The People United

If you’ve been to a protest in the last 10 years, you’ve likely heard the chant, “The people, united, will never be defeated!”  The opposite is true as well.  When the government pits community against community, as it is now doing in the process of promoting charter schools designed to compete with community schools, it’s important to step back and remember that when neighbor is turned against neighbor, The People always lose.

For the past seven years, my partner and I have worked on a film about the Atlantic Yards project.  As we finish the editing of this film, we are starkly aware of the painful parallels between that story and the way in which the battle over our schools is currently playing out.  Top-down decision-making fails to take into account the situation on the ground, which leaves those most affected by the arrangements feeling powerless, divided, and battling their neighbors for resources.

The wealthiest and most powerful people and foundations in America – including Michael Bloomberg, Barak Obama, Bill Gates and the Walton Family (Wal-Mart) – have put their support behind the “race to the top” concept of treating schools much like businesses, and families like consumers. In their promotion of charter schools and “school choice”, they are directing resources towards creating new schools while diverting them from the ones that exist. This has recently begun to have powerful consequences in District 13. In regards to the expansion of Arts and Letters in PS 20, despite the fact that local elected officials expressed a desire to slow down the process to get more community input, and the increasingly active parent community came out strongly against the expansion, it was approved. Only a month later, the community at PS 9 is waging a fierce campaign against the insertion of a new charter in their school, and PS 11 is preparing for attack. Instead of consulting with the communities that exist in these schools, DOE officials make determinations based on data about how many students are in the buildings. This data set does not take into account the fact that all of these schools have shown increasing parent involvement, test scores and enrollment. In the case of PS 9, enrollment is growing at such a strong rate that it will be bursting at the seams in a few short years. If the DOE inserts a charter school, PS 9’s energy and enrollment will be stifled as the schools within the building are forced to compete for the use of space and resources. In both the case of PS 20 and PS 9, the communities that exist in these schools have expressed the sense that no one in a decision making position is listening to them or supporting them.

Despite it’s massive public cost and impacts, the public also had no formal way to exert influence on the Atlantic Yards project. When it was announced, an architecture critic for the NY Times had the following to say, “A Garden of Eden grows in Brooklyn. This one will have its own basketball team. Also, an arena surrounded by office towers; apartment buildings and shops; excellent public transportation; and, above all, a terrific skyline, with six acres of new parkland at its feet. Almost everything the well-equipped urban paradise must have, in fact.”

Just like school choice, it sounded great on paper, but things are always more complex in reality. Over the previous decade, hundreds of people had moved into that area which had formerly been anchored by industries like newspaper printing. Along with the long term residents, they had contributed to the resurgence of this southwest corner of Prospect Heights. Unfortunately, no one bothered to tell the community anything about the plans that would eliminate their neighborhood, before they announced the project as a done deal.  In order to build support for the project, the public relations machine pushed the mantra, “jobs, housing, hoops.” Who wouldn’t want jobs, housing, and hoops? The millions of dollars that were spent to promote the proposed benefits obfuscated the hard question of how these benefits would be paid for, or what impacts the project might have on the community around and under it. The numbers spent on promoting accountability based educational reform dwarf those associated with this development project.

In her best selling book, “The Life and Death of the Great American School System”, Brooklyn based education scholar Diane Ravitch points out that the billionaire supporters of charters and accountability believe that if schools are forced to compete with each other for students and resources, then market forces will bring out the best in everyone. Ravitch, who was involved in the creation of No Child Left Behind, was originally a supporter of these ideas. However, when she looked at data tracking the results of these methods, she realized that they were not achieving the desired results. In fact, she found that the only reliable indicator of a student’s success or failure was their relative prosperity, or lack thereof. She points out that the data shows that poverty is the problem, and not the schools.

One problem with the accountability model is that it gives teachers and schools incentives to teach kids how to take tests and it gives communities an incentive to fight over resources rather than reasons to collaborate. It also ignores the complexities of how communities operate. As Diane Ravitch discovered through her research, local schools are often the anchor of their communities, and when they are penalized or closed, rather than supported, the social fabric of these communities is left in tatters. The accountability model might lead to more efficient production of inanimate products, but it doesn’t lead to harmonious communities.

After a seven year community fight an arena is now being built in Prospect Heights. Homes, businesses, and city streets were seized for the project, yet none of the promised benefits which served to divide the community are coming to pass. 15,000 construction jobs were promised, but as of November 2010, when construction was moving into high gear, there were 345 jobs, of which only a fraction went to people in the community. Thousands of affordable units of housing were promised. There are no plans to build any housing until economic conditions improve and subsidies are available. No local elected officials had a vote on the project, so there was no way for the community to have any meaningful influence on how the project might look. When people have no say about decisions regarding their community, they feel hopeless.

At the beginning of our film, City Council member Letitia James has the following to say at a community meeting about the project: “Frank Gehry said he wants to build a community from scratch. I want to tell him that a community already exists here, and what we need to do is develop it and not destroy it.” In terms of local community schools, we need to take a step back and ask ourselves how we can work together, neighbor with neighbor, to support all of our children in the broadest way possible.

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