A Light Shines in Harlem: New York's First Charter School and the Movement It Led
reviewed by Carolyne J. White - October 13, 2015
Title: A Light Shines in Harlem: New York's First Charter School and the Movement It Led
Author(s): Mary C. Bounds & Wyatt Tee Walker
Publisher: University of Chicago Press, Chicago
ISBN: 1613747705, Pages: 224, Year: 2014
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This is a richly subjective, embodied, place-based book review, written by a professor in Newark, New Jersey, frontlines of venture philanthropy's greedy global attack on public schooling. It is rumored that a school in my neighborhood was the research site for Jean Anyon's widely acclaimed book, Ghetto Schooling (1997). I've witnessed it become a charter school with students who consistently display loud (screaming foul language), disruptive behavior (walking in groups down the middle of streets instead of using sidewalks)a stark contrast to the respectful behavior of the former neighborhood school students. When Ras Baraka was assistant principal of the neighborhood school, he would walk with the students as they left the school building each day, modeling respectful citizenship.
As a citizen of this "rebel city" (Harvey, 2012), I've also witnessed transformation from the leadership of the rock star, pretend savior, and champion of "the terror of neoliberalism" (Giroux, 2004) Cory Booker, to the present leadership of Ras Baraka, who campaigned for we being mayor. Today, citizens (including high school students) are newly engaged in democratic governance, fighting "as mayors" to regain local control of our public schools and reversing the trajectory toward Charter School Capital of America, instigated in the backseat of a Chevy Tahoe SUV by Cory Booker and Chris Christie (Russakoff, 2014). For us, public schooling is not a commodity; it is a public good, part of the commons. I write from a radically democratic stand that kindergarten through graduate education provide all people access to living powerful lives of passionate contribution, and skills for critically engaged democratic participation.
Had Mary Bounds' book provided a comparable acknowledgement, it may have read as follows: The book you are about to read is a disembodied, ostensibly objective publicity narrative, commissioned by Victory Education Partners. It is written by a journalist to contribute to the familiar, broken schools narrative promoted by venture philanthropists and other advocates of the neoliberal school reform agenda (see Saltman, 2010; Lipman, 2011). Diane Ravitch (2012) recounts: "American public education is a failed enterprise. The problem is not money. Public schools already spend too much . . . The only hope for the future of our society, especially for poor black and Hispanic children, is to escape from public schools, especially to charter schools, which are mostly funded by the government but controlled by private organizations, many of them operating to make a profit" (pp. 19-20).
Bounds uses the heroic trope of good overcoming evil to craft an emotionally seductive civil rights story of adventure, struggle, and sacrifice to found the first charter school in New York. Named after Walter Sisulu, the South African anti-apartheid leader, and Rev. Wyatt Tee Walker, former Chief of Staff for Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., the school opened in September of 1999. Charter schools are portrayed as the Golden Egg Solution to all of the problems facing the education system, a narrative facilitated with critical omissions and simplification.
Education reform is repeatedly invoked, as though there is widespread agreement about what it means. It has become a highly contested assemblage of deeply politicized conversations. The reader is not told that the Sisulu-Walker Charter School is managed by a for-profit educational management organization. The reader is not told of the growing research evidence that charter schools across the board perform no better than traditional public neighborhood schools (see Epple, Romano & Zimmer, 2015). The reader is not invited to consider Thomas Jefferson's historic arguments for the creation of public schools as lynchpins for preparing citizens for collective democratic governance.
I assign this book in my Social Foundations of Urban Education course, curious to see how aspiring teacher candidates will engage with the narrative. Initially, most are seduced. Through our course inquiry, they become able to witness and critically evaluate their seduction.
A guest lecture by Junius Williams, Newark activist, lawyer, and director of the Abbott Leadership Institute, facilitates our inquiry. He shares his lived experience as a college student in 1965, arrested when engaging frontline duty with SNCC and the Southern Civil Rights Movement in Montgomery, Alabama. The protesters (150-200) were taken to holding cells at Kilby State Prison with no beds, just mattresses on the floor: "Some guards appeared and threw in some blankets . . . [and] a mad scramble for the few blankets [ensued] . . . Wirth Long took charge . . . 'I don't know about you, but if I was a man, I wouldn't take a blanket for myself, unless there was a blanket for everybody. ' . . . one by one those who had scrambled for the prize came up and threw their blanket into a pile . . . In less than five minutes, Wirth had . . . turned a pack of individuals who were following their individual instincts for survival into a group of men who were willing to stick together. The rednecks at the cell door caught on too, and after trying to tell us these were all the blankets they had and seeing our response, they . . . got some more blankets. Everybody in both cells slept with a blanket that night" (Williams, 2013, pp. 78-79).
One of my students' writes: "I agree with Bounds' claim that education is a civil rights issue. As such it requires that we fully attend to and remember the democratic principles that were at the foundation of the Civil Rights Movement. If we are not standing firmly on those principles, our practice risks undermining the very possibility of creating an educational system that works for all children."
Returning to Anyon's (1997) provocative book about education in Newark, "'We are all in this boat together,' andif we do not pull togetherthat boat may capsize and we will all sink. The lack of a Will to Cooperate (the lack of a social compact) is perhaps the biggest problem we face in revitalizing cities and city schools" (p. 183). In Newark, we "mayors" are fighting to re-invigorate our "commons." As John Dewey (1920, 2004) advises, "Democracy has many meanings, but if it has a moral meaning, it is found in resolving that the supreme test of all political institutions and industrial arrangements shall be the contribution they make to the all-around growth of every member of society" (p. 107).
Anyon, J. (1997). Ghetto schooling: A political economy of urban educational reform. New York, NY: Teachers College Press.
Dewey, J. (1920/2004). Reconstruction in philosophy. Mineola, NY: Dover Publications Inc.
Epple, D., Romano, R., & Zimmer, R. (2015). NBER Working Paper: Charter schools: A survey of research on their characteristics and effectiveness. Cambridge, MA: National Bureau of Economic Research. Retrieved from http://www.nber.org/papers/w21256
Giroux, H. (2004). The terror of neoliberalism. Boulder, CO: Paradigm Publishers.
Harvey, D. (2012/2013). Rebel cities: From the right to the city to the urban revolution. New York, NY: Verso.
Lipman, P. (2011). The new political economy of urban education: Neoliberalism, race, and the right to the city. New York, NY: Routledge.
Ravitch, D. (2012). The myth of charter schools. In Swail, W.S. (Ed.), Finding Superman: Debating the future of public education in America (pp. 19-30). New York, NY: Teachers College Press.
Russakoff, D. (2014). Schooled: A test for school reform in Newark. The New Yorker. Retrieved fromhttp://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2014/05/19/schooled?printable=true¤tPge=all. [Accessed July 13, 2014.]
Saltman, K. (2010). The gift of education: Public education and venture philanthropy. New York, NY: Palgrave Macmillan.
Williams, J. (2013). Unfinished agenda: Urban politics in the era of black power. Berkeley, CA: North Atlantic Books.