When Bronx Borough President Ruben Diaz Jr. took the stage before a sea of cheering charter school students and their families, one might have expected him to have strong words for Mayor Bill de Blasio.
Over the summer, the mayor instigated a high-profile spat with the city’s charter schools after he suggested they are obsessed with test prep, and help inflate their scores by screening out English language learners and students with disabilities.
But at Wednesday’s rally, which organizers said attracted over 25,000 people, the rhetoric centered on celebrating the charter sector’s growth and encouraging more expansion.
“Today we celebrate surpassing 100,000 students in charter schools — 100,000 is not the top of the mountain!” Diaz said. And in a departure from the tone of his comments at last year’s rally, he added: “We don’t have to attack the traditional public school system. I support the traditional public school system, but I also support, 100 percent, charter schools.”
Wednesday’s event — branded with the hashtag #PathtoPossible — was organized by the well-funded pro-charter group Families for Excellent Schools and called for expanding the charter sector to serve 200,000 students. (It also featured a performance by the rapper Common.)
In recent months, FES has tried to cast a shadow over district schools by waging a public relations campaign claiming they are more violent, and accusing officials of failing to own up to the “glaring failures” of the mayor’s community schools program. More recently, the pro-charter group has claimed the city is not letting them occupy vacant space in public school buildings, a charge the city disputes.
But those issues have only gained modest traction, perhaps owing to the fact that the charter sector has gained ground on many of their policy goals: The city is now required to find space for authorized charter schools, for instance, and last year the state doubled the number of new charter schools that can open. Still, the New York City Charter School Center announced a petition Wednesday calling on state officials to eliminate the cap on charter school expansion entirely. (Around 10 percent of New York City’s students currently attend a charter school.)
But pro-charter groups mostly let the optics of the rally speak for itself: Thousands of families — many of whom took off work to attend — gathered in support the growing charter school sector, a visual reminder of an increasingly powerful political constituency.
Many parents in attendance said they showed up precisely to lend political support. Yusuf Taylor, a parent at Success Academy Harlem 5, said he attended “to be a part of a movement to make sure there’s a quality education for everyone in our community.” With his five-year-old son perched on his shoulders, he waved a sign that read “Charter = Possibility.”
Herman Delvi, whose first-grade daughter attends Success Academy South Jamaica in Queens, said he was attending out of concern that there are not enough middle or high school Success Academy options near his South Ozone Park home.
“The city needs to provide more co-locations and let more schools transition toward charter,” he said.
And Delice Mitchell, whose fifth-grade son attends Achievement First Voyager Middle School, hopes charter schools will get more funding to reduce class sizes.
To the extent that parents see charter schools — rather than traditional district schools — as a mode of closing achievement gaps, that could pose a political challenge for de Blasio, who will face re-election next year. Two of the event’s prominent speakers, Diaz, the Bronx borough president, and U.S. Rep. Hakeem Jeffries are both potential primary challengers.
Asked about the rally on WNYC’s Brian Lehrer Show, de Blasio said he was confident in the city’s Equity and Excellence Agenda and vowed to “work cooperatively” with charter schools to find space.
“I think the focus has to be on the 90 percent of our kids in the traditional public schools who deserve better,” he added. “And that’s where our energies have to go.”