The New York City school system and opponents of a plan to turn over five public schools to a private management company reached a compromise late last week that will allow a referendum by parents to proceed this month.
Schools Chancellor Harold O. Levy wants to turn over the management of five low- performing middle schools to Edison Schools Inc., the New York-based company that manages more than 100 public schools across the country.
The plan to turn the five schools—three in Brooklyn and one each in Manhattan and the Bronx— into charter schools requires the votes of more than 50 percent of the parents of children at each school. Opponents have seized on the parental election as the rallying point for defeating the effort, and they have wrangled with the school system and Edison over several logistical issues in recent weeks.
Last month, the New York City chapter of the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now, or ACORN, sued the school system over the privatization plan, with an initial goal of blocking the parental vote set for March 12-23.
On March 2, a state trial judge in Brooklyn ordered the city board of education to delay the mailing of ballots by up to 10 days. On March 7, however, a four- judge state appeals court panel sided with the school system and allowed the mailing of ballots to proceed.
Nevertheless, lawyers for ACORN and the 1.1 million-student school system hammered out a settlement of the lawsuit on March 8. Ballots will be mailed March 15 and voting will take place March 19-30. Parents will have several options for voting: by telephone, on the Internet, in person, or by mail.
The school system also agreed to mail ACORN’s opposition literature to parents and to provide the organization with a desk in each of the five schools to lobby parents against the privatization plan. ACORN’s representatives must abide by the same rules as Edison, the settlement states, such as not walking around the school building and not giving students literature to take home to their parents.
A Soap Opera?
ACORN, a citizen activist group of poor and minority residents, had complained in its lawsuit that it did not receive the same access to parents’ addresses and phone numbers as did Edison, which is lobbying for approval of the plan. The school system has refused to give ACORN the names of parents and contact information for them, and the trial judge refused to order the release of the information to the opponents.
“The opposition has not had equal access,” said Bertha Lewis, the executive director of the New York City ACORN chapter. “You cannot just do this sort of privatization under cover of dark.”
The battle over privatizing the management of the five schools has turned into one of the city’s public soap operas, with heavy coverage by the daily newspapers and frequent charges and countercharges.
For example, proponents of the plan have suggested that ACORN’s opposition is motivated by its own charter school plans and the need to revitalize its membership. According to news reports, some parents at the five schools have been solicited to pay ACORN’s $60 annual membership fee.
Ms. Lewis scoffed at the criticisms. “For 30 years, ACORN has been a membership organization of low-income, minority people,” she said. Collecting dues, she said, “allows us to be self-sufficient and independent so we can fight the likes of Edison and the board of education.”
The stakes for Edison are high. After growing to operate 113 schools serving 57,000 students around the country, the company is seeking a toehold in its own backyard. Edison has said it stands to receive about $10,000 annually per pupil for managing the five schools, which have a total enrollment of close to 5,000 students. That would provide $50 million in revenue annually for the company, which lost $37 million on revenues of $225 million in fiscal 2000.
Marshall Mitchell, an Edison vice president, said the company was somewhat concerned that ACORN would be present in the schools, but that it was eager for the vote to take place.
“This is a blessing for the parents that this vote has now been scheduled,” he said. “They will be able to make a very important decision for their children.”
A version of this article appeared in the March 14, 2001 edition of Education Week as N.Y.C. Parents To Vote on Edison Charter Plan