Charter Parent Action Network Director Valerie Babb addresses charter school parents and students in Albany. (Photo courtesy of the New York City Charter School Center)

An annual caravan of charter school parents to Albany took place today with a specific mission: convince legislators to approve a bill allowing charter parents to run for the city’s local parent councils.

It’s a battle that charter advocates will have to fight without the Department of Education’s help. The city has never supported allowing charter parents to run for parent councils, even as it has encouraged the proliferation of charter schools and allowed them to operate in district space.

State law requires that each school district in the city field an elected parent council, known as a Community Education Council, to provide an avenue for parents to weigh in on schools policy. Some of the council’s duties, such as presiding over public hearings about co-locations, involve charter school issues. But the Bloomberg administration has constrained the councils’ authority and their only statutory function is to redraw school zone lines, which do not affect charter schools. They do not actually approve or reject co-locations.

Still, the CECs are seen as one of the few formal venues for parents to voice opinions about department policies, and charter school parents see the exclusion as an equity issue. They have convinced two legislators — Assemblyman Peter Rivera, a Bronx Democrat, and State Sen. Marty Golden, a Republican from Brooklyn — to introduce a bill that would reserve one of the 11 seats on each council for a charter parent.

“In order to protect our children and their continued access to a great public education, charter parents need and deserve a seat at the table to help inform the decisions about the schools in their neighborhoods,” said Valerie Babb, director of the Charter Parents Action Network, in a statement. “By supporting this legislation, our lawmakers will send a strong signal to families that their voices carry just as much weight as other public school parents in their districts.”

The city’s position is that the same signal would also undermine the very foundation of what makes charter schools unique. In 2009, District 1′s council invited charter parents to join and said they would lobby for a change to let the parents participate. At the time, a department spokeswoman pointed out that there is a reason the state law and city regulations do not have a mechanism for including charter parents in district committees.

“What makes a charter school a charter school is that they operate outside the jurisdiction of the district,” the spokeswoman said.

Today, department officials said the city’s position remains the same: Seating charter parents on CECs would represent an inappropriate conflation of charter and district school management. Charter schools and district schools are governed by different state laws.

It is true that charter school parents typically cannot enter the regular CEC election process — a process that has always attracted few candidates and last year was spectacularly botched. But they are in fact eligible to serve on CECs if they have children in both district and charter schools, had a child in a district school in the last two years, or are appointed by the borough president.

Lisa Donlan, president of CEC 1, said today that few charter parents avail themselves of those options.

“Why would they make that their main ask when they could do it now through a variety of mechanisms and they aren’t doing it?” she asked. “They don’t necessarily need to go up and change the legislation.”

The request was the centerpiece of this year’s Charter Lobby Day, which drew more than 1,200 charter parents to Albany today to push the CEC issue and other equity concerns. Last year, more than 2,000 people made the trek and focused on funding, particularly for facilities. The year before that, parents sat in on a budget hearing and took aim at a state law that capped the number of charter schools; later that spring, legislators raised the cap.

But while the size of the caravan was smaller this year, the number of schools represented increased. Of the city’s 136 charter schools, 114 sent parents to Albany today, where they were joined by parents from 22 additional schools across the state. Last year, parents from 80 of the city’s then-125 schools participated.