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The Governor, Charter Schools, and Parent Triggers

Last Friday, Governor Andrew Cuomo’s office announced the appointment of Katie Campos, a founder and the director of Buffalo ReformEd, as an assistant education secretary in Cuomo’s administration. On Tuesday, a story in the Buffalo News described a lobbying trip to Albany by Buffalo parents of school children, organized by the city schools’ District Parent Coordinating Council (DPCC) and its vice president, Samuel Radford III. The group intended to advocate for an Assembly bill that would empower a majority of parents at any of Buffalo’s lowest-achieving public schools to impose a drastic reorganization or closure of that school.

Mary Pasciak’s News story noted that Campos and ReformEd were “working closely with the parents to get this law passed.” (Its sole Assembly sponsor is Buffalo’s Crystal Peoples-Stokes.)

ReformEd is widely regarded in Western New York as a charter school advocacy group, and among the four options in the so-called “parent trigger” legislation petitioning parents could select is turning a school into a charter institution. Is Campos’ appointment a reflection of a charter school agenda in the governor’s office? Will Campos be working in Albany to increase the transformation of Buffalo and state schools into charters?

In a brief telephone interview this week, she said she was unable to answer these questions. “I’ve not been told yet what my duties will be,” she said. “They keep a tight ship [in the governor’s office] and I don’t know that yet.” Despite the News story, she denied having taken any part in the Wednesday lobbying trip, or of still being the director of ReformEd. She acknowledged having authored a ReformEd position paper on the parent trigger bill, but said she was “no longer involved” in the local organization: “I’m not involved in the push for a Buffalo parent-trigger bill.”

But she and ReformEd have been collaborating with the DPCC for much of the last year. Campos and organizational representatives have attended several of the parent group’s meetings, including one this year at which they played Davis Guggenheim’s propagandistically pro-charter school film, Waiting for Superman. Campos and others at ReformEd have recently taken to portraying themselves as more generally oriented educational reformers, not just charter advocates, but the role change can be difficult to perceive. At the City Hall student boycott rally organized by Radford and the DPCC on May 16, ReformEd members distributed public-school-bashing, pro-charter leaflets to the crowd.

In an almost breathlessly enthusiastic online Time magazine article this week, Kayla Webley wrote, “The parent-trigger simply takes the option provided to the school board and hands the power to the parents.” But it’s not likely insignificant that, as Webley’s piece also makes clear, the parent-trigger campaign, which is now national in scope, took root a couple of years ago in California as a pro-charter movement, although that aspect has been muted more recently.

Under Peoples-Stokes’ bill, if 51 percent of parents and guardians at any state-designated persistently lowest achieving school petitions for one of the four allowed school transformations, including the charter option, the school system cannot refuse. Webley quotes Radford as saying, “This law would give me the right to confront a teacher, a school board, and they don’t get to say ‘no.’”

Of course, confrontation is already possible in the present system. Neither Radford, Peoples-Stokes, nor Webley have explained why school authorities shouldn’t get to say “no.” Under this bill, 49 percent of a school’s parents could effectively be disenfranchised. Buffalo Assemblyman Sam Hoyt counts himself as a supporter of the bill (although not a sponsor). In an e-mailed response this week to a question, Hoyt said, “…parents need more power to affect change…Parent groups can currently do little more than keep beating the drum and hope the administration will listen.”

One thing parents can do now, and usually don’t, is vote in school board elections, as at-large board member John B. Licata observed in a recent telephone conversation. Over the last decade, no more than seven percent of eligible voters in Buffalo has voted for school board candidates. Nor is it clear why increasing parent involvement in school improvement requires cutting school authorities out of the process. Licata notes that the district’s new turnaround program for its seven lowest achieving schools includes provisions for increased parent participation and scrutiny.

Campos, who once worked in Hoyt’s Assembly office, and her former boss have both benefited from financial support from pro-charter individuals and groups. Last year, Hoyt was the recipient of the proceeds from a $1,000-a-ticket fundraiser in New York City hosted by Mayor Michael Bloomberg, who invited people to contribute to this “champion for charter schools.”

george sax

Correction: A previous version of this story indicated that Buffalo ReformED had received funding from a group called Democrats for Education Reform. That is not the case, so the story has been amended.

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