Theses Doctoral

Regimes, Reform, and Race: The Politics of Charter School Growth and Sustainability in Harlem

Smikle, Basil Anthony

The complex and thorny relationship between school-district leaders, sub-city political and community figures and teachers’ unions on the subject of charter schools- an interaction fraught with racially charged language and tactics steeped in civil rights-era mobilization - elicits skepticism about the motives of education reformers and their view of minority populations. In this study I unpack the local politics around tacit and overt racial appeals in support of New York City charter schools with particular attention to Harlem, New York and periods when the sustainability of these schools, and long-term education reforms, were endangered by changes in the political and legislative landscape. This dissertation answers two key questions: How did the Bloomberg-era governing coalition and charter advocates in New York City use their political influence and resources to expand and sustain charter schools as a sector; and how does a community with strong historic and cultural narratives around race, education and political activism, respond to attempts to enshrine externally organized school reforms? To answer these questions, I employ a case study analysis and rely on Regime Theory to tell the story of the Mayoral administration of Michael Bloomberg and the cadre of charter leaders, philanthropies and wealthy donors whose collective activity created a climate for growth of the sector. I then construct a lens through which we may view African American leadership as having varied temporal and philosophical associations to the civil rights movement, shedding light on how some, with stronger ties to the business community, may be amenable to school choice policies.

Results show that a pro-charter regime in New York City rapidly expanded the sector using colocation and through attempts to elect charter-friendly members of the state legislature, through direct campaign donations and targeted parent organizing. While the latter largely failed as a means to obtain electoral influence, a shift in tactics enabled charter leaders to keep pro-union Democrats from dominating the charter policy debate. In Harlem, the community’s response was mixed. While demand for seats increased, so did the tension as activists and elected officials expressed concern over loss of traditional public-school spaces which doubled as community-based institutions, and encroachment on their long-held view of self-deterministic education policy. Much of the pushback by the community may also be a proxy for the effects of rapid gentrification occurring in the neighborhood, exacerbating tensions over external influence in local communities and a disruption of social capital. Finally, I show that through the loss of political allies at City Hall, in the State legislature, and a reduction in the political theater around parent mobilization, the charter sector locally and nationally may experience slowed growth in terms of charter authorization, public support and applications by potential students.


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More About This Work

Academic Units
Politics and Education
Thesis Advisors
Henig, Jeffrey
Ph.D., Columbia University
Published Here
January 29, 2019