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Success Academy's charter rally shutdown plan draws criticism

Brooklyn City Councilman Stephen Levin is not happy that some charter school students are getting let out of class next month to attend a political rally, and he wants Chancellor Dennis Walcott to do something about it.

“This would never be allowed at a public school, and it has no place in charter schools either,” Levin said in a statement that his office emailed this morning. “I call on Chancellor Walcott to intervene so that Ms. Mosowitz’s [sic] political rallies are not being held at a time when students should be learning.”

Levin — who in June called for a ban on new charter schools — was referring to the Oct. 8 charter school rally that’s being organized in part by Success Academy Charter Schools founder and CEO Eva Moskowitz. Other charter schools are involved as well — organizers said they expect more than 15,000 people to participate — but Moskowitz alone is the only charter school operator shutting her entire network for the morning.

Moskowitz is closing her schools while the event takes place so that staff and students can attend. It’s not technically mandatory for parents to attend the event, but Moskowitz made it clear in an email last week that their attendance is important.

Organizers of the rally, caught off guard by the focus on Moskowitz’s role, have rushed to insist that the event will represent a much larger swath of the city’s 183-charter school sector than Success schools. Jeremiah Kittredge, executive director of Families for Excellent Schools, one of the groups organizing the event, said no parents or students would be required to go.

“Most schools are approaching this as a civic field lesson that students can opt into,” Kittredge said in a statement.

Moskowitz’s schools have been the target of criticism from Democratic mayoral nominee Bill de Blasio, who has said he would charge rent to charter schools that operate in city-owned buildings — calling out Success schools in particular.

“These issues are tremendously important,” Moskowitz told parents in a letter on Saturday that urged them to attend. “If we lose ground — literally, if we lose access to public space — we cannot fulfill our commitment to you and your scholar.”

Levin suggested that Success parents aren’t being given much of a choice over whether to attend.

“Forcing parents and children to march in a political rally is obscene and has no place in our schools,” Levin said in the statement. “It is insulting that someone who is supposed to be educating New York City’s children would choose to pull kids out of school in order to benefit her political agenda.”

“Families that are there are there by choice — it’s the key principle that undergirds everything we do,” Kittredge said in the statement.

It’s unclear what, if any, steps Walcott could take to actually put a stop to the rally even if he wanted to — which he likely does not, because the Bloomberg administration supported the expansion of the charter sector. Charter schools receive public funds but are privately managed, and the Department of Education has little control over how the schools structure their schedules.

Although Levin’s statement reflects concern about students losing out on valuable learning time, most charter schools have longer days and years than district schools. Moskowitz calculated that by eighth grade, Success students will have accrued an extra 2.7 years of class time over district school students.

“We treat ‘time’ as one of our most precious commodities and we don’t make decisions to engage in civic field trips lightly,” Moskowitz wrote in an email to principals in her network on Monday.

It’s not unusual for charter schools to take students out of school to advocate for civic issues that are aligned to education policy. Every year, the charter sector takes a group students to Albany to lobby lawmakers to be more supportive of charter schools. And classes are suspended in the Democracy Prep network on election days so students can help get out the vote.

Still, other school leaders who are planning to attend the event said today that they’re taking a less aggressive approach.

“For us it’s really focused on getting our families out,” said Public Prep CEO Ian Rowe, who runs a three-school charter network with about 1,100 students. Rowe said his schools would stay open and that only two classes of eighth graders would attend “to witness the action as an experiential field trip.”

Moskowitz appears to making her plea to parents in person as well. She is scheduled to visit Cobble Hill Success Academy to meet with parents Friday morning for an “important parent meeting,” according to a flier that is posted at the school.

Morty Ballen, CEO of Explore Charter Schools, said he would be hosting a series of meetings with parents to urge them to attend. But he said his teachers and students would stay in school.

Ballen said the tougher decision for him was whether to attend at all. At last year’s rally, which left the city’s charter sector divided, Ballen decided not to join Moskowitz at City Hall.

But this year, with the mayoral election a potential turning point for the charter sector, Ballen said, he believed it is important to unite charter school parents in one place to be heard.

“I don’t think this is about Success,” Ballen said. “I think this is about a moment as a sector where we find out what it takes moving forward to operate successfully.”

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