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Plans for new rally draw out old tensions within charter sector

Two weeks before a pro-charter-schools rally begins in Brooklyn, a deep divide within the charter sector is reappearing.

The rally — which charter operator Eva Moskowitz is pushing — is aimed at sending a stern message to mayoral candidates, especially frontrunner Bill de Blasio, about public support for charter schools. De Blasio has said he believes charters should pay rent to occupy space in district school buildings, a change that could threaten some schools’ ability to operate.

Many of the city’s largest charter school management organizations, including KIPP, Uncommon Schools, Achievement First, and Moskowitz’s Success Academy network, have already lent their support to the rally, organizers say. But so far, few independent charter schools have signed on, and the city’s main charter school advocacy organization isn’t endorsing the event.

The less-than-united front reveals that the charter sector has not come to a collective decision about the best way to convince the next mayor to look favorably on charter schools.

“All the people from the charter coalition that CEI oversees, and there are a number, are opposed to this,” said Harvey Newman, the head of the Center for Educational Innovation’s support network for independent charter schools. “It’s antagonistic to the likely mayor of New York. And if you want to have an influence, you don’t do so with this kind of antagonistic behavior, since he is going to control education.”

James Merriman, CEO of the New York City Charter Schools Center, declined to support or criticize the rally. “Some of the schools are obviously invested in having a rally, and others are going to look for other ways to have their message heard,” he said.

But as in 2012, when Moskowitz spearheaded a similar rally, a number of prominent charter network operators who serve on the center’s board are not on the latest list of rally supporters. They include Jeff Litt of Icahn Charter Schools, Geoffrey Canada of Promise Academy Charter Schools, and Joseph Reich of Beginning with Children Charter Schools.

Similar tensions within the charter sector emerged around last year’s rally, meant to demonstrate support for charter schools to all of the mayoral candidates. With de Blasio now the clear frontrunner, some charter operators said they are even less inclined to support an in-your-face demonstration. Such a show of power could start the sector’s relationship with the man with the power to slow the sector’s growth on the wrong foot, they say.

“Many in the charter movement have not wanted to be seen as fractious because they didn’t want to undermine the broader movement. They’re saying it’s broken now, and we’re better served by saying, we don’t agree with Eva,” Newman said. “That doesn’t mean we fully agree with de Blasio. But we believe that as the campaign and administration evolves, we’ll be in a better position to explain our points and have a voice.”

But Harlem Link Charter School principal Steve Evangelista is setting aside his longstanding differences with Moskowitz and other charter leaders because he believes a show of unity is important for the sector. He said he’ll be encouraging parents to attend.

“It is not a reform that has been cemented,” Evangelista said, referring broadly to charter schools. “We do feel like it’s always under threat, and the rug could always be pulled out from under us.”

In one indication of how uncertain many charter leaders feel about the future of having free public space, another item on Harlem Link’s long-term agenda is beginning to fundraise for private space. The school currently shares space with a district school.

“We don’t want to be like the European settlers in Australia, who assumed after 10 years of rain that the rain would go on forever,” Evangelista said. “We believe we’ve been in extended rainy season, and the plants are growing, but we need to plan for the drought.”

Village Academies, Public Prep, Explore Schools, and Coney Island Preparatory Academy — all of which operate schools in district buildings — have also indicated that they will provide support for the rally. Organizers with Families for Excellent Schools, a parent organizing group, said they expected the list of participating schools to grow in the weeks leading up to the event.

The rally is scheduled for 7:30 a.m. on Tuesday, Oct. 8, and buses will be taking students and parents from Success schools to the start of the march across the Brooklyn Bridge. It’s unclear whether other schools are also planning to send students or just encourage parents to participate.

At Democracy Prep, which participated in the 2012 rally, communications director Alice Maggin said the network’s school leaders have not yet decided whether to pull students out of classes to attend the rally. That week is when students will be taking midterm exams, she said.

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