the definition of the very term "public school." Remember, charters are privately administered but they are still classified as public schools for the purposes of taxpayer funding. Yet, Moskowitz is asserting the unilateral right to close her network of ostensibly public schools for the specific purposes of lobbying on behalf of her private organization's political and economic agenda.

To fully appreciate the significance of the move, consider a hypothetical. Imagine a traditional public school's principal unilaterally shutting down his school for a day and then using the school's buses to take the student body to a political protest demanding more money for that principal. That would almost certainly generate a backlash, involving everything from parental outrage, legislative hearings into misuse of public funds and even potentially a criminal probe. And if it happened in New York, it would almost certainly earn a slam from Cuomo.

But that's not what happened this week. Instead, Cuomo proudly attended Moskowitz's rally, endorsing the possible use of taxpayer money to fund such political protests. Similarly, much of the media coverage hasn't even bothered to mention the possible illegalities involved in such a move. Indeed, the only prominent mention of the precedent seems to be coming from New York City councilman Daniel Dromm, who announced he will hold an oversight hearing into "the legality of a school leader closing schools for entirely political purposes."

Of course, private corporations have long used their workforces and their economic power to try to influence politics. What's different here is the use of an ostensibly public institution - and possibly public dollars - to lobby for private interests, and to do so in a way that uses children as the lobbyists. It is a prospective precedent that no doubt has the school privatization movement and the for-profit education sector rejoicing.

[Image adapted from Anosmia on flickr]