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26th June

First Published in The New York Sun, June 26, 2006

By Andrew Wolf

There are many reasons for the failure of Governor Pataki to convince the legislature to increase the cap on charter schools in New York State.But two miscalculations by advocates of charter schools contributed to the debacle.

One was the insistence of Chancellor Klein on situating a charter school in the building now occupied by a growing and successful public school. Mr. Klein sought to put the Ross Global Academy, a new charter, into the lower east side school building now largely occupied by the New Explorations Into Science, Technology and Math school. NEST+M, a school for academically advanced students, is wildly popular with Manhattan parents, whose children, in my estimation, are the most academically neglected in New York.
Half of the students are Caucasian, so the efforts of the parents to protect their turf were quickly termed “elitist.” This contributed to the suspicion that a critical group of New Yorkers has about the charter movement. Middle class parents who have historically supported public schools have seen their children’s interests take a back seat to the crisis faced by children whose impoverished circumstances put them at risk.

By setting up the NEST+M parents against the charter movement, Mr. Klein unnecessarily alienated a constituency that, heretofore, had no reason to oppose charters. It became a visible enemy of the charter movement and won much sympathy. Parents resented the charges of elitism from wellto-do supporters of the charters whose own children more often than not attend the city’s most exclusive private schools.

Couple this with the fact that the disputed building is in the district of Sheldon Silver, the Assembly Speaker. Mr. Silver has total control of the lower chamber, which has a veto-proof Democratic majority.The dispute between NEST+M and the Ross charter only strengthened Mr. Silver’s suspicion of the charter movement.

In a last ditch effort to win over Mr. Silver on increasing the charter cap, the mayor and chancellor on Friday dropped the plan to locate the Ross Global charter in the NEST+M building.This was too little too late. Mr. Silver dug in his heels.

Charging that the principal of the school, Celenia Chevere, manipulated the school’s enrollment in an attempt to weaken the case of those supporting the Ross school sharing the building with NEST+M, Mr. Klein removed her as principal. This is largely symbolic,since Ms.Chevere was retiring as principal anyway,and Wednesday is the last day of this school year.

While Ms. Chevere may have overreached by admitting too many students, her real provocation was organizing parents to put their own interests above those of the Department of Education. Parent revolts are spreading like brushfires throughout city schools, and Mr. Klein may have felt that a message needed to be sent to principals,reminding them who is the boss.

A second miscalculation was the effort to influence the legislature through running commercials supporting lifting the charter cap.In a perfect world, this type of commercial should have some bearing on the result of the process, but in the state of New York, where each district has been carefully crafted to protect the incumbent, it is a senseless endeavor. Most legislators face no serious opposition. Moreover, in the large urban areas, few residents know how their legislators vote on any particular issue.

The way the legislature works also defeats this strategy — few issues even come to a vote. Legislators are protected and challengers can’t gain much traction on issues on which there is no paper trail. So the only result of the ads was to annoy the legislative leadership. Rather than help lift the cap, the ads contributed to defeat. Mr. Silver vowed not to even consider the issue until the commercials stopped running.

It should be noted that this effort to increase the charter cap required heavy lifting in any case. The majorities in both the Democratic Assembly and the Republican Senate are heavily influenced by one key pressure group, the teachers unions. The unions are no friends of the charter movement, since one of the premises of charter schools is freedom from union work rules.

Upstate interests are also concerned about the charters. While it can be argued that in the larger cities, the diversion of funds to charters from the public system will hardly be felt, in rural districts the establishment of even one charter can wreak havoc with the local school budget.

Finally, the effort was crippled by the fact that the one major supporter, Governor Pataki, is a lame duck whose relations with the legislature are at a low point. If the charter cap is to be lifted, real public support needs to be developed.This will not happen by pitting middle class parents who are supportive of public schools against the charters, nor will it come from crude efforts to influence a legislature that is so insulated from public opinion. It will happen if there is a governor who is capable of exercising the one thing missing in Albany, leadership.

© 2006 The New York Sun, One, SL, LLC. All rights reserved.

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