Democrats Pitch to Supporters of Charter Schools

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With charter schools becoming a hot button issue in this election year, charter advocates grilled four of the Democrats running for mayor about their views on controversial topics such as co-locations and school closings.

The event, at a Salvation Army auditorium in downtown Manhattan Tuesday, was organized by the group Families for Excellent Schools and drew hundreds of attendees. Two of the Democrats, former Comptroller Bill Thompson and Public Advocate Bill de Blasio, pulled out at the last minute. Their campaigns cited scheduling conflicts.

Former Congressman Anthony Weiner and City Council Speaker Christine Quinn both struck to give a nuanced view of charters. Neither one of them said they supported a moratorium on co-locations, unlike some of the other Democrats. But Quinn said Bloomberg’s policies could be improved upon.

“When I’m Mayor, we’re going to do a better job making sure resources get distributed to every school in the building evenly,” said Quinn.

Weiner took a similar position. When asked to give a yes or no answer on whether he supported a moratorium on co-locations, the candidate said, “I don’t roll with yes or no answers.”

“I am going to try to turn down the temperature on this conversation,” he continued, standing to address the crowd in a move that has distinguished him stylistically from the other candidates. “Too many people on both sides of the debate benefit from it. The charter movement raises money off of it, the UFT organizes parents around it. We’ve got to stop. These are children. They don’t have politics yet.”

He said if it turns out it’s good for children to use space in a school building for a charter he’s for it, but if it turns out it’s better for a music or chemistry lab, he’s for that, too.

Similarly, neither Quinn nor Weiner would rule out the option of closing a failing school. Quinn, who called school closings a “tragedy” for communities, explained, “I can’t promise you we’re never going to close the school when I’m Mayor.”

"If we’ve intervened and we’re not able to get the school to be on point and succeed, we can’t keep it open - that’s not fair to children and their parents. Now, that said, I don’t want to hold up a number of schools to close and make that my goal was mayor. I want to work with all of you and other parents to hold up a number of schools that we are going to improve as our goal.”

By contrast, former Councilman Sal Albanese and Comptroller John Liu took a harder line against school closings and co-locations. Both called for more community involvement before moving a charter into a regular school building. And Liu was booed when he said charters should pay rent if they move into district school buildings.

“We have had a lot of the deck stacked in favor of charter schools,” he said, adding that some of the new charters are able to spend more money on programming by moving into the district school building. “I believe when parents evaluate charter schools versus other schools, everything should be on the same level playing field.”

At a candidates forum last month held by the United Federation of Teachers, Thompson, Quinn, de Blasio and Liu all said they would not push the state to lift the state's cap on charter schools, although Quinn added, "not today." Quinn got a cold reception from the audience; the union is expected to make its endorsement next week.

Weiner, who had not yet announced his candidacy when the UFT event took place, told reporters Tuesday that there should not be any cap on charters because the issue should be decided by the city, not Albany.

The group Families for Excellent Schools was founded in 2011, and is supported by the Walton Family Foundation. It bused hundreds of people to the candidates forum, where an organizer warmed up the crowd by saying, “Tonight we become informed voters.”

After hearing from four of the Democrats, Primilene Courtney, whose daughter just graduated from KIPP NYC College Prep charter in Manhattan, said she was leaning toward Liu until she heard him say he wanted charters to pay rent.

“The fact of the matter is, for every dollar for dollar that the charter school improves," she said, the DOE has to give the same amount of money to the regular school with which it shares a building.

Debbie Rotini said she liked Quinn and Weiner, explaining, “I just liked the way they spoke.” Her two children attend the Explore Exceed charter school in Brooklyn. Her nine-year-old daughter Sylvia Lewis Grace agreed, though she acknowledged that at some point during the three-hour evening, “I kind of fell asleep on it.”