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Charter school teachers, principals and staff members gather at a rally organized by Families for Excellent Schools.

Charter school teachers, principals and staff members gather at a rally organized by Families for Excellent Schools.

Monica Disare

Politically progressive charter advocates search for new strategy in wake of New York’s blue wave

Steven Wilson was thrilled.

It was the night of Nov. 6, and Democrats had just claimed some major midterm election victories. Wilson, founder of Ascend Public Charter Schools in Brooklyn, described the results as “an expression of revulsion of President Trump and his bottomless depravity.”

But that blue wave put Wilson and other left-leaning charter school supporters in New York in a tricky position. “I also, of course, want to desperately protect charter schools,” he said.

The state’s Democrats — including several progressives and a democratic socialist— took control of the New York Senate on election night for the first time since 2010, unseating Republicans and Democrats who had aligned with the GOP. The ousted politicians had supported increasing funding for charter schools, backed expanding the cap on the number of them allowed in the state and voted against certain oversight measures of the sector, which is publicly funded and privately managed.

In the wake of this sea change, what charter-school advocacy will look like is an open question. Little hope exists that state politicians will raise the controversial cap  — even as only eight slots for new city charter schools remain.

“They’re going to get blown out of the water,” said now-Senate Minority Leader John Flanagan on Friday about 80,000 students on waiting lists for charter seats, according to a reporter who tweeted his comments. “The Gov. has never done anything to help them. We’re the only ones who did anything to help them.”

All of this follows the implosion of the charter advocacy group Families for Excellent Schools earlier this year, a group that many saw as leading the charge for building political support for charters in Albany. Its efforts included spending millions on lobbying, ad campaigns, and arranging massive rallies to drum up support.

Charter advocates were wary about sharing their specific political strategies ahead of the 2019 legislative session, which starts in January, beyond saying they’ll continue to support schools they believe in.

But several people — some of whom did not want their names to be published — say the strategy must involve more grassroots organizing, a cornerstone of progressive campaigns, to convince Democrats that charter schools are in line with their interests and more direct outreach to lawmakers as the message about charters is reframed.

A key part of that will involve energizing parents even more than in the past.

“Since 2014, the charter sector’s approach has been almost exclusively two strategies: large scale rallies and campaign contributions,” said Seth Andrew, a former Obama administration official and founder of Democracy Prep Public Schools, a group of charter schools in several U.S. cities, who still advocates for the sector.

“My belief is that we need long-term organizing and grassroots movement building to help elected officials understand why school choice and school quality should be core progressive and democratic values.”

Making new friends

Some charter advocates had been anticipating the flip of New York’s Senate since President Trump’s election two years ago, as his unpopularity grew in urban and suburban communities, and found themselves torn between their personal politics and wanting to protect charters.

“I think we were in the unusual position of wanting to see what would not work out in our favor,” said Steve Zimmerman, co-director of Coalition of Community Charter Schools, of himself and fellow educators who hoped Democrats would win seats across the country.

Now that the election has passed, Zimmerman sees the need to “make the progressive case for charter schools,” which means persuading new, progressive lawmakers that charter schools actually align with their legislative goals.

Like many others in his universe, Zimmerman likes to stress that charter schools are diverse in ideology, don’t all have a “no-excuses” model, a target of charter critics, and are rooted in progressive values: giving all families the opportunity to choose their school, no matter where they live or how much money they make.

“This is a huge opportunity for both sides to be able to make new friends,” said Bob Belliafiore, an education consultant who has advised charter schools and helped push for the state’s charter law in the 1990s. “It seems natural because the new progressive leadership in the Senate is about opportunity for people who can’t otherwise afford to make their own opportunities. Charters are about bringing public school options for those who can’t move to a great school district.”

Changing minds is likely to be an uphill battle. Some new lawmakers have already pushed back on charters, either during their campaigns or in the past.

Among them is Democratic socialist Julia Salazar, whose education campaign platform says she’ll support “maintaining the charter cap, making sure our school system remains publicly governed and controlled by all of us.”

A Queens newspaper described State Sen-elect Jessica Ramos, who unseated State Sen. Jose Peralta, as “adamantly opposed” to charter schools during a debate, when she called out the contributions Peralta received from pro-charter groups.

But charter advocates may still enjoy support from Gov. Andrew Cuomo, who has historically backed the sector. And in recent days, charter advocates were heartened by Mike Murphy, a spokesman for Senate Democrats, who told Newsday, “Senate Democrats care about providing a quality education for all New York’s children, including those attending charter schools.”

Wilson, the Ascend founder, pointed to his own schools as a part of what he considers a progressive model that might appeal to politicians wary of charters with reputations for harsh discipline policies. The schools are not co-located with other public schools (often a source of frustration for charter opponents). He emphasized Ascend’s liberal-arts curriculum and how it serves communities of color within lawmakers’ districts.

“When they see that, they will become believers,” Wilson said.

What does grassroots campaigning look like?

Andrew, the Democracy Prep founder, said the real key will be for charter schools to make personal connections between lawmakers and parents “that need to happen at barber shops and at church and at the bus stop.”

Parents, he said, will have to lead the charge. That means, even more so than in the past, that the charter sector must persuade families to get involved in reaching out to their lawmakers to have regular conversations about what they want in their neighborhoods.

“When I talk about grassroots organizing, I’m really talking about empowering families to make greater choices and have greater agency over their own civic engagement,” Andrew said. “It can’t be forced engagement; it has to be authentic — daily conversations about what parents want and need in their child’s education.”

In the past, Families for Excellent Schools was known for its large-scale protests and big spending, such as a multi-million-dollar ad campaign that criticized Mayor Bill de Blasio for his opposition to charter school expansion.

In 2014, Families for Excellent Schools hosted an 11,000-person rally in Albany after de Blasio blocked plans for three Success Academy schools to open or expand. Success cancelled classes so that students and their families could attend the protest.

It’s not fair, according to one New York charter advocate, to say that charter supporters haven’t done any grassroots campaigning. However, that effort must now be “turbo-charged,” the advocate said.

We’re not just “about media buys and large scale protests,” Andrew said. “The way grassroots organizing is most effective is clear drum beats from constituents to their elected officials.”

“I think we have a lot of work to do to build up relationships with members of the Democratic Party, and you know, I would bet, if not 100 percent of charter parents, some number close to that are Democrats,” the advocate said. “And so I think it will be important this year those parents’ voices are heard, by their own legislators. And I think that will drive a lot of advocacy.”

Another New York charter proponent said of Democratic charter teachers and parents, “It was hard for the charter sector to back them fully in the way they are likely to do now, when our survival relied on Republicans.”

Now, Wilson said, effectively persuading lawmakers “is not about campaign donations and backroom deals” but more about getting them into schools.

David Bloomfield, a Brooklyn College and CUNY Graduate Center professor of education, thinks campaign donations will still play a big role in advocacy efforts.

There is certainly a new dynamic in the statehouse, he said in an email, “but charters are just part of a macro-political deal that still needs to play out with grassroots campaigning and personal interactions only effective at the margins.”

As charter advocates figure out a plan for the future, the applications to open charter schools won’t stop, despite the small and finite number of open slots for them with no clarity about whether lawmakers will even consider raising the cap in the future.

Susie Miller Carello, executive director of the SUNY Charter Schools Institute, one of two entities that can approve new charter applications in the state, said she’s heard of interest in a potential 35 applications for New York City for the next year, more than four times the available openings.

“Now will they all end up coming in the door? Probably not,” Carello said about those that may apply. “But it sounds like we’re going to have a pretty healthy number.”