By Dmitri Mehlhorn
Sometimes, anti-reform extremists take issue with me because I came up with the name “StudentsFirst” to describe the organization Michelle Rhee and I co-founded in 2010. They argue that it’s insulting and arrogant to claim that students need a lobbyist opposing the teachers unions on issues of choice and accountability, because teacher unions never think of anything other than students.
As if to prove the point in the strongest possible fashion, a faction of the United Federation of Teachers (UFT) just succeeded in publicly sacrificing a young student named Jamir Geidi. Jamir apparently has extreme behavioral issues, including a history of violent behavior against other students and teachers. To have a shot at a good life, this kid needs all the help he can get. Instead, the adults at the United Federation of Teachers threw him under the bus as part of their crusade against charter schools generally and Eva Moscowitz’s Success Academy charters specifically.
As background, Success Academy exists under constant attack from the United Federation of Teachers and their $100 million annual budget. This is because Success delivers outstanding results to disadvantaged students throughout New York. This record of ongoing accomplishment eviscerates the existential narrative of the UFT lobbyists, namely that existing public schools using existing resources are doing as well as they possibly can to better urban students in poverty. Thus, the UFT invests enormous resources to undermine the Success narrative, by claiming it results from Success forcing out the hardest-to-serve kids (even though Success demonstrably retains a higher portion of its students each year than neighboring traditional public schools).
This is the context for Jamir’s betrayal at the hands of adults. A network of anti-reform extremists, with the cooperation of Jamir’s mother, repeatedly propagated a false version of Jamir’s story as part of a multi-year campaign alleging that Success suspends students for minor infractions. Although the Success CEO, Eva Moscowitz, has a fiduciary obligation to protect the nine thousand students she already serves against the moribund bureaucracy that wants them and their revenues back, Moscowitz refrained from retaliating for as long as possible. She offered data about attrition and suspension rates, and refused to get into the details of Jamir’s case. When retiring anti-reform journalist John Merrow did a lengthy hit-piece on Success Academies, Moscowitz tried to respond with data, giving Merrow lengthy access to the schools and their records, and encouraging Merrow to check the facts before airing the false claims about Jamir. When Merrow made Jamir the centerpiece of his PBS broadcast, Moscowitz was faced with a choice: she could let the accusations stand, thereby giving ammunition to the anti-charter Mayor to scale back the expansion of Success, or she could reveal the truth about Jamir’s actual behaviors.
As is now public, Moscowitz chose to tell the truth. It was a tough choice, and an easy one to second-guess. Success Academies’ anti-reform critics are now smugly stating that they are shocked, SHOCKED that Moscowitz could have allowed a student’s information to become public. Anyone listening needs to remember that a long line of adults, from Jamir’s mom, to the UFT faction that encouraged her, to John Merrow himself were guilty of abusing this boy’s trust by propagating false narratives about him – narratives that were sure to be exposed one day. PBS itself, the PBS ombudsperson, and John Merrow have now all acknowledged that they made an error in their use of Jamir’s story. Sadly, the anti-reform extremists show no such shame.
Dmitri Mehlhorn is a Democratic donor, activist, and investor. Read more about him here.