Families & the Community

Dispute Exposes Tensions Over Charters’ Role in Cities

By Stephen Sawchuk — June 09, 2011 7 min read
Charter school students, draped in oversize T-shirts that read "Future NAACP Members," are joined by parents and teachers at a protest rally May 26. The demonstrators want the NAACP to withdraw from a lawsuit against the expansion of charter schools across New York City.
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A fight over educational equity in New York City has all the hallmarks of a classic New York story: an angry union, parent demonstrations, and a lawsuit.

The difference in this case, though, is that it is pitting civil rights groups and camps of minority parents against each other.

The United Federation of Teachers, joined by the New York state conference of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and other groups, last week filed for a temporary restraining order to block the opening or expansion of 18 public charter schools in space held by traditional public schools. It argues that the plans, approved by the district, would give preferential treatment to students attending those charters over children attending traditional public schools located in the same building.

The response in New York City, as well as across the nation, has been swift, loud, and divisive, especially over the NAACP’s role in supporting the lawsuit.

Some parents praise the organization for helping uncover a quiet form of discrimination. But detractors claim the NAACP has sided with the teachers’ union against minority parents who have embraced the city’s charter schools.

The criticism culminated in a May 26 demonstration, at least partially organized by charter school administrators, of thousands of mostly black and Hispanic charter school parents demanding that the NAACP drop its participation in the suit.

Observers say the situation illuminates tensions over the role of urban charter schools in systemwide school improvement—as well as the largely undefined role groups like the NAACP will play in helping to advance or hinder the opening of more charters.

“To me, this is the latest front in a major and important shift in thinking about how we provide publicly funded urban education,” said Katrina E. Bulkley, an associate professor of educational leadership at Montclair State University, in New Jersey, who has studied charter schools and urban governance.

New Wrinkle

The lawsuit seeks to prevent 22 schools from being closed and to block the opening or expansion of 18 public charter schools in facilities currently used by traditional public schools, a process known in New York City as “co-location.”

It alleges that the city education department approved plans under which students attending the co-located charter schools would have disproportionate access to common facilities—such as gyms, libraries, playgrounds, and cafeterias—in violation of a 2010 law requiring the equitable use of school space between charter and traditional public school co-locations.

Co-locations in New York are common and apply to traditional as well as charter schools, but the 2010 law applies only to charter school co-locations.

The suit also claims that the school system failed to meet the terms of a legal settlement struck between the city and the American Federation of Teachers affiliate last year over school closures. The terms required the district to provide additional supports and teachers to 19 schools and to better engage with parents before shuttering schools.

Under an agreement with the plaintiffs, the district cannot begin any projects to ready school facilities for co-locations. Oral arguments over the temporary restraining order are scheduled to begin June 21.

The lawsuit’s timing drew criticism from school district leaders.

“The UFT’s decision to wait until the middle of May to file this lawsuit is both cruel and irresponsible—it will create enormous stress and uncertainty for the 70,000 students matched to high schools this September, and the thousands of families who have already gone through the charter lottery process,” Schools Chancellor Dennis M. Walcott said in a statement.

That is a very real fear for Rosalyn Swinton, who attended the May 26 rally against the NAACP. Her daughter attends Girls Prep, a single-sex charter scheduled to be moved and co-located with a traditional public school on Manhattan’s East Side. She isn’t sure where her daughter will go to school come fall.

“To say the least, I was appalled and scared,” Ms. Swinton said. “I really felt like my choices were being taken away.”

Hazel N. Dukes, the president of the New York chapter of the NAACP, speaks during a counterprotest on June 3, outside the offices of the Success Charter Network. The president of the United Federation of Teachers, Michael Mulgrew, right, joins her.

But as an indication of how divided New York parents are on the issue of charter schools generally, other parents said they welcomed the suit.

“I’m so glad that the NAACP got involved,” said Sonya D. Hampton, the president of the PTA at PS 149, which shares space with a charter school in Harlem. She claims her son wasn’t allowed to use the restroom on his school’s floor because it was reserved for students at the charter school.

“If we’re a family working together, that shouldn’t happen,” Ms. Hampton said.

Pro and Con

The NAACP’s specific role in the lawsuit, meanwhile, has brought a storm of media attention.

Several New York City civil rights leaders criticized the organization for not supporting parents whose children are scheduled to attend the charter schools.

The NAACP “is trying to block the closing of failing public schools. That to me is standing in the schoolhouse door, or the equivalent of it,” said Michael Meyers, the executive director of the New York Civil Rights Coalition and a former assistant national director of the NAACP. “I understand the teachers’ union position, protecting its members’ jobs. I don’t understand the NAACP’s issue.”

News articles in the New York Post and other local media, meanwhile, have questioned the NAACP’s motives, highlighting financial contributions by teachers’ unions to the NAACP. Both groups are backbones of the Democratic Party, and they have long been allied politically.

But the president of the UFT, Michael Mulgrew, dismissed such suggestions as a rhetorical chimera.

“This is about children being treated inequitably. Go to the schools; see it for yourselves,” Mr. Mulgrew said in an interview. “The department of education needs to deal with those facts, instead of just telling everyone that we have paper compliance with the law.”

The NAACP hosted a conference call with bloggers and journalists on June 8 to respond to what it said was misinformation about the suit. In it, the president of the national NAACP, Benjamin Todd Jealous, took pains to note that the organization has differed from teachers’ unions on some issues, such as by supporting the “parent trigger” school-turnaround strategy in California.

“We have been consistent in fighting for the best interest for all children, taking each instance case by case,” he said. “Now that we have the full attention of everybody that we need from the chancellor on down, our hope is that we can get this solved quickly.”

The NAACP’s New York president, Hazel N. Dukes, said in an interview with the NY1 television station that she is not opposed to charter schools and that the group merely wants to ensure equity for traditional public school students.

She did not respond to several requests for comment.

National Implications

The larger picture, observers such as Montclair State’s Ms. Bulkley say, has to do with tensions resulting from increasing use by some urban leaders of charter schools as part of a portfolio-management approach to schools. That policy has gained support from some minority parents, but alienated others as traditional schools lose enrollment, she said.

“We have a lot of leaders with a lot of faith that charter schools can be a powerful force for improving public education,” Ms. Bulkley said. “Do the existing structures in which we’ve tried to improve education for years continue to have viability, or is the shift going to continue to create a system in which charter schools ... become a primary effort for improving urban education?”

Patrick McGuinn, an associate professor of public policy and education at Drew University, in Madison, N.J., said the issue of charter schools and parents’ differing attitudes toward them has also posed challenges for some civil rights organizations, such as the NAACP.

The group, he noted, has eschewed voucher programs even as some minority parents have embraced forms of school choice, including charter schools. (“Minority Parents Quietly Embrace School Choice,” Dec. 5, 2001.)

“They’re seen as less controversial than vouchers, they’re still public, and a lot of parents are clamoring for choice in these urban areas,” Mr. McGuinn said. “On the other hand, there’s the idea that the community as a whole needs to take time and deliberate over whether to open these new schools. That mitigates against doing these things with speed.”

There are also those parents, Ms. Swinton among them, who are frustrated that the debate in New York increasingly seems to be taking on a racial tenor, following remarks allegedly made by Ms. Dukes comparing charter administrators to “slave masters.”

“I am more than frustrated that Ms. Dukes would play the race card,” said Ms. Swinton, the charter parent, who is African-American. “I dare you to consider us sellouts.”

A version of this article appeared in the June 15, 2011 edition of Education Week as Dispute Highlights Tensions Over Charters’ Role in Cities

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