A few hundred vocal protesters met House Speaker Paul Ryan when he arrived at Success Academy charter school in Harlem on Tuesday afternoon.
Ryan, who met with Success founder and CEO Eva Moskowitz and toured the school, is not the first Republican leader to visit New York’s expansive and controversial charter network — Ivanka Trump and House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy have both visited the schools.
“I was pleased to welcome Speaker Ryan to our flagship school in Harlem today,” Moskowitz said in a statement. “The education crisis in our city and country is profoundly damaging to millions of children, and parent choice has proven to be an effective lever in education reform.”
Moskowitz was under consideration to become President Donald Trump’s education secretary before Trump chose Betsy DeVos, a wealthy and controversial proponent of school choice programs. DeVos praised Moskowitz’s commitment to creating alternatives to public education after meeting with her in April.
Protesters, who gathered outside the school for several hours, voiced concerns about a range of Ryan’s policies, prominent among them the Republican healthcare bill, which is currently being debated in the Senate. They argued that Ryan is attempting to privatize public services, including education, healthcare, and social security, which would disproportionately affect low-income people and people of colour.
“It takes some nerve for him to come in here after trying to defeat healthcare that’s necessary for the families of these children,” Eve Goodman, a social worker from Brooklyn, told Business Insider.
For years, Success Academy, which is the city’s largest charter network and serves predominantly low-income students of colour, has attracted criticism for what some see as its harsh teaching tactics and pattern of weeding out students who fail to meet their academic standards.
Eliza Factor, whose 14-year-old son has autism and cerebral palsy and attends a non-profit school partially funded by Medicaid, fears the GOP healthcare bill would strip funding for education and healthcare that her son and other children with disabilities rely on.
“Any of the people that I know in my community, if we lost our health insurance now we’d never be able to get new health insurance if they change the laws,” Factor, who also runs a non-profit for children with disabilities in Brooklyn and Queens, told Business Insider.
Factor does not think charter schools are necessarily harmful, but echoed a common criticism: that Success Academy weeds out students with learning issues or other disabilities, pushing them into struggling public schools whose funding is diverted to charters.
“The Success Academy has a record of kicking out kids with disabilities and kids who learn differently,” Factor said. “They achieve their high scores by getting a homogenized body of learners.”
Goodman called this practice “creaming,” which she described as “taking students who are doing better as opposed to students who need more support and help in order to have their numbers and statistics look better.”
Gloria Brandman, a special education teacher who has worked for New York City public schools for 34 years, told Business Insider that the expansion of charter schools is hastening “the privatization of our public school system,” which she believes is Ryan’s ultimate goal.
“And that is an affront to our democracy,” she said.
Juan Peralta, a 24-year-old public school aide, kitchen hand, and community organiser from Harlem, also argued that charter schools are sapping resources from public education.
“Charter schools are trying to close down a lot of public education,” Peralta said. “The money that is going to charter schools can be going to better our public education.”
The New York City public advocate, Letitia James, attended the protest in solidarity with the demonstrators, and told Business Insider that Ryan’s visit is “nothing more than a political stunt.”
“This is nothing more than an attempt by Paul Ryan to appease individuals who support these charter schools,” James said. “If he really cared about the quality of education, he would visit the public school as well as Success Academy.”
Some demonstrators directed their anger specifically towards Moskowitz and DeVos.
“We have to call Eva Moskowitz out on her ridiculousness, her hatefulness and her immoral self,” protesters called out.
But James said she understands why Moskowitz is working with Ryan and other Republicans.
“It’s politics … it’s really about your donors,” she said, adding, “but there’s larger issues involved here in the city of New York, and it’s really critically important that Paul Ryan address us.”
In her statement on Tuesday, Moskowitz implicitly addressed the politics surrounding her decision to work with Republican leaders. She argued that she, like her sometime foe New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio, aims to rise above politics to do what she believes is best for the city’s students.
“I share Mayor de Blasio’s view (in at least this one case), that open dialogue is essential in finding solutions to our most difficult problems,” Moskowitz said.
Ryan arrived at the school shortly after 2 p.m. and stayed for just over an hour, touring the school, meeting students, and stopping by a special education classroom in public school 149, which shares a building with the charter school.
“Today was special — touring Success Academy, listening to these great kids and their committed teachers, hearing their stories. The quality of teacher training and preparedness was extraordinary,” Ryan said in a statement. “They have a lot to be proud of, and these remarkable kids are getting a great education. That’s what matters — giving every kid a fair shot at the American Dream.”
“Ryan, come out, we have some things to talk about.” – protesters at Success Academy in Harlem, which is hosting @SpeakerRyan today pic.twitter.com/x2bFRezSUB
— Eliza Relman (@eliza_relman) May 9, 2017
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