We won't vote for state legislators for four months, but one incumbent Democrat is already the focus of attack ads, and charter schools are the issue.
Rochester's Susan John, who faced stiff competition in her last two elections, is one of several Assembly Democrats targeted recently in a roughly $1 million television and direct-mail campaign. The backer is an Albany-based lobbying group called Parents for Public Charter Schools, which wanted the state to raise the limit on the number of charter schools to 250. They're currently capped at 100.
The ads, which ran in Rochester, Buffalo, Niagara Falls, New York City, and Albany, appeared from late May through early June, as the state legislature's session wound down. They targeted the Democratic-controlled Assembly, and they took direct aim at members like John who have criticized charters.
"I'm not telling you that every Republican supports charters," Bill Phillips, an Albany resident and board member of the lobbying group, said late last week. "What I am saying is that the governor and the Senate are in favor of adding more charter schools. The Assembly has not been supportive, and Susan John was targeted because she is one of the worst and most hostile to charter bills."
The ads didn't persuade John to change her position. John says she opposes them because the "experiment," as she describes it, diverts money away from the schools that need it most: the state's poor urban districts.
"It's the funding that bothers me most," says John. "The [Rochester school] district has already paid out something like $90 million in state aid to charter schools, some of which we already know have not succeeded. If Albany wants to lift the cap and add more charter schools, then they should fund it."
But Chris Smith, a Rochester parent of two children in charter schools and a member of Parents for Public Charter Schools, says she thinks John's position on the money is disingenuous.
Rochester, like other districts with charter schools, pays the tuition for students at those schools and is reimbursed by the state. "Charter schools don't get the full per-pupil aid from the district like they are always claiming," she says. "We get a portion of that money, and the district keeps a portion for transportation and things like that. But they shouldn't be getting all of the money, because they are not doing the job of educating those students."
Vern Connors, budget director for the city school district, disagrees. Connors says the district is also required to pay for charter students' textbooks and transportation, but during the last five years only the cost of the textbooks has been fully covered by the state.
"The cost of tuition for charter students has been exceeding the amount we receive," says Connors. "And so has transportation, which is only about 90 percent covered. So we do lose money."
And there's another complication. Theoretically the district's expenses should drop when students leave to go to charter schools. But there's not a direct relationship. When 25 students transfer to a charter school, unless they all come from a single grade in a single city school, the district can't eliminate a teacher.
John saysshe hasn't received many calls in response to the ads, but she says she thinks they have succeeded in "confusing the issue." The ads frame the public school system as a failure and portray charters as successful alternatives. But there have been successes and failures with both. Adding more charters, she says, will eventually drain the resources of urban districts.
She says she empathizes with parents who want alternatives but can't afford private-school tuition. "But I cannot advocate a policy decision that abandons the serious needs of public schools, especially in urban districts where the concentration of poverty is so extreme," John says. "One thing I hear all the time from the business community is that they just cannot afford any more money going to the district. Higher property taxes and so on are just not sustainable, so where does the money come from?"
Phillips says the ad campaign was a challenge to lawmakers who refuse to offer parents more choice. And even though the legislature didn't permit additional charter schools in its recent session, he says, the campaign has successfully put politicians like John on the defensive.
"We're trying to point out those legislators who promote themselves as progressives and are actually taking positions that are harmful to working-class and low-income families who are trying to find better options for their kids," says Phillips. "It's only a matter of time before parents realize Susan John is hurting them."
John says she has not responded to the ads, but New Yorkers for Fiscal Fairness --- a statewide coalition whose members include the state teachers union --- has. It ran a half-page ad in the Democrat and Chronicle on June 20 positioning John as concerned with educating all of New York's children. It also characterized the Parents for Public Charter Schools ads as "vicious attack ads" that wrongly portray all charter schools as successful, well managed alternatives.