Updated at 7:02 p.m. Parents and education advocates ratcheted up the pressure on Mayor Bill de Blasio at a raucous political rally Thursday morning, urging his administration to move quickly to address the city’s lowest-performing schools.
Dressed in red, hoisting signs, and dancing to beats from The Roots frontman Questlove, thousands of charter school parents and advocates packed into Foley Square in lower Manhattan. But rather than unite around a clear pro-charter stance, they took up a less contested message: the city should have lots of high-quality schools and fewer struggling ones.
“We think that the ability to have a quality-schools movement that can scale is threatened, but that it’s not about district or charter,” said Families for Excellent Schools CEO Jeremiah Kittredge, who organized the event.
Despite organizers’ insistence that the rally wasn’t all about charter schools, plenty of evidence suggested that it was. Kittredge himself said that more freedom and longer school days, two common elements of charter schools, are the ingredients for high performance. And the rally’s main attendees were charter-school proponents, although district school parents, including some signed onto teacher tenure lawsuit against the state, spoke at a press conference about their frustrations with the school system.
If de Blasio won’t embrace charter schools as a key component of improving public education as former Mayor Michael Bloomberg did, attendees said, the onus on him is to come up with an alternative.
“I ask you Mayor de Blasio, I ask the chancellor, get it together or get it right,” said Anyta Brown, a member of StudentFirstNY from Brownsville.
The event put the administration on the defensive even before it began. The de Blasio administration released a 90-second video on Thursday morning that included footage from his Riverside Church speech in which he tried to make peace with the charter school sector and testimony from a parent with new access to pre-kindergarten, his signature education policy.
Wiley Norvell, a spokesperson for the mayor, didn’t dispute the rally’s larger message, but said the administration’s priority was on fixing the entire school system.
“We know our schools need help,” Norvell said. “We believe the answer is to fix the entire system—that includes traditional public schools, charter schools and religious schools.”
Some parents who attended the rally agreed.
“I like charter schools, but I would be the first to say that a charter school is not for everybody,” said Gina Brooks, whose twin daughters are in seventh grade at Achievement First Brownsville. “If you have issues with discipline and structure, it’s going to be a tough school for you, but at the same time, I think every child deserves the best of whatever, regardless of wherever you live.”
Opponents and the United Federation of Teachers have criticized the rally’s organizers for refusing to disclose how it is funded and scrutinized the makeup of Families for Excellent Schools’ board, which includes several hedge fund managers. In a statement, UFT President Michael Mulgrew pointed out the union’s close ties to de Blasio on education.
“Unlike the sponsors of this rally, we are responsible for all of the students in our public schools. Not just some but all,” Mulgrew said. “And with this new administration, we are rebuilding the city’s school system from the ground up, starting with universal pre-k.”
On Wednesday, Chancellor Carmen Fariña unveiled a new grading system for evaluating schools. But the education department has yet to lay out its plans for how it will handle the city’s lowest-performing schools, or determined a space-sharing policy for dozens of new charter schools expected to open in the next two years.
The city will be soon be forced to resolve both issues, since state law now requires the city to provide space or funding for new and growing charter schools, and the city is also facing a deadline to produce its struggling-schools plans.
This was the third year the charter sector held a large-scale rally. Organizers sought to play up the scale of this year’s event, claiming that the crowds exceeded 21,000. A police officer working at the event said that the police department does not release official crowd estimates, but said Foley Square could only fit about 10,000 and that Thursday’s attendance was likely closer to that number.
And a parent who attended last year’s rally, a march across the Brooklyn Bridge, said this year the tone was less urgent.
“The message is different, just to continue the momentum,” said Nancy Lerman, who marched in last year’s rally. “Last year we thought schools would close.”
This year, advocates have new long-term ambitions: namely, to have state legislators raise the maximum number of charter schools permitted to open in New York City. State Senate co-leader Jeff Klein, a longtime charter-school booster, attended the rally but said raising the cap wasn’t yet necessary.
“Unfortunately, there are some who think it’s politically expedient to hate charter schools,” Klein said. “Somehow it’s cool and progressive not to like charter schools. That’s utter nonsense.”
Jessica Glazer contributed reporting.