November 3, 2009
A Bronx parent who went from charter school foe to cheerleader in under a year is now at the middle of a debate over how to organize charter school parents.
Mona Davids has rapidly gone from being an unknown public school parent in Co-op City to being known by key players in the debate over charter schools and among the highest ranks of the Department of Education. She pops up everywhere from charter school board meetings and charter renewal hearings to district Community Education Council gatherings. She was even featured in a television advertisement for Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s reelection campaign, in which she blasted rival William Thompson’s education record.
A year ago, Davids was on the other side of the battle. As co-president of the parent association of P.S. 160 in the Bronx, she broke the news that the DOE was considering putting a new charter school, Equality Charter School, in the same building. Davids, whose daughter attended the district school, initially helped lead parent protests against siting the charter school there.
But after learning more about Equality Charter, Davids suddenly reversed course, sent in her daughter’s application to the charter school and began helping the charter recruit other students.
As she began to organize parents for Equality Charter School, Davids said that she recognized a flaw in the way charter schools are set up in New York City. Davids was accustomed to working within the structures set up by the Department of Education to involve parents in traditional public schools, mechanisms like School Leadership Teams, Community Education Councils and District Family Advocates.
“In the charter school system, we don’t have any of that,” Davids said. She began searching for organizations to help support parent involvement in charter schools, finding options in Massachusetts, California and Idaho, but nothing in New York.
“I was really surprised that parents didn’t have a voice,” she said.
Davids founded the New York City Charter Parents Association in May and next week, she will launch the Charter Parent Training Academy.
The training program is designed to replicate her own organizing strategies among other charter school parents. She’s starting small, sitting down with six charter school parents from schools around the city three days a week for three months. She intends to train them how to conduct parent meetings, incorporate their schools’ parent groups as non-profits, fund-raise and request member items for their schools from their legislators.
Charter school parents need to double as lobbyists, Davids said, and she wants to teach them the trade. She wants to train the parents how to advocate for changes to state education law that limit per-pupil funding for charter schools and ban charters from receiving public funding for their own school buildings.
For all her vocal support of charter schools, Davids said that she knows the system isn’t perfect, and she doesn’t intend to be quiet about her criticisms.
“I am a supporter of charter schools, but we have serious issues,” she said. “The grievance process doesn’t work. Something needs to be done, but right now the charter system doesn’t have district family advocates. Every system must have checks and balances.”
Davids, who is on leave from her job as head of the consulting firm Azania Holdings, said she funded her work at the Parent Association by herself until this week, when she received her first outside donation. She refused to identify the donor, saying only that the donation is from a philanthropist acting as a private individual. The donation will be used to provide a stipend for the six parents participating in the training academy, which will be held during daytime hours, Davids said.
With her tall frame and command of a microphone, many have looked at Davids and seen a natural politician. Davids makes advocates on both side of the charter debate a bit nervous. To charter school opponents, Davids may be the harbinger of a grassroots support movement in New York, the lack of which has occasionally been a sore spot in the charter school movement. To charter school advocates, she is not an unconditional friend.
“I’m not a paid flak, I’m a parent,” she said. “We are not puppets of the charter school movement; we are not puppets of the anti-charter school movement. This association was born out of a fight for equal access to a quality education for all students.”
Davids said that because of her interest in educational equity, one of the main goals of her group is to “bridge this huge divisive gap” between charter school parents and parents of traditional public school students.
Her ability to bridge that gap is still unproven. Several P.S. 160 parents I spoke to who fought against the siting of Equality Charter Schools said they still feel betrayed by her for switching sides in that debate. And Davids’ involvement in other charter school siting battles, notably at P.S. 15 and PAVE Academy in Red Hook, has garnered much attention, some of it extremely critical.
Davids said that she would like to find common ground with the charter school opponents who have dubbed her “Moaning Mona.” Her suggested starting place? Charter school facilities funding.
“If they don’t want charter schools in the building, will they please help us get construction funding for new schools?” she said.