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Education

Despite Common Sense Proposals by NY Mayoral Candidate DeBlasio, Charter School Corporation Organizes Protest Demonstration

Bill de Blasio wants to change the way charter schools operate in NYC, but charter operators are fighting back.

Photo Credit: By Thomas Good (Next Left Notes) via Wikimedia Commons

Late last month, parents at some New York City schools received an alarming letter:

Dear Parents,

Your child’s education is threatened. Our very existence is threatened. Opponents want to take away our funding and our facilities. These attacks are a real danger—we cannot stand idly by.

In a city that has seen over 150 schools close in the last decade, this isn’t a new sentiment.

The letter wasn’t for traditional public school parents, though. It was for parents of children at some of the city’s 183 charter schools, most of which have sprung up since Michael Bloomberg became mayor in 2002.

“You and your scholar, your friends and relatives,” the letter insisted, “must join us” in a march across the Brooklyn Bridge in support of charter schools. Several charter networks canceled classes on Tuesday to bring students and teachers to the rally.

Instigating this burst of activism was the insistence of Democratic mayoral hopeful Bill de Blasio that charter schools, which are publicly funded but given regulatory leeway in instruction and staffing, should pay rent in the DOE space they occupy—a repudiation of Bloomberg’s current charter policy, which operates in contravention to a New York state law mandating that charters offered public space lease it “at cost.” De Blasio has instead proposed a flexible rent scale for the 108 charters who do not currently pay rent, and a moratorium on new charter co-locations in public school space.

Eva Moskowitz, former city councilwoman and CEO of the juggernaut Success Academies charter school network, took this as an affront. So on Tuesday, families and teachers from her schools and several others massed on the Brooklyn Bridge to vent their worries.

But critics of charter policies, such as Dan Morris of New Yorkers for Great Public Schools, question the fairness of charters taking a morning off for a “nakedly political rally”—which would be “a fireable offense for most public school principals.” To public school advocates, the rally underscored the antagonism between public and charter schools. “It hurts me to my core,” said parent and NYGPS spokeswoman Zakiyah Ansari, “to see them dividing my community.”

The rally also exposed faultlines within the charter community itself and the influence of vast amounts of capital devoted to promoting certain charter chains.

***

In the hours before what was advertised as a “grassroots,” parent-driven demonstration kicked off, dozens of event organizers prowled around Brooklyn Bridge Park. Their bright red shirts identified them as “marshals.” A few spoke urgently into discreet Secret Service-style earpieces.

Rally organizer Sharhonda Bossier told me that a coalition of parents and charter schools had planned and initiated the rally, and that word of it had “spread organically.” Bossier is the deputy director of Families for Excellent Schools, a 501(c)3 organization that received a quarter of a million dollars at its founding from the Walton Family Foundation, a foremost proponent of school choice. She said the red-shirts were volunteers with the organization.

But FES volunteer Brett Wagoner told me that as far as he knew, his fellow red-shirts were mostly Success Academies staffers. He ordinarily works in data and accountability at Success Academies’ main office, but on this day he was assisting with event intake.

Marshals shepherded families to tables stacked high with water bottles, Nature’s Valley bars, prefabricated posters, and tens of thousands of day-glo-yellow shirts, one for each attendee. Some read “Charter Schools ARE Public Schools.” Others, “My Child, My Choice.”

Parent participants voiced overwhelming support for their schools. “I’m blessed,” said Courtney Springer, whose two daughters attend Success Bed-Stuy 2, and where he is running for the parent council. “To me, this rally is about supporting my daughters.”

They bemoaned what they viewed as external aggression. Marva Samuel, whose daughters attend Achievement First Brownsville Elementary, worried that “officials want to close the schools.”

Pauline Williams, another Bed Stuy Success parent, said that the school had alerted her to the rally, and that she attended because her child “deserves the best.” Her seven-year-old intoned, “It’s important because our school is closing.”

An outsized share of the attendees hailed from Success schools, and their outlooks tended to be similarly dire. Potential rent increases and a co-location moratorium loomed as existential threats. On stage, a Success teacher announced, “We are here because people are trying to keep us from doing what we are doing!”

“Schools are under attack,” another speaker warned the crowd of thousands.

Yet not all charter operators share this heightened sense of alarm.

“The majority of public charter schools will not be participating in this march, nor do they support it,” reads an open letter from the heads of several independent charters. The letter argued that charters should view de Blasio as a potential ally, and work to shape his policies rather than oppose them outright.

The letter also notes that in de Blasio’s wider platform “there is much to celebrate, not protest,” particularly “his focus on the 99%,” and programs supporting affordable housing and employment. Over 90% of charter school students are black or Latino, and nearly three-quarters qualify for free- or reduced-price lunch. In some corners of the charter community, resisting de Blasio smacked of agitating against their own interests.

Though speaking de Blasio’s name was verboten during the rally, distrust of his proposals hung in the air. Organizers said that they didn’t support or oppose particular candidates—though de Blasio’s Republican counterpart has proposed doubling the city’s charter supply—but rather aimed to inform “the next mayor, whoever it may be” that charter parents value “their right to choose an excellent school for their child.”

Still, other charter schools’ dissent reveals a rift in the charter sector that has small, independent schools pitted against large, politically connected charter management organizations. Critics, charter and traditional alike, often cast Success founder Eva Moskowitz as using her political access to further her own narrow interests. Before a similar rally last year, the Center for Education Innovation’s Harvey Newman noted “a sense that there is a political element to this…Eva’s demonstrations did more to divide than bridge.”

Larger charter networks tend to snatch up rent-free co-locations more easily than the small fry, who make up a greater share of charters in private, leased space. Though it’s one of the top recipients of foundation money in the city, none of Success’s 22 schools pay rent, compared to 40% of charters citywide who do.

Addressing this state of affairs, de Blasio has forgone subtlety: “There is no way in hell that Eva Moskowitz should get free rent, okay?”

Regardless, no one knows what de Blasio’s exact measures will be, should he be elected, and that has some charter operators holding off on voicing criticism. “We don’t feel comfortable messaging if we don’t know what we’re talking about,” said Alice Maggin, director of communications at Democracy Prep, a rapidly expanding Harlem-based network. “If it’s a sliding scale,” she said, referring to de Blasio’s tentative plan, “we could be okay.”

Democracy Prep elected not to bring any students to the rally. Though the network invited multitudes of parents to champion its cause, their high schoolers stayed back taking midterms, Maggin said. For younger students, attendance was deemed “not appropriate.”

***

With the value of facilities taken into account, co-located charter schools receive over $600 more per pupil in public financial support than traditional public schools in the city, according to the Independent Budget Office (and that doesn’t include the more than $1600 per-pupil in philanthropic support that charters receive on average). Meanwhile, charters in non-DOE space receive an average of about $2,400 less per student than traditional schools. Clearly, implementing a rent structure in DOE property could significantly impact the bottom line of many charters.

That’s not to sound a death knell, though. Large charter networks benefit from the largesse of hedge funds and gigantic foundations. And organizations applying for charter schools in New York must submit two budgetary plans—one that includes rent, another that doesn’t. Compliant charters should have a contingency plan. 

Moreover, as noted earlier, the state charter law requires cities that choose to avail public school space to charters to “provide such services or facilities at cost.” By skirting the state law, Bloomberg made New York the only city in the state to charge charters nothing, which allowed for their drastic expansion over the last decade.

“Michael Bloomberg has been kind to us,” said Maggin of Democracy Prep.

The uncertain legality of rent-free space preoccupied counter-protesters at the rally, most of whose signs read “Pay your rent.” Sam Anderson, a member of the Coalition for Public Education, argued that charters “had a friend in City Hall,” who built political connections in order to “bum-rush” the law.

When ralliers berated him, he replied patiently, “It’s state law”—a fact that has escaped the notice of no less eminent an outlet than the New York Times.

A broad sense of inequality enlivens critics of charter policies. Muba Yarofulani, a public school parent and co-chair of CPE, lamented how often-controversial co-locations “cause such a division between the children” in schools sharing public space. Zakiya Ansari of NYGPS accused charter network heads like Eva Moskowitz of “creating an unequal and unfair system.”

In an April ruling over charter rent, Supreme Court Judge Barbara Jaffe noted that through private munificence, charters “have access to more financial resources than those available to traditional public schools.” Her ruling, which dismissed a parent lawsuit over charter rent but didn’t address the legality of the policy, noted that public school parents “understandably bristle not only at the disparate treatment of the students, but at how open and notorious it is.”

The gap is widening, too. The Independent Budget Office estimates that charter school funding is up 37.6 percent between 2011 and 2014, while spending on services for traditional schools will have fallen an estimated 2.6 percent over the same time period.

But rally participants downplayed these apparent inequalities. Rather, as Achievement First parent Cecilia Patmore told me, choosing a charter school was “a matter of equality,” itself. Evyonn, her seventh-grade son, added, “Kids should have the right to choose charter schools.”

His words echoed lesson plans provided to teachers at Achievement First. One PowerPoint slide presented the rally as a civil rights mission in the mold of the March on Washington.

As part of those lessons, students were told, “We believe kids and families should have the choice to go to a charter school if they do not want to attend their neighborhood public school.” Though the rally was cast as optional, the children were warned: “During the march, if you are not following expectations from your teacher you will receive a demerit. This is a special day.”

***

Tuesday’s march plays into the larger public image campaign charters have been waging since their inception. Per-pupil funding comprises the bulk of school budgets, leading schools to jockey for students. Charter schools benefit from flush enrollments and high demand, leaving public schools, some of whose enrollments (and thus, funding) are shrinking, in the position to similarly sell themselves or be edged out of the market.

Success Academies, for example, has a hefty PR arm buoying its efforts. As Success Academies critic Juan Gonzalez notes, the network spent $1.3 million between 2007 and 2009 to market the 900 seats it had available. In 2012, Success spent at least to $1.2 million on outreach and consulting services, including over half a million to SKDKnickerbocker, a public relations firm that produced the ads for Bloomberg’s third mayoral campaign.

Large charter school networks also leverage community relationships to increase demand. The marketing firm Kennedy Spencer, which represents over 30 charters nationwide, urges schools “to enlist their most credible ‘ambassadors’ (those people who already love the school) to help spread the message, either directly or through other means.”

This “social marketing” benefits from an ecosystem of advocacy groups and pro-charter coalitions, including the organizing group Families for Excellent Schools, the New York Charter School Center, the Center for Education Reform, StudentsFirst, and many more. Democracy Prep’s own advocacy arm called parents for weeks in preparation for the rally, communications director Alice Maggin told me.

Connections between charters and their backers abound. Kerri Lyon, one of SKDKnickerbocker’s managing directors, formerly served as director at the New York Charter School Center. Jenny Sedlis, newly hired head of the New York chapter of Michelle Rhee’s StudentsFirst, sharpened her teeth as Eva Moskowitz’s tireless PR flack, and has predictably come out swinging for the charters. FES’s Sharhonda Bossier previously worked at Democracy Prep’s fundraising arm, the questionably named Democracy Builders.

This well-heeled cadre of advocacy groups helps push for policies beneficial to charters and provides valuable messaging services that traditional schools must pay for out of pocket. It’s the sort of support that pays dividends: The New York Post and Daily News, both reliable charter proponents, ran editorials favoring the march. Nearly all the major television networks sent crews to capture the smiling, neon-clad horde.

Yet despite these extensive efforts, de Blasio remains unmoved. Speaking to CBS News on Tuesday, his campaign maintained that he stands by what he said months ago: “Programs that can afford to pay rent should be paying rent.”

Toward the end of the march, at the bridge’s Manhattan terminus, I noticed a tidy class of public school students inching onto the bridge in the opposite direction of the charter marchers. They seemed bewildered by the torrent of brightly attired students and parents flowing toward them. As the marchers strode down their side, a red-shirted FES volunteer kindly directed the public school class to the left of a police-tape divide, where they were shunted into a small lane clogged with unmounted bicyclists and equally perplexed passersby.

It was a striking snapshot of the battle being waged for the future of education in New York City.

Owen Davis is a New York-based writer and former intern at The Nation magazine. He writes curriculum for the alternative children's magazine IndyKids. Davis blogs here and tweets @of_davis.

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