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Charter advocates say candidates’ rhetoric isn’t cause for panic

Some Democratic mayoral candidates are calling for a moratorium on charter school co-locations and at least two have said they would require charter schools to pay rent. But charter school advocates say they remain not too concerned.

“We should be worried … [but] I don’t think we should be panicked,” said James Merriman, CEO of the New York City Charter School Center, this morning at a panel discussion about the future of education in New York City hosted by the Manhattan Institute for Policy Research, a right-wing think tank.

Merriman joined Marcus Winters, senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute and Joe Williams, executive director for Democrats for Education Reform, on the panel.

Schools Chancellor Dennis Walcott also made an appearance to warn against moving away from the Bloomberg administration’s school policies, which include helping the charter sector to flourish. Republican mayoral candidate George McDonald and Independent mayoral candidate Adolfo Carrión, who have each expressed support for charter schools, sat in the audience.

Echoing what Williams wrote in a memo to DFER supporters last month, Merriman said he does not see the critical rhetoric coming from Democratic candidates as cause for serious concern. Conversation on the pre-primary election campaign trail is all “fun and games,” but once the next mayor is picked, how the future of charter schools is discussed is sure to grow more sensible, he said.

But Merriman said halting co-locations would hurt charter schools’ growth. “In New York where real estate is both blood sport and life blood, without co-located space, we’d have an anemic … charter school movement,” he said.

Even candidates who are largely supportive of the charter sector, such as City Council Speaker Christine Quinn, have called for more community input when it comes to deciding whether charter schools can operate inside district school buildings. But Winters said giving more power to local communities is not a good idea.

“What it will end up being is a way to really slow down the growth of charter schools in the city,” said Winters, who added that very few communities would welcome charter schools with open arms since they would have to give something of their own up to make space. In a piece that the Manhattan Institute’s City Journal published online this week, Winters argues that the next mayor should not only allow charter schools to continue to exist but should aggressively press for policy and law changes to expand the sector.

Williams said the space issue could be moot, at least for the charter sector. There are few new charter schools in the works, he said, and not many people want to start charter schools in the city right now.

“If co-locations were to end, it would more adversely impact [district] schools that were started under the promise that they would grow and move locations,” he said.

Walcott’s speech leaned heavily on the tropes that he established in a fiery speech to principals during a Saturday conference in May. He reiterated his importance of not “turning back the clock” on principal autonomy and school closures. He also said mayoral candidates should not “fall prey” to critics who think the Common Core standards and the city’s new teacher evaluation plan are too complex and difficult.

“Halting the momentum of this extraordinary transformation when we are so close to the tipping point would be a tragedy,” Walcott said.

Merriman said trying to roll back Bloomberg’s policies would be a lot harder than people think. Williams agreed, adding that he thought most of the policies that Walcott highlighted as important to preserve have wide support.

“To be against any of those things right now just makes you look like a lunatic and it makes you look like you don’t care about families in New York City schools,” he said.

Merriman added, “If you have 1.1 million kids, if you don’t have enough good seats and if you cut off one of the good ways of getting seats, I really wonder about your sanity.”