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Large crowd expected for rally, but many charters still staying home

By Geoff Deckergdecker

Thursday’s much-hyped charter school rally in downtown Manhattan is estimated to draw thousands of students, parents, teachers, and political allies in support of their education policies. What it doesn’t have, for a third straight year, is full representation of the city’s ever-growing charter school sector.

The city’s four largest charter school organizations are expected to turn out a majority of participants, while most other charter schools are sitting the rally out. Those decisions are a reflection of the diversity of the city’s charter sector, which this year consists of 197 schools and 6 percent of public school students, and also to continued disagreement about how schools can most effectively achieve their political goals.
“We believe that a more productive approach is to expend our efforts in working collaboratively with the city and DOE to bring the necessary changes into fruition,” Renaissance Charter School Principal Stacey Gauthier said.

Dozens of schools are still expected to attend, but most will come from the same networks: Success Academy, Achievement First, Uncommon Schools, and KIPP. Success Academy’s 32 schools will be closed for the first half of the school day and reopened for the afternoon to accommodate for the rally (A spokesperson said that no student learning time was missed). Achievement First’s 17 schools in Brooklyn will stay open, but a spokesperson for the network said it expects to send 1,200 students and families, mostly from its middle and high school grades. At the 21 Uncommon Schools, rally attendance isn’t required and staff members have the option to attend or stay at school.

But in interviews with non-participating school leaders, a variety of reasons were cited for their absence. Some said the decision was educational, while others said they weren’t asked for input around the event. Several others said they weren’t invited to attend. And others, like Gauthier, reprised concerns that a massive rally seen as an attack on Mayor Bill de Blasio and Chancellor Carmen Fariña would be inappropriate.

The concerns are not new. Fractures within the city’s charter schools sector, often seen as a monolith, first burst into public two years ago when school leaders and advocates said they would not participate in a similar rally because some believed the political aspirations of Success Academy CEO Eva Moskowitz were as much a part of the agenda as a show of force on behalf of the entire sector.

Underneath the public squabbling were divided positions on enrollment policies, how co-locations should be handled, and how large a role charter schools should play in public education.

Those issues, of course, aren’t yet settled. This year, in an effort to distinguish themselves from the city’s large charter management organizations, several charter schools have banded together as the Coalition for Community Charter Schools. They say the group agrees that charter school enrollment should mirror those of nearby district schools and has sought to work closely with the de Blasio administration.

The leaders of most of the coalition’s school leaders who are a part of the coalition said this week that they weren’t opposed to tomorrow’s charter school rally, but wouldn’t be taking part.

Sonia Park, executive director of Manhattan Charter School, said her school would be “supporting from afar.” Park said she didn’t want to take students out of class or ask her parents to take time off of work to attend.

Vasthi Acosta of the Amber Charter School in Harlem, which drew a high-profile visit from Fariña and de Blasio last month, said her priorities would be elsewhere on Thursday.

“I think it’s really early in the school year and we’re trying to focus on our instructional work,” said Acosta.

Crowd estimates for the event have been a moving target that is mostly pointed up. The final tally, unlikely to be independently verified, will probably land close to or exceed last year’s total of 17,000, an important mark that some in the charter sector see as more important than displaying a unified front.

“If you don’t have a platform, then the whole point is to show momentum,” said a charter school advocate not involved in organizing the event.
Officially, organizers say the rally is being designed to put pressure on Fariña and de Blasio, who have been criticized for not articulating a clear plan for the city’s low-performing schools. But sights are also set on issues that need to be settled by the state legislature: raising the number of charter schools allowed to operate in New York state and increasing state funding for charter schools.

In a nod to those priorities, at least four Democratic state lawmakers, including Brooklyn Assembly Member Karim Camara and Senate co-leader Jeff Klein will headline the event, according to Families for Excellent Schools, which is organizing the event.

Acosta said she’s on board with many of the big-picture policies that the charter school sector is seeking this year, particularly extra facility funds for schools in private space. But there is another reason Acosta said she didn’t really compelled to air those concerns at Thursday’s rally.
“We weren’t even invited,” Acosta said.

Correction: A previous version of this article incorrectly reported how Success Academy had scheduled it school days to make time for the rally.