The crowd at Harlem Charter Night.
The crowd at Harlem Charter Night.

Mayor Bloomberg and Lil Mama cheered charter schools, school choice, and mayoral control of the public schools before a crowd of thousands of parents and students last night.

The mayor and the rapper even shared some tactics. “Do we want more parent choice?” Mayor Bloomberg yelled. “I can’t hear you! Do we want more competition? Do we want better test scores and higher graduation rates?”

Lil Mama was more successful with the call-and-response style. She called “Parent” while the crowd screamed back, “Choice!” “You don’t have to send your child to a regular public school,” the Harlem native said before performing two of her hits, “G-Slide” and “Lip Gloss.” “You can send them to a public charter school.”

While many of the kids seemed most excited to watch Lil Mama perform, a team of volunteers and interns at the pro-mayoral control group Learn NY were on hand to encourage parents to sign a petition supporting mayoral control, and a parade of education officials used the unprecedented crowd size to push their causes. (The legislature will vote on whether to renew the mayor’s control of the public schools in June.)

The Harlem-born rapper Lil Mama performed on stage with charter school students.
The Harlem-born rapper Lil Mama performed on stage with charter school students.

Geoffrey Canada, founder of Harlem Children’s Zone and the chairman of Learn NY, spoke about how, just seven years ago, Harlem schools were the worst-performing in the state. “If people want to know why I support mayoral control, this never happens otherwise,” he told me after his speech, gesturing towards the enormous crowd of enthusiastic students and their parents. He said he’s a big fan of regular public schools as well, but “the issue is we want great education for our children, and if it’s parochial, if its public, if it’s charter—whatever it is, that’s what we’ve go to do for these kids.”

Because space is tight in lotteried charter schools, critics say the schools leave unlucky children in increasingly unsuccessful regular public schools. Bloomberg made one answer to the problem in his speech, saying that 30,000 kids are waiting to enter charter schools. The answer? Build more.

“We’ve got to make sure that the reforms that we made don’t all get rolled back by the politicians this June,” he said.

President Obama was the unseen star of the show. Organizers passed out buttons saying “Obama [heart] Charters,” and Canada played a video clip of the president’s recent education speech, where he declared that caps on charter schools are not “good for our children our economy or our country.”

Chancellor Joel Klein declared that charter schools can deliver on the promise of Brown v. Board of Education. “Unless you are willing to stand up and fight and support public charter schools and parental choice so that every kid has an opportunity for the American dream, we will never, ever be the country we want to be,” he said.

The activist Howard Fuller, who chairs the pro-voucher and pro-charter Black Alliance for Educational Options, said that demanding school choice continues in the spirit of Rosa Parks, Malcolm X, and other black leaders. “Harriet Tubman’s mission was to rescue slaves. Our mission is to rescue children,” he said.

I also spoke to Paul Fucaloro, the director of literacy and math for Harlem Success Academy, who departed slightly from the cheerleading to say that not all charter schools are excellent. “Just because people open schools doesn’t mean they’re going to get the same care and attention to detail that we have,” he told me. “We put our money where our mouth is.”

We’ll post more on parents’ experience at charter night later today.