Harlem Parents Rally for More Charter Schools

Published May 1, 2009

More than 5,000 people gathered in Harlem in New York City in mid-March hoping to ensure charter schools continue thriving in their neighborhood.

Harlem Parents United, a parents’ group associated with a local charter school, the Harlem Success Academy, hosted the March 18 event after news accounts revealed charter schools may be put under the authority of a body that is hostile to them.

If state legislators do not renew mayoral control of the New York City education system this spring, a group of elected parents known as a Community Education Council may get control of Harlem’s charter schools by this summer.

“I think when you see thousands of families show up to support education reform, it demonstrates the level of enthusiasm and the level of concern that parents across the country have for the quality of schools their kids go to,” said Andrew Campanella, spokesman for the Alliance for School Choice, a national advocacy group based in Washington, DC.

“The high attendance [at the rally] basically proves what school choice advocates have been saying all along—that parents are engaged, and they want immediate action, not just talking points from public officials and education bureaucrats,” Campanella said.

Hostile Takeover

New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s control over the city’s education system is set to expire on June 30. The District 5 (Harlem) Community Education Council has a reputation for being anti-reform, said sources who asked not to be named because of the volatility of the subject.

The council is considering a resolution that would call for a moratorium on new charter schools in Harlem. If mayoral control expires, it would have the authority to implement that moratorium.

“The purpose of the event was to rally parents to make sure there was no moratorium or cap on charter schools,” Campanella said.

Many parents of children in charter schools are concerned the community council, which claims to represent them, will not, said Joe Williams, executive director of Democrats for Education Reform, a national group based in New York City. Though parents of charter school students are not prevented from running for the council, the public school Parent Teacher Association votes for members—which charter school advocates say makes it nearly impossible for one of their own to get on the council.

“The Community Education Council seems more interested in protecting failure than in allowing all parents in the community to have a voice when it comes to their children’s education,” noted parent Natasha Shanon in a news release issued by Harlem Parents United in March.

Fast Growth of Charters

Williams said many of the parents he has spoken to about the issue are “not happy at all.” He estimated there is a better than 50 percent chance mayoral control will expire and the council will gain authority. If that happens, he said, it will slow the growth of the most popular schools in the district.

“As the number of choices [has] expanded to meet the demand from parents, it’s been encouraging, and it’s gotten people used to the idea of choice,” Williams said of local charter schools. “But this would put the marketplace off its track. Charter schools are the only things good in public education in Harlem right now.”

In 1998 New York legislators passed a law allowing charter schools to open. Harlem has more per square mile than any other community in the country, with 22 open now and two more scheduled to open in 2009, said Harlem Success Academy CEO Eva Moskowitz. New York City’s 78 charters currently serve 18,000 students.

Strong Demand

The demand is still high. Last year, 5,000 parents attended the Harlem Success Academy lottery, vying for 600 available spots.

“Public charter school waiting lists are still incredibly long,” noted Jenny Sedlis, director of external affairs for the Success Charter Network, a charter management organization whose flagship is the Harlem Success Academy. “A moratorium on new public charter schools in District 5 would limit opportunities for parents who have made it very clear they want more choices.”

Williams said instead of relying on a council to represent parents’ voices, New York legislators should allow parents to speak for themselves by allowing them to choose.

“Parent choice is the ultimate parent voice, and having so-called elected parents representing all parents is not as effective in enacting real accountability as giving parents real choice regarding where their children are educated,” Williams said.

Jillian Melchior ([email protected]) writes from Michigan.