As Fariña meeting nears, a new charter school coalition angles for acceptance

A new coalition of charter schools has a public message for Chancellor Carmen Fariña just days before she is set to meet with the entire sector: We’re not what you think.

Education leaders representing 27 charter schools serving 13,000 students announced this week that they’ve united in hopes of playing nice with Fariña and Mayor Bill de Blasio at a delicate moment for the charter sector. The group includes organizations tied to the de Blasio administration, such as the Children’s Aid Society, as well as an independent charter school whose principal counts Fariña as a mentor.

“This group supports the mayor’s progressive agenda for children and families,” the statement says. “It also believes that the majority of the city’s charters share the administration’s desire to reach those students who most need a high-quality public education.”

Members of the fledgling group say they also want to further distinguish themselves from the sector’s fiercest advocates, especially Eva Moskowitz, a frequent target of de Blasio’s criticism.

“This group came together out of a concern that generalizations have allowed misperceptions of charter schools and their work,” the group said in a joint statement sent Wednesday night, three weeks after Chalkbeat first reported about its formation. “[D]espite the best of intentions, the growth of the charter sector did not always hear or heed community concerns. This needs correcting.”

The move comes at a politically sensitive moment for the sector, which is anxiously awaiting de Blasio’s decision on several pressing issues affecting charter schools. It remains unclear whether he will cancel space plans for new charter schools, charge rent to charter schools in public space, and push to include charter schools in his pre-kindergarten expansion.

“I am hopeful that this group can help serve as a bridge to City Hall as the next chapter of the charter school story in NYC is written,” Harlem RBI CEO Rich Berlin, a founding member, said in an email.

The group’s formation marks a decisive step forward in a movement that has been building within the sector for years, in response to growing tension over how charter schools, which are publicly funded but privately managed, should assert themselves politically.

Some charter school advocates argue that any effort to curtail growth in charter networks like Success Academy, KIPP, and Uncommon Schools, which are popular with parents and boast high student test scores, is unacceptable. To make their case, they’ve organized mass rallies, given money to political campaigns and advertised publicly. Today, one advocacy group, Families for Excellent Schools, held a rally to tout support from an assemblyman, Karim Camara.

But others — mostly among the 99 of the city’s 183 charter schools that are not affiliated with a network — say they are less concerned with growth than being able to continue to serve their existing students. They say their preference for a more middle-of-the-road approach has been drowned out.

“Our voices don’t get heard,” said Michael Catlyn, a founding board member and current vice chair of Brooklyn Charter School, which opened in 2000.

“I respect her work,” Rafiq Kalad Id-Din, founder of Brooklyn’s Teaching Firms of America Charter School, said of Moskowitz. “But she doesn’t speak for me.” 

Based on its membership, the coalition is in a good position to influence Fariña and de Blasio. Former Children’s Aid Society CEO Richard Buery, an early supporter of the group, is now a senior aide at City Hall. Christina Tettonis, who runs Hellenic Classical Charter School in District 15, Fariña’s former district, is a protégé of the chancellor from when she was a student at Teacher’s College Columbia University. Tettonis is also rumored to belong to a group of principals that is advising Fariña.

Most of the member organizations run a single charter school (New Visions for Public Schools is an exception). Several have unionized teachers, including University Prep High School in the Bronx and Renaissance Charter High School in Queens. And many serve high-need student populations, including New York Center for Autism Charter School and Broome Street Academy, which serves students at risk of dropping out.

In interviews, charter operators who signed onto the statement emphasized that they shared an opposition to de Blasio’s plan to charge charter schools rent with other schools in the city but said they disagreed with some of their colleagues about how to advocate against it.

“There’s a communication problem,” said Kalad Id-Din. “This is not a policy problem.”

Privately, several members said they believed that an ongoing political rivalry between de Blasio and Moskowitz, a former City Council member who is seen as having mayoral ambitions, has undermined their ability to work with the new administration.

Responding to the group’s statement, Moskowitz said she agreed that the sector suffered from misperceptions, which “have obscured the real achievements of our students. New York City children will only benefit if the administration and charter community can jointly embrace the task of providing equal access to high quality education.”

(Another charter operator who did not sign on to the coalition, Dave Levin of KIPP, said he was “completely aligned in spirit and with the hopes expressed by our charter friends.”)

Now, the sector is preparing for an important meeting that could determine its future. On Saturday, the New York City Charter School Center is hosting a meeting between Fariña and the city’s charter school leaders. All schools have been invited, but the group said they released their statement in advance to get Fariña’s attention. A spokeswoman for the center declined to comment about the center’s hopes for the meeting.

Like de Blasio, Fariña has criticized the charter sector and noted that it contains both “good” and “bad” schools. She has also said she has concerns that some charter schools use enrollment rules to serve fewer high-need students.

Department of Education spokeswoman Devora Kaye said Fariña “believes in listening to and engaging with all members of our school system” as a way to set good education policy.

“Families across the city want access to high-quality schools — district and charter — and we celebrate when families find schools that meet their needs,” Kaye added.

The group’s complete statement and list of members is below:

A diverse group of leaders from more than two dozen community-based charter schools met this week to discuss ways in which charter schools can develop a more collaborative working relationship with Mayor de Blasio and Chancellor Fariña. Along with other interested schools that were unable to attend, this group currently includes over 45 organizations, educating more than 13,000 students in all five boroughs, housed in private and public space. This group includes independent charter schools and charters affiliated with well-known social service organizations that have a long tradition of partnering with the city to serve children and families. Although the schools represent many different approaches to public education, they all share a firm commitment to social justice through public education. This group came together out of a concern that generalizations have allowed misperceptions of charter schools and their work. And despite the best of intentions, the growth of the charter sector did not always hear or heed community concerns. This needs correcting. This group supports the Mayor’s progressive agenda for children and families. It also believes that the majority of the city’s charters share the administration’s desire to reach those students who most need a high-quality public education. We look forward to engaging the city in a productive dialogue to consider how the charter sector, working in partnership with the city, can continue its work and help advance the administration’s priorities and values to the benefit of the children of New York. Academy of the City Charter School Amber Charter School Bedford-Stuyvesant New Beginnings Charter School Beginning with Children and Community Partnership Charter School Brooklyn Charter School Broome Street Academy and University Settlement House Central Queens Academy Charter School Children’s Aid College Prep Charter School Compass Charter School DREAM Charter School and Harlem RBI East Harlem Scholars Academy Charter School Family Life Academy Charter School Heketi Community Charter School Hellenic Classical Charter School Hyde Leadership Charter School John V. Lindsay Wildcat Academy Charter School Launch Expeditionary Learning Charter School Math Engineering Science Academy Middle Village Preparatory Charter School New Dawn Charter High School New Visions for Public Schools New York Center for Autism Charter School New York City Montessori Charter School Opportunity Charter School Renaissance Charter School Summit Academy Charter School Teaching Firms of America Professional Preparatory Charter School University Prep Charter High School