Rally organized by charter schools sparks controversy

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LOWER MANHATTAN (PIX11) -- All children deserve a quality education, and every school can do better.  Nobody disputes that.  Nonetheless, that message was at the center of a rally in Lower Manhattan that attracted some controversy, even while it attracted a large number of supporters.

Grammy Award-winning bandleader Questlove spun records, at high volume, while an elementary school crew danced on the large stage erected in Foley Square Thursday morning.  They pumped up the crowd of thousands, almost all of whom were wearing red t-shirts with the words "Don't Steal Possible" emblazoned in large white letters on the front.

Elon Belin, a second grader at Success Academy 4, a charter school in Harlem, summed up the hopeful sentiment that many of the gathered crowd felt.

"I love to read," she told PIX11 News, "and all children should have the same education as other students."

It may have been a message she's heard repeatedly at her high-performing school, but it's a tough one to argue against.

Controversy does arise, however, with a long look at the set up of the event. The stage, the state of the art sound system, the Jumbotrons, the matching t-shirts, and more, all cost money, but organizers would not say how much.

Also, for thousands of mostly charter school students and families to converge in one location, on a school day, required solid organization, at the very least.

"We were asked [to come]," Nadine Turner, the mother of a Success Academy student, said, "and whenever Success Academy asks me to do something, I do it."

Some critics of the charter school network and the Don't Steal Possible event said parents are being manipulated.

"The parents' issues are real," said Zakiyah Ansari, a parent and vice president of the education advocacy group Alliance for Quality Education, "but I don't trust the intent of the organizations behind it."

When asked about the cost of this rally, the organizers -- the pro-charter group Families for Excellent Schools -- responded, but not necessarily straightforwardly.

"We haven't added up all the expenses," said Families for Excellent Schools CEO Jeremiah Kittredge.  "What we've focused on is the amazing turnout today."

Also, when PIX11 News asked Kittredge why an event on this scale was needed now, his answer provided no specifics.

"It's very important," Kittredge said, "as the city weighs education issues over the next weeks and months,  it's incredibly important that parents' voices are heard."

Families for Excellent Schools is a non-profit corporation.  It has disclosed some of its financial backers, including some significant players Wall Street and other big money backers, some of whom are anonymous, as permitted by the laws governing non-profits.

Also staying low key at Thursday's event was the founder of Success Academy, Eva Moskowitz.  She declined a request from PIX11 for a one on one interview.

Still, it's well worth noting that thousands of people decided to attend the rally calling for schools to improve.  It's also noteworthy that not everyone at the event was a charter school parent.  Shamona Kirkland has a child in a district, or local public, school, as well as a child attending a charter.  She was by no means alone in saying that the message of the rally applies to both of her children's schools.

"Every failing school must get it together," Ms. Kirkland said.

There is some speculation that Thursday's event was a high-profile move by Families for Excellent Schools to build support for measures in the upcoming state legislative session.  A cap on the number of charter schools may be on the agenda.

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