Photo Credit: By Thomas Good (Next Left Notes) via Wikimedia Commons
October 11, 2013
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Late last month, parents at some New York City schools received an alarming letter:
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.”