Getting to Bartlett Street: Our 25-Year Quest to Level the Playing Field in Education
Joe and Carol Reich
230 pages, February Books, 2012
From the foreword by former New York City School Chancellor Joel Klein:
It is a critical moment for public school reform in America. As the nation continues to struggle with the worst economic crisis it has faced since the Great Depression, there is a gathering consensus that our current level of educational attainment is not remotely adequate for the demands of a high-tech, global economy—an economy that requires many more knowledge workers than it used to, and one that can also look to new, emerging economies to find the workers it needs.
Faced with an unemployment and underemployment rate of more than 15 percent, accompanied by a significant across-the-board decline in real wages for many workers, the divide in America between the haves and have-nots is becoming increasingly acute, and now threatens the values that hold us together as a nation. Whatever else, one thing seems obvious: we need to educate our future workforce to a very different degree or our problems will only intensify. This is serious stuff.
Unfortunately, despite a shared recognition about the need to dramatically improve public education, there remains sharp disagreement about how best to do that. The policies pushed by the reform movement—based largely on bringing accountability and choice to the monopoly-run, adult-interest-driven status quo—have enjoyed a measure of success during the past decade. But, to be candid, the system still hasn’t changed much. Schools, along with those who work in them, rarely pay the price of failure, and for most families in America school choice is nonexistent.
First, let’s recognize some places that have demonstrated how real change and improvement are achievable: Florida, which under Governor Jeb Bush’s leadership adopted aggressive reforms, such as putting a letter grade on all schools and denying promotion to third-graders who can’t read; and New Orleans, which, in response to the destruction of the old public school system wrought by Hurricane Katrina, adopted an all-choice system in which three-quarters of the schools are now independent charter schools. But despite these (and other) examples of success, the forces defending the largely unaltered status quo continue to resist meaningful change, arguing that what the system really needs is more resources and, strangely, less accountability and choice.
Into this debate now sail Joe and Carol Reich, two remarkable people from whom, all things considered, one would never have expected to hear. School reform is messy, involving highly charged, sometimes very ugly politics, which often get played out in some of the poorest, most dangerous parts of our urban landscapes. The Reiches, by contrast, are elegant and, yes, like their name is pronounced, rich. But for reasons that will become apparent to readers of “Getting to Bartlett Street”, they have too much gratitude to this country, too fine a sense of equity and fairness, and too deep a belief in the power of education to transform even the most challenged life, to sit this fight out.
So, having been exposed to sixty underprivileged children to whom they guaranteed college scholarships through the “I Have A Dream” Foundation, the Reiches decided to open up their own public school in one of New York’s most impoverished communities—South Williamsburg, Brooklyn—which is divided largely between an immigrant Hispanic community and an orthodox Jewish community.
Nothing like this had ever previously happened in the city. Until the Reiches, it was axiomatic that the schools were run exclusively by the Board of Education. Not surprisingly, then, from day one, the attitude of everyone involved in the school system—the big shots, the bureaucrats, and the union—was that this must be a joke. But Joe and Carol didn’t think it was a laughing matter. The odyssey they describe is a testament to their extraordinary fortitude. It is also, sadly, a testament to the power of the “blob”—the term used to describe the protectors of the monopoly public school system—to resist outside “encroachment,” or any form of innovation, for that matter, at all costs. The late Steve Jobs, a fierce critic of the public school system, repeatedly analogized the public schools to deeply entrenched business monopolies, like AT&T when it controlled the entire telephone system. Jobs noted, “I remember seeing a bumper sticker with the Bell logo on it and it saying, ‘We don’t care. We don’t have to.’
And that’s what monopoly is. That’s what IBM was in their day. And that’s certainly what the public school system is. They don’t have to care.”
But Joe and Carol Reich did care—cared so much that they fought through the extraordinary resistance and indifference that is hard to describe to anyone who hasn’t been directly exposed to the blob. The beneficiaries are not just the families who chose to have their kids attend the Reiches’ two schools in Brooklyn, but literally tens of thousands of families whose kids go to charter schools throughout the city—schools that might never have existed if it weren’t for the Reiches’ pathbreaking efforts. That is the story they chronicle in this deeply moving book, a story of profound change brought about by a couple of miscast outsiders who just didn’t know how to take no for an answer.
Before talking about the story and its impact, let me say a word about the Reiches. Over the past decade, I have come to know them well. They are friends that I admire and love. As any reader of this book will see, they care deeply about others, especially those who are less fortunate. When they describe the kids from the “I Have A Dream” program (they call them “our Dreamers”) and when they refer to the kids who attend their schools, they talk of them as if they were literally their own children. This reflects an emotional attachment that speaks volumes about the Reiches’ humanity, which is matched by the pointed simplicity of the values that animate both of them. Why did they do it? Why did they keep going despite the impossible odds and the endless ridiculous push back? The answer is served up in what I believe to be the most important words in the book:
Families of means can afford to send their children to private schools or relocate to a neighborhood of affluence where the public schools have greater resources. The poor cannot. We recoiled against this injustice. We made it our own struggle.
To me, these words strike at the core of the current injustice inherent in public education. When I was chancellor in New York City, I would always ask people if they would let me assign their child to any of the public schools in the city. No one said yes, and most, when pressed, said they would only allow their kids to go to a third or so of the city’s schools. Who should go to the others, I would ask? The answer was, “Other people’s children!”
Today in New York City, because of the work that Joe and Carol Reich started more than twenty years ago, many more families in high-poverty communities have a choice as to where they will send their kids. Sparked by the work of the Reiches and others, like Seymour Fliegel and his team at the Center for Educational Innovation, New York State passed a charter school law in 1998, allowing for the first time the potential for a real alternative to the public schools. As the Reiches explain, charter schools are privately operated (typically not-for-profit) schools that admit kids by lottery and receive public funding to provide them with a free education. They are subjected to the same testing and other accountability standards as the public schools, and can be, and have been, shut down for nonperformance or financial irregularities.
In many school districts in America today, charter schools, while authorized, are fiercely resisted, typically by superintendents, school boards, and unions. This trinity is nearly impossible to overcome. But in New York City, because of Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s leadership, the support of the philanthropic community, and the commitment of some of the nation’s best multi-charter operators, charter schools have thrived. They now number 136, which amounts to almost 10 percent of all the public schools in the city. And their impact on high-poverty communities, where they tend to be clustered—like northern Manhattan, the South Bronx, and central Brooklyn—is even greater.
There is a raging debate in the education literature about whether charters do better or worse than public schools as a whole. As the Reiches point out, there are a lot of poor charters out there, and some cut corners by not admitting, or discharging, kids that are especially difficult to educate. But the research now makes clear that charter schools in New York City are significantly outperforming the other public schools. Just as important, I would argue, the parents in the city are voting with their feet. For the school year that started in September 2011, there were a total of almost thirteen thousand new charter seats available across the city, for which sixty-four thousand families applied. That is a remarkable number, by any measure. It speaks volumes about the fact that, contrary to conventional opinion, parents in even the most challenged communities will become active and involved consumers of educational services for their children if they are given real choices. Remember, not a single one of the sixty-four thousand was required to apply to a charter school; on the contrary, they each were assigned to a community school that their children could attend. But they wanted something better for their kids, so they took the time to apply to one or more charter schools, knowing the odds would be against them, but nevertheless hoping their kid would be lucky enough to get a better education than the one he would have received at the public school in his community.
What’s sad, as the Reiches point out, is that, despite the demonstrated success of charter schools, as well as the enormous demand for them in New York City, there is still enormous resistance to their expansion. The teachers’ union has sued the city time and again to block them. In part, that’s because, unlike the public schools, which must be unionized, the charters overwhelmingly choose to be nonunion.
In addition, the current workforce in the public schools doesn’t like the competition that the charters provide: if kids leave the traditional public schools for the charters, fewer employees will be needed, and the unions, when push comes to shove, choose to protect jobs.
In the end, I suspect, the parents will prevail. Those sixty-four thousand applicants won’t be denied and, as a political force, they are formidable. They have learned something very important: because their kids grow up poor and often face very difficult challenges doesn’t mean they can’t be well educated. For far too long, the failures of the public schools have been blamed on everything—including the kids—but not on the schools. Well, now parents increasingly know better.
And for that, those parents, and many more throughout our nation, owe a debt of gratitude to a couple of people they have never heard of: Joe and Carol Reich. If you have any doubt that an individual can change the world for the better, read this book. Against all odds, and in the face of persistent, unyielding naysayers, these two people led a revolution in education in the largest school district in the country. In the words of my favorite song from the Broadway show A Little Night Music, “Isn’t it Reich?”