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Charter schools take PEP meeting as chance to launch PR blitz

Last night’s Panel for Educational Policy meeting was the second in as many months to be packed to the gills with parents and teachers passionately pleading their case.

But this time it was charter school parents, not teachers and parents at closing district schools, who drove to the meeting in busloads.

“What we are pleading for this evening is space,” Trevor Alfred, a parent at Explore Empower Charter School, told the panel. “We deserve it.”

At first blush, the level of passion, and sometimes anger, directed towards the panel could seem odd. Although 16 school space proposals were up for a vote, the board had never voted down a city proposal, and none of the charter school proposals on the agenda yesterday was defeated.

But charter school advocates, stung by what they felt was a bruise at last month’s PEP meeting on school closures, which was dominated by charter school opponents, decided to take the opportunity to launch a new public relations offensive.

“I think this is the defining moment for the charter school movement, as an advocacy movement, to wake up,” said Jeremiah Kittredge, who leads Democracy Prep Charter Schools’ political organizing.

Other charter schools in attendance included the Harlem Success, KIPP, Explore, Girls Prep and Achievement First networks, some of whom had never rallied parents to a public meeting before.

“As demand for charters has increased, so has the opposition,” said David Levin, founder of the KIPP network of charter schools. “People realize that now, and are making their voices heard.”

Meanwhile, many of the most outspoken opponents of charter siting plans at individual school hearings were notably absent. And union officials, who last month called for the city to stop giving city building space to charters until district schools reach their class size targets, sat out the meeting altogether.

“It’s a sham; why come?” said Lisa Donlan, the president of a Lower East Side parent council and one of a few vocal critics who did speak.

(The board did fail to pass one proposal last night: a contentious plan to site an all-boys district school, Eagle Academy, at I.S. 59 fell one vote short of the seven votes needed for passage because of the absence of one mayoral appointee to the PEP, Jim Whelan, and the abstention of another, Linda Lausell Bryant.)

Charter school supporters point to opposition from elected officials as evidence that they are under siege. By launching a public relations offensive, they argue, they can persuade lawmakers that they’re on the wrong side of the issue.

As if proving their point, today a top target of charter school supporters, Harlem’s State Senator Bill Perkins, announced plans to hold hearings questioning charter schools starting in March. Although Perkins helped start the city’s first charter, he has since become an outspoken opponent of their growth.

Chancellor Joel Klein is championing this new wave of activism. He told reporters last night that he called charter school principals, at the request of the head of a charter network, to encourage them to bring parents to the meeting. And in a Daily News op-ed yesterday, Klein forecast a strong charter school presence.

Skeptics of Klein pointed out an irony: he’s trumpeting a system that works because parents want to flee the district schools that he manages.

As the proposals came to a vote close to midnight, one of the few charter critics on the board, Manhattan Borough President appointee Patrick Sullivan, voted “no” on the plan to let Girls Prep expand, saying that he questioned the school’s success.

The measure passed anyway, but afterward, a tearful Miriam Lewis Raccah, the head of Girls Prep, made clear that Sullivan’s criticisms had reinforced her view that charters need to put up a strong show against their critics.

“I feel a little bit of relief,” she said, “but it’s also a little bit infuriating.”