Burned by Albany funding cuts, charter school advocates are turning to a political base that they’ve long left untapped: parents.
In mid-October, a dozen charter school administrators gathered in a conference room at the Times Square Marriott for a seminar on the role of parents in charter school advocacy. Kenneth Peterson, a director of strategic partnerships at the New York State Charter School Association told the group that the charter school movement has a secret problem: it has almost no grassroots parent advocacy.
New York State’s political climate had changed, Peterson explained. Last year, legislators froze the amount of money that charter schools receive for each student they teach, effectively cutting their budgets. A fragile majority of charter school supporters in the State Senate made it imperative for charter school advocates to win over individual senators, rather than relying on friendships with a few party leaders.
“Crisis has a way of galvanizing folks around the need to act,” said Jeff Maclin, vice president for school advocacy at the New York City Charter School Center. “I think the ‘freeze’ in education funds to public charter schools this year was a wake up call to schools to make sure something like this does not happen again.”
For years, the Center has piled hundreds of parents onto buses and driven them to Albany for lobby day, but the conversations with lawmakers were brief and easily forgotten.
Now the Center is creating the Charter Parents Advocacy Network, or CPAN, an organization that Maclin said will familiarize parents with the legislative and financial problems their schools face and turn them into political activists. The goal is to have parents know what issues are important to charter schools’ success, have their legislators on speed dial and show up at community education council meetings ready to hold their own against charter school opponents.
Though the Center’s website says CPAN is “by parents, of parents, and for parents,” the group was launched by the Center and Maclin is currently recruiting charter school parents to lead the group.
“I think it’s a very smart move on their part to do it,” said Leonie Haimson, executive director of the non-profit Class Size Matters. “They need to look like they’re grassroots even though no one believes they are.”
The question of whether an “authentic” advocacy movement can grow around charter schools has long been in thorn in advocates’ side. Speaking to charter school administrators, Peterson warned them of the dangers of “astroturfing” — creating the appearance of a grassroots movement, while paid organizers direct the activism.
A number of charter schools do have politically active parent organizations. Democracy Prep Charter School, the Success Charter Network schools, and Renaissance Charter School are all well-known for their ability to mobilize parents to fight for their claims to space and public funding.
“I hate to say it, but I don’t know that many schools that are doing that much with their parents,” said Stacey Gauthier, the principal at Renaissance Charter School in Jackson Heights, Queens.
“Charter school parents need to be out there going, ‘I’m not going to vote for you if you don’t support my school.’ I think district school parents are more organized than charter school parents, for sure,” she said.
Getting charter school parents to be politically active has been difficult in part because up until the last few years, there haven’t been that many of them, Maclin said. There are now almost 100 charter schools in New York City.
Another obstacle has been school administrators, Gauthier said. Principals running one- or two-year-old schools find organizing and educating parents “daunting,” she said, as well as somewhat risky.
“You never quite know — are my parents now going to think they’re educational experts? Can I manage that?” Gauthier said. “People often don’t see the value in really have people being involved and engaged.”
Peter Murphy, policy director for the New York State Charter Schools Association, said the organization is trying to get the message to parents and school leaders that politics matter.
“What we try to get across is that it’s a political process that made this a reality for your child and it’s the political process that can take it away,” he said. “Therefore, it’s incumbent for parents and all stakeholders to be politically active.”
That message has reached at least one parent loud and clear. Mona Davids, whose daughter attends Equality Charter School, founded the New York Charter Parents Association last spring. Davids’ stated political goals for her group include lifting the state’s charter cap and getting equal funding for charter schools, aims she shares with other charter advocates. What sets her apart, she says, is her independence.
“Unlike the school leaders, unlike the DOE, unlike NYCSA, unlike the Center, we are not professionals paid to be doing this by people with other interests,” she said. “We are going to do what is best for our kids.”