Charter schools are becoming an increasingly popular option in New York, enrolling 25 percent or more of all students in some areas of the state.
Advocates for the schools are trying to build on that popularity by enrolling 50 percent of students statewide in charters and non-conventional public schools. Parental involvement will be critical to the effort’s success, they say.
School Reform News writer Phillip J. Britt recently spoke with one of those charter school advocates—Thomas Carroll, chairman of the Albany-based Brighter Choice Foundation—about the issue.
Britt: Can you tell us a little about the Brighter Choice Foundation?
Carroll: The Brighter Choice Foundation was created in 2001 and exists to encourage the development and operation of charter schools in the city of Albany. We opened two Brighter Choice Foundation elementary schools—the Brighter Choice Foundation School for Girls, and the Brighter Choice Foundation School for Boys—in 2002. As we saw more parental demand and a growing waiting list, we’ve gotten more involved.
Since then we’ve opened four elementary schools, three middle schools, and a high school, with another high school to open next year. One other charter school was opened before us. In all, 25 percent of Albany public school students attend charter schools. You build it, and they will come.
Britt: Why have charter schools become so popular?
Carroll: We have a very urban area with about 10,000 students, and most of the schools stink. We have primarily minority students and the worst public school districts. We offer a tuition-free alternative, longer school days, a longer school year, uniforms, and a return to traditional education—phonics, memorization, and other methods that were popular in the 1960s but have been abandoned by many public schools.
We’ve stayed with tried-and-true methods.
Britt: How do you get the necessary political support for the charter schools when there’s opposition from traditional schools?
Carroll: The universal truth is that parents want to sustain opportunities for their children. If children have a chance at a better education, parents will fight to the death for the right to protect it and expand it. We’re in constant communication with parents and with community leaders—ministers, community organizers, and others.
We had 3,000 people out at a rally recently. Elected officials are very good at counting people. They understand this is a very potent political force.
Britt: Then why do some states have difficulty getting more charter schools?
Carroll: In New York, we’ve benefited from the support of Wall Street and business leaders, who have been major donors. We’ve had a lot of people interested in charter schools involved in the legislative process. In New York, people tend to be more active politically.
The difference is that in many other communities around the country, charter school students represent only a small market share of the population. As a result, teacher unions and school districts are [relatively] more powerful, so they win the legislative battles to limit the number and size of charter schools.
Britt: Do you encourage people to support specific candidates?
Carroll: We’ve asked people to become involved, but we don’t actively back particular candidates.
Phillip J. Britt ([email protected]) writes from Illinois.