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Cohen: Are backers of charter schools really so bad?

  • This artwork by William Brown relates to incoming college freshmen.

In the war between the rich and the poor, I'm enlisting on the side of the underdog — the rich. What a drubbing they've been taking! Across the nation, but particularly in cities such as New York and Washington, the rich are incessantly accused of being slyly manipulative and self-serving. For instance, they support charter schools. Apparently, there is nothing worse.

I am mystified. Charter schools are not private schools. They are free public schools that are open to any student, usually by lottery. Some very rich people support them, provide extra funds for special programs and, in return, get vilified for their efforts.

One columnist, citing the pay package of charter-school CEOs, referred to a "gilded crusade," another to an "all-out campaign by the elite."

You would think we're talking about the "gilded" and "elite" getting their own kids into some fancy school. Instead, they're helping poor children.

Take Carl Icahn. You know him as a corporate raider, which he is. Less well known is that he created and supports seven charter schools in New York City, all of them in the Bronx — all of them with student bodies reflective of the city's poorest borough.

Or take the Harlem Village Academies. Katie Couric is on the board. So is Hugh Jackman, John Legend and Rupert Murdoch. It pays its CEO $499,000 annually, but this is private money and Harlem Village has been raising test scores — in other words, giving student after student a better chance of succeeding. What's that worth?

"Giving back" is a tiresome cliche, but you'd be surprised how many people have made it a personal obligation. I've met Icahn just casually, and yet I know a bit about him. We both attended an unheralded genius factory named Far Rockaway High School. (Three Nobel Prize winners!)

He's just a product of the middle class who was fortunate enough to get a great public education and wants to re-create the conditions that made him a success. This is hardly a moral failing.

As always with the rich, they want things done their way. When it comes to schools, they want either no teachers union or a pleasantly pliable one. I understand. Charter schools are very tough on teachers — a schoolroom version of survival of the fittest. The union is out to protect the weakest teachers, even miserable ones. Like the NRA, the union fears the slippery slope: Ban assault weapons and next it will be handguns. Fire a teacher for poor performance and next comes dismissal for something trivial.

When the rich insist that lower taxes would do wonders for the poor, the orphaned and the grievously widowed, I detect the faint aroma of self-interest. But when they plump for charter schools, the only ulterior motive you can find is that down the road, years from now, society will benefit and so, as night follows day, will they. I can live with that.


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