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Charter school advocates demand UFT apology but get debate

Charter school parents and teachers took their fight against the UFT and NAACP’s school closure and co-location lawsuit to the headquarters of the main group that filed it.

About 250 people gathered this morning outside the United Federation of Teachers’ Lower Manhattan offices to demand that the union drop the lawsuit, which would stop 16 charter schools from opening, moving, or expanding. They emphasized that some charter schools are set to start their school years in as few as six weeks but don’t yet know where or if they will be opening.

The protest was the first that specifically targeted the teachers union since the lawsuit was filed May 18. Last month, a much larger group of protesters rallied outside the Harlem headquarters of the NAACP, which joined the UFT in the suit.

Protesters chanted a series of slogans for nearly an hour, at one point shouting “UFT: Apologize” for more than three minutes straight. The demand referenced a statement made last week by a union lawyer that he would not negotiate with charter school advocates until they apologized to the NAACP.

UFT officials took a softer line today, handing out baked goods and hats emblazoned with the union’s logo. Later, two UFT officials rolled a coffee cart along the side of the protest bullpen.

Some of the protesters accepted the offerings, but not Kathleen Kernivan, who has emerged as a spokeswoman for the charter school parents. She was first to speak from a stage with the backdrop that read “Your lawsuit hurts my child.”

“You have money for lawyers, you have money for hats, but you can’t buy my daughter’s education,” Kernivan said.

The breakfast and hats were meant as gestures of goodwill, according to Karen Alford, the UFT vice president in charge of elementary schools. “We wanted to say we support you, we’re not against you,” she said. “We’re not your enemy and the fight shouldn’t be with us.”

That theme carried into a debate across the protest barricade between Leroy Barr, a union vice president, and parent Sabrina Williams and Lynwood Shell, a Morehouse College student who is working this summer in the education division of the United Negro College Fund, which works with Achievement First charter schools.

Williams and Shell accused the union of trying to diminish choice for families who have opted out of traditional public schools. But Barr told them that the UFT’s objection is not to charter schools or even to the concept of co-location, but to the process that the Department of Education has used to allocate school space.

“So why is the lawsuit not against the DOE?” asked a parent who had been listening in.

“It is,” Barr said. “You are a byproduct of our fight with them.”

Williams said she has been fighting for her child’s school, Harlem Success Academy, since it opened five years ago. Her debate with Barr, she said, was “one of the most positive conversations I’ve had about these issues to date.”

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