The debate over the role of charter schools in education reform isn’t just academic. New York’s decision to allow more charter schools played a critical role in the state winning its $700 million federal Race to the Top award. Now, charters have become a political issue in a Harlem State Senate campaign.
Senate candidate Basil Smikle passes out leaflets on Lenox Avenue, and introduces himself to a voter outside a shoe store when a man sitting on a milk crate nearby immediately brings up the subject of schools.
"OK, yeah, are you connected – you know, that charter school?" asks Mark Garraway.
"Right," Smikle says, eager to meet an interested voter, as the two discuss charters in Harlem.
Garraway says he doesn’t have any kids. But he’s concerned about the public schools and he’s heard of Basil Smikle.
"A friend that was talking about Basil on 132nd Street and Seventh Avenue was telling me about Basil," says Garraway. " And what they trying to, like, they want the charter schools more for the children because the public schools is terrible out here."
Charter schools are a huge issue in Harlem because there are so many of them. Lots of parents desperate for a better education for their kids apply for the lotteries to get into charters. But others resent the limited number of seats in charters, and believe the city’s obligated to invest in making all schools better. Smikle says this debate over improving education is why he entered the race for State Senate.
"It’s the first thing that I talk about when anyone asks me why I’m in this race," he says. "It’s really to get the children in my community educated. I want them to have the same or better opportunities that I had."
Smikle is a Bronx native and child of Jamaican immigrants who went to Catholic schools as a child. Now 38, he has a Master’s degree in public policy from Columbia University. He became a political consultant after working for Hillary Clinton when she was a U.S. Senator. Over breakfast at a café in Morningside Heights, Smikle concedes charters are just one solution to improving education and says he supports all schools - noting that his mother is a public school teacher in Queens. But he views the incumbent State Senator, Bill Perkins, an obstacle to reform because he’s been a vocal critic of charters.
"What I think he has done is significantly played people against each other," he explains. "And parents against each other and schools against each other, which ultimately does not serve the interests of the children well."
Smikle is referring to Perkins criticism when the governor proposed a bill to more than double the number of charters allowed in New York. Perkins presided over a State Senate hearing in downtown Manhattan where he noted:
"Currently corporations in the charter industry hire their own accountants to produce the financial statements that are disclosed to the public. Lest we forget, Enron hired its own accountants to produce the audits it showed to investors."
Supporters of charters complained that they weren't given enough time to speak at this hearing.
But where they saw divisivness, Perkins saw a need for taxpayer-funded charters to be held more accountable. The Senator wanted charters to be audited by the state comptroller. He also wanted assurances that they’d take a bigger share of special education students and kids who are still learning English. Supporters of charters thought he was carrying water for the teachers union. But Perkins says his insistence led to a better law.
"My job is to be responsive to parents," he states. "And I’m grateful for the fact they thought that there was something we could to do move towards a better day in terms of charter schools, in terms of choice."
He also insists he’d not against charters -- he just wants good ones. Perkins sat on the board of the first charter to open in Harlem back in 1999.
Perkins has the backing of the Democratic establishment and labor unions. The state teachers union recently sued the board of elections, so that its political action committee could give him more than the $6000 campaign limit. The union lost and has declined to comment. Teachers unions typically help get out the vote for their favorite candidates. But with education reform in the headlines, new players are now emerging. Joe Williams is executive director of the political action committee Democrats for Education Reform.
"I think for the first time you’re starting to see folks who are involved in the charter school side of things showing an understanding that because education is so inherently political they need to be engaged in the political process," says Williams.
Smikle has raised almost $160,000 since he entered the race in May, with help from Democrats for Education Reform. The PAC connected him with people in the financial and real estate world who give to charters. Perkins -- who's raised $260,000 -- notes that many of Smikle's contributors live outside Harlem. But the desire to improve education by giving to candidates isn’t limited to a single district or type of person this year. A political action committee of parents is now helping Perkins. Zakyiah Ansari, who lives in Brooklyn, says her Educational Justice PAC wants politicians to listen.
"Why can’t we do it?" she asks. "Just because we’re working class people or we’re not working and maybe we live in high poverty areas? No! We can do that, and that’s why we decided to build this PAC."
On the streets of Harlem, many people seem to know Senator Perkins as he campaigns outside a subway stop. They say they've seen him in church or know "he's a good activist," in the words of one man. Now 61, Perkins previously served in the City Council before his election to the State Senate four years ago. Voter Angela Michael calls him a great leader but acknowledges she doesn’t know much about his education record.
"No I don’t," she says. "I got to look into it. But my son is going to a charter school now, pulling him out of one school into a charter school now. And it’s excellent."
While Michael looks into where the candidates stand on education, she says she also concerned about jobs and cleaning up the community. It’s a reminder that while candidates and PACS have definitely put public education on the radar, it’s hardly the only issue on the minds of voters.