First Person

Why the Charter Cap Bill Should Not Become Law

As parents and advocates, we are convinced that the bill being promoted by the charter school lobby to raise the cap on charter schools would seriously harm the city’s children who attend both district and charter schools.

We have seen how the city’s charter school operators have misused public funds for their own private ends because of lax financial oversight. We have seen how too often, children enrolled in charters have received inappropriately harsh discipline, and have been suspended or “pushed out” of school, especially those with learning issues or disabilities. We have seen how the city’s Department of Education has pitted parent against parent in fighting over space, in a school system that is badly overcrowded. And we have seen how both the DOE and charter school operators have deprived parents of a voice in how their children are educated.

Unlike the bill earlier passed by the Assembly, this bill would bar the State Comptroller from auditing the books of charter schools, despite the financial scandals that have erupted in New York and throughout the country regarding conflicts-of-interest, self-dealing and misuse of public funds. It would continue to allow for-profit management companies to try to make a buck off our children, despite the cuts that are decimating school budgets. And it would deny parents from having any say in where these schools are located, intensifying bitter battles that already are ripping communities apart and leading to more overcrowding and the loss of critical cluster spaces and libraries.

Class Size Matters and the New York Charter Parents Association have developed a framework of shared principles for district and charter parents, calling for enhanced accountability, transparency, and protection of parent and student rights at both sets of schools. (Read our framework at the end of this piece.)

For example, all charter schools should be required to have a Parent Association, as well as a parent sitting on their boards of directors. In our work, we’ve found that right now, many New York City charter schools disallow PAs, including all those in the Uncommon Schools chain, including the school that Secretary of Education Arne Duncan visited last week

The rules that govern charter schools’ operation should be posted online; now it takes a costly Freedom of Information request to obtain this basic information. Community Education Councils should reserve a seat for a charter parent, and CECs as well as parents at existing schools should have the authority to approve charter school sitings inside their school buildings.

Reportedly, the Senate bill was passed due to the aggressive lobbying of Education Reform Now, whose board is made up almost entirely of hedge fund operators who are holding out the promise of campaign dollars in exchange for legislators’ votes. These hedge fund operators do not have children in city public schools, and have made false claims in their lobbying efforts. Their ads, claiming that if the state passed a “few common sense education reforms,” New York could receive $700 million in federal funds to help prevent budget cuts to schools, are plastered all over the internet.

The reality is quite different. Even if New York won a portion of these funds, known as Race to the Top, the rules are quite restrictive as to what they can be spent on, as Deputy Chancellor Kathleen Grimm said at a City Council hearing on May 14. The funds cannot be used to fill holes in the state or city budgets, whether to prevent damaging increases in class size or the threatened elimination of 6,400 teaching positions.

Their deceptive tactics are also revealed by a flyer that Education Reform Now produced and distributed for Long Island State Sen. Craig Johnson, a prominent supporter of lifting the charter cap, who does not have a single charter school in his district. Yet the flyer does not mention the issue of charter schools, presumably because his suburban constituents would not favor their expansion, but instead praises his efforts to increase education funding “to reduce class size,” though we can find nothing in his record focusing on this issue.

We believe strongly that the cap on charter schools should not be lifted without more transparency, accountability and rigorous protections of the rights of all parents, students, and taxpayers. If the Senate bill became law, corruption and abuse would continue to flourish and the parent voice would continue to be silenced. Most important, it would damage the conditions under which our children learn.

Leonie Haimson is the Executive Director of Class Size Matters. Mona Davids is the Executive Director of the NY Charter Parents Association. 

Class Size Matters and NY Charter Parents Common Principles

First Person

I’ve been mistaken for the other black male leader at my charter network. Let’s talk about it.

PHOTO: Alan Petersime

I was recently invited to a reunion for folks who had worked at the New York City Department of Education under Mayor Michael Bloomberg. It was a privilege for me to have been part of that work, and it was a privilege for me to be in that room reflecting on our legacy.

The counterweight is that only four people in the room were black males. Two were waiters, and I was one of the remaining two. There were definitely more than two black men who were part of the work that took place in New York City during that era, but it was still striking how few were present.

The event pushed me to reflect again on the jarring impact of the power dynamics that determine who gets to make decisions in so-called education reform. The privileged end up being relatively few, and even fewer look like the kids we serve.

I’m now the chief operating officer at YES Prep, a charter school network in Houston. When I arrived at YES four years ago, I had been warned that it was a good old boys club. Specifically, that it was a good old white boys club. It was something I assessed in taking the role: Would my voice be heard? Would I truly have a seat at the table? Would I have any influence?

As a man born into this world with a black father and white mother, I struggled at an early age with questions about identity and have been asking those questions ever since.

As I became an adult, I came to understand that being from the suburbs, going to good schools, and being a lighter-skinned black person affords me greater access to many settings in America. At the same time, I experience my life as a black man.

Jeremy Beard, head of schools at YES, started the same day I did. It was the first time YES had black men at the leadership table of the organization. The running joke was that people kept mistaking Jeremy and me for each other. We all laughed about it, but it revealed some deeper issues that had pervaded YES for some time.

“Remember when you led that tour in the Rio Grande Valley to see schools?” a board member asked me about three months into my tenure.“That wasn’t me,” I replied. I knew he meant Jeremy, who had worked at IDEA in the Valley. At that time, I had never been to the Valley and didn’t even know where it was on the map.

“Yes, it was,” he insisted.

“I’ve never been to the Valley. It wasn’t me. I think you mean Jeremy.”

“No, it was you, don’t you remember?” he continued, pleading with me to recall something that never happened.

“It wasn’t me.”

He stopped, thought about it, confused, and uttered, “Huh.”

It is difficult for me to assign intent here, and this dynamic is not consistent with all board members. That particular person may have truly been confused about my identity. And sure, two black men may have a similar skin tone, and we may both work at YES. But my life experience suggests something else was at play. It reminds me that while I have the privilege of sitting at the table with our board, they, as board members, have the privilege of not having to know who I am, or that Jeremy and I are different black dudes.

It would be easy to just chalk this all up to racial politics in America and accept it as status quo, but I believe we can change the conversation on privilege and race by having more conversations on privilege and race. We can change the dynamics of the game by continuing to build awareness of diversity, equity, and inclusion. We can also advocate to change who has seats at the table and whose voices will be heard.

I remain hopeful thanks to the changes I have witnessed during my time at YES. The board has been intentional in their efforts to address their own privilege, and is actively working to become more diverse and inclusive.

Personally, I have worked to ensure there are more people of color with seats at the table by mentoring future leaders of color at YES Prep and other black men in this work. Jeremy and I also created Brothers on Books, a book club for black men at YES to find mentorship and fellowship. Through this book club, we can create a safe space to have candid discussions based on literature we read and explore what it means to be black men at YES.

When I think about privilege, I am torn between the privilege that has been afforded to me and the jarring power dynamics that determine who gets to have conversations and make decisions in so-called education reform. White people are afforded more voices and seats at the table, making decisions that primarily impact children of color.

It is not lost on me that it is my own privilege that affords me access to a seat at the table. My hope is that by using my role, my voice and my privilege, I can open up dialogue, hearts, minds, opinions, and perceptions. I hope that readers are similarly encouraged to assess their own privileges and determine how they can create positive change.

Recy Benjamin Dunn is YES Prep’s chief operating officer, overseeing operations, district partnerships, and growth strategy for the charter school network. A version of this piece was first published on YES Prep’s blog.

First Person

I’m a Bronx teacher, and I see up close what we all lose when undocumented students live with uncertainty

The author at her school.

It was our high school’s first graduation ceremony. Students were laughing as they lined up in front of the auditorium, their families cheering them on as they entered. We were there to celebrate their accomplishments and their futures.

Next to each student’s name on the back of those 2013 graduation programs was the college the student planned to attend in the fall. Two names, however, had noticeable blanks next to them.

But I was especially proud of these two students, whom I’ll call Sofia and Isabella. These young women started high school as English learners and were diagnosed with learning disabilities. Despite these obstacles, I have never seen two students work so hard.

By the time they graduated, they had two of the highest grade point averages in their class. It would have made sense for them to be college-bound. But neither would go to college. Because of their undocumented status, they did not qualify for financial aid, and, without aid, they could not afford it.

During this year’s State of the Union, I listened to President Trump’s nativist rhetoric and I thought of my students and the thousands of others in New York City who are undocumented. President Trump falsely portrayed them as gang members and killers. The truth is, they came to this country before they even understood politics and borders. They grew up in the U.S. They worked hard in school. In this case, they graduated with honors. They want to be doctors and teachers. Why won’t we let them?

Instead, as Trump works to repeal President Obama’s broader efforts to enfranchise these young people, their futures are plagued by uncertainty and fear. A Supreme Court move just last week means that young people enrolled in the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program remain protected but in limbo.

While Trump and the Congress continue to struggle to find compromise on immigration, we have a unique opportunity here in New York State to help Dreamers. Recently, the Governor Cuomo proposed and the state Assembly passed New York’s DREAM Act, which would allow Sofia, Isabella, and their undocumented peers to access financial aid and pursue higher education on equal footing with their documented peers. Republicans in the New York State Senate, however, have refused to take up this bill, arguing that New York state has to prioritize the needs of American-born middle-class families.

This argument baffles me. In high school, Sofia worked hard to excel in math and science in order to become a radiologist. Isabella was so passionate about becoming a special education teacher that she spent her free periods volunteering with students with severe disabilities at the school co-located in our building.

These young people are Americans. True, they may not have been born here, but they have grown up here and seek to build their futures here. They are integral members of our communities.

By not passing the DREAM Act, it feels like lawmakers have decided that some of the young people that graduate from my school do not deserve the opportunity to achieve their dreams. I applaud the governor’s leadership, in partnership with the New York Assembly, to support Dreamers like Sofia and Isabella and I urge Senate Republicans to reconsider their opposition to the bill.

Today, Sofia and Isabella have been forced to find low-wage jobs, and our community and our state are the poorer for it.

Ilona Nanay is a 10th grade global history teacher and wellness coordinator at Mott Hall V in the Bronx. She is also a member of Educators for Excellence – New York.