Circle 8, Trench 5

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Last week, the Thomas B. Fordham Foundation reported on the astonishing inequality between public schools across the United States. There are 2,817 schools in the United States in which fewer than 5 percent of students live in poverty; in some areas one in four white children attend such schools.

The Fordham Foundation rightly labels these “private public schools.” They are taxpayer-funded and governmentally operatedóbut only slightly more accessible to the poor or average citizen than a mid-winter’s sojourn to Mustique. In Scarsdale, for example, a starter home costs $680,000 and there aren’t many of them. Even if you can afford the house, there are the property taxes that start at around $9,000 and zoom upwards.† A big chunk of those taxes are essentially “public school tuition.” No one living in and around New York will be surprised to hear that in the metro area, 13 percent of district schools are basically free of poor people. In contrast, there is not a single charter school in the same area that comes anywhere near that.

Fordham’s report doesn’t name any New York City schools, but by urban standards we have our public private schools, too. Given the UFT’s present obsession with precise demographic balancing between charter schools and district schools, one might suppose that the union would have spoken out about this phenomenon. After all, UFT President Michael Mulgrew and his loyal coterie of advocacy organizations enthusiastically trumpeted a report that (1) acknowledged that charter school students were overwhelmingly poor but (2) based on their data, slightly less poor on average than students in nearby district managed schools.†

Even these minor differences merited a press conference, numerous TV appearances, and a report whose title is meant to invoke the educational apartheid sanctioned by Plessy v. Ferguson.†

So one would think that the UFT and its friends would be outraged to know that:

ï PS 234 in TriBeCa had a whopping 6 percent of students are eligible for free lunch, the union’s preferred metric for poverty (as opposed to free/reduced).

ï PS 6, cozily ensconced on the Upper East Side, also boasts a free-lunch rate of 6 percent.

ï And then there’s Staten Island, President Mulgrew’s stomping grounds, where one elementary school enrolled only 9 African American students (1%) and only 17 percent free-lunch eligible students.

By contrast, the UFT’s charter report calculated that 86 percent of students in South Bronx schools are eligible for free lunch. Eighty-six percent. True, their stats show that those schools enroll slightly more of the very poorest kids than in neighboring charter schools. But it’s also true that the South Bronx has more than 15 times more of the poorest students than in certain public schools in Manhattan.

So when is the press conference in TriBeCa? When is the protest rally in Douglaston? When will we see a UFT report on the “separate and unequal” conditions between the Upper East Side and East New York? Equally, when will the UFT call for a moratorium on building new schools in wealthy areas until every child in the South Bronx is in a new school building? When will it call for demographic balancing as it did for charter schools?† When will it demand that these reforms be part of a Race to the Top application?

After all, in President Mulgrew’s ringing words: the “first rule of public schools [is] to provide equal opportunity for all children.” And yet with all that, so far not a word, not a whisper from the UFT or other like-minded advocacy groups.

I puzzled and puzzled over this seeming inconsistency: slight imbalance in charter v district demographics = very bad; huge imbalances intra- and inter-district = not a problem.† But then I finally got it. Maybe, while ordinary people think equal opportunity means giving all children a first-rate education, what the union really means is only this:† All children must be given the equal opportunity to be taught by one of their dues-paying members.

Now when you think of it this way, there’s no inconsistency at all.