Debate Over Charter Schools Plays Out in State Senate Race

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By Dan Rivoli

Since became the new battleground for New York education reform, State Sen. Bill Perkins has become public enemy number one for advocates of these publicly-funded, privately-operated schools.

Perkins, who represents a district that covers parts of the Upper West Side, has criticized the way charter schools operate and occupy existing public school buildings. Those views have earned him derision from pro-charter school organizations and editorial boards. The group Education Reform Now cut a harsh ad targeting Perkins that aired on cable television, and a Daily News editorial said the State Senator is in the “pouch of the teachers union.”

Basil Smikle, campaign consultant and State Senate candidate. Photo by Dan Rivoli

Now, Perkins has a primary challenger in the form of charter school supporter Basil Smikle, a Columbia-educated campaign consultant.

To Smikle, charter schools are the alternative to a public school system that has failed students. Reflecting on his childhood as a Catholic school student in the Bronx, Smikle recounts how he had to avoid walking in front of the public school because of violence from other students.

“What’s happening in Harlem is that a lot of the students and parents have no choice,” Smikle said. “And what the charter schools have done is actually just give them a choice.”

But Smikle, a former campaign aide to Mayor Michael Bloomberg, also acknowledged the validity of complaints over charters: that they purport to accept students based on a lottery but in fact pick the more talented kids, and that they occupy space in public school buildings. He said that although public schools have underutilized space that can be shared with charters, he understands that students would be affected by seeing other children in the same building wearing uniforms, using new computers and participating in a different education program.

“I think, psychologically, it’s going to have an impact. I don’t deny that,” Smikle said. “But I don’t think the answer is to get rid of the charter. The answer is to find a way to improve the institution.”

Perkins, elected to Gov. David Paterson’s Senate Seat in 2006, did not return calls for an interview about his re-election campaign. But he is rallying support, scoring endorsements from Borough President Scott Stringer and the Upper West Side and Harlem Democratic clubs. His campaign announced the collection of 1,890 signatures, nearly double what is needed by the July 15 petition deadline. And he eventually did vote to raise the cap on charter schools in the state to 460 from 200, a bill that was tied to billions of federal dollars known as Race to the Top funds. But the legislation also addressed charter school critics’ concerns, such as blocking for-profit companies from running these schools and increasing regulations for charters that operate in buildings housing public schools.

With 20 charter schools in the area, a fair amount of Harlem parents and voters have first-hand experience of these organizations, and there are strong opinions on both sides of the issue. But for Upper West Side voters, charter schools are more theoretical. Families in that neighborhood are more familiar with the frustrations of waitlists at high-performing public schools and gifted programs. The closest charter school is Opportunity Charter School, on West 113th Street.

Still, Noah Gotbaum, head of District 3’s community education council, which covers the West Side from Columbus Circle to West Harlem, believes that politically-attuned Upper West Side parents have opinions about charters. The families who attend parent council meetings, Gotbaum said, have heard about crowding in Harlem schools due to charters.

“Half of our members are from lower portion are from the district,” Gotbaum said, referring to the Upper West Side. “Yet we are staunchly critical of the way they’ve managed to do this co-location in charter schools.”

But Smikle wants to be known to voters as more than a pro-charter school candidate, a position that “gets a lot of media attention,” he said. He rails against a dysfunctional Albany that has failed to address the district’s needs, from empty storefronts to the high unemployment rate among black males.

“I feel that there are times when the elected officials should be taking the lead when trying to solve problems,” Smikle said. “I don’t see that happening in Albany.”

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