Stand and deliver: Bronx special election highlights charter school divide

City Council candidates John Sanchez and Ischia Bravo

The great public-versus-charter school debate is front and center in the crowded race to replace U.S. Rep. Ritchie Torres as the Bronx’s District 15 city council member. 

More money is being spent on pro-charter John Sanchez and charter-skeptic Ischia Bravo than any of the other 10 candidates running in Tuesday’s special election, which will decide who serves out the rest of Torres’ term. The choice seems clear: a vote for Bravo is a vote for unions and public schools, a vote for Sanchez is a vote for charters and development. 

“Ultimately I see investing in charter schools as a form of disinvestment. It’s almost like school segregation,” Bravo, a public school graduate endorsed by the United Federation of Teachers, said in a recent video interview. 

Bravo sends her two sons to private Catholic school because the public schools failed them, she said. Sanchez, like Bravo’s boys, went to Catholic school. The candidates’ similarities run even deeper. The Bronx natives are both district managers for their local community boards, and they both want to see public school kids get free broadband internet and additional programming opportunities

Recent Statements of Community District Needs for Sanchez’s District 6 and Bravo’s District 7 stress their underperforming, overcrowded public schools. They even voiced concerns about the lack of new schools side-by-side one another in a 2019 BronxTalk appearance

Despite sharing these concerns, Bravo and Sanchez differ when it comes to resolving them. 

Sanchez, a charter school board member, sees charters as opportunities for Bronx parents. 

“The people in the 15th council district want choice, they want options, and they want the best education for their children. And I share those exact sentiments,” he said in a phone interview.

Despite Mayor Bill de Blasio’s hostile history toward them, charter schools in New York City remain in high demand, especially in the Bronx, which has 89 charters operating across 112 school campuses. Last year enrollment in the city’s public school system fell by some 43,000 students, while charters reported a 10,000 student increase. The year prior, Bronx charters received 25,323 applications for the 9,533 available seats, according to data from The New York City Charter School Center, a charter school strategy group. The Bronx also has nine charter schools endorsed by the UFT, the greatest number out of any borough, according to its website.

Charter schools, like traditional public schools, are publicly funded and free, but managed independent of the city’s Department of Education. Critics say they drain public funds for private enterprise, and that the lack of municipal oversight allows for discriminatory education practices and limited ability for teachers to unionize. Advocates like the New York Charter Schools Association argue charters often receive less money than traditional public schools. 

Sanchez’s campaign raised eyebrows last week after The City reported that New Yorkers for a Balanced Albany, a pro-charter school PAC – largely funded by billionaire Walmart heiress Alice Walton – had spent $75,000 on pro-Sanchez mailers that said nothing about education policy. Before becoming chief executive of the New York City Charter School Center, James Merriman developed the Walton Family Foundation’s charter school grant program. Balanced Albany has now spent $116,165 on Sanchez as of March 21, according to campaign finance data. Those independent expenditures, by law, cannot be coordinated with Sanchez’s campaign.  

Sanchez said that although he had nothing to do with the mailers, their messaging didn’t stray from his ideas.

“If groups want to take off specific policies and practices from my website, well, I stand behind my policies and platforms on my website, which were crafted by working with the community,” he said. “In terms of their messaging, I can’t speak for their messaging. That’s on them.”

Bravo has not distanced herself from the independently funded mailers supporting her – she re-Tweeted a picture posted by 32BJ of two men holding the mailers paid for by the union. As of Sunday, nearly four PACs have spent $20,000 on pro-Bravo advertisements, according to the New York City Campaign Finance Board

While she prides herself on her endorsements, Bravo remains skeptical of the pro-charter dollars pouring into the race. 

“They’re looking for allies,” she said. “As a parent, I don’t think anyone is opposed to their child getting a good education. But the reason why I support my public schools is because I believe in them, I believe in our teachers, I believe in our principals.”

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