Parks, schools and Bill de Blasio: Risking mediocrity for fairness

Friday, February 21, 2014

On the surface, New York Mayor Bill de Blasio’s professed concerns about what might be called the social justice dimensions of charter schools and the condition of some of the city’s most celebrated parks—including Central Park—might appear unrelated. But look more closely and one sees a common thread—one that should especially concern charitable donors. It’s a link which connects proposals to limit the expansion of charter schools with a proposal to redistribute philanthropy directed to park conservancy organizations. The common thread is this: a commitment to equality of resources, above all, that extends to a willingness to risk mediocrity in public services in the name of fairness.

A number of New York’s City’s most famous parks, including Central Park in Manhattan and Prospect Park in Brooklyn, are managed by private non-profit conservancies that rely on philanthropic support, private management, and volunteers. Over the past two decades, this has proven to be a recipe for renewal, as parks once-known for crime and poor maintenance have become urban amenities of the highest order—places where runners, cyclists, picnickers, cricket teams, and families with young children routinely share green space. Just as charter schools are public facilities managed by private non-profit organizations—which also draw, in part, on philanthropic support—these parks can be thought of as “charter parks”—whose private management has demonstrated that there are, in fact, approaches—and they don’t include armed guards or locked gates—which can make important urban public spaces safe and attractive. So, too, have many of New York’s 183 charter schools—attended by some 70,000 students—demonstrated that a combination of private management (non-union) and idealistic staff and volunteers—can help even disadvantaged students meet achievement standards.

In the de Blasio era, both charter parks and charter schools are under fire—in ways that would effectively tax the philanthropic support they receive. Mayor de Blasio, in part because of professed concern that some charter schools are “well-resourced,” has proposed (without specifics yet) that the city charge the 119 charter schools housed in city property rent. Similarly, he has endorsed proposed state legislation that would require that park conservancies—what I’m calling charter parks—be required to divert 20 percent of philanthropic support they receive to the upkeep of less well-maintained parks, perhaps in poorer neighborhoods, that are the responsibility of the city’s Parks Department.

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