Facing political pressure, charter schools seek to shed stereotypes

HOST INTRO: During the 2013 New York City mayoral campaign, Bill DeBlasio said he’d charge rent to some charter schools that use space in district school buildings. That proposal prompted school choice advocates to stage a massive protest last October. Now that De Blasio is mayor, as Avi Wolfman-Arent reports, some charter schools are trying to make peace.

The conflict between Bill DeBlasio and the city’s charter schools begins with that most precious of New York resources: real estate. Of course there’s never quite enough of it, as Brooklyn College education professor David Bloomfield explains.

BLOOMFIELD: There was always tension between the De Blasio campaign and charter interests because of De Blasio’s opposition to what’s called co-location, placing charter schools inside New York City public school buildings. [0:20].

Co-locations aren’t exclusive to charter schools. However, charter school co-locations have been among the most contentions, particularly when fast-expanding charter networks have been involved. DeBlasio has clearly taken note. In his short time as mayor, he’s has already placed a moratorium on future co-locations.  He’s also cut $210 million in charter school funding from the district’s capital budget. And while DeBlasio hasn’t offered any specifics on his rent proposal, he hasn’t backed off it either. Now, after 12 years under the charter-friendly policies of Michael Bloomberg, school choice proponents find themselves in an unfamiliar position.

BLOOMFIELD: In some ways, they’re on the defense now. [0:02]

And there is quite a bit of defending to do.

BLOOMFIELD: They’ve all been stung by the repeated assertions, which have proven accurate, that charter schools don’t take a proportional number of special education students and English language learners. [0:16]

That’s not all. Charter critics also say the schools are preoccupied with student test scores and heavy-handed when it comes to school discipline. But some charters are trying to change that narrative. Rebekah Oakes of Renaissance Charter School in Queens says her school doesn’t fit the charter stereotype. And in this tense political climate, she says the public needs to hear from schools like hers.

OAKES: Our job is to promote our school and to make sure our message is out there. [0:06]

Renaissance is in many ways the perfect school to help rebrand the charter movement. The school didn’t participate in the October protest. Renaissance doesn’t focus on standardized tests and doesn’t have a strict disciplinary code. When the New York City Charter School Center launched a recent promotional campaign profiling schools that don’t fit the typical charter narrative, Renaissance was an obvious choice.

OAKES: The message they wanted to get out there is that there are all different kinds of charter schools that have all different kinds of messages and missions. [0:07]

In late January, Renaissance principal Stacey Gauthier joined five other charter leaders in issuing  a statement entitled “Framework for a Progressive Charter School Sector”. The memo calls for charter schools to serve more English Language Learners and Special Education Students. The authors also pledge support for De Blasio’s efforts to fund universal Pre-K.  The one area where they didn’t compromise? Co-location. That concerns Leonie Haimson, a prominent charter critic who says co-locations are hurting public school students.

HAIMSON: The co-location issue has been extremely damaging to our system as a whole, created more overcrowding, created larger class sizes, led to the loss of classrooms, music rooms, science rooms. [0:15]

Oakes says Renaissance needs its public space, and can’t afford to pay rent.

OAKES: I’ll be completely frank, rent would kills us. That’s all there is to it. [0:05]

Oakes is hopeful that by dialoging with city hall, the progressive charter sector will change the mayor’s position on co-location—the very issue that first sparked tensions. And if that tactic doesn’t work? Well, Oakes says she won’t sit out the next rally.

Avi Wolfman-Arent, Columbia Radio News.

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