February 6, 2013
When the roles are reversed — as they were on Tuesday, when hundreds of charter school parents, students, and teachers convened in Albany to lobby lawmakers — the conversations aren’t always so predictable.
Some of the charter school advocates stuck to talking points determined in advance by the lobby day’s organizers. The New York City Charter Center and the New York Charter School Association want the legislature to give charter schools the right to operate pre-kindergarten programs, something state law currently precludes. The agenda is a response to Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s proposal to give $25 million to district schools that offer more full-day pre-K seats.
But in interviews and individual meetings with lawmakers, students and parents spoke about education issues that affected them personally. Almost all said they love the schools they attend, but they expressed concerns about their schools’ safety, space, and resources. One parent from an upstate charter school said her child’s special needs were not being adequately addressed.
The range of issues and concerns raised by the more than 1,200 people who made it to Albany (via 38 buses) illustrates just how big and diverse the charter sector has gotten in New York State. There are 159 charter schools in New York City, up from fewer than 100 just three years ago. Across the state there are now 208 charter schools, and organizers said 111 of them were represented on Tuesday.
People took different paths to get their voices heard. Some used connections to speak directly with Cuomo’s top education aides. Others refused to leave offices without a meeting, even after being told the representative was busy voting on bills across the street at the State Capitol.
After waiting outside the offices of Harlem Assemblyman Keith Wright, who was not there because he was in session voting on bills, dozens of students and parents from Democracy Prep Public Schools and Opportunity Charter High School were finally let in.
When Jeanine Johnson, Wright’s chief of staff, asked them what they wanted to talk about, a kindergartner was the first to reply.
“UPK,” the student fired back, referring to universal pre-kindergarten. DPPS wants add a pre-K program even if it has to set up a separate nonprofit organization to do so. It recently submitted a bid to the city to run one of its universal prekindergarten programs.
Another group from the network took their agenda straight to Cuomo’s deputy secretary of education, De’Shawn Wright. Wright’s predecessor, David Wakelyn, is now senior director of strategy and development at Democracy Prep and helped arrange the meeting. That group focused on a different agenda item: support for a state DREAM act that would give financial aid for college to students who are undocumented immigrants.
“Secretary Wright already supports the DREAM Act so we don’t have to try and persuade him to change his opinion,” said Ben Feit, a Democracy Prep official, before the group headed to the Capitol building to meet with Wright. “We’re going to thank him for his support for the DREAM Act and then we’re going to talk to him about UPK and other issues about charter schools that we’ve discussed so many times in the past.”
Reporters weren’t allowed in the meeting, but Feit said Wright said he needed to learn more about the pre-K issue before committing support. A Cuomo official later said the governor’s Education Reform Commission, which is expected to release another set of recommendations later this year, would take up the charter sector’s pre-K issues.
In a meeting with Assemblyman Eric Stevenson, a student from Harriet Tubman Charter School said her school wasn’t making a good enough effort to assign or provide books she wanted to read.
“They turned the whole library into the detention room and I felt like that was a bad thing to do,” said the student. A teacher who accompanied the students confirmed the renovation, citing space issues.
Some parents were also looking forward to air their grievances. Amy Kirklin, the mother of a student with special needs at Amani Charter School in Mount Vernon, said charter schools weren’t doing enough to serve the highest-need students. In New York City, just a quarter charter schools serve the same or a higher percentage of special education students than their districts’ average, according to the charter center.
“They’re trying,” Kirklin said of Amani. “My child is still attending, but we’ll give them three more years.”
Stevenson, whose office saw a steady stream of charter school supporters waiting to meet with him, said the full-day lobbying effort worked on him.
“Why not?” Stevenson said when asked if he’d support giving charter schools the right to operate pre-K programs. “It’s education at an early age so let’s do it. Let’s change the law.”
Stevenson, a Democrat who represents the South Bronx, added that he wouldn’t support a bill to put a moratorium on school closures, a controversial policy that in New York City has allowed charter schools to flourish but drawn criticism for concentrating high-need students in remaining large schools.
“Public schools are failing,” Stevenson said. “It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to realize it.”
Many charter school advocacy groups are hoping that the city’s next mayor will adopt many of the Bloomberg administration’s hallmark education policies, including closures and letting charter schools operate rent-free in public space.
But parents in Albany on Tuesday consistently said they were ready for anyone but Bloomberg.
“Personally, I like John Liu,” said Owen McFadzean, a parent at Bronx Preparatory Charter School.
“I can’t wait for Bloomberg to get out,” said McFadzean’s wife, Therese.