Celebrating Democrats for Education Reform in New York

For me, it was like coming home after twenty years.  No, not to New York City.  Home to DFER:  Democrats for Education Reform.  Home to a group of Democrats across the country who share my passion for education reform and improving America’s public education system so all students have opportunity to succeed.

That’s why I was so honored to be one of four recipients of DFER’s 2012 “Brian Bennett Education Warrior Award” on December 11.  (www.dfer.org). I am pictured to the left with Joe Williams, Executive Director of DFER, and two other “Warriors” to his right:  Rhode Island Education Commissioner Deborah Gist and New Jersey State Senator Teresa Ruiz. 

A talented DFER staff member, Zo Mpofu, honored each Warrior with a special collage (image to the right): I loved it!

In remarks, I noted that the pioneering story of charter schools was indeed a story of “Democrats for Education Reform” ….20 years ago… as Democrats championed the legislation through the DFL-dominated Minnesota House and Senate. And we can’t forget the most visible Democratic champion of all – Governor Bill Clinton – who made chartering a key part of his education agenda in his 1992 presidential campaign.

Visiting New York Charter School Giants

It was also a time to visit old friends.  James Merriman, Chief Executive Officer of the New York City Charter School Center, leads this Manhattan-based center (originally championed by then Schools Chancellor Joel Klein)  which helps new charter schools get started, supports existing schools, and builds community support.  (www.nyccharterschools.org).

Today New York City has 159 charter schools serving 56,600 students, with nearly 53,000 students waitlisted for NYC charter schools.  Imagine:  for every child in a NYC charter school, another child is waiting!

Finally, the trip could not be complete without visiting a man who inspired me over 20 years ago to start this pioneering charter school journey.  I first met Sy Fliegel when he spoke to the Itasca Conference on Education Reform in northern Minnesota in 1988.  Fliegel was then deputy superintendent in the East Harlem district ofNYC.  He helped transform these schools from “worst in the city” to schools of choice, attracting  students from around the city.  He did it by empowering teachers and providing them the autonomy they needed.  To me, this was the model of a charter school.  His entrepreneurial vision, backed by his track record, motivated me greatly.  Today Fliegel continues to create change as President of Manhattan’s Center for Educational Innovation Public Education Association  (CEI-PEA) (www.thecei-pea.org )  I love his focus on building successful public schools in both the charter and district sectors, and sharing best practices.  That, I hope, is the wave of the future throughout this country!