Opinion | Build a Charter School, Get Sued by the Teachers Union

Opinion | Build a Charter School, Get Sued by the Teachers Union

Bronx, N.Y.

If you’re looking for proof that teachers unions don’t care about the interests of schoolchildren, you can find it in the impoverished Bronx neighborhood of Soundview. A school building on Beach Avenue has been shuttered for almost a decade, and the United Federation of Teachers is suing to keep it closed.

On Aug. 22, a new charter high school, Vertex Academies, will begin classes here. In the local school district, only 7% of students who enter ninth grade are ready for college four years later. For black students, the figure is 4%. The new school promises to deliver “a high-quality education to 150 minority students from low-income backgrounds” in its first year, says founding principal

Joyanet Mangual.

Vertex will use the premises of the defunct Blessed Sacrament School, where

Sonia Sotomayor

was valedictorian in 1968. When the school shut down in 2013, the justice declared herself “heartbroken.” Her mother had scrimped and saved to send her there: “She watched what happened to my cousins in public school, and worried if we went there, we might not get out,” Justice Sotomayor told the

New York Times.

I interview Ms. Mangual, 34, and co-founder

Ian Rowe,

57, on the edge of the school’s playground, which includes grass soccer and baseball fields and a basketball court. “It’s 39,900 square feet,” Mr. Rowe says—a little shy of an acre. “This is unheard of for a public school in the Bronx.” Its teachers start work on Aug. 1, three weeks before the students arrive. There are 15 teachers, Ms. Mangual says. One is moving from Maine, another from Indiana. The literature teacher is an American now teaching English in China.

Vertex Academies will start this year by enrolling 150 freshmen for the class of 2026, the first to graduate. Next year it will enroll 220 freshmen. Some 60% of the first class will come from four designated K-8 charters, in the Lower East Side of Manhattan and the Bronx, that will serve as feeder schools. Three of these schools are part of a network of charter schools, Public Prep, of which Mr. Rowe was CEO. “Around 80% to 85% of the kids are from low-income families,” Mr. Rowe says. “In terms of the racial demographic, it’s black and Hispanic.” The rest of the places at Vertex each year will go to transfer students, selected by lottery, the customary manner of admission to charter schools.

That’s where the UFT comes in. Mr. Rowe explains that Vertex is a “charter management organization.” The State University of New York gave the four feeder schools the authority to run a high school: “They could choose to run it themselves, but they’re hiring Vertex to run it on their behalf.” The union alleges that Vertex isn’t an extension of an existing charter but a new school masquerading as an extension. New charters are prohibited in New York City because of a cap imposed by state legislators at the union’s behest.

Mr. Rowe is undaunted by the legal challenge. “There is no chance at all that we cannot open on Aug. 22,” he says. “We wouldn’t be spending $2 million to renovate this building if I weren’t confident we’d win. We wouldn’t be asking philanthropists to hand over their money and hiring staff.” SUNY and the four feeder schools quickly lawyered up, persuading

Jay Lefkowitz,

a partner at Kirkland & Ellis, to represent them pro bono. Without his help, Mr. Rowe says, “we would’ve already incurred half a million dollars of expenses, and the union knows this.” He says the UFT lawsuit is meritless, given that other organizations such as KIPP, Achievement First and Success Academy have extended their charters to open New York high schools in the same manner. These precedents are cited in the motion to dismiss the UFT’s complaint.

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At 5-foot-10, Mr. Rowe towers over the 5-foot-1 Ms. Mangual. While he is expansive in manner, she is reticent. Her father, an immigrant from Guatemala, dropped out of school in sixth grade. Her Puerto Rican mother attended college but didn’t graduate. Ms. Mangual grew up in Chicago, going to magnet schools and majoring in psychology at the University of Illinois in Urbana-Champaign. She joined Teach for America in New York, where she was assigned a seventh-grade algebra class. She found herself instructing students in basic addition and multiplication, “things they should’ve learned in elementary school.” It was obvious that the kids had gotten there though “modified promotional criteria,” jargon for public schools simply waving students through to the next grade. Ms. Mangual later moved to a charter school in her hometown.

Mr. Rowe has the air of a genial politician. After a recent lunch at the Milken Institute in California, he buttonholed

Randi Weingarten,

president of the American Federation of Teachers, and complained about the local chapter’s lawsuit. “Can you intervene and help put a stop to it?” he asked. She promised to look into the matter. He hasn’t heard anything concrete from her but says he’s still hopeful that she’ll persuade the UFT to drop its lawsuit in a “face-saving” way.

The son of Jamaican immigrants, “both successful professionals,” Mr. Rowe grew up in New York, graduating from Brooklyn Tech, a selective public high school, and Cornell University. While working for the

Arthur Andersen

accounting firm, he began mentoring New York public-school students “in schools where parents had no choice and all this talent was being wasted.” He recalls his mentoring days with some sorrow: “Each week, when I would see the kids, we’d do work together and they’d go home, where there was tension and violence. It’s as if they were living in two different worlds.”

After earning a master’s in business administration from Harvard, Mr. Rowe joined Teach for America and set off “on a radically different career journey seeking to empower young people.” His book, “Agency,” published earlier this year, instructs youths—particularly those from ethnic minorities—to “overcome the victimhood narrative.” He advocates a “framework of family, religion, education and entrepreneurship”—and uses the acronym FREE to describe it—as a way to surmount barriers.

Mr. Rowe and Ms. Mangual say charter schools could do a lot more good if not for the limits New York imposes on them. The number of charters statewide is fixed at 460, of which no more than 290 can be in New York City. There are 50 unused charter licenses in the state, but the law prohibits their transfer to the city, where demand outstrips supply. The New York City Charter School Center reports that as of 2019, the latest year for which figures are available, 81,300 applicants were competing for 33,000 seats.

In part as a result of this legislatively engineered scarcity, only 29 charter schools in New York City offer “a guaranteed pathway all the way to 12th grade,” Mr. Rowe says. Students elsewhere finish middle school facing “an abyss”: “They have to enter the New York high-school selection process, where you make 12 choices,” he says. “You almost never get your top choice, and oftentimes you don’t get any of your 12 choices, because of the algorithms that are used.” Result: “They end up in the neighborhood high school, which is the high school that they were trying to escape from in the first place.” Vertex promises to solve that problem for the students at its feeder schools.

It plans to do so with an old-fashioned rigor, both educational and moral. Vertex is an International Baccalaureate school. “It’s IB for all students,” Ms. Mangual says, “unlike in other schools where IB is an option.” The IB program, developed in Switzerland, stresses “critical thinking, the Socratic method, and writing, writing, writing,” Ms. Mangual says, stressing that this should help prepare students for higher education. “What students struggle with most in college is not being able to do independent research. We’re going to make each student complete a research paper by the end of 12th grade.”

Mr. Rowe, for his part, emphasizes that the school will inculcate what he calls “cardinal virtues”: “courage, justice, wisdom and temperance.” He notices my raised eyebrows when he mentions temperance and elaborates that it means “self-restraint, the ability to constrain your desire, not just in a carnal way, but as self-regulation.”

Students will be required to wear uniforms: “It’s going to be navy blue bottoms and a gray polo shirt,” Ms. Mangual says. “Pants for boys and girls, and black shoes. And we really want our students to have a navy blue blazer for community meetings and presentations.” The school will buy one set of clothes for each student with money from a well-wisher, but parents will have to cover the cost of replacements. “You want skin in the game,” Mr. Rowe says.

Sonia Sotomayor wore a uniform here too, more than half a century ago. “We talk to the parents about her,” Ms. Mangual says. A majority of parents visiting the school are Hispanic, “and they can feel her vibes here in a good way.” The words “Blessed Sacrament School” are emblazoned on a building above as we walk by. “We’re going to leave that up,” Mr. Rowe says. “This is hallowed ground. I want to respect the institution.”

In all their joy over the new beginning, Mr. Rowe and Ms. Mangual also point to a source of regret: Charter schools may be helping to accelerate the decline of the city’s Catholic schools, at least 60 of which have shut down since 2000. “Catholic schools have always been the escape valve for low-income families looking for an alternative,” Mr. Rowe says. “They pieced their pennies together to be able to pay a couple thousand dollars to go to them.”

Over time, as tuition-free charter schools came into those same communities, parents started to gravitate toward them. “Charter schools were offering values-based education, safety, core academics,” Mr. Rowe says. “We’re not religious, but we’re offering you parents a good place for your children.”

This displacement of Catholic schools is “an unspoken thing that many charter school leaders don’t like to admit,” Mr. Rowe says ruefully. “I want charter schools to expand the pie of options that kids have, not just basically replace Catholic schools.”

Yet he and Ms. Mangual take heart from the parents who have flocked to Vertex in search of “salvation” for their children. Many of them are first-generation immigrants, such as the Hispanic gardener at the school’s playground who doesn’t speak a word of English. He brought his eighth-grade daughter to Ms. Mangual and pleaded for her to be admitted to Vertex. The girl had to fill out all the forms, much as Ms. Mangual did for her own father when he was applying for jobs 20 years ago. These immigrants have “come to the United States,” Mr. Rowe says. “Even if they’re living 10 to a family, by hook or by crook, their kids are going to do well.” Assuming the teachers unions don’t get in their way.

Mr. Varadarajan, a Journal contributor, is a fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and at New York University Law School’s Classical Liberal Institute.

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