Testimony opposing proposed charter school in IS 293 in Cobble Hill

Testimony opposing proposed charter school in IS 293 in Cobble Hill

Statement from City Councilmember Brad Lander in opposition to the proposed co-location of a Success Academy Charter School at IS 293 in Cobble Hill, Brooklyn

(prepared for November 29, 2011 hearing)

Good evening. I am grateful for the opportunity to present this testimony to representatives of the Community Education Council of District 15, the Panel for Educational Policy, Chancellor Walcott and the Department of Education, and the SUNY Charter School Institute. I am a New York City Councilmember representing most of Cobble Hill and Carroll Gardens, and a substantial portion of District 15. While I do not represent IS 293 (the eastern boundary of my district in Cobble Hill is at Court Street), this issue is of great concern to my constituents. I am also a District 15 public school parent, with kids at PS 107 and MS 51 in Park Slope.

I am opposed to the co-location of a Success Academy Charter School at IS 293, and I urge you to reject it.

I am not universally opposed to charter schools, and I am not here tonight to raise particular complaints about Success Academy. Where public schools are consistently failing to meet the educational needs of the full range of students in our communities, then it is appropriate for us as a city to explore a wide range of options to make sure those needs are met. Our responsibility to meet the educational needs of the citizens and leaders of tomorrow is one of the sacred trusts of a democratic society.

However, our first goal should be to guarantee a successful, appropriate, high-quality public school option for all our kids. Brooklyn’s District 15 has an extraordinary track record of providing just that. PS 29, PS 58, and PS 261 (and many more) serve the proposed area with excellent neighborhood public schools. Non-zoned schools like the Brooklyn New School and the Brooklyn Children’s School provide options for parents looking for particular educational approaches, including diversity and inclusion. And programs like the ASD/NEST programs at PS 32 and MS 447 offer options for students with special needs.

This did not happen by accident. It is the result of hard work over many years on the part of a dedicated network of administrators, principals, teachers, parents, community leaders, and volunteers. School leaders, district leaders, community school board and CEC leaders, parent leaders, and elected officials across District 15 share a sense of democratic responsibility for meeting the educational needs of all kids in our community’s public schools.

In my opinion, the proposed location of a Success Charter school at IS 293 is a direct attack on that effort. In place of our shared democratic responsibility, the DOE would substitute a laissez faire market approach. “Don’t try to step up as a community and take responsibility for meeting the needs of a diverse range of kids in your public schools,” this siting says. “Instead, let market-mechanisms work their magic, undermine community, promote competition, and hope that every individual can fend for themselves.” Sadly, this is consistent with the DOE’s systematic dismantling of community school districts, which has made it far harder for the educational community of support that exists across our district to meet its goals. To be sure, many community school districts did not rise to their democratic responsibility, and additional approaches to accountability were needed as a result. But in places like District 15 – where the public schools are working, public school innovation is helping to meet a broad range of needs, and principals, teachers, and parents are working together – foisting a charter school, without local roots, over strong community objection, is an attack on democratic public education. That is why you are seeing such strong and diverse opposition.

This is especially glaring in light of the fact that Success Charter did not apply to New York State for charter schools in District 15 and did not undertake community outreach in District 15 at the time of the application – but instead applied for charters and conducted outreach in Districts 13 and 14. This is a clear violation of the spirit, and quite likely the letter, of the State’s Charter School Law. But more than that, it shows contempt for the whole idea that communities matter. Does the DOE, or Success Charter, or SUNY, really believe that every school and every neighborhood is simply interchangeable, that it doesn’t matter what you propose, or where you do your outreach?

To me, communities – and their educational priorities – matter. In District 15, we do need to address primary school overcrowding – but the data shows quite clearly that the key areas of overcrowding are in South Park Slope and Sunset Park. We need at least one additional middle school in the southern half of the district. We need additional options for English Language Learners and students with IEPs. We must address these needs, and we need the DOE’s partnership to do so – but none of them are best met by this proposal.

In addition, I am concerned about the impact of the proposed co-location on the two existing schools in the K293 building. The addition of the proposed charter would result in overcrowding at the building – threatening the education of all children involved. I do not believe there is enough room in the building to accommodate the two current schools plus a K-8 Success Charter School. It would force a substantial increase in class size, compromises to the program that is in place for students with special needs, and severe strains on common spaces like the cafeteria and gym, especially given the challenges of having students from ages 4 to 18 seeking to share them.

Last year, when the DOE proposed the co-location of Millennium Brooklyn High School in the John Jay Campus, I did not oppose it. I asked you to address historic inequities and the well-founded grievances of the existing schools.  However – despite a strong community outcry – I did not urge you to reject that proposal. That proposal, while contentious, was rooted in goals that had been expressed by the community – not made up with marketing and push-polling from an outside organization with its own agenda, but instead long-established in the community through dialogue and organizing. Quite simply, that is not the case here.

So I urge you to avoid needless polarization and lawsuits, wasted energy that could be spent instead further improving many other schools, and further harm to the spirit and practice of democratic education that is alive and well here in District 15. Please reject the proposed co-location of Success Charter.

Thank you.

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