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Lift the charter cap — so other kids can benefit like my daughter did

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At my daughter Neela’s old school, she used to get into trouble sometimes for talking too much in class. It’s a family trait — I talked nonstop as a young girl. But when she switched to a charter school last August, the teachers chose to see this as a strength rather than something to frown upon. Throughout remote learning, they’ve invited Neela to join in on virtual lunches with other students who might not be so outspoken — because she’s always able to draw them out. It makes her feel more confident as a young leader. 

OK, it’s a small detail. But it’s an example of how choosing a best-fit school for my daughter has really made a difference for us.

My family knows the importance of having options when it comes to my children’s education. We live just three blocks outside of the zone that would have allowed Neela to attend a well-respected district elementary school. Three blocks was the difference between having her get a head start in her education and falling behind right from the beginning, in the less-than-excellent school she was allowed to attend.

It’s no secret that New York is segregated in more ways than one, and perhaps that’s most apparent when it comes to great schools versus those that are not so great. Charter schools are one way families who aren’t zoned for a good school can make sure their children still get the education they deserve. 

This is why I find the charter cap — the state restriction that prevents new charter schools from opening in New York City — so unacceptable. I’m not saying all charter schools are fantastic. Just like any other public school, there’s a wide variety in the quality of teaching and the approach in the classroom.

But many charters are excellent, and they’re an alternative to a struggling district school or a prohibitively expensive private school. What’s at stake here is the simple ability to “shop around,” to choose a place where you feel reassured, as a parent, that your child is in good hands.

The worst thing about the cap is that it’s ridiculously arbitrary. Compounding the problem, there are available charters that could be used to open great schools with dedicated staff and eager families, but the officials are selfishly holding tight to these. 

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For example, there are 94 available charter slots in upstate New York, and there are also a dozen so-called “zombie” charters, leftover from schools that have closed, that could be reused. It’s like building a hotel with 200 rooms, and when the first guests leave, not allowing those unused rooms to accommodate new guests. It doesn’t make any sense. By redistributing these charters to schools in the city, more kids here could have the chance to attend a great school.

This school year has shown me more than ever just how crucial it is to be able to choose a school that offers an excellent education and a good fit for my family’s needs. I’m an essential worker — a nurse — and it was an indescribable relief to see how my daughter’s school handled remote learning.

I knew Neela wouldn’t be sitting around doing nothing throughout the day. She’s been actively engaged in learning, in the chess club, in the “lunch bunch.”  I would hope that in future years families don’t have to go through what I did — amid a global pandemic, and the consequent switch to remote learning — in their search for a good school. It was hard, but it sure made a difference to us this difficult year.

The thing that politicians need to understand is that parents of children in charter schools really choose that school. It’s not just chance. I did my research. I observed classes before I applied, and I texted with my daughter’s soon-to-be teachers.

The research and active decision-making that goes into choosing a school that’s right for your child should be encouraged rather than thwarted. In my experience, when parents get to choose, it’s a win-win. 

Alicia St. Hilaire’s daughter began third grade at Success Academy Harlem 3 last August.

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