Charter Schools & Dog Whistle Politics in New York

I’ve lived through my share of the outrageous when it comes to political pandering, having grown up in the days of Lyndon Johnson’s “Daisy” campaign advertisement, right up through Reagan’s “Cadillac Queen” to Bush the Elder’s take-down of presidential candidate Michael Dukakis using the infamous Willie Horton commercials. This is not to mention the “swift boating” of John Kerry and the classification of President Obama as not being “a real American.” The tactic was refined through the development of “dog whistle” politics that featured such loaded terms as “family values” and “welfare reform” to prick up the faithful ears of fundamentalist Christians and “angry white men.”  Until now, this was something that was favored by Republicans, who could depend on their sometimes veiled, and other times overt, messages of racism and religious intolerance to “bring out the vote.”

It worked for George Wallace, Ronald Reagan and many other demagogues: why not Andrew Cuomo, Michele Rhee and Eva Moskowitz?

It appears, though, that politicians like Andrew Cuomo, and neo-politicians, like Michele Rhee and Eva Moskowitz, have taken this strategy and re-purposed it for their own brand of racial-urban-class warfare. Their “dog whistle,” however, is designed to lure African-American voters to their side of the ledger by doing the bidding of the rich and powerful. How else would you get 10,000 people of color to rally for a practice that creates a new era of de facto segregation?

If you examine the racial composition of charter schools in New York, you would find that the numbers point to a new pattern of separate and unequal schools. While African-American students comprise 30% of the student population in NYC, they make up 60% of the charter school enrollment. On the other side, 40% of New York’s student body is Hispanic, yet they represent about 30% of the students in charter schools. This imbalance is clearly not accidental.

As if these numbers were not bad enough, the Civil Rights Project at the University of California at Los Angeles released a report today that New York schools have grown even more segregated, with charter schools leading the way. According to the report:

In New York City, the largest school system in the U.S. with 1.1 million pupils, the study notes that many of the charter schools created over the last dozen years are among the least diverse of all, with less than 1 percent white enrollment at 73 percent of charter schools.

Things are even more dismal on the status of children who are English Language Learners (ELLs.) In a city where 15% of students are ELL, the public school population of these students outpaces charters by 300%. Yes, you read that correctly: there are 300% more ELLs in public schools than in charters.

Here are the stats....

The stats from 2010; do you think things have improved since then?

In the days of George Wallace, African-American families rightfully demanded that they be admitted to the “separate and clearly unequal” schools that were reserved for whites; it was a basic issue of equality. When Brown vs. The Board of Education was handed down, it was not because the court believed that the solution was to create schools for African-Americans that were identical to those attended by white students: Thurgood Marshall, the lead attorney on the case, showed that the presence of all-white schools created a special class of students who would be considered superior to their peers of color. This was best exemplified by the research performed by the educational psychologists Kenneth B. Clark and Mamie Phipps Clark: their “doll test” studies proved to the Supreme Court that segregation had an impact on black schoolchildren’s mental status. How is this any different than a charter schools network that uses public money to elevate the status of one group of students over another?

If 60% of charter school students are African American, then a back of the napkin calculation shows that over 30,000 African American children attend charter schools in NYC: multiply that by their caregivers, relatives and friends, and you’ve got a critical mass of 200,000 single-issue voters who will run to the candidate that is most aligned with the “pro charter” movement, especially if he/she is given Eva Moskowitz’s blessing. When Andrew Cuomo stands in front of a crowd of predominantly African-American families and proclaims the equivalent of “charters today, charters tomorrow, charters forever,” we know what kind of whistle he is blowing.


Addendum: this fun fact comes from the New York City Charter School Center!:

Question: What types of students attend charter schools?

The approximately 56,600 students who attend New York City’s charter schools come from all backgrounds and ethnicities, and include a higher percentage of Hispanic or African American students than traditional New York City district schools. Last year, there were 92% Hispanic or African American students in New York City’s charter schools, compared with 70% in traditional district schools. This is in part because charter schools are mostly located in areas in which a large number of Latino and African American students live. 

Indeed, 92% of students are Hispanic and African American, but let’s get something straight: just because you put the word “Hispanic” first does not mean that they are anywhere in the majority. Let’s repeat until necessary: 30% of charter school students are Hispanic and 62% are African American. You can change the syntax (since African American begins with an “a,” I believe it should go first) but you can’t change the facts.

About rmberkman

This blog is the sole musings of one Robert M. Berkman, an educator who has taught math, science and technology for the past 30 years in New York. You can react to all his posts by emailing him at
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