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Congressional hopeful Jeffries firms up charter school support

If charter school advocates had any concern that Assemblyman Hakeem Jeffries wasn’t on their side, he lay their worries to rest last night.

Jeffries, a U.S. House of Representatives hopeful who has not always supported charter schools in his district, pledged his full-fledged support to charter school parents and backers at a town hall event hosted by the New York City Charter Center.

“The aspirations of parents such as yourself, who just want to find a vehicle to provide young children with the opportunity to get the best possible education … is one that I will always support, notwithstanding the consequences from those who may want to defend the status quo,” Jeffries said.

The event reflected a move among supporters of the city’s policy of closing struggling schools and replacing them with new options, including charter schools, to preempt the heated fights over co-location that engulfed the city last year. Nineteen new charter schools are slated to open in the city next year, and the city is hoping to house many of them in public school buildings.

Thursday’s event took place in Bedford-Stuyvesant’s New Beginnings Charter School, a second-year school located in a private facility owned by the Archdiocese of New York. It was the first such event organized by the center’s parent advocacy group, the Charter Parent Action Network. According to David Golovner, a vice president for the center, the network is working with parents in dozens of charter schools this year to help mobilize support in areas where charter schools are more densely located and where more are likely to open in the future.

“It comes down to the simple fact that these are public schools and screaming at somebody about a school isn’t the way to solve any problem,” Golovner said.

Golovner was joined by Cara Volpe, the center’s newly hired director to oversee relations between charter and district schools.

Jeffries was the lone elected official to attend the town hall, although staffers representing Public Advocate Bill de Blasio, City Councilman Al Vann and U.S. Rep. Ed Towns also participated. Recy Dunn, executive director of the charter school office at the Department of Education, also attended and spoke briefly.

Jeffries’ support of education reform issues has become more pronounced in recent months as he prepares a run at Towns’ seat in the U.S. House of Representatives. Last year, Jeffries was an outspoken critic of the city Department of Education as the lead plaintiff on a lawsuit against Mayor Bloomberg’s appointment of Cathie Black to serve as chancellor. And as the DOE prepared to close a struggling middle school in Prospect Heights and replace it with a charter school, Jeffries attended a parent rally and pledged to fight the co-location with legal action.

But this summer, seeking to boost the profile of his newly announced campaign, Jeffries penned an op-ed explaining his opposition to a lawsuit against charter school co-locations. The move landed him on the “Hot List” maintained by Democrat for Education Reform and the group’s political action committee and its allies have since raised thousands of dollars for his campaign.

After the event, Jeffries repeated his support for charter school co-locations, saying they were important “given the reality that space is limited and real estate is so expensive.”

But he also criticized the DOE for not handling school space planning well in past years and said he hoped to see an improvement under new leadership.

“We’re hopeful that moving forward, under the leadership of Dennis Walcott, the approach that he takes will be more collaborative and less designed to create the types of conflicts that we’ve seen around co-locations in the past years,” Jeffries said.