As charter schools proliferated during the Bloomberg years, local elected City Council officials remained a reliable foe at rallies and protests against the sector’s growth.
But with at least 20 of the council’s 51 seats sure to turn over at the end of the year, many of the press conference standbys are retiring. The vacancies open the door to a new crop of candidates who have matured politically at a time when charter schools enroll increasing swaths of children — including some of their own.
The possibility of a shift on the council has charter advocates opening their checkbooks and making bold predictions.
“A largely new City Council won’t be hampered by past fighting and fears over charter schools being experimental,” said David Golovner, vice president of policy and advocacy at the New York City Charter School Center.
“With the exponential growth in demand and enrollment by parents for charter schools, the likelihood of elected officials having positive relationships with charters in their districts has increased dramatically over the years,” Golovner added.
The forces are most detectable in Central Brooklyn, where tens of thousands of families apply to charter schools each year. At least three candidates in the area have attracted the attention of charter advocates.
Hedge-fund manager Whitney Tilson, who helped Wendy Kopp launch Teach for America, recently sent an e-mail to friends asking them to support two Brooklyn council candidates, Kathleen Daniel and Christopher Banks.
Daniel is a charter school parent and former organizer for Families for Excellent Schools, a nonprofit that works with charter school parents to get them involved in education policy. She is running in District 41 to unseat a two-term incumbent, Darlene Mealy, with the help of thousands of dollars in donations from charter advocates.
While Mealy — who has the UFT’s endorsement — has expressed openness to charter schools in the past, she has more recently criticized co-locations in her district and has not made education a prominent issue in her campaign. A third contender in the race, educator Stanley Kinard, is running on a platform that includes opposition to charter schools; he has not raised any funds.
Banks is running against Inez Barron in the race to succeed Barron’s husband, Charles Barron, in nearby District 42. Charles Barron has been among the most vocal critic of charter schools on the council, and Inez Barron is campaigning on a platform that includes opposition to the “two-tiered system” that she says charter school co-locations create.
In District 36, which includes Bedford Stuyvesant and Crown Heights, Robert Cornegy, a Democratic party leader with three children in charter schools, is running to fill the seat that will be vacated by Al Vann, a longtime staunch UFT ally. In a sign of the shifting political tides, Cornegy has Vann’s support even though the teachers union is throwing its weight behind another candidate, Kirsten John Foy.
And on the Upper West Side, where charter school operator Eva Moskowitz ruffled feathers by opening a Success Academy school, Tilson has also urged his friends to support Ken Biberaj, who is seeking to fill the seat that will be vacated by Gale Brewer. “The other candidates are toeing the teachers union line,” Tilson wrote in June in his email newsletter.
Dabbling in local races at a time when attention is fixed on who will occupy City Hall could feel a political concession for charter advocates, who initially had hoped to play a larger role in the mayor’s race. But they hope their influence in races where advocacy is often a powerful lever could strengthen the chances of charter-friendly candidates at a time when leading mayoral candidates have all pledged a new approach to the co-location policy that has allowed the sector to grow. Even if the charter sector’s preferred candidates do not win, advocates hope that others might arrive on the council with a more moderate approach to charter schools.
“I think you’re going to see more people who are open to the discussion about charters without placing a finger of blame,” Daniel said. “You have more of what I call people on the ground that are running instead of people whose children have been out of the system for some time or have only been in private schools.”
“It is my sincere hope that we change the discourse on education as a whole and that we stop the grandstanding of politics and demonizing the options for parents,” she added.
That’s just what charter advocates want to hear.
“We want to get to a place where parents don’t have to navigate through anti-choice protestors or feel intimidated when they explore educational options for their children,” said Erik Joerss, the charter center’s deputy for government affairs, who has donated $100 to Daniel’s campaign and has also given to Banks and Cornegy.
Not everyone sees things the same way. Noah Gotbaum, a public school parent who is running in the same race as Biberaj, fought against co-locations in his district when he was a Community Education Council member and said he would do the same thing on the City Council. He said he anticipates having many allies.
“My assessment is the new council is going to be far more progressive and far more pro-public education than the current council without any question,” said Gotbaum, who said that to him, public schools do not include charter schools. (The Upper West Side race is one of just three where the UFT has so far declined to make an endorsement.)
Robert Jackson, the outgoing education committee chair who is leaving the council because of term limits and who has sued the city to stop charter schools from opening in school buildings, said he expected that as long as education remains the top line item in the city’s budget, debate over education policies would remain strong. He also said he thought council members would continue to want to investigate issues related to charter schools, such as ongoing concerns about the schools’ discipline practices.
“There’s enough out there to hold hearings,” he said.
Besides including the right to require city officials to testify at hearings, the council’s role on charter school issues is largely symbolic. Under mayoral control, the council has no authority over how school buildings are used or who is allowed to run schools. And while the council does have to sign off on the city’s budget each year, using the budget to promote or diminish charter schools — or any other single issue — would require throwing the city’s finances into uncertainty.
“It’s probably irrelevant as to what a given council member thinks about charter schools,” said David Bloomfield, a CUNY education professor. “It’s basically a state and [Department of Education] — and therefore mayoral — issue.”
But Jeffrey Henig, a professor of political science and education at Columbia University’s Teachers College, said he thinks the council is poised to have more impact on education than a lot of people think.
“The next mayor is not going to have quite the independent power that Bloomberg did and will therefore need to cultivate the council,” Henig said. “Because of that, the council will be able to exert influence across issues including education.”
The council might respond as Gotbaum predicts, with a repudiation of Bloomberg’s approach to charter schools and other education issues, Henig said. But it might well not.
“There’s a group of folks who see charters as innovation within public education rather than a threat to public education,” he said. “And it would be realistic to expect public officials over time to gravitate toward that position.”
Of course, one downside to increasing familiarity in political circles with the city’s charter sector is that policy makers will understand the downsides as well as the promises of charter schools.
That’s already happening in Cornegy’s case. Three of his six children attend charter schools, but he said he has determined that charter schools wouldn’t be an option for one of his children who has special needs.
“As it stands now, my children who are benefiting from a charter education … it’s working well for them,” Cornegy said. “But I’m acutely aware that there’s a segment of society that can’t benefit from it.”
He also said that he recognizes that pushing for better schools across the city might not always mean doing what the charter sector wants.
“Will I champion progressive education and our children’s ability to compete globally? Absolutely. Unequivocally. I’m your man for that,” Cornegy said. “Does that mean I’m going to carry the water of the charter movement? I don’t know.”