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NYC Charter School Center: We Want Puppets, Not Parent Advocates

James Merriman, CEO of New York City’s charter management association and former charter boss for Wal-Mart’s foundation, recently took to the Huffington Post to declare his deep and abiding faith in the educational choices and wisdom of Harlem and New York City parents.

For charter school parents who are aware of Merriman’s record, such a declaration must ring very hollow.

In the ten years after the first New York charter school, Sisulu-Walker Charter School, was created, Merriman’s New York City Charter School Center saw no need for a voice for charter school parents. It was far better, they reasoned, for management to reign unchallenged by parents, just as they would have them rule without organized teacher voice.

Then along came Mona Davids, a Bronx charter school parent who quickly realized that without an organized voice, parents in charter schools would be limited in their advocacy for their children’s education. One year ago, in April of 2009, she organized the New York Charter Parents Association. Aware of the potential power of an organized charter parent voice, Merriman made an effort to co-opt and take over her efforts. But Davids is an outspoken and fearless advocate, and she soon was raising issues that made charter management very uncomfortable.

She took on the policies of Merriman’s close ally, Chancellor Joel Klein, that deliberately pit charter school parents against district school parents. Both sets of parents had the same interests, she insisted, obtaining a quality education for their children. She criticized the slipshod and irresponsible oversight that Klein’s Department of Education had done of East New York Preparatory Charter School, allowing its founder Shelia Joseph to run the school into the ground, and then leaving families without a good option as it moved to close the school. She demanded that charter schools operate with transparency and accountability. She took up the cause of students with special needs and English Language Learners who were not being well-served by charter schools.

That was too much for Wal-Mart’s man in New York charter school management: he wanted puppets, not parent advocates. He want on a campaign to undermine the Charter Parent Association, objecting to the New York Charter School Association providing them with space for a time and discouraging charter advocates, school leaders and board members from supporting their work. He proceeded to establish his own “parent advocacy” organization, the Charter Parent Advocacy Network, run by charter school management and under their control. It is housed in the offices of the Charter School Center, and headed by Charter School Center staff. There is now message discipline: Merriman’s talking points of the day are faithfully parroted by CPAN. He has had CPAN withdraw from the Citywide Parents’ Conference because he did not want charter school parents to be talking to and working with district school parents.

But none of that keeps Merriman from proclaiming his great faith in parent voice at the Huffington Post.