By Kyle Spencer
Seeking to convince mayoral candidates, months before the 2013 election, to take a stand in support of the growth of charter schools — a hallmark of the Bloomberg administration — charter advocates and students gathered on Wednesday in front of City Hall, for a spirited, after-school rally.
Students from 80 different charter schools nibbled on popcorn and played with colorful balloons, while parents and charter operators — many wearing purple Parents for Progress t-shirts — implored candidates to hear them out.
“Mayoral candidates, we are here and we vote,” Kathleen Kernizan, the mother of two students in the Uncommon Schools chain, boomed. “Do not ignore us.”
Some told the crowd of several thousands that they were scared that once Mayor Michael Bloomberg leaves office, there will be no one to champion their 130-plus schools and ensure that new ones continue to open.
Others told stories of having to lie to get their children into decent schools in other neighborhoods before charters opened in their own. And still others said that before charters their children had been unable to “escape” attending failing schools.
Charter operators who helped organize the event said parents were rallying to ensure that public school buildings remain open to charter school operators and that new ones continue to open around the city.
Natasha Shannon, 34, the mother of two girls, a third and a fifth grader at Harlem Success 1, said she was there to tell to candidates that she was a voice to be reckoned with.
“I will vote for the candidate who supports my right to choose,” she said. “I am a taxpayer and I want the right to be able to choose the best school for my children.”
She said she was concerned that candidates had so far been reluctant to come out in full support of charters because of their concern that by doing so they might alienate other voters.
Indeed with less than a year to go before the election, the city’s mayoral candidates have made few public comments about the future of charter schools, which are beloved by some parents, particularly ones who have seen them as an attractive option to low-performing neighborhood schools. Charter schools are opposed by some parents of children in traditional public schools who believe they take resources from their schools and resent that their schools have been forced to share sometimes cramped buildings with them.
Representatives from the United Federation of Teachers, which has over 200.000 members, some of them retired, have also fought the rapid growth of charters. And they, too, have jumped into the race in recent months, making it clear that they intend to use their considerable political might to elect a mayoral ally.
Not surprisingly, this is of concern to charter advocates who have enjoyed a tight-knit relationship with Mayor Bloomberg and former Chancellor of Schools Joel Klein, who helped to launch The New York City Charter School Center, an eight-year-old non-profit that both raises money for and disseminates information about charters.
They also fought in 2010 in Albany to raise the city’s charter cap to 214, despite the union’s attempt to thwart them.
On Wednesday, UFT president Michael Mulgrew denounced organizers, particularly charter operator Eva Moskowitz, who runs the city’s largest chain of schools, for “using parents” to push forward political goals and to give off the impression that more parents supported charters than really did. Most parents, he said, “are looking forward to a day when education in New York City works for all students,” he said.
Ms. Moskowitz, the CEO of the Success Academy network, has long pointed to waiting lists for her nine schools as an indicator that her schools — and charters in general — are popular choices for parents.
Candidate Tom Allon, a former English teacher at Stuyvesant High School, said charter schools are not incompatible with traditional public schools. “But charter schools are not a replacement,” he said.
In an email, Mayoral hopeful Christine C. Quinn, City Council Speaker and the leading candidate said she did not oppose charters either. “They play a positive and important role in our school system and have become a critical choice for tens of thousands of families who feel that the system has failed them,” she wrote.
But she said the city needed to focus on all its 1,1 million children, not just the ones in charter schools.
Kyle Spencer is a freelancer writer in New York City