NEW YORK — Carol F. Reich, a philanthropist and late-blooming educator who, with her husband, helped pioneer the charter school movement in New York City in the early 1990s, died on Feb. 5 in Miami. She was 83.
Her death was confirmed by her daughter Janet Reich Elsbach.
Capping their quixotic bureaucratic odyssey, Ms. Reich (pronounced “rich”) and her husband, Joseph, opened an experimental public elementary school in 1992 in Williamsburg, Brooklyn.
It chose students by lottery and reported directly to the schools chancellor instead of district officials. By 1997, what became known as the Beginning With Children was being hailed as the city’s most improved elementary school.
The state Legislature, inspired in part by the Reiches’ success, granted in 1998 to privately operated charter schools, which are publicly funded but run independently from local school districts.
This year, about 11 percent of New York City’s public school students are enrolled in more than 230 charter schools.
The Reiches’ school was a hybrid. It became a fully independent charter school in 2001, but its teachers remained members of the citywide union. Friction with the union was one of several conflicts that developed, which eventually led the Reiches’ foundation to sever its ties with the school in 2012. (The school closed in 2016 after the Department of Education said it was performing poorly.) The foundation’s Beginning With Children Charter School 2 now occupies the same space.
Carol Elaine Friedman was born on Dec. 26, 1935, in Chicago to Dr. Townsend Baer Friedman, an allergist, and Corinne (Neuberger) Friedman, a homemaker.
In 1955 she married Joseph H. Reich, whom she met while studying fine arts at Cornell. In 1961 they moved to New York, where he started an investment firm, Reich & Tang.
In addition to their daughter Janet, her husband survives her, as do their daughter Marcia Reich Walsh and six grandchildren.
Another daughter, Deborah Reich, died in 2013.
When her youngest daughter began kindergarten, Carol Reich returned to school and earned a bachelor’s degree in psychology from New York University and a master’s from the City University of New York, where she went on to receive a doctorate in developmental psychology.
From 1988 to 1992, she was the president of the Lexington School & Center for the Deaf.
Through Eugene Lang’s “I Have a Dream” program, the couple promised in 1988 to pay for the college education of a class of sixth-graders if they stayed in school. But they discovered that the challenges children faced in impoverished neighborhoods went beyond education.
“It’s not about how many kids go to college,” she told City Journal, a magazine published by the Manhattan Institute, in 1994. “It’s about how many kids are alive.”
Joseph Reich suggested they start their own school, incorporating health care and other services.
“We both shared a common and basic belief: Families of means can afford to send their children to private schools or relocate to an affluent neighborhood where public schools have greater resources,” the couple said in their mission statement. “The poor cannot. We recoiled against this injustice. We made it our own struggle.”
They enlisted experts, contributed $500,000, inspired Pfizer Pharmaceuticals to donate a building on Bartlett Street in Williamsburg and won the cooperation of the Giuliani and Bloomberg administrations. They later donated $10 million to the New York City Charter School Center to replicate their vision.
Since then, Nancy Lewson Kurz, chairwoman and chief executive of Beginning With Children, said in a telephone interview, about 2,500 students have been directly involved in the schools and programs that the Reiches began.
“Today in New York City,” the former New York schools chancellor Joel Klein wrote in the foreword to the Reiches’ “Getting to Bartlett Street” (2012), “because of the work that Joe and Carol Reich started more than 20 years ago, many more families in high-poverty communities have a choice as to where they will send their kids.”